Leaks, Scandals and Gossip

When I was seriously considering a career in journalism, I got a surprising amount of pushback from my dad’s side of the family. They weren’t worried about the bad hours or the low pay. Instead, my dad and grandmother kept telling me stories about my great grandmother. She worked for the Democratic Party in New York City. For a while she also had a high ranking position in city government. Her position came with perks. Every Thanksgiving my dad told the story about how his grandmother was able to snag some of the best tickets for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for him and the rest of the family!

My great-grandmother also had some influence over who the city hired for civil service positions. Grandma said “she was just helping good people from the neighborhood who were out of work.” The New York Times saw it differently. A reporter finished a story on corruption at City Hall. When my great-grandmother found out about the story, she had a small heart attack! She lived, but those dastardly investigative reporters from the Times ended her career. I never met my great-grandmother, but the rest of my family still celebrates her legacy. Her first name is the only name in the family to be passed down from one generation to another. When I started doing investigative journalism, my grandmother gave me a guilt trip like taking a side against the rest of my family.

During my time as an investigative reporter, I once received documents showing that Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory was missing “power generators” along with a wide list of other equipment. Los Alamos is the birthplace of the atomic bomb. Two whistleblowers leaked documents showing a combination of unaccounted for equipment and personal purchases made with lab credit cards. In other words, some employees were using our tax dollars to buy themselves expensive grilling equipment. The whistleblowers blacked out any classified information then sent the documents to a government watchdog group, who sent them to any reporter who asked.

These whistleblowers show why journalists give anonymity in certain cases. Los Alamos found out who was leaking the documents and fired them. But investigative stories continued after I pointed other reporters to a suspiciously “coincidental” retirement of the University of California Vice President in charge of running the national laboratories. Once the scandal grew the whistleblowers were re-hired to help clean up the mess.

Reporters prefer having on the record sources, so a source that can only be anonymous should have access to more newsworthy information than on-the-record sources. If two events are equally newsworthy, the one that has on-the-record sources is far more valuable. However, a wide range of sources have realized they have unique access to information. They have the leverage to demand anonymity, even if they won’t get fired for speaking publicly. Sports may be even worse than politics in this regard. Art Briles’ agent is reportedly trying to plant rumors that high-profile schools are looking to hire Briles as football coach within a year of him being fired at Baylor for his part in a massive coverup of sexual assaults. Many reporters are perfectly willing to put Briles name in to a list of possible coaching hires, writing stories based completely on rumors and innuendo.

I’ve always had a pretty high standard for anonymous sources. I wanted them to provide documents, not just claims. During California’s 2002 statewide election I was put on a team to report live from the Democrats’ reception in a Los Angeles hotel. Democratic incumbent Grey Davis was deeply unpopular but many Californians saw him as the least bad option. Crowd reactions were incredibly dull and muted. What else could we expect from the lowest turnout election in state history? The night dragged on as Davis couldn’t build enough of a lead to go on stage and declare victory. (Davis won with 47.3 percent of the vote as over 10 percent of the voters went with a third party candidate. He was recalled a year later.)

I was incredibly bored covering this event, so after a while I started talking with two young men holding Corona bottles. They were right at the front of the room and actually hid the empty bottles under the stage. I didn’t see anyone else with bottled beer, so I asked where they got it. They said they got it from lieutenant governor Cruz Bustamante. He was allegedly sharing beers with supporters and didn’t bother to check whether said supporters were of legal drinking age. I rolled my eyes a bit but kept talking to them. There was no way for me to verify whether these college kids were telling the truth. Even if they were, giving a beer to consenting 20 year old isn’t much of a scandal. It’s salacious. People are interested when I tell this story years later. But Bustamante’s behavior was not malicious and would not affect the public. It’s gossip, not news.

