“The Trump White House has turned into a kind of playground for the press.”

More than 35 White House correspondents spoke to Politico about what it's like for them. They want you to know they're having a blast.

24 Apr 2017 12:41 am 23 Comments

On CNN’s Reliable Sources this week Trump’s “contentious relationship with the press” was said to be back in the spotlight because of the upcoming marker of the First Hundred Days on April 28. Host Brian Stelter asked if there had been “some softening of the president’s anti-media position” since Trump’s inauguration in January, citing as evidence a recent interview he gave to Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush of the New York Times.

Thrush said: “I never bought the shtick in the first place, that he hated the media.”

The “slap and tickle” approach, as Thrush called it, has been standard operating procedure for Trump from the days when they were coming up together in the New York tabloids: Haberman, Thrush and Trump. Stelter came back to the question: “Could we make the case that things have not been as bad as they could have been between the press and the president?” After all, Press Secretary Sean Spicer conducts daily on camera briefings. And Trump gives interviews to news brands other than Fox. Not the war that we thought was coming, right?

That same day Politico posted a more in-depth version of this argument, based on more than 35 interviews with members of the White House press corps, most of whom would not let their names be used. Politico’s lengthy account, by Ben Schreckinger and Hadas Gold, is a kind of status report from inside the castle on how the people who are there to inform the public feel about the “slap and tickle” style of press relations.

It is a fascinating document, well worth reading for what it reveals about the operation of the Trump White House. Also hugely dismaying for what it does not say, and for what the people inside the castle apparently cannot see. Since this is also the week of the White House Correspondent’s dinner (April 28) I thought I would annotate Politico’s report: talk back to it, and to the people who are speaking to us through it.

The main theme of Politico’s account is that in public Trump is always having bitter clashes with the press. But the real story — the inside story — is quite different. Oh, the irony!

On the campaign trail, Trump called the press “dishonest” and “scum.” He defended Russian strongman Vladimir Putin against charges of murdering journalists and vowed to somehow “open up our libel laws” to weaken the First Amendment. Since taking office, he has dismissed unfavorable coverage as “fake news” and described the mainstream media as “the enemy of the American people…” Not since Richard Nixon has an American president been so hostile to the press— and Nixon largely limited his rants against the media to private venting with his aides.

But behind that theatrical assault, the Trump White House has turned into a kind of playground for the press. We interviewed more than three dozen members of the White House press corps, along with White House staff and outside allies, about the first whirlwind weeks of Trump’s presidency. Rather than a historically toxic relationship, they described a historic gap between the public perception and the private reality.

It’s a “playground” because starting with the man at the top they all care desperately about how they are depicted in the news media, because the different factions are always knifing each other by going to the press, because the leaking is like nothing anyone has seen before, and because they’re incompetent at almost everything they try to do. Put it all together and you get a fount of juicy stories: palace intrigue, constant backstabbing, spectacular screw-ups by clueless amateurs, and no end of sources because so much of the action in the Trump White House flows through the news media.

To which I say:While you’re enjoying your playground, what are you doing about this chart? This is what Glenn Thrush (“I never bought the shtick in the first place, that he hated the media…”) doesn’t seem to understand. Trump’s hating-on-the-media posture is not supposed to convince Thrush. It’s binge-worthy programming for core supporters of the president, catnip to their confirmation bias, extra insurance that anything damaging uncovered by the Times and its peers will be dismissed out of hand by 25 to 40 percent of the electorate.

That Trump is insincere in his hate speech about journalists is not the most important fact — for journalists — about that way of speaking. But you wouldn’t know this from Politico’s account, which fixates on the irony of a president who says he despises the press when actually he craves its approval. (His narcissism would explain that.) Trump’s hate speech about journalists matters because it is part of a program to substitute his reality for reality itself, word of which doesn’t seem to have reached the playground.

Politico further reports that Trump is cordial to reporters in person. (Oh, the irony!) Steve Bannon even sends “crush notes to journalists to let them know they’ve nailed a story.” Sean Spicer maintains bonhomie with many of them. Meanwhile, the staff is “too divided and too obsessed with their own images” to really crack down on the media. “And for all the frustration of covering an administration with a shaky grasp on the truth and a boss whose whims can shift from one moment to the next, reporters have feasted on the conflict and chaos.”

It is indeed a feast. But let’s remember why those reporters are there. They are not there to stuff themselves with story. The White House press corps is supposed to be part of a reality check upon the executive. By asking inconvenient questions, digging up dirt, cultivating diverse sources, and revealing what’s going on behind scenes that are arranged for public consumption, the press screws with the president’s effort to present to the country an image of perfect mastery and pleasing consistency, which of course can never be real.

By answering difficult questions and trying to repair the breach between what’s in the news and what’s said from official podiums, the White House is willy-nilly — and always imperfectly — brought into better contact with an observable and shared reality. That’s the hope, anyway. That’s the logic of the system. That’s what legitimates the permanent presence of the press within the White House. Politico seems to have forgotten all of this. It ignores questions of civic purpose to focus instead on the delicious irony of a press that is publicly despised and privately cultivated:

The great secret of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is that Trump’s war on the media is a phony one, a reality show that keeps his supporters fired up and distracted while he woos the constituency that really matters to him: journalists.

We get it. His pose of complete contempt for the press is largely fake. Like everything else he does. But what matters to the nation is not whether Trump has a neurotic crush on Maggie Haberman and hate watches CNN late at night, it’s whether anything journalists do forces the president or the White House to become a little more reality-based, a little more accountable, a little more likely to give reasons for its actions, or to explain what it’s actual policy choices are. On this score, has the press corps had any success at all? It appears not.

