Saturday, January 7, 2017

Only Context Matters

Ruth Marcus is a reasonable person, but her recent piece "The huge challenge of covering Trump fairly" demonstrates instead the huge problem the elite media have created for themselves by adhering to obsolete journalistic standards. The WaPo and NYT generally react to such criticisms with a knee-jerk reaction that doing their job, that is, effectively, reporting in context would fail to meet their requirement to passively follow every lead, regardless of apparent source or motivation, and fact check that lead to death. Then, when presented with a new retort or allegation, follow that next one in true whack-a-mole mode. Understanding context requires understanding that he who controls the narrative - and it usually is a "he" and an agressive he - controls the story and regular people establish their own beliefs, their own personal understanding of the world in which we live, based on the narrative they construct for themselves. Voters supplement that narrative with information provided by others and by their own experience in ways that differ between different types of people.

Marcus tells us:
"The president-elect’s behavior presents fundamental questions, recurring daily if not hourly, about the best way to serve our audience. These are technical issues of craft, ordinarily of interest only to journalists themselves. In the Age of Trump, they are imbued with real-world consequences."

Unfortunately, this statement sets us apart from the news media-only they are so interested in their craft and, by implication, only they can truly understand the challenge.

And "Should news organizations depart from customary restraint and label Trump’s falsehoods as outright lies?"

OK, can we possibly agree on a "Yes" to that one?
Should the media treat Trump tweetstorms with the rapt attention devoted to more traditional presidential statements, or refrain from such reflexive coverage in order to avoid being distracted, perhaps intentionally, from more important matters?
OK, here is where the rubber meets the road. This man has jerked you around for 18 months and will now jerk you around for four years. Do you keep doing what you have always done and expect different results? No. You take back the narrative. Control the context. What is context? It's hiding in plain sight, in the next paragraph:

"And given the physical constraints of headlines, how should news organizations handle a presidential claim — say, to have saved thousands of jobs — when the underlying details — the jobs may not be as numerous as advertised; the positions might have remained in the United States anyway — may be far more nuanced, if not disputed outright?"

As Paul Krugman and Dean Baker among others, point out, the details of the Carrier jobs or Ford jobs or other individual employers who are singled out matter only on a small scale, more as a distraction from meaningful economic impact. If you believe in a "post-truth" world, I suppose that works, but such expressions of belief from news media is an abdication of responsibility --the responsibility to report in context without fear of appearance of favor or disfavor,  rather than "without fear or favor" as the NYT's 100 year-old policy dictates.

The remainder of Marcus' piece runs through the usual media concerns about fact-checking and further, "how to accurately portray Trump’s conduct within the confined space of a headline" with the warning that "It will, in some circumstances, require some diligence on the part of our audience to probe beyond the first impression."

That last sentence dumps some responsibility on readers, which is fair. Voters have responsibilities. But our media still does not get it. The Marcus piece mentions "fact checking", but never mentions "context". And that is the problem. Calling out the lie is not enough. Calling out the false narrative is necessary. Our media loses the forest for the trees. Trump is happy when the debate is on detail because he can continue to control the narrative and tell some people the story they want to hear while the news media is kept busy with "fact checking".

Our befuddled news media continues to refer to the emergent TrumpWorld as "confusing", "unusual",  or "unprecedented" - terms they use which avoid reporting their observations in context, but the media may represent democracy's last stand. If the traditional media do not understand their failures, even when presented with cogent arguments about reporting in context, then the blogosphere will need to take over.  If that effort does not succeed,  it will not be long before democracy's collapse.

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