NEWS REPORT Well, I don't think from a ratings perspective or a, cha-ching dollar perspective, it makes all that much sense as a political decision. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Instead of a second debate, we got two networks airing dueling town halls. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. Pollsters took a lot of heat in 2016 when their models predicted a Trump loss, and it's making them a bit defensive this time around.
NATE SILVER So in the long run, you know, Biden should win seven out of eight times. You know, I know we'll probably get more crap if the one out of eight times comes up, but I can't do anything about that. I think it's the right forecast.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Also, a walkie-talkie-like app that works as a recruitment tool for right wing militias.
MILTIA MEMBER It's us or tyranny. It's us or failure. It's us or a post American world. Are you all game over?
RECRUIT I ain't got nothing holding me back. If it kills me, it kills me. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this.
From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Thursday night, dueling town halls. One likened by a Trump senior adviser, no less to Mr. Rogers neighborhood.
STEPHANOPOULOS Mr. Vice President, if you lose, what will that say to you about where America is today?
JOE BIDEN Well, you could say that I'm a lousy candidate and I didn't do a good job. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The other town hall, more like shootout at the O.K. Corral.
GUTHRIE Now, why would you send a lie like that you your followers?
TRUMP I know nothing about it.
GUTHRIE You retweeted it!
TRUMP That was a retweet. That was a an opinion of somebody. And that was a retweet. I'll put it out there. People can decide for themselves.
GUTHRIE I don't get that, you're the president, You're not like someone's crazy uncle. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The Joe Biden event was on ABC. The president's on NBC. Airing simultaneously, after the president rejected the idea of a virtual match up.
TRUMP No, I'm not going to waste my time on a virtual debate. That's not what debating is all about. You sit behind a computer and do a debate - its ridiculous and then they cut you off whenever they want. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE In that interview on Fox Business, he talked about how he easily won the previous debate, but was energetically lowering expectations for the Greenville, North Carolina town hall for NBC.
TRUMP So you're not being set up tonight, right? So, I'm doing this town hall with Con-cast. C-O-N, con and it's NBC, the worst. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE So he's participating out of charity- courageousness, such as the world has never known? Or...
TRUMP So they asked me if I'd do it, and I figured, what the hell? We get a free hour of television. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But enough of Buck Rogers. Mr. Rogers, let's talk about NBC going along with the president's demand to counter program his town hall with Biden's. It seemed so unnecessary, venal, even. Though NBC's is Savannah Guthrie's tough grilling may have blunted some of the criticism after the fact. Was this all because the president is and will always be a ratings magnet? Because ABC is saying Biden won that fight this week. According to Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at NYU and is the founder of the blog Press Think. It wasn't about the ratings.
JAY ROSEN Would it be smart for the NBA to run Game six of the NBA finals against Monday Night Football, for ratings? It doesn't make any sense. They wanted to show Donald Trump they could play ball.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So why did they want to show Donald Trump that they would play ball?
JAY ROSEN We've seen a lot of small signs that NBC is concerned about its reputation leaning too left coming from the opinion hosts in MSNBC's primetime lineup. That's partly what the hiring of Shep Smith is about. The emphasis that his show will be straight down the middle. Executives at NBC want to assure Donald Trump that they are still evenhanded.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What is evenhanded mean in this formulation?
JAY ROSEN Well, I'm not saying they have a compelling or intellectually coherent view of that. This is a case where decision making by executives has caused a great deal of anger and resentment in NBC staff. I mean, last night on MSNBC, Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow were rolling their eyes about NBC's decision. Maddow asked Kamala Harris...
MADDOW Are you as bad as everybody else is that NBC is doing a town hall with President Trump tomorrow, [KAMALA LAUGHS] instead of the debate? At the same time that Vice President Biden is going to be on ABC? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Every year, we talk about what's wrong with election coverage, too much horse race, too little about the issues, clinging to the narratives about the candidates supplied generally by their opponents. Have the conventions of political journalism changed at all since 2016?