“If you’re doing anything involving any sort of palace intrigue, they are crazy cooperative,” said one reporter, voicing a common observation. “But if you have any sort of legitimate question, if you need a yes or no answer on policy, they’re impossible.”

So it’s a feast for journalists if the story is about who’s up and who’s down inside the castle. But if it’s about decisions that might affect the lives of Americans, no feast. “They’re impossible.” Notice how — according to Politico — Trump’s real constituency is journalists, but not to the extent that their questions about policy would get answered. Not to the extent that speaking truth to the American people makes any difference to the Trump government:

One reporter said he has been surprised to find that background information from Trump White House officials is more reliable than what they say on the record, a reversal from previous administrations that he has covered. Especially unreliable is anything said on camera, as it is most likely to be seen by Trump, who watches television religiously. By the end of March, according to a Politico Magazine analysis, Spicer had uttered 51 unique falsehoods or misleading statements in his press briefings, on topics ranging from voter fraud to Obamacare to Trump’s Russia ties.

“Especially unreliable is anything said on camera.” In other words, the more likely it is to reach the public, the greater the chances that it’s false. “Through it all, Spicer has been unfailingly loyal— defending all of Trump’s most risible lies and baseless contentions despite the snickering of his frenemies in the press corps.”

Great job, guys. You’re snickering. Sean’s lying. (But you have access!) And if the president says it, it’s likely to be false. Who’s the bully on this playground?

“Media companies, meanwhile, have been laughing all the way to the bank. In the weeks after the election, the New York Times reported it was adding new subscribers at 10 times the normal pace. The Wall Street Journal reported a 300 percent spike in new subscriptions on the day after Trump’s victory… According to CNN, the network’s total audience in the first quarter of 2017 is the highest it has been in any first quarter since 2003, when the United States launched its invasion of Iraq. As for Trump’s preferred network, the first quarter of 2017 was the best three months Fox News has ever had.”

Turns out “slap and tickle” is a commercial hit. The irony!

The comment thread is open.

 

This is what a news organization looks like when it is built on reader trust

Why I'm teaming up with the Dutch site, De Correspondent, on its U.S. launch. Because a membership model grounded in trust is one plausible way out of this mess.

28 Mar 2017 7:53 pm 33 Comments

On March 28 the news was announced: De Correspondent will expand to the U.S. I will be their first ambassador to the American market. The Knight Foundation, Democracy Fund and First Look Media will give $515,000 to NYU to create the Membership Puzzle Project, which will collect knowledge about how membership models can support quality journalism. I will be the director of that project. Here is the post I wrote that explains all this. Originally published at Nieman Lab.

At the kind of journalism conferences I attend, Aron Pilhofer, who had key roles in the digital operations of the New York Times and the Guardian in recent years, has been asking a very good question. What if news organizations optimized every part of the operation for trust? Not for speed, traffic, profits, headlines or prizes… but for trust. What would that even look like?

My answer: it would look a lot like De Correspondent.

Launched in 2013 in The Netherlands, De Correspondent is funded solely by its members: 56,000 of them, who pay about $63 a year because they believe in the kind of journalism that is done by its 21 full-time correspondents and 75 freelancers. The leaders of the site announced today that they will soon expand to the U.S. and set-up shop in New York. (See Ken Doctor’s post on Nieman Lab for the details on that.)

It was also announced today that I am going to help them. With $515,000 from the Knight Foundation, Democracy Fund and First Look Media, I am launching at NYU a research project that is designed to benefit American news organizations that have a membership strategy while improving the odds that The Correspondent will succeed in its move across The Atlantic. (Press release here.) I have further agreed to become The Correspondent’s first “ambassador” in the U.S. market. That means I will help introduce its model to others who might be able to assist — including possible funders. (Are you one?)

As you might have sensed, I believe in what these young Dutch journalists are doing. I think they have a strong sense of how to build a sustainable newsroom. But what really impressed me is what I said before: the way they optimize for trust. In this post I will:

* unfold what I mean by “optimized for trust”
* describe the research plan for the new Membership Puzzle Project, funded by Knight, Democracy Fund and First Look.
* explain why I am supporting The Correspondent’s move to the U.S. and lending my name to their efforts.

Part One: Optimizing for trust

Why do I say that a news organization optimized for trust would look a lot like The Correspondent? There are four main reasons.

Reason 1. No ads. No targeting. Have you ever heard this maxim? “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” Its lessons can be overdrawn, and some think it silly, but this phrase captures something about commercial media properties. You cannot trust them to be wholly on the side of their publics because they have another class of customers to worry about: the advertisers. Even if they are run with integrity and would never cave to an advertiser’s demands, a range of subtler distortions can creep in. Obvious example: click bait. Less obvious: pools of available ad money (food, real estate, cars) tend to spring up as editorial products (Grub Street, Curbed, Jalopnik.)

There is nothing inherently corrupt about this. It’s a system that can subsidize a lot of good work. And every subsidy system has drawbacks, including membership. But if you’re doing public service journalism and trying to optimize for trust, it helps immensely to be free from the business of buying and selling people’s attention. The Correspondent got that right away. That is why it is ad free and has no commercial sponsors.

“The Correspondent does not have to think about target groups or tailor its content to please, for instance, well-heeled readers between the ages of 25 and 40,” the founders told me. “The site sees its readers as curiosity-driven individuals who cannot be reduced to demographics. This principle is also the basis for our data minimization privacy policy.” Its key tenets:

* We only collect data required by law or necessary for the proper functioning of our platform.
* We do not sell this information to third parties.
* The purpose of any data collection must be clearly explained to our members.
* Members should, where possible, have control over their data.