When I see headlines about hacked DNC e-mails, I usually just shrug. Here’s one headline currently on the Washington Post: “Hacked e-mails show anxiety about Clinton Candidacy.” The lead quote is “Right now I am petrified that Hillary is almost totally dependent on Republicans nominating Trump.” I can see why people would think this is some sort of juicy tidbit. But campaign operatives wouldn’t be doing their job unless they tried to calculate the best general election opponent. If you have enough deeply committed operatives, one of them is going to send a panicked e-mail eventually. The New York Times ran a story a few days ago with the headline “Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Strained to Hone Her Message, Leaked Emails Show.” The actual e-mails were surprisingly generic. Most campaigns have to work hard to calibrate their message to get the maximum number of voters.

Reading these stories reminded me of students who would do a lazy cut and paste from lecture slides instead of synthesizing the material. Take the Times‘ story. Is there any evidence that the Clinton camp’s struggles are somehow different than other campaigns? Are these leaks just a rare chance to see what political operatives do on a regular basis? It’s easy to copy and paste the salacious bits without giving much context. People will click on the story because it seems juicy. But the salacious bits are just empty calories. The meaty story is in explaining whether or not the Clinton camp is unusual.

A friend asked me whether journalists should treat these leaked e-mail stories differently because there is evidence these e-mails come from Russian hacking. I was with my dad when the big wave of e-mails about the Democratic National Committee were leaked days before the start of the Democratic National Convention. Which is more important: the head of the DNC tried to help Hillary Clinton or Russian hackers were trying to sew discord among Democrats? My dad canvassed for Bernie Sanders so he was outraged over the content of the e-mails. I recognized that a government hacking the e-mails of a foreign political party in order to embarrass them represents a new frontier in international conflict. Every election has endorsements and professional operatives favoring certain outcomes. We already knew Clinton had an unprecedented landslide of insider endorsements. The specter of foreign hacking is new.

My father and I agreed to disagree on which story angle was more important. I was pretty sure he was being manipulated by foreign hackers. He didn’t really care if he was being manipulated, because he was already so convinced that Clinton was a poor choice for the Democrats. The bar for publishing these emails was already far too low. Most of these stories are salacious empty calories, regardless of how reporters got the information. There’s little corruption or malice, just embarrassing gossip. But people like reading gossip. Smart manipulators know this, whether they are foreign hackers or unscrupulous football executives. I’d treat the Wikileaks email stories differently because hacking, spying and cybersecurity are much more interesting and important stories.

Debate Postgame Follies

After a night of reflection, most people who watched the second presidential debate seem to agree on which moment stood out the most. Moderator Martha Raddatz asked both candidates how the campaign has changed them, and specifically asked Donald Trump if he is a changed man since the 2005 tape where he talked about sexually assaulting women. In case you missed the debate and don’t want to watch all 90 minutes, here is the relevant eight minute segment courtesy of C-Span. Trump dismissed the tape as “locker room talk,” shocking a wide range of male athletes. Hillary Clinton criticized Trump’s broader record of denigrating groups of people. Then Trump tried to pivot to Clinton’s e-mails:

Trump: “If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it, and we’re going to have a special prosecutor.


So we’re going to get a special prosecutor, and we’re going to look into it, because you know what? People have been — their lives have been destroyed for doing one-fifth of what you’ve done. And it’s a disgrace. And honestly, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

And then Clinton’s reply:

Clinton: It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.

Trump: [interrupts] Because you’d be in jail.

American televised presidential debates began in 1960. We have seen candidates who hate each other before. But there is no precedent in the United States for one candidate pledging criminal charges against their opponent if they happen to win the election. We’ve seen it in Ukraine, Congo and other nations conducting some of their first votes, but never in the United States. Some commentators immediately argued this was the most important part of the debate. On the other hand, CNN didn’t even mention this exchange in their first 20 minutes of post-debate coverage. What’s going on with CNN?