JAY ROSEN Yeah, at the margins, there are some changes and there's a little more caution about predicting the race, a little bit more focus on social media spending and foreign interference. But the fundamentals of the coverage hasn't changed at all. You know, we're trying to game out how the race will wind up. There's an emphasis on strategy and the role of the journalists is sort of to chronicle who is ahead and why they're ahead. That hasn't changed at all. Even though journalists are constantly reporting that this presidential election is unlike every other because of the pandemic and the incredible damage to the country happening at the same time, and therefore the campaign story - the pandemic story can't really be separated. And in that sense, it's not like any other election cycle.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Hm, this week, you were part of a group of political scientists and scholars who released a manifesto. It was called "Election Coverage and Democracy Network," and one of its main points is to make the voter the protagonist of election stories.
JAY ROSEN Voters struggling to get their concerns addressed by the candidates and also struggling with the simple act of voting should be the central character in the narrative for election coverage. And I have advocated for a long time, a completely different model of election coverage called the Citizen's Agenda Model, in which, rather than starting with the candidates and their struggle to win. You start by asking the people you are trying to inform. What do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes? What do you want this campaign to be about? And if journalists could begin their election coverage with a very solid inquiry into that question, they could develop a list of priorities coming from the voters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That didn't include questions like your opponent says you broil puppies. W/hat do you say to that?
JAY ROSEN And those kinds of questions sometimes got gotcha questions are part of a larger style of journalism. I call it the savvy style in which journalists perform for us as insiders who know how the political game is played. They're trying to anticipate what sorts of controversies could affect the outcome. My basic rule for understanding press performance during the age of Donald Trump is that the routines of journalists are built on assumptions about how candidates will behave. And Trump violates all those assumptions, and so the routines break and the practices break and they don't want to reinvent their routines. So they sort of keep on with the tools they have and they don't apply to Donald Trump. And one of the best examples of that is the whole notion of a gaffe. A candidate lets something really damaging slip from his or her tongue, and it becomes a controversy and distracts from what the candidate's trying to accomplish. The entire presidency of Donald Trump is a gaffe. It's a 20 times a day gaffe. And so to even use that term with Biden, which the campaign press did earlier in the year, talking about his gaffes is kind of crazy. There's something lunatic about it, but it's an example of clean to your practices after the premises underneath them have fallen through.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You called on news organizations to switch to an emergency setting, and that meant, among other things, not to cover live - any speech, rally or press conference involving the president because the risk of passing along bad information was too great.
JAY ROSEN By pushing the emergency button, you allow different rules to come into play for an exceptional situation. And when the president of the United States is the most potent force for misinforming the American public about a public health emergency, you have a civic emergency. And so I tried to game out, what would the rules look like for Trump coverage? One of them is don't take any of his virus briefings live. Instead, watch them on television. If he makes news, report it. If he doesn't, don't. Fact check everything he says before you pass it along. It's not a question of censoring the president or making it impossible for people to listen to him if they want to. We know that state TV, Fox News is going to carry it. It's always on C-SPAN. WhiteHouse.gov, youTube, you can find it, right? Yes. If it's a politically significant lie that has some sort of cultural valence or breaks new ground in presidential lying, then maybe you decide to do that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you're saying if it doesn't, then a responsible network might decline to cover it.
JAY ROSEN Absolutely. It's called news judgment, it's one of the basic principles of journalism, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE But there is this reflex and this tradition that says anything the president says is news.
JAY ROSEN Yes, absolutely. What the president says is news is an example of a practice based on a premise that presidents don't waste the podium. They don't just talk without thinking about what they're saying. They don't lie constantly from the perch of the presidency. Trump doesn't obey any of those principles, and so if you continue to say what the president says is news, you open yourself up to a new kind of propaganda method, which Steve Bannon described as flooding the zone with sh*t, and in the Russian context, its called the firehose of falsehood. You flood every platform and every delivery device with your voice. You don't care if it's true or not. You multiply the number of arguments that you make and you don't care if there's contradiction between them, because the purpose of the firehose of falsehood is not to convince anyone. It's to confuse and dismay people and drive them from the public arena. So if you continue on with what the president says is news, you are pursuing a broken practice and a busted premise.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So, we should be asking ourselves, you say, is this thing that he said something we should be amplifying?