Of course, terms like “where possible” leave a lot of room for interpretation. Because it still relies on third party services like YouTube, Vimeo, and SoundCloud, The Correspondent cannot say to its members: “You will never be tracked.” But it can say: These are the services we use and why. This is what we are doing to minimize the problem. It can level with people, as it does here and here. (Google translations to English here and here.)

Reason 2. Freedom from the 24 hour news cycle. The Correspondent calls itself an “antidote to the daily news grind.” When you’re not straining to find a unique angle into a story that the entire press pack is chewing on, it’s easier to avoid clickbait headlines, which undo trust. Not chasing today’s splashy story can hurt your traffic, but when you’re not selling traffic (because you don’t have advertisers) the pain is minimized.

The other risk is to relevance: if you’re not covering the stories that everyone is hearing about ad nauseam, will you begin to sound inessential and out-of-touch? The Correspondent has an answer to that: “not the weather but the climate.” It’s a phrase the editors use to keep themselves on track. It means: ignore the daily blips, focus on the underlying patterns. “Not the weather but the climate” is just a slogan. You have to execute on it, and that is always hard. But it is the right slogan when you’re trying to optimize for trust. And if you can execute on it, you won’t seem out of touch at all. You will feel more essential. (To get a feel for The Correspondent’s brand of journalism, go here and here.)

Reason 3. Writers at the center with room to run. In the era of print journalism, the term in use was “writer’s paper.” (The Village Voice in its golden age of the 1960s and 70s was called a writer’s paper.) That means a newsroom where the editorial initiative — the ideas for what to cover — come from the people whose names are on the articles. They are given lots of room to run. The implied contrast is with an “editor’s paper” (Time magazine during its classic period) where the writers have less room to run.

It has no print product, but The Correspondent is a writer’s paper. Its 21 full-time correspondents are encouraged to define their own beats and pick subjects they are passionate about, driven to understand. (Here’s a list of what their writers cover.) The approach is similar to the “obsessions” model developed by Quartz. At The Correspondent, there is no requirement that journalists take the view from nowhere, but they are also not on anyone’s team.

No party line. No forced objectivity. The writers can come to conclusions and show conviction, but they have to be evidence-based in the extreme. If the evidence obliges them to, they will alter their convictions and share that new perspective with readers. Correspondents never do he said/she said journalism; rather they do “I said then, I say now” journalism.

In my view, this is the right way to optimize for trust in the writers.

Reason 4: Journalist as discussion leader. In exchange for the freedom they are allowed in defining their beats and reporting on their passions, correspondents are required to invest in rich interactions with readers. They do not have a choice. It is part of the job. This step is crucial to The Correspondent’s trust model— and its economy. The editors call it “journalist as conversation leader.” It starts with a feature of the site. You can follow individual writers: the ones whose projects you care most about.

Expectations are that writers will continuously share what they are working on with the people who follow them and read their stuff. They will pose questions and post call outs as they launch new projects: what they want to find out, the expertise they are going to need to do this right, any sort of help they want from readers. Sometimes readers are the soul of project. Writers also manage the discussion threads — which are not called comments but contributions — in order to highlight the best additions and pull useful material into the next iteration of an ongoing story. All of the correspondents have weekly email newsletters that update their followers on what the writers are working on. (Here’s an example from clean tech and mobility correspondent Thalia Verkade.)

These methods resemble the approach taken by the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold during the 2016 campaign. As I wrote in December:

Fahrenthold explains what he’s doing as he does it. He lets the ultimate readers of his work see how painstakingly it is put together. He lets those who might have knowledge help him. People who follow along can see how much goes into one of his stories, which means they are more likely to trust it. (And to mistrust Trump’s attacks on it… See how that works?) He’s also human, humble, approachable, and very, very determined. He never goes beyond the facts, but he calls bullshit when he has the facts. So impressive are the results that people tell me all the time that Fahrenthold by himself got them to subscribe. He is not “solving,” but he’s certainly helping with the trust problem.

Fahrenhold came to this style on his own, and was widely praised for it. Journalists at The Correspondent are required to operate this way. And it pays off. Here’s a call out to readers (and people the readers might know.) “Dear Shell employees: Let’s talk.” And here’s what resulted from it: ‘Shell knew’: oil giant’s 1991 film warned of climate change danger. Impressive. And here, readers explain in their own words why they contribute knowledge to The Correspondent.

In 1999, my friend Dan Gillmor, then working as Silicon Valley columnist for the San Jose Mercury news but early to blogging, came to an important realization: “my readers know more than I do.” It took fifteen years, but a news company finally baked into its business model Gillmor’s profound insight into what journalism could be in the internet age. This is from an excellent article in The Drum about The Correspondent’s rise, which quotes co-founder and current publisher Ernst-Jan Pfauth:

De Correspondent’s philosophy is that 100 physician readers know more than one healthcare reporter. So when that healthcare reporter is prepping a story, they announce to readers what they’re planning to write and ask those with first-hand knowledge of the issues – from doctors to patients – to volunteer their experiences. “By doing this we get better informed stories because we have more sources from a wider range of people,” Pfauth tells The Drum. “It’s not just opinion makers or spokespersons, we get people from the floor. And, of course, there are business advantages because we turn those readers into more loyal readers. When they participate that leads to a stronger bond between the journalist and the reader.”

Right! And that is how you maximize trust — and produce quality journalism — through genuine reader engagement.

Notice how all the pieces fit together: When you don’t have advertisers, there’s nothing you have to cover because it brings traffic or offers the right environment for ads. Release from the 24 hour news cycle — coupled with dropping the advertisers — lets you grant to your writers more creative freedom. This in turns helps attract talent. Requiring the talent to interact with the readers and draw knowledge from them not only improves the journalism by broadening its base, it also binds the readers to the writers and gives them a stake in the final product because they joined in its formation. They are thus more likely to share it with others— and more likely to renew their membership.