I happened to watch CNN’s post-debate coverage last night. They started with an A team of three correspondents giving their first impressions of the debate from the event floor. Then they went to a B team of pundits in a studio for their first impressions. After around 25 minutes they went back to the A team. Dana Bash was now focused on Trump’s desire to put Clinton in jail. The other commentators agreed that this was unprecedented in the United States.

Before the first presidential debate, Nate Silver said on his podcast that everyone should have to wait at least 30 minutes before giving any kind of on camera post-debate analysis. He has lived up to his word on FiveThirtyEight’s post-debate podcasts, even though he and his fellow podcasters know they will be losing members of the East Coast audience who can’t stay up after midnight for their podcast to finish. If CNN had waited 30 minutes before giving any post-debate analysis, they probably would have led with this threat or Trump rejecting his running mate’s views on Syria. (As of writing this, Trump rejecting Pence is one slot higher than threatening to jail Clinton on CNN’s website.)

Summarizing debates is hard enough as it is. A lot of things happen in those 90 minutes. Even if a debate is unlikely to change someone’s vote, we all have to sit down and prioritize what was the most important thing that happened, second most important, etc. I’m glad I never had to sit down and immediately crank out a story where I had to make those calls as a professional journalist. Among other things, I’d be very cranky about “style points” since I lost a lot of high school debates my freshman year strictly on “style points.”

Over the last year I’ve gotten re-acquainted with having to write on deadline, since I was recapping baseball games. Every sports game has a clear winner and loser. However, there are still some games where it is difficult to prioritize which specific play or strategy led a team to victory. Debates are much harder to summarize because different people may legitimately have different things as their top priority. People who care about Trump as a Republican standard-bearer may focus on any Trump statement suggesting internal dissension. Women who have survived sexual assault may place the greatest emphasis on Anderson Cooper saying “You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?” and Trump needing considerable prompting before he could claim he didn’t assault anyone. People worried about Trump violating the norms of American democracy may focus on his desire to jail Clinton.

It’s perfectly reasonable to pick out any of these moments as the most important thing to happen during last night’s debate. This isn’t an exhaustive list either. I just have to start somewhere. We all do. There’s a reason why the Washington Post put six stories next to each other at the top of their website a few hours after the debate. No single story can explain all the important things that happen during a debate. Of course there’s no way CNN commentators could do a good job going live right after the debate ends.

Can We Fact Check This?

During the Vice Presidential debate on Tuesday I saw a professor tweet that they wanted a fact check on whether the United States was the “greatest nation” in the world. It felt like an odd thing to complain about. Mike Pence used this once as a throwaway line. This statement was more forgettable than most of the debate, which is really saying something! On the other hand, I’ve been trying to write a post on what journalist can and can’t fact check for weeks. Pence provides a great example. Can we fact check a claim like the United States is the greatest nation in the world?

To start off I want you to ask yourself, how do you feel about the United States?

I love statistics, but that’s not the first thing that came to mind when I thought about the US. This is what makes fact checking a statement like Pence’s deceptively tricky. We can fact check specific outcomes. For example, if Pence said the United States has the best health care system in the world, we could look at the disproportionately high cost of health care in the US without a corresponding increase in life expectancy. There’s a lot of room for improvement. If Pence made a specific reference to America’s wealth, we could check both per capita income and inequality levels (I like this particular illustration from Pew). Whenever a politician says the United States is the greatest nation in the world at a particular thing, we can check whether that is factually true.

When US politicians say America is the greatest nation in the world, it’s rarely providing facts that America is great at X, Y and Z. It’s about giving people a feeling. If someone comes along and tells you that your feelings about the United States are wrong, that’s not a fact check. It’s a value judgment. We may have different feelings about the United States. After all, it’s a big country. That’s not the point. Pence’s claim that the United States is the “greatest nation” in the world is a great way to separate journalists’ role as literal fact checkers from how they handle moral judgment.

