As 2019 wound down, well-known press figures sounded alarms about the “erosion of truth.” MSNBC’s Chuck Todd spoke to our own Peter Wade about the “epidemic” of “disinformation.” Washington Post editor Marty Baron and New York Times editor Dean Baquet joined Todd on Meet The Press to talk about how the Internet and Donald Trump and Russia are all combining to create an era in which “crazy conspiracy theories” and “absolute falsehoods and lies” can proliferate.
This isn’t a new idea. Since 2016 especially, a wide array of American politicians and think-tanks have been hammering the idea that the free media of the “post-Cold War democratic order” is under outside threat. Russia, China, Venezuela, Syria and “other authoritarian states” are said to be undermining our most sacred values. As Freedom House put it after Trump’s election, they seek a universe where:
“…facts are irrelevant, international treaties are obsolete, and sovereignty is a matter of power rather than law.”
Under this interpretation, the “war on facts” in America is a foreign-inspired problem, aided by Trump Republicans, the solution to which is redoubled faith in traditional media outlets like the ones represented on Meet the Press.
You’d have to smoke a lot of crack to look back at 2019 and think this was true. By almost any measure this was one of the worst years in the history of commercial news media, performance-wise, and the problems were far from exclusive to the political right.
This was a year in which chickens came home to roost in the fully divided landscape of the corporate press. Screw-ups became routine, as news agencies targeting all types of audiences began to realize their demographics would not punish them for getting things wrong, so long as underlying messages were pleasing. Corrections went out of vogue for the same reason.
Some of the worst trends in media from last year:
Fox News was once the most dependable home of fact-bending shenanigans on TV, with the birther controversy a particular low point. The network’s new trick is offshoring factual offenses to Viewer-in-Chief Donald Trump. The usual cycle involves a segment on Fox and Friends that indulges in lurid speculations (especially about minorities or immigrants), followed by a Trump tweet that hits the same themes but ups the ante factually and is also seen/read by a significantly larger audience. A classic example was a segment about Rep. Elijah Cummings in which “Republican strategist” Kimberly Klacik showed images purporting to be of the Baltimore district Cummings represents. Klacik said “a lot of people said he hasn’t even been there for a while.”
Erik Wemple of the Washington Post described what happened next: Trump ripped Cummings in a tweet, saying, “if he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could clean up this very dangerous & filthy place.” Meanwhile, no one ever had to source where the claim about Cummings, who passed away in October, and his lack of visits really came from.
In the age of Trump, this tends to be how misinformation works on the Republican side. The president, a one-person news organization, sees bits and pieces of news on Fox, adds a personal spin, and sends it out either in speeches or on social media. Before long, the “squad” is foreign, a hurricane is bearing down on Alabama, and Democrats want “virtual immunity” for immigrant murderers.
Errors have been compounded in recent years by the practice of announcing to readers the extreme importance of stories as they’re released. As a result, countless tales pitched as “bombshells” – often pegged to anonymous sources promising to produce proof later on – have turned into super-errors in hindsight.
Reports by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz exploded claims that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen had met with Russian hackers in Prague, that probable cause existed to believe Trump aide Carter Page was a foreign agent, that Russia and Trump were communicating via a secret Internet server, that evidence existed of Russian efforts to sexually blackmail Trump, that Russians had vetoed Mitt Romney as Secretary of State, and many others.
Other bombshells, like that Trump had directed Cohen to lie to Congress (one of the first big stories of 2019) or that the Trump campaign had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence, died on the launch pad. Two constant media preoccupations of the past three years – that Mueller was “closing in” on proof of a Putin-Trump conspiracy that would result in Trump’s imminent resignation or indictment – also blew up this year, prompting near-zero reflection in an industry that secured record ratings and banked billions in profits humping these themes.
MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell this summer reported Trump’s business loans had “Russian co-signers,” saying this “explains every kind word Trump has ever said about Russia and Putin.” He was taken to task when sourcing proved shaky, but O’Donnell’s error was a rare show of modern-era ethics, as he copped to the mistake and apologized. Wemple, the Post media watchdog, took a significant step this month when he launched a multi-part series that among other things ripped MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow for having “rooted” for dubious Russia stories to be true. On the whole, though, mainstream outlets have committed to a strategy of not yet re-examining the last three years of “bombshells,” preferring instead to feed audiences streams of new ones.
3. PLAYING FAVORITES
The 2019 portion of the 2020 presidential campaign cycle was marked by a crisis of pundit confidence. Old practices like the “invisible primary” were rendered meaningless, thanks to an electorate that no longer flocks to media-endorsed frontrunners. Nonetheless, outlets spilled enormous quantities of ink and devoted oceans of airtime hyping establishment candidates whose “electability” arguments were mostly fictional. The magazine covers for Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris were one thing, but there was real weirdness in the mania over “momentum” for Amy Klobuchar, whose recent “Klobucharge” a whole point or so up in the polls recalled some of the sillier stories of the 2016 cycle (i.e. “Marcomentum”).
Bernie Sanders in particular led a Trotsky-like existence in coverage in 2019, i.e. he was often all but physically cut out of headlines. When he held a huge rally in Los Angeles, the L.A. Times headline was about Biden winning the “electability primary.” CNN ran five stories about a New Hampshire poll showing Sanders in the lead, and none mentioned Sanders in the headline. These things can be in the eye of the beholder, and a lot of innocent oversights look intentional when you’ve invested hopes in a campaign, but the clearest evidence of how the media shaded Sanders coverage (to say nothing of often-detestable treatment of some other, lesser-polling candidates) is that he hasn’t yet suffered the backlash that usually comes with being hyped as a possible nominee. Brace yourself for an avalanche of insane propaganda if the wrong candidate does well in New Hampshire or Iowa.
4. INSIDER TV
In the Bush years, the sudden explosion of ex-military figures as paid or regular contributors on cable news was a conspicuous enough phenomenon that it provoked widespread criticism from media watchdogs. Anti-war voices were scarce in the run-up to the Iraq war, while stars and bars were everywhere.
A decade-plus later, the craze is ex-intelligence officials. The last few years have seen an explosion of hires of prominent intelligence figures as TV talking heads, including many who have been prominent in ongoing news controversies, like former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe (hired this year), former CIA chiefs John Brennan, and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Networks, incidentally, have stopped bothering to tell audiences that their on-air contributors may have roles in stories they are commenting upon. Asha Rangappa, Frank Figliuzzi, and James Gagliano of the FBI and more than a dozen others round out an amazing collection of ex-spooks now on the air.
Meanwhile, ex-Trump officials like Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Corey Lewandowski have joined the TV ranks (Fox also has a significant number of ex-Trump figures in management), enhancing the impression that government and the broadcast media are merging. As the media becomes more politicized, the value of traditionally independent media lifers has decreased. If the primary product on either Fox or MSNBC is political messaging, why not hire officials directly? They offer the raw product; reporters just get in the way. Whether the subject is the Russia story or impeachment or the presidential campaign, broadcast news is being replaced by a 24-hour cycle of insiders, a show that in 2019 became all but unwatchable.