Here I have to explain something about how The Correspondent’s “pay” model works. If you go to the home page and try to access its contents, you will be asked to join and pay the membership fee. But that is the one and only incarnation of any pay “wall.” On the web or via email, any link you come across to an article in The Correspondent is always free to access. Members can share links with their networks without limit, and those links will always work. No one ever gets a notice like: You have accessed 9 of the 10 free articles you are entitled to this month… Members don’t pay to be members because they’re getting exclusive access to something the rest of the public is denied. That’s not how it works. That’s how Politico Pro works. That’s how The Information works. The Correspondent wants its work to spread freely. It also wants you to become a member. It refuses to grant any contradiction between the two.

Again, I think this is the right way to maximize trust in a “readers pay the freight” model.

Part Two: The Membership Puzzle Project.

As I have tried to make clear, I think The Correspondent has a good model. But so far it has only proven itself in the Dutch market (17 million people.) The American market (325 million) is different: far bigger and vastly more competitive. It would be foolish to assume that The Correspondent could simply transplant itself and thrive in the United States. Member-funded journalism has a long history here, most obviously in public radio but not only there. And there are membership organizations in fields other than journalism that might have good insights.

At the same time, The Correspondent knows things that local, non-profit and specialized news sites in the U.S. can benefit from as they turn to readers to support them. Knowledge ought to flow in both directions. From American sites to The Correspondent, and from The Correspondent to American journalism as the Dutch site brings its model to the U.S. This is where the Membership Puzzle Project begins work. It is designed to answer three questions:

1. What can American journalism learn from The Correspondent’s success in developing a membership model for the support of public service journalism?

2. As it expands to New York and the American market, what does The Correspondent need to know about how membership has worked — and not worked — in the U.S.?

3. If readers are going to support public service journalism by giving money directly to it, what does the social contract between them and the journalists have to look like? What are best practices for keeping that relationship strong and alive?

Here’s how the project will try to answer these questions

* Find out how membership has worked — and where it has failed — for news organizations in the U.S that have tried it, which means traveling to key sites, interviewing knowledgeable participants, compiling documents and statistical measures of success, and piecing together a portrait of best practice that focuses on lessons learned.

* Using similar methods, research The Correspondent’s experience with membership since 2013 and distill the lessons of it for American journalism.

* Organize in-person events among those with knowledge and experience to lend so they can pool what they know and learn from each other.

* Share the results of this work in a series of published reports and articles that make the findings available to the journalism community and other researchers, focusing especially on the social contract that has to exist between journalists and readers if readers are going to the work directly.

Part Three: Why I’m supporting The Correspondent.

Because I think they know what they’re doing. Because they have the right priorities. Because American journalism needs to open itself to influence from abroad. Because the production of public interest news cannot be successful without the reproduction of trust in the people who are authoring that news. Because Aron Pilhofer asked a really smart question: What if news organizations optimized every part of the operation for trust? Because Trump is manufacturing mistrust at a faster rate than journalists can adapt their methods for inspiring public confidence in what they do. Because we don’t have a lot of time, people. Because readers, viewers, listeners, waking up to the urgency of the moment, are ready to support real journalism with real money, but only if the social contract changes. Because what good is an academic reputation if you aren’t prepared to spend it on something you really believe in?

A few notes on unbuilding a key part of the presidency

The American President can blow up the world. A lot of work went into reassuring us that he won't. Now it's being undone.

19 Feb 2017 7:19 pm 97 Comments

Watching President Trump’s February 16th press conference, I felt stunned into silence. I could not think of how to comment on that performance. These notes are my attempt to figure out why. They are a departure from my usual writing: more speculative. I’m reaching for something here. Which means I could be wrong about some or maybe all of it. If I am, you will tell me.

1. Since the start of the Cold War 70 years ago, Americans have been aware of a crazy thing about the holder of the Presidency. That person could blow up the world. The possibility of nuclear annihilation changed the institution by introducing new psychological facts to the relationship between the American people and the occupant of the White House. And, we should add, between the publics of other nations and the American President. For this was a terrible power to invest in one man. (It has always been a man, which is part of the terror, so I will be using the masculine pronoun throughout.)

2. By giving the order, the American President could blow up the world — or at least Europe, North America, and Russia — and everyone at some level was aware of this. Which meant we had to have confidence that he wouldn’t do it, or we could never vote for him. There would be no time to go to Congress, or for any plebiscite. The power had to be entrusted to one man, and his reactions in the moment, as with Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis. We didn’t have to trust Theodore Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln in that way. But from the Cold War on Americans have been required to extend to their president an almost inhuman degree of trust: don’t blow up the world, Mister President… Please!

3. It’s not possible to have a normal relationship with a mortal who obtains that kind of power. And yet the American President has to present himself as a “normal” person who has a very, very important job. Through successive governments since Truman the presidency has been adjusted to meet these conditions. How do you make people comfortable with the fact that the President is able to blow up the world? Or: how do you make them forget that he has this power? Well, you project an image of inner strength, measured calm, unflappable temperament. But that is just a start. In fact, the whole model of the modern presidency is affected by this demand to quiet a completely rational anxiety surrounding the president’s awesome, god-like and mostly unearned powers. In a word, the American presidency has to do psychological work. It has to reassure.

4. So how is this work done? Through a series of propositions that are implied in the behavior we expect of presidents, in the daily rituals of the job, and in the way the executive branch organizes itself. Here are a few of those propositions. (There are many more.)