JAY ROSEN Correct.
BROOKE GLADSTONE For instance, this week in Iowa, he was basically with his hands swatting away the story of Iowa floods, saying the media was covering Iowa floods and not covering my Nobel Peace Prize nomination.
TRUMP The networks and most of the news didn't cover it. Can you imagine?
BROOKE GLADSTONE I mean, it reveals something about his character, something that most people would already know. What should we do with that?
JAY ROSEN President Trump has hacked the newsworthiness formula. There's like criteria that makes something news in most mainstream newsrooms. If it was never done before, it was never said before. If it's conflict, if it involves a celebrity, if it's very consequential for lots of people, if it contradicts our expectations and in the traditional newsworthiness formula. Donald Trump makes news every time he opens his mouth. And so if you continue to follow that formula, you are going to, sooner or later, start collaborating with him in his firehose of falsehood style. And that's why you can't keep from getting sucked into Trump's agenda without an agenda of your own. You have to have something you're trying to defend. Now, what is that thing? Because journalists are taught not to have agendas. One is standing up for a public debate in which the candidates start with a common world of fact and tell us what they're going to do about those facts. If Trump is behaving within that frame, then what he's saying is worth amplifying. If he's trying to bust out of that, then we have to ask ourselves different questions. Another agenda you could have is standing up for free and fair elections that could become like a cause the newsroom is pursuing through its journalism. A third would be the right for people to participate. That voting is a good thing. And we're going to do everything we can as a newsroom to make that easier, to protect the integrity of the vote, etc. They have to decide what they're for in the age of Hurricane Trump or they will get blown away.
BROOKE GLADSTONE One thing that seems easy, though, is de platforming. You can curb misinformation by kicking certain outlets off of social media networks, for instance. Supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory are finding it harder to congregate on Twitter and Facebook, now. This week, Facebook and Twitter restricted the reach of entirely unsupported New York Post screed against Hunter Biden. Is there any way that could be applied to the president?
JAY ROSEN You can't make decisions like that. Should we stick a label on this thing the president said? Should we simply take it down? Unless you know what you're trying to protect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Which brings us to a point you've made for decades that you have to declare your values. There's a great risk in that because the consensus on what is good and what is right is a moving target. I mean, once slavery was debatable, but you can't have news without a value system.
JAY ROSEN And most journalists know that when they go into journalism. As their careers unfold, they learn the value of something I call the view from nowhere. The illusion that by advertising your viewlessness, you are somehow becoming more trustable. In the age of Donald Trump, it's pretty easy to see how the view from nowhere opens you up to manipulation. And so eventually, if you want to improve your coverage, you have to ask yourself, what are you for? What are you trying to defend? And especially now, in 2020, when American democracy itself is under attack, asking that question is vital to doing journalism at all. And I want to say one more thing here. Whether Trump wins or loses, the American press is in for a confrontation with the view from nowhere, for this reason: the Republican Party has become a minority party. And just as it can only win if it makes voting harder. It can only prosper if it makes understanding the party harder, because if it stands for what it believes in will never win elections. And so the conflict with journalism is structural. The American press is in for a confrontation with a Republican Party that can only win elections by obscuring the truth about itself. And it can delay this confrontation. It can deny it. It can claim not to see it. But eventually there's going to be a crash.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jay, thank you very much.
JAY ROSEN All right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University. His bracing and clarifying observations can be found at PressThink.org.
BOB GARFIELD Up next, the maddening metaphysics of Meta-data from pollings most prominent proponent, meaning Nate Silvers, still 'splaining.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
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