My guess is the professor who wanted a fact check of Pence disagrees with his broader moral values. Since Pence’s long record was barely discussed during the debate, it would be valuable for journalists to explain how Pence’s distinct moral values influence his public policy. You may recall how a wide range of Americans – including large corporations – disagreed with Pence’s support of a state law that discriminated against gays. Pence has also pushed for the strongest anti-abortion measures since Roe v. Wade and tried to block Syrian refugees from resettling in Indiana. The first law was repealed after fierce protest from the business community; the other two have been ruled unconstitutional. Pence’s moral values led him to the Republican ticket. People will disagree on whether Pence’s policy is good or bad, but I expect both sides would largely agree with this description of Pence’s social policies.

Critical academics love to attack the caricature of journalistic objectivity, arguing that everyone has their biases. But journalistic objectivity has never meant being unbiased. Objectivity is a way for journalists to distance themselves from making moral claims in their writing (Tuchman 1972). Let’s say a reporter at an objective publication felt Pence is a religious extremist. They couldn’t put those feelings in print. However, they could keep calling Pence’s opponents until someone says Pence is an extremist. This form of “he said, she said” journalism is unlikely to satisfy critical academics. Publishing a back-and-forth on Pence’s claim that the United States is the “greatest nation” in the world isn’t the same as a reporter using their own moral authority to check Pence.

Since more and more of my academic contacts have called for journalists to impose some kind of moral sanctions in their campaign journalism, I wanted to tell you a story from my reporting days. I heard Robert Byrd was putting a hold on the DREAM Act. This was back in 2002, when the bill was initially up for Senate consideration. (Got to love how quickly Congress can move!) Anyway, I called Byrd’s office and a spokesman confirmed that the Senator was responsible for the hold. I asked why, and he said Byrd needed “more time to study the bill.” I was calling in August. I knew the Senate was on recess. So I asked the spokesman whether his boss would have had enough time to read the bill by the time the Senate reconvened. He said he wasn’t sure, which is awfully suspicious.

I was mainly concerned with whether or not Byrd’s spokesman was telling me the true reason why his boss put a hold on the bill. I didn’t consider the ethics of whether a temporary hold was legitimate public policy. I didn’t try to hold Byrd accountable on some moral level for blocking a “good” bill. To be honest, I had no idea whether the DREAM Act as it was written in 2002 was a good piece of legislation by the time I filed my story. I knew there were arguments for it and against it. I knew both sides made assumptions about what was morally correct and the long-term implications of the bill.

I did not want to give a moral stance on the DREAM Act when I covered it. It’s not that I was working for an objective news organization so I “had to” avoid taking a side. I sought out objective journalism so I could share a wide range of important information and viewpoints with my readers instead of sharing my own opinions. I grew up in a household where everything was portrayed in black and white. Being able to empathize with a wide range of sources – even politicians I vehemently disagreed with – was incredibly liberating. Not having to take a moral stance while I was covering political campaigns made it easier to advocate moral stances in my private life outside of the newsroom. This also made teaching more enjoyable for me and better for my students.

When I was a political journalist, I got lied to on a regular basis. A big part of my job was sorting through the lies. You’d figure political journalists and former journalists would be the strongest voice saying readers need a strong hand to guide them through the minefield of lies. However, I found journalists always showed the most confidence in the audience. They believed that if they laid out the facts, audience members could reach the appropriate moral conclusions. Of course, some audience members will back the politician and attack even the most neutral, fact-based journalist. If that journalist jumped up and down and said the politician is an awful human being, would that moral condemnation do anything to make their article more persuasive?

Sports Officials Get Outside Help. What if we Gave it to Debate Moderators?

A few weeks ago I posted about how moderating a debate or candidate forum is a losing proposition. It’s almost impossible to end with over half the audience happy with your performance. Moderators who challenge a candidate will be scorned by that candidate’s supporters. Moderators who don’t challenge candidates may come off as meek and lose face with partisans on both sides. Challenging a candidate tends to hurt the moderator’s future career, so I wouldn’t expect a lot of fireworks coming from Lester Holt later today.