* The President has access to the best intelligence in the world.
* The President starts his day with a classified briefing on all possible threats.
* The President is kept constantly informed.
* The President is never, even for a moment, “off the grid.”
* The President is never alone.
* The President is surrounded by people who know what they are doing.
* The President is of sound and sober mind. He does not easily “fly off the handle.”
* The President does not free associate, speak carelessly, or grant roaming privileges to his id.
* The President does not make factual statements that are wholly insupportable.

I’m not saying that these features of the modern Presidency don’t serve other ends. They do. But one of them is to make us feel okay with a man who gets to play god with our civilization.

5. Part of the psychological work the American presidency had to do was done through the media. Rituals like the televised news conference were supposed to show that the president was in command of the facts, and could handle challenges without losing his cool. Command of television in a speech or interview is one way that presidents show us they’re in command of themselves. That’s reassuring. That’s acting “presidential.”

6. Trump does not participate in this regime. He may have access to the best intelligence in the world, but he is at war with the intelligence community. The apparatus exists to keep him constantly informed, but he prefers to watch cable news, so that he can rage at his unfair treatment. He flies off the handle constantly. He makes threats. He free associates, speaks carelessly, and grants roaming privileges to his world class id. He doesn’t care if what he’s saying is true. When a reporter at his February 16 press conference told him his facts were wrong, he shrugged and said, “I was given that information; I don’t know… I’ve seen that information around.” That is the opposite of reassuring.

7. Trump is thus revising the Presidency before our eyes. In his grip, it no longer attempts to muffle anxiety about the President and make people around the world feel okay about granting one person such enormous, unthinkable and inhuman powers. Instead, a new model is proposed: the president keeps everyone in a constant state of excitement and alarm. He moves fast and breaks things. He leads by causing commotion. As energy in the political system rises he makes no effort to project calm or establish an orderly White House. And if he keeps us safe it’s not by being himself a safe, steady, self-controlled figure, but by threatening opponents and remaining brash and unpredictable— maybe a touch crazy. This too is psychological work, but of a different kind.

8. Remember: the launch codes are with him at all times. We are supposed to not think about that. Since Truman, the Presidency has been styled to help us with the forgetting. Donald Trump is busy blowing that up. But how do we surface this story?

Steve Bannon’s styrofoam balls

It's not like reality gives up easily, and lets you roll over it. That's Distortion Field 101.

15 Feb 2017 1:27 pm 23 Comments

I will be brief because — like the news itself — I’m moving quickly today.

For a moment there I thought these guys were serious about treating the news media as “the opposition party” and trying to remove it as a check on power. That seemed to be the plan. They had the pieces in place. But when Michael Flynn was vanquished from the White House they revealed to us that for now at least they’re unable go through with it.

Here’s Greg Sargent:

Trump’s top adviser Stephen K. Bannon has offered up sublime bluster about how the news media has “no power,” arguing that its aggressive reporting on the Trump White House reflects nothing more than panicked media elite shrieking about the “new political order” that Trump is raising out of the ashes of the corrupt old order. As I’ve argued, the Trump White House has established — as an explicit, actionable doctrine — the goal of trying to obliterate the possibility of agreement on the news media’s legitimate institutional role in informing the citizenry, and even on facts and reality itself.

I agree: That’s what they’re trying to do. But if you’re going to do it, you have to really do it. It’s not like reality gives up easily, and lets you roll right over it. You can’t just say to the national press “you’re fake news” and “so biased no one believes you” like some once-in-a-generation tough guy and then when it gets really tough switch back to freaking out over what’s in the news.

The way they’re acting, you’d think these guys had never transcended reality or slipped the bonds of surly pundits before. Look at this report: should have a ‘pitiful if true’ sticker on it.

According to three people close to Mr. Trump, the president made the decision to cast aside Mr. Flynn in a flash, the catalyst being a news alert of a coming article about the matter.

“Yeah, it’s time,” Mr. Trump told one of his advisers.

The trigger was a news report? That’s not how you do it. Leaks that are published in the fake news media (Trump’s term) are fake leaks! You have to call them that. And you have to act on that understanding. As soon as you let on that you’re using the news media the way other people do — to find out what’s happening, for real — you’re showing reality that it can roll you. I can’t believe I have to explain this to a Graduated Leninist like Steve Bannon, but I guess I do. Here are the steps:

1. “This isn’t happening.” Basic stuff! Anyone who says it is happening is off the team, outside the circle of power. These stories about Mike Flynn connecting with Russian officials, talking about sanctions on Russia, lying about it to the Vice President: that’s the biased media being the opposition party and spreading misinformation again. Like the news is fake, the sources are fake. If these “government officials” know so much, let them identify themselves. If there are recordings, where are they? Anyone can fake a transcript. Etc.

2. We are not the investigated, we investigate! You don’t fire your guy because journalists report he’s a liar and a cheat. That’s reality-based. You’re against all that, remember? You keep him in his post and start digging into who’s leaking and receiving the nation’s secrets. Every time the press asks about the Flynn mess you brag about how far-reaching your leak investigation is. They say Flynn’s calls were monitored? Well, we know how to monitor calls to find out who’s passing you this fake information. Drop the hint. This is Distortion Field 101, fellas.

3. No one in the press or the DC establishment will believe you; that’s the whole point! Incredulity is their gift to you. The opposition party is everyone who listens to the news and says: actually, this Flynn thing is happening. The more shocked and voluble they are, the better for you as our polarizers-in-chief. The wind of their insistence gives lift to your resistance. Didn’t your instructor in Wedge Tectonics go over any of this?

