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Journalists Remain Incapable of Dealing with Trump


Greg Sargent has been on a tear for the past forty-eight hours as he discusses the non-partisan media’s inability to handle Trump. Yesterday, he wrote that:

… the Justice Department’s inspector general is expected to release a report scrutinizing the FBI’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email arrangement. I’m going to predict that President Trump is going to lie about this report — a lot — as part of his broader ongoing campaign to delegitimize special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into his campaign’s collusion with Russia’s sabotage of our election on his behalf.

But the nature of Trump’s lying in this particular case, I think, will command special attention, and it’s not clear that we in the news media are up to dealing with it. The most likely scenario is that Trump will tell a series of lies that aren’t merely dishonest in any conventional sense, but add up to a broader feat of gaslighting that is so spectacularly absurd and self-undermining that it will be hard to adequately convey to news consumers just how deeply saturated in bad faith it really is.

Today, he broke down the various ways that, in fact, journalists flubbed the challenge:

The report’s core finding is that the FBI’s decision not to prosecute Clinton was untainted by bias or politics. This lays waste to one of the most important narratives pushed by President Trump and his allies in the quest to undermine special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation by claiming law enforcement is riddled with anti-Trump corruption.

But in many of this morning’s accounts about the report, you find versions of this additional claim: The IG report nonetheless provides fodder and ammunition to Trump and his allies to discredit Mueller’s probe.

Trump’s allies have widely cited the inspector general’s findings about the now-infamous texts between an FBI agent and lawyer — which do show animus towards Trump’s candidacy — as not just proof of anti-Trump bias at the FBI during the Clinton investigation, but also to bolster Trump’s argument that the Mueller probe into Russia-Trump campaign collusion is suspect.

Many news accounts inadvertently grant these arguments credibility, not just by quoting them, but also by claiming as fact that the conduct in question actually does lend support to those arguments. Yes, they also convey that the inspector general’s overall conclusion undercuts the Trumpian narrative. But the straddle itself is the problem. It showcases a convention often relied upon in political journalism — the use of the “lends fodder” formulation to float false claims alongside true ones — that has to go.

Go read both of the whole things and so forth.

I don’t have much to add, except a more speculative consideration: perhaps it’s time we buried the idea of a non-partisan media at “the center” with more ideological alternative outlets orbiting them. Non-partisan private media is, in fact, relatively uncommon. In many democracies, newspapers and other news media display a clear, and explicit, ideological slant. This was also the case in the United States for quite some time. Dr. Maria Petrova argues that the viability of non-partisan media depends on a particular confluence in the United States—most notably a strong stream of advertising revenue.

Of course, conditions have been shifting away from this confluence for some time. Consider, moreover, that many Republicans now pretty much only trust partisan media—and consider non-partisan media outlets hopelessly ideologically slanted. This creates a weird asymmetry, in which moderates and liberals look to news sources that are constantly trying to recapture conservatives. This seems relevant to the pathologies Sargent describes, and maybe the solution is to accept that the status quo is unsustainable.

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