Since I wrote that post, both campaigns have argued over whether the moderator should act as a fact checker. Trump laid some of the groundwork last week by claiming that Holt is a Democrat, even though he is registered as a Republican. Here’s Robby Mook, Clinton campaign manager, appearing on ABC’s This Week:

“All that we’re asking is that if Donald Trump lies, that it’s pointed out. It’s unfair to ask that Hillary Clinton both play traffic cop with Trump, make sure that his lies are corrected, and also to present her vision for what she wants to do for the American people.”

As we might expect, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway disagreed:

“I really don’t appreciate campaigns thinking it is the job of the media to go and be these virtual fact-checkers and that these debate moderators should somehow do their bidding,”

Historically, the question of whether debate moderators should be aggressive fact checkers was not a partisan issue. Candidates and journalists favored staying out of the way and letting the candidates be the story. Janet Brown, head of the committee that organized the presidential debates, endorsed this view on CNN yesterday. For this election cycle, many journalists and pundits have argued Trump requires special rules (see this Slate interview with the executive editor of the New York Times, then see Jay Rosen here for a longer version of that argument). As a moral issue, I have favored moral aggressive fact checking since I first got the right to vote in a presidential election. However, I also felt confident in my ability to evaluate candidates’ ability to tell the truth without relying on the moderator.

The more time I spend studying journalism and then watching sports in my free time, the more I doubt whether any moderator could meet my fact-checking expectations. In the last week I saw a pitch right in the middle of the strike zone get called a ball. That umpire faced an easy, objective, technical call and got it wrong. I went to UCLA, which means I have seen a lot of Pac-12 sports. If you’re a college sports fan, you won’t be surprised that when I typed “pac 12 refs” in to Google the first auto-complete is “are the worst.” The conference’s officials are notorious for baffling and inconsistent interpretation of the rules for football and basketball. Then again, even the best officials in the sports world make mistakes. Why do we expect debate moderators to be perfect?

When I was a reporter, I made a bunch of mistakes in interviews. Sometimes I caught people lying to me right away. Sometimes I had to look things up afterwards. There were a lot of times when I looked back in my notes and didn’t have as much material as I thought I did, and I really wish I could have followed up on things. On a national stage, with less cooperative sources in Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, catching all the lies is much harder.

As much as I care about sports, I think the risks of a “blown call” in live fact-checking of a presidential debate is much more serious. Sports leagues have universally adopted the use of supplemental off-field officials as a way to get calls right. Professional reviews from the league office help insulate the on-field officials from hostile crowds. It seems absurd to expect Lester Holt or any other moderator to do the entire job by their lonesome, with no help. Marvel’s latest superhero couldn’t achieve that feat, let alone a real person.

Simulating How a Jury of Fact Checkers Would Work

Since I am also a stats person, I decided to run a few very simple simulations to try and explain why moderator error is a bigger risk than people realize, and how a large jury of outside fact checkers could solve the problem. Let’s assume that if Clinton and Trump talked forever, they would each say 10,000 things that are fact-checkable and false. It’s probably best to call them the Clinton lying bot and the Trump lying bot, because this isn’t a simulation of how often candidates lie. This is a simulation of how well moderators could catch lying and what could happen when moderators are imperfect. (We could call them the ice bot and the fire bot instead of naming them after candidates; it makes no difference to Stata.)

I started by creating an aggressive, skilled, courageous moderator. This moderator will roll a six-sided die every time one of the candidate bots lies to them. On a 1, they don’t notice the lie right away. On a 2 through 6, they challenge the lie the next time they get to speak. No, I don’t expect a debate moderator to do any better than this while they also have to think about how to fit a large range of topics in to a small time frame.

(Sidenote: The limited time frame is another strong and largely unmentioned issue in the current fact checking debate. Political journalists will stop following up on a particular topic once it becomes clear that the president will not give a direct answer on topic X, because they might give good answers on topics Y and Z.)