4. Supporters have to either a.) join in calling it fake news or b.) face spiritual collapse. You used to understand this. Back when you were on your game, like during the Sean Spicer debut. You let everyone on your side know the deal… Wanna be on the team? Then look at those pictures and see larger crowds for Trump. For that’s the price. Price too high? Then you can step off right now. Here, you want the worm of doubt to creep up a little— so it can be banished by core supporters. (And there’s frisson in that.) You gesture toward cognitive dissonance so extreme it would crush normal people, as in: the man who ‘tells it like it is’ lies constantly, about everything. You flash that fact, they flee it. Win for you.

If that’s winning, this is losing. Greg Sargent again:

This Flynn episode suggests that facts and reality do matter. The Trump White House is not invulnerable to them. A dogged and determined press corps can indeed ferret them out, notwithstanding the White House’s efforts to render them meaningless and irrelevant — or indeed to make them disappear.

He’s right. They got rolled by reality, as if reality had that kind of muscle! But what stands out for me is: Bannon, Trump, Miller, Conway, Spicer, the inner circle: they didn’t even try to show reality that it can be rolled. Let’s go over it again: You act as though this isn’t happening. You threaten to investigate those who document that it is. You remind the press that it has no power because it was humiliated in 2016. They remonstrate, you escalate. Use the pundit shows and briefing room to polarize. Cognitive dissonance takes care of your party and core supporters, but you have to show reality who’s boss.

Bannon is the one who surprises me. He pushed for Flynn’s firing? That’s standard eliminate-a-rival behavior, exactly what an establishment climber would do. He’s no Lenin. Turns out he has balls of styrofoam, and I think I know the reason. He reads the New York Times and Washington Post with fear in his heart. Like normal people in power do.

Send the interns

Put your most junior people in the White House briefing room. Recognize that the real story is elsewhere, and most likely hidden.

22 Jan 2017 7:26 pm 135 Comments

#sendtheinterns is a hashtag that stands for some advice I have given the Washington press corps about its dealings with the Trump White House.

After this weekend’s spectacular display by new Press Secretary Sean Spicer — mixing provable falsehoods with culture war attacks on the journalists assembled before him — the case for sending interns to the White House briefing room is stronger than ever. In this post I want to restate that argument in light of what just happened, and clarify what I am not saying.

A good place to begin in the analysis of Spicer’s performance is that we have no name for what this thing was. We can’t call it a press conference because, in a remarkable show of cowardice, Spicer walked out without taking questions. It wasn’t an announcement because there was no policy news external to press relations.

Spicer called it an “update on the president’s activities” but attacking journalists for being biased against you is in no sense an “update.” It wasn’t an informal discussion among people who have to work together because, as I said, there was no back and forth, and the setting was stiff, formal, heavy with significance as this was the first official briefing room event of a new presidency. Spicer looked tense. He was shouting at times as he read from a prepared script. Watch the clip: what would you call it? (It’s 5:32)

Trying not for elegance but for accuracy, I would call this event a “relationship message delivery vehicle,” operating on three levels.

First, it told staffers who work for Trump: this is what we expect. If The Leader is reeling from a narcissistic wound (crowd figures too small) you will be expected to sacrifice dignity and best practice to redress that wound. That’s what you bought into when you agreed to work for President Trump. This is a stark statement. No wonder Spicer sounded tense.

A second message was to the press. You will be turned into hate objects whenever we feel like it. We can do that to you without providing right of reply because… what are you going to do about it? Small mistakes quickly corrected will be treated as evidence of malicious wrong doing by the entire group. (And you deserve that.) We are not bound by what you call facts. We have our own, and we will proceed to put them out regardless of what the evidence says. It’s not a problem for us if you stagger from the room in disbelief. We’re not trying to “win the news cycle,” or win you over. We’re trying to demonstrate independence from and power over you people. This room is not just for briefings, announcements and Q & A. It’s also a theater of resentment in which you play a crucial part. Our constituency hates your guts; this is the place where we commune with them around that fact. See you tomorrow, guys!

Reaction from the press corps:

A third “relationship” message went to the listeners, in tripartite.

* To the core Trump constituency — and an audience primed for this over years of acrid ‘liberal media’ critique — two things were said. “We’re going to rough these people up.” (Because we know how long you have waited for that.) But also, and in return, you have to accept our “alternative facts” even if your own eyes tell you otherwise. This too is a stark message. The epistemological “price” for being a solider in Trump’s army is high. You have to swallow, repeat and defend things that simply don’t check out. Screen shot from the Washington Post’s fact check: * To the listeners who are hostile to Trump the message is: you don’t count. There is no common world of fact that connects us to you. Rage on, losers. We don’t have to acknowledge any part of your reality. We’re fine if you dispute ours. In fact, the hotter the better. Our aim is true: to maximize conflict between your core group and ours. So please: help us polarize!

* To the neither/nors, the people who are not part of the Trump constituency and not yet committed to opposing him either, the message is very different. I can summarize it in two words: Don’t bother. People are fighting over what is real— and what is a lie. They dwell in different worlds— different, but neither of them yours. Any modest effort to pay attention will collapse into futility. Truth is impossible to discern without a heroic — and expensive — act of crap detection. Mostly there is confusion. The only rational choice is to pass on the whole spectacle. This space isn’t for you. This is for “them,” the people obsessed with politics. You should just live your life.

Look, then, at what Sean Spicer’s “relationship message delivery vehicle” accomplished on Day One. For Trump staffers: You gave up your dignity when you joined up with The Leader. Act accordingly. For journalists: You are hate objects. We are unbound from all evidence, all truth. For Trump supporters: We will put these press people down for you, but in return you have to lie to yourselves for us. For Trump’s opponents: go nuts, we love it! For the neither/nors: Don’t bother paying attention. You won’t be able to figure it out.

