Brooke Gladstone: This is On The Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. As CNN enters the 2024 election cycle, the network will be forced to chart a new course. Will they platform the scenery, chewing extremists of the GOP? If so, how are they going to navigate a ceaseless maelstrom of lies? According to press critic, Jay Rosen, one of the most revealing parts of Tim Alberta's explosive profile in The Atlantic of Chris Licht was Licht's explanation of how the network would cover Trump in the upcoming elections. Business as usual. Licht said, "It's very simple. You cover him like any other candidate."
Jay Rosen: Well, I think it's a brain-dead response, meaning there's no real precedent in post-war America for a president like Trump. The usual way of dealing with false statements by public figures is to check them. The resulting embarrassment acts as a deterrent, but Trump doesn't care if he's fact-checked. He actually profits from the imagery of journalists trying to point out how wrong he is. In fact, he frequently says they're attacking me because they hate you to his core audiences.
For all those reasons, he is a challenge to cover, which I think most people in journalists, except for Chris Licht, know. He said that CNN journalists had joined the team against Trump. I believe the events were very different than the way Malone and Zaslav and Chris Licht looked at them.
Brooke Gladstone: How do you look at them?
Jay Rosen: To go back to Steve Bannon's comments to Michael Lewis in 2018 where he said, the Democrats don't matter. The real opposition is the media and the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with [censored]. He was signaling that the Trump movement is going to exit from normal politics by attacking democratic institutions and starting culture wars, generating a lot of heat and commotion and energy, and then powering their movement with that energy. False claims and conspiracy theories become your basic tools. This style of politics, which is also called the fire hose of falsehood, is a nightmare for any get-both-sides newsroom.
Brooke Gladstone: In his infamous profile in The Atlantic, Tim Alberto quotes Chris Licht saying, "Everyone has an agenda trying to shape events or shape thought. There has to be a source of absolute truth, and that source," said Licht "will be CNN." What do you think he meant by absolute truth?
Jay Rosen: Brooke, I have no idea. Since when does journalism deal with absolute truths? It deals with versions of the truth that we try to make better over time. Woodward and Bernstein are famous for their formula for good reporting, the best available version of the truth. It's the opposite of the absolute truth.
Brooke Gladstone: It seems as if this goal of absolute truth would, in Licht's mind, be served by filling a hall with Trumpists and having Trump trump at them.
Jay Rosen: Yes, but I think the real point of offering Trump the town hall opportunity and filling the audience with Trump's supporters was to persuade Trump that CNN can be a home for him again and restore some normal relationship with him as a political figure. The end result was a crash in Chris Licht's illusions about what a proper agenda for change was in this company.
Brooke Gladstone: They brought Byron Donalds, a Republican from Florida on after the Trump Town Hall, who also wasn't fact-checked.
TAPE: You won't state your opinion about actually factually what happened in the 2021.
Byron Donalds: You guys want me to make a state, and Frank, let me tell you right now. This is what's frustrating. [crosstalk] what's frustrating to a lot of people. You want me to state it the way you want me to state it.
TAPE: No, I don't.
Byron Donalds: I'm telling you the idea is an unreasonable [crosstalk]
TAPE: I want you to just answer the question. Do you believe--
Jason Rosen: Byron Donalds is an election denier. The formula that Chris Licht eventually developed for himself to explain his view on these things was some people like rain, some people don't like rain, but we are not going to give the microphone to somebody who denies it's raining when it's raining. He thought he'd put it perfectly. Byron Donalds is the person saying it's not raining when it's raining.
Brooke Gladstone: The News Media had a few years to think about how they're going to cover Trump. The news landscape's certainly a different place from 2016. The question is how do you deal with fact-checking and the standard of truth?
Jay Rosen: You can go back to Jonathan Karl. Karl is the chief correspondent and White House for ABC News. He's also the former president of the White House Correspondent Association and completely a consensus figure within the press. When he was on Brian Stelter's program, Brian asked him, "What are we going to do if this guy runs again?" Jonathan Karl went through a list of the problems that arise.