Anyone who plays tabletop games or knows basic probability can guess what happens in the simulation. The aggressive moderator caught nine of the Trump bot’s first ten lies, and eight of the Clinton bot’s ten. Over the first 30 statements, this moderator is catching 83.33% of Clinton bot’s lies – the predicted mean. However, they caught 87% of Trump bot’s lies in this period. Over the full dataset the aggressive moderator would stay just as aggressive (it’s a simulation, not real life), catching 83.19% of Clinton bot lies and 83.27% of Trump bot lies.

Next I created a moderator who is really bad at fact checking. Maybe they have a very high threshold for challenging a politician. Maybe they really want to fact check but can’t focus on what a candidate is saying right now and the next question all at the same time. Either way, this moderator still gets to roll a six-sided die for every lie, but they only challenge the lie on a 6. This moderator challenged three of the Clinton bot’s first ten lies, while only challenging one of the Trump bot’s first ten. By thirty observations the poor moderator is catching one out of every six Clinton bot lies, but is still stuck at catching only one of ten from Trump bot.

Let’s imagine Lester Holt misses a lie during the real debate. Maybe he catches some but not others. There is a limit to how many lies a candidate can tell in 90 minutes – they are long winded and repetitive speakers. I wouldn’t expect a large enough sample of lies for a moderator’s forgetfulness to balance out. What are the chances that partisan audiences will tweet “Oh Lester Holt just made an innocent mistake. Things happen. Nobody is perfect.” I’m going to pan over to Holt’s colleague Matt Lauer and say the chance of Holt getting a pass is zero. We have no idea what’s going on in a moderator’s head. We don’t know if the failure to challenge a presidential candidate is an innocent mistake or a more serious attempt to influence voters. And I’m not sure we care, because even an innocent mistake can have real consequences.

What would happen if we had a room of 100 good fact checkers? I ran several simulations creating 100 fact checkers for each of Trump bot’s lies and Clinton bot’s lies. To start with, I rolled a six-sided die to set each fact checker’s evaluation for each political bot’s 10,000 lies. What I want to do here is show how different juries would make sense of those impressions and whether they would buzz the moderator saying “this response is a lie, you MUST follow up!”

Let’s assume we had a jury full of good moderators who catch a lie with a 2-6 on their die roll. With this large a group none of the 20,000 total lies in the database was red flagged by my entire group of fact-checkers. However, the crowd can pick up an individual’s mistake. Every statement was red-flagged by at least 66 fact checkers. If we could find 100 great fact checkers, they would be far superior to any individual moderator trying to fact check in real time. The converse is also true. If we got 100 of the bad fact checkers together, each needing to roll a six to catch the lie, they would never agree on whether to buzz the moderator.

In the real world, a lot of fact checking watchdogs are politically motivated. So let’s assume we have a fact checking jury of 25% Clinton supporters, 25% Trump supporters, 35% good fact checkers, 15% bad fact checkers. For this simulation the partisans will call out the opposing bot if they roll a 2-6. I also decided they would call out their own bot on a 6: partisans may hope a second question pushes their bot to a more acceptable answer. In this scenario the median is 57% of the jury detecting a lie. If it only took a simple majority to buzz the moderator and demand a follow up, this jury would be effective 95 percent of the time. If the jury acted like they had to break through a filibuster in the Senate, random error would be a much bigger issue. This partisan jury would start by buzzing in for three Clinton bot lies but only one Trump bot lie. After 300 statements the odds even out, but that’s a lot to ask.

I thought an ideal situation would be having a range of debate jurors. I made one last room with 15% dedicated Clinton supporters and 15% dedicated Trump supporters. Then I made another 20% who leaned to each candidate. They buzz in for an opposing bot’s lie on a 3 through 6 and their own candidate on a 5 or 6. The jury also has 15 percent good moderators and 15 percent bad moderators. It turns out the balanced debate jury was also the most unstable in simulations. The median result was a 50-50 deadlock. At this point it becomes rather philosophical. For debate juries to work better than a sole moderator, the key appears to be packing the jury with people willing (if not eager) to challenge both candidates if and when they distort the truth.