Listen to Ezra Klein explain why this is more than a sideshow:

The Trump administration is creating a baseline expectation among its loyalists that they can’t trust anything said by the media. The spat over crowd size is a low-stakes, semi-comic dispute, but the groundwork is being laid for much more consequential debates over what is, and isn’t, true. Delegitimizing the institutions that might report inconvenient or damaging facts about the president is strategic for an administration that has made a slew of impossible promises and takes office amid a cloud of ethics concerns and potential scandals.

And that is the business that was transacted in the White House briefing room… on Day One.

“Send the interns” means our major news organizations don’t have to cooperate with this. They don’t have to lend talent or prestige to it. They don’t have to be props. They need not televise the spectacle live (CNN didn’t carry Spicer’s rant) and they don’t have to send their top people.

They can “switch” systems: from inside-out, where access to the White House starts the story engines, to outside-in, where the action begins on the rim, in the agencies, around the committees, with the people who are supposed to obey Trump but have doubts. As I wrote on December 30:

During the Trump campaign who had better access: The reporters in the media pen, or those who got tickets and moved with the rest of the crowd? Were the news organizations on the blacklist really at a disadvantage? I can hear the reply. We need both: inside and outside. Fine, do both. My point is: outside-in can become the baseline method, and inside-out the occasionally useful variant. Switch it up. Send interns to the daily briefing when it becomes a newsless mess. Move the experienced people to the rim.

Sean Spicer has no power over the press but what they give to him. From a New York Times reporter whose beat is Congress:

When I say #sendtheinterns I mean it literally: take a bold decision to put your most junior people in the briefing room. Recognize that the real story is elsewhere, and most likely hidden. That’s why the experienced reporters need to be taken out of the White House, and put on other assignments.

Look: they can’t visit culture war upon you if they don’t know where you are. The press has to become less predictable. It has to stop functioning as a hate object. This means giving something up. The dream of the White House briefing room and the Presidential press conference is that accountability can be transacted in dramatic and televisable moments: the perfect question that puts the President or his designate on the spot, and lets the public see — as if in a flash — who they are led by. This was always an illusion. Crumbling for decades, it has become comically unsustainable under Trump.

Please note: I am not saying that as a beat the White House is unimportant, or that its pronouncements can be ignored. I’m not saying: devote less attention to Trump. Rather: change the terms of this relationship. Make yourself more elusive. In the theater of resentment where you play such a crucial part, relinquish that part.

The hard thing is not sending the interns, or tasking the experienced people with an outside-in beat into which they can dig. The hard thing is giving up on the dream of some exquisite confrontation that reveals all: accountability in a box.

Plagiarism charges against Monica Crowley put her publishing house on stage

These mettle tests are going to come more quickly than we thought, I guess. HarperCollins: you're up!

7 Jan 2017 6:56 pm 37 Comments

Today Andrew Kaczynski of CNN published this article. It says that author and TV figure Monica Crowley, recently appointed to the Trump administration as a national security aide, plagiarized many portions of her 2012 book “What The (Bleep) Just Happened.”

You can judge the clarity and severity of the case yourself by scrutinizing Kaczynski’s work. To me it shows that the author (or ghost writer) just didn’t care about avoiding the most common form of plagiarism: lifting passages from texts that informed your writing. One or two of these would be a minor violation of publishing standards. The pattern Kaczynski uncovered is a different matter entirely.

The part that most interested me is the statement from the Trump transition team:

Monica’s exceptional insight and thoughtful work on how to turn this country around is exactly why she will be serving in the Administration,” a statement from a transition spokesperson said. “HarperCollins — one of the largest and most respected publishers in the world — published her book which has become a national best-seller. Any attempt to discredit Monica is nothing more than a politically motivated attack that seeks to distract from the real issues facing this country.

Two things about this response stand out.

It goes from zero to 60 on the politicize-everything dial, signaling to Trump supporters that there is nothing here about authorship, publishing, standards, or trust, nothing that might transcend politics, just political combat in another form: a CNN investigation.

The statement draws HarperCollins and its accumulated reputation into the transaction, as if to say, “Look, the editors respected the author and her work enough to publish the book, so obviously these charges are a cheap ploy coming from political opponents because HarperCollins is one of the largest and most respected publishers in the world.”

Normal procedure would be something like this: The author apologizes, perhaps blaming the lapses on a wayward researcher or ghost writer. The publisher tries to fix the problems in future reprints, if there are any. If sales have slowed to a crawl the book is allowed to go out of print and that becomes the solution. In severe cases there might be a recall of books left on the shelves. (Unlikely this would qualify for that.) Also unlikely: the publishing company pretends like nothing happened and the author is allowed to skate.

Complication #1: HarperCollins is part of the Murdoch empire. Doesn’t mean that Rupert tells them what to do, but it is a fact.
Complication #2: CNN had a similar plagiarism case involving one of its own: Fareed Zakaria. The network was reluctant to acknowledge any problem. (You can imagine how that will play online.)

Here’s what I want you to watch for: Harper Collins is going to be asked about this. They refused to reply to Andrew Kaczynski, but when the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal call for comment it becomes harder to just… stonewall. If the normal sequence I just described unfolds — Crowley acknowledges the problem and apologizes, HarperCollins either fixes the reprint or lets the book drift out of print — then it’s a two-day story and everyone forgets about it.