Jonathan Karl: It's an immense challenge because you're covering somebody running in a system that is trying to undermine that very system and somebody who is going to be perpetually lying. He is trying to repeat alize so many times that people will believe it. As journalists, we can't be a conduit for that lie. What does a debate look like with Donald Trump in it? You can't air Trump's speeches unfiltered as often happened in the 2016 campaign.
Jay Rosen: Brian says, "What do we do?" He didn't know but at least he understood that it was a huge challenge to his profession. I assume that between then and now ABC News, which is where Jonathan works, would have fought through some of his suggestions, but I don't think that happened. I think the national news media is trying to cover Trump and the Republican Party with no substantial changes in their routines, even though they have learned a lot since 2016.
Brooke Gladstone: In 2020 on this program and elsewhere, you called for journalists to be in emergency mode. Do you think we should still be in it?
Jay Rosen: By emergency mode, I meant that Trump's political style breaks all the conventions of political reporting, makes them unusable. The immediate problem was his COVID briefings. He was misinforming the public about matters of life and death. In that situation, you have to think very carefully about becoming a platform because what he was doing was so dangerous.
Brooke Gladstone: Since then, we've had January 6th.
Jay Rosen: Oh, yes. It's gotten worse.
Brooke Gladstone: Are we still in the mode? What is the mode?
Jay Rosen: First of all, you don't broadcast Donald Trump live. You don't assume that you can fact-check him in real-time. That's impossible. You have to come up with a plan before you're in a situation like CNN found itself in. It would help if journalists shifted their energy and their attention from the odds of who's going to win and the whole horse race discourse to the stakes, meaning what are the consequences for daily life? What's going to change in this country depending on the results of the 2024 election?
Brooke Gladstone: That's probably the oldest piece of advice one can give for election coverage.
Jay Rosen: It is.
Brooke Gladstone: Less about the horse race, more about the issues, the stakes, the consequences but now more than ever--
Jay Rosen: Now more than ever, it's true that is said every four years, but this time the stakes are huge. We're in that a crackup of the old system.
Brooke Gladstone: You've also said that you need to have clear guidelines for what you are willing to air.
Jay Rosen: Yes. Is there a line that people cannot cross on your program? If so, how do you keep track of them, and how do you explain your policy?
Brooke Gladstone: Let's say that we acknowledge the stakes and that we understand our obligation not to enable the firehose of lies. We're certainly going to be unpopular in certain quarters. What is the journalist's moral position? Certainly, you can't silence the whole far-right wing of the Republican party.
Jay Rosen: No, you can't. You can't ignore what they're doing. You can't completely cut off their microphone. You can't pretend that they're not steps away from being in power. Yet, if you simply be reported on what they're saying and doing, that's not practical either because you end up passing their falsehoods onto your audiences. There are a lot of costs for that as CNN is discovering with the aftermath of its first town hall, the falling ratings, and what seems like a lot of viewer anger. I know I'm not going to look at Anderson Cooper the way I once did after that.
Brooke Gladstone: Why? What did he do?
Jay Rosen: He had a lecture on air the second day after the town hall.
Anderson Cooper: Many of you have expressed deep anger and disappointment. You have every right to be outraged today and angry and never watch this network again but do you think staying in your silo and only listening to people you agree with is going to make that person go away? If we all only listen to those we agree with, it may actually do the opposite.
Jay Rosen: As if the only alternatives were either give Trump the microphone, and if you don't, you're stuck in your silo, which struck many people as oversimplifying.
Brooke Gladstone: You're a journalism teacher, you're a journalism critic but you don't see a clear path to coverage of this coming election.
Jay Rosen: I don't have all the answers but I know we can't just repeat what we've done in the past.
Brooke Gladstone: Jay, thank you very much.
Jay Rosen: It was a pleasure.
Brooke Gladstone: Jay Rosen is a professor of journalism at NYU and a press critic. Coming up. Why does it seem like our political culture is stuck on repeat? This is On the Media.