Why Journalists Fail

The first time I ever supervised workers could have been a disaster. I was hired to train and supervise a group of undergraduates who were reading news articles and then answering various questions about the content. It’s a common research method in communications, with well-established training protocols. You go over expectations, then give everyone a few articles to review individually. The supervisor (me) looks over initial work to see how well the new employees understand what they’ve been asked to do. I got a group of undergraduates who couldn’t even agree whether the article was printed on the top half of the page!

How could half the students get this question wrong? A lot of the questions in content analysis are subjective. For example, is this story portraying someone negatively? That’s why communication scholars require multiple coders to review the same article – they want to see how much coders agree. This story was printed at the top of the page. Every coder should be able to say so! Was I stuck with a group where half the students were lazy? Stupid? Unable to follow simple directions? Was I going to have to tell the professor supervising the project that he needed to fire some people?

The professor wanted me to meet with the undergrads as a group before I gave any additional individual feedback. I didn’t know the team, so I decided not to start the meeting by yelling and screaming. Instead, I asked them what their experience was like doing the work and answering questions in the online form we provided. The undergrads immediately brought up several problems with the form. Almost every question was on one long page, so they had to keep scrolling down. No one knew how to answer “is this coverage positive or negative?” for the story that contained both positive and negative portrayals of the featured politician. After 20-30 minutes I asked about the “is this story at the top of the page?” debacle. Everyone said yeah its at the top of the page. Then one student pointed out this question was one item in a series of checkboxes. It wasn’t a mandatory yes-no question, so they completely missed it.

By the end of the meeting I was convinced that these undergraduates all worked hard, but they were put in a position where dedication was unlikely to pay off with good work. I told the professor that the problem was with the form, and we came up with a long list of changes. The team’s attitude was a little worse for the second round of training – it’s hard to have as much enthusiasm the second time around – but they did much better work since now we put them in a position to succeed. There’s an important story here about how to lead and inspire employees to get the most out of them, particularly when working with a new team. (Of course, there are also times when it’s important to crack the whip, but I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus here.)

I think this story is also a powerful metaphor for how we tend to think of journalism. The easiest thing to do is to look at journalists’ final work product and then pick apart the failings. It’s easy to get mad because most journalism will have imperfections. But does this mean journalists themselves are lazy, stupid or immoral? Are journalists put in a position where it is hard to succeed? To see a columnist wrestling with both possibilities, let’s turn to Jim Newell of Slate discussing Trump’s press conference a week ago at the opening of Trump’s new hotel. Reporters expected direct Q&A about whether Trump was going to renounce his claim that Obama was born outside the United States, but got something different:

“It was about 10 minutes in, after two or three introductory speakers and an enthusiastic plug from Donald Trump for his new downtown property, that the cry of Admiral Ackbar began sounding in the core of my being. It’s a trapI’m an extra in a bad commercial.


Things went very differently. The press conference proved instead to be Trump’s troll of the media, a rick-roll—as everyone called it later—on the grand scale. It was effortlessly brought off and all it required was a manipulation of media incentives and cable news control-room politics, plus a carefully arranged use of space and taxpayer-funded security detail. You can have all your earnest thinkpieces about false balance and the like; Trump’s event on Friday was enacted media criticism.”

It’s the last line that gets me. Most of Newell’s piece is about the Trump campaign’s strategy and how they took advantage of a predictable opponent. Media criticism generally implies moral arguments about how journalists are doing a bad job and should have done something else. My friends who shared Newell’s story portrayed the event as a journalistic moral failure. But Newell’s main point is that journalists were set up to fail. He, along with every other journalist covering the event, eventually realized it. Then they got angry and tried “small” measures of revenge. In my experience this revenge isn’t always “small,” – if Newell is like I was then he’d want to do more to Trump’s team than just write this column.

As I’ve implied in previous posts, its very hard to get people to think strategically about journalism. Audiences want to see bad journalism as a moral failure, not a strategic failure based on journalists’ limited access to information. If reporters knew what Trump was going to do, they’d exclude him. But since there was a chance that Trump would give a major story, every national reporter had to take a chance on him. For all we know, if most media outlets anticipated the Trump trap and stayed away, Trump may have gone ahead with a straight-forward news conference to shame the media. It’s easy to put journalists in a bad position, particularly when audiences will just read the news story and then blame the media.

Maybe it’s easier for me to accept when journalists lose a competition with politicians because I’ve lost many times. Maybe it’s because I’m a baseball fan, and I know even the best major league baseball team loses at least 1/3 of its games. The other side has pros too, and sometimes they win. That’s why I taught students to look under the hood and think about how people work, not just the final product. If you want better journalism, don’t just yell and scream about it. Think of ways to put journalists in a better position. I think one of the most effective options would be to pay more for higher quality content – essentially paying journalists to be selective and not to write up every minor event to fulfill quotas and generate hits.

Of Course Matt Lauer Failed

Once I got more experience as a teaching assistant, I stopped asking professors to give me examples of an A paper. I started asking “what gets a B?” instead. In other words, what are the pros and cons of an average student’s paper? I knew most professors had similar ideals for A work but many of them couldn’t articulate the pros and cons found in the average student’s work. If we talked about the standards for average work in advance, it was much easier to evaluate students throughout the spectrum.

I haven’t been a teaching assistant for years, but I thought about these different ways of evaluating people’s work when I started reading reviews of Matt Lauer’s performance as moderator of the Commander-in-Chief forum on Wednesday. If you missed it, James Hohmann of the Washington Post has a good summary of all the reactions. People have an ideal of what debate moderators should do. Lauer is the inverse of professors agreeing on an A. Everyone has different standards for an ideal moderator but they agree that Lauer wasn’t it. Maybe it’s because I spent so much time grading papers, but I have a hard time grading Lauer on a simple pass/fail scale. So if you had to give Lauer a more specific grade, how many points would you give him out of 100?

It’s a weird question, I know. Unless you review media podcasts you probably don’t think about giving journalists a numerical score. People normally think of journalists and media organizations in binary terms (trust / distrust, like / dislike) or ordinal terms (favorite, second favorite, etc.) I’m asking what score you would give Lauer because there are several presidential debates coming up, so it would probably be good to define what counts as a “passing” grade for moderating a debate. If Lauer didn’t press Trump when he lied about always opposing the Iraq War, but he didn’t make any other mistakes, would you have given him a passing grade?


Moderators are graded very differently than other forms of journalism. Part of this is because debates are live. I used the delete key several times while writing this sentence, but live television has no delete key. I once worked at a local television station that declared someone died in a fire, went to commercial break, and then announced that person was alive. Accidentally announcing someone’s death is an embarrassing mistake, but still fixable. If Trump lies during a debate, and the moderator doesn’t challenge him immediately, it’s much harder to apologize to the audience and then go back to challenge Trump after the commercial. It’s impossible to grill Hillary Clinton over her e-mails then ask a softball question about them. Major news interviews, press conferences and debates are created to be a performance. We judge people on whether they can perform in the moment.

I read hundreds of examples of journalistic theatre for my dissertation research. Journalists have been evaluating performances in these presidential events for as long as they have been on the record. Both the theatre and the literal words people said are potential news. Writers can separate the two in to different stories. Television pundits do not separate the literal words from the performance in post-event coverage. (This has always been controversial.) It’s not unusual for a moderator like Matt Lauer to become one of the many stories after a high profile news performance.