But… The Trump transition team already went from zero to 60 on the politicize-everything dial. And Trump is known for backing his people when they get into scrapes. Monica Crowley may decide she did nothing wrong, or nothing “the other side” wouldn’t do. She may decide to tough it out, or even escalate this until it’s a full-blown controversy, complete with charges of fake news (Kaczynski’s report) and hypocrisy (CNN’s Zakaria problem.)

Then the focus will turn to HarperCollins. They would like to make this go away quietly so no one remembers which publisher it was, but for that they need the cooperation of a chastened author. What if Crowley refuses? What if Trump rage Tweets? Then if HarperCollins takes action on the book, it feeds the culture war controversy, and their quiet resolution is blown to bits. If they don’t comment and don’t take action then it becomes a clear case of intimidation in the climate created by Trump, which won’t sit well with editors on staff or writers under contract.

So keep your eye on this. We may get an early read on how corruptible our cultural institutions actually are.

UPDATE, Jan. 8: “HarperCollins spokeswoman Tina Andreadis says the publisher has no comment but is ‘looking into the matter.'” We have our first positive sign. According to the AP, HarperCollins is reviewing the charges of plagiarism. That’s good only because it’s 100 percent normal, what any professional publisher would do. Therefore HarperCollins passed the first test, refusing to suspend standard procedure.

The author of the CNN investigation:

UPDATE, Jan. 9: Trump Pick Monica Crowley Plagiarized Parts of Her Ph.D. Dissertation. “Monica Crowley, President-Elect Donald J. Trump’s pick for a top National Security Council job, plagiarized numerous passages in her Ph.D. dissertation, Politico Magazine has found…”

UPDATE, Jan. 10. CNN reports: “Publisher HarperCollins said Tuesday that it will stop selling a book by Monica Crowley that a CNN KFile investigation found to have more than 50 instances of plagiarism.” Let’s review. CNN found multiple passages lifted from other writers. HarperCollins, after failing to respond to the original investigation, said it was looking into it. Politico said it found portions of Crowley’s PhD dissertation were also plagiarized. Then HarperCollins announced: “The book, which has reached the end of its natural sales cycle, will no longer be offered for purchase until such time as the author has the opportunity to source and revise the material.” Meanwhile, the Trump team has denounced the investigation that led to this point, calling it a “politically motivated attack.” Ordinarily, an author whose book was withdrawn from marketplace would acknowledge the problem and apologize, but Monica Crowley has so far said nothing and done nothing. The HarperCollins statement did not indicate that she was cooperating, or that she intended to revise the book to fix the sourcing problems. Remaining questions: Will the Trump team react further? Will Crowley keep pretending that none of this is happening? Will Columbia University take some sort of action about accusations of plagiarism in her PhD?

Finally, the Trump team invoked the good name and professional reputation of HarperCollins when it defended Crowley. But now the professional judgment of that same HarperCollins is that the book should no longer be sold. If the publishing house agreed with the Trump team that this was nothing but an unscrupulous attack by enemies of the incoming administration it would not have taken the action it did. If the Trump team truly respected the judgment of HarperCollins — which it called “one of most respected publishers in the world” — then it would have to re-consider its initial reaction. So far there is no sign of that.

UPDATE, Jan. 16. Today Monica Crowley backed down. She won’t take the job. So far she has not addressed the plagiarism charges at all. My read on this event:

We learned something today. In this instance, at least, the Trump camp lacked the will, the skill or the foresight to play the “we make our own reality” hand and win with it. It tried to put down the press, but wound up raising its spirits. Granted, the underlying matter is small: one job on the national security team that will not go to Trump’s first pick. But let’s be clear about what happened.

Team Trump threw up a reality distortion field after CNN’s investigation broke: This is not journalism. This is not plagiarism. This is a politically motivated attack. Monica Crowley will be serving in the new Administration. That’s what they said. In other words: Your reality, CNN, is that you have found the sort of plagiarism that would normally sink candidates and appointees to public office because it’s just so blatant. Our reality is: This is culture war — liberalism — disguised as investigative reporting. And we are going to show you that your reality is weaker than ours. Now watch us… They then proceeded to behave as if the CNN investigation never happened. Crowley followed that line too: this isn’t happening. We’ll show them.

But Team Trump didn’t know how to play that game. The first sign of this was invoking the cultural authority of HarperCollins as support for Crowley. Anyone familiar with the book business could have told them that no normal publisher would back them up by agreeing to treat CNN’s findings as a non-event. Plagiarism is a problem. Within days Harper Collins said it would stop selling the book. Not: we don’t see any problem. Not: we have no comment because this isn’t happening. Not: Trump spoke to Rupert and the book stays. If you want to override the press, you need others to join your distortion field. If they won’t, then don’t invoke their good name. Come on! This is “we make our own reality 101.” But Team Trump mishandled it. They couldn’t execute.

Despite that little tactical mistake they could have struck a blow against investigative reporting by continuing with their silence (this isn’t really happening) and seating Crowley as intended on the National Security Council, even with her mushrooming plagiarism problem— or maybe because of it, if you want to get radical. For it’s one thing to be mean to reporters at a press conference. It’s a far greater demonstration of power to act as if damaging revelations with solid proof behind them never happened, and proceed with your plans. That would be demoralizing for the press. And that would be the Bannon way: show these people there’s a new reality that their coastal enclave had kept them from.

Instead: Investigative reporting was vindicated. The reality — plagiarism is a problem — could not be overridden. A norm held. Trump lost his pick for the position before she started. And the attempt to describe it all as culture war by coastal elites fell apart. The kicker: It was CNN that done it, after Trump had described them as “fake news.”

“We make our own reality,” Team Trump boasted. Actually, you don’t. Not this time. If you want to show how post-press corps you are — how their reality is not your reality — you don’t let Monica Crowley quit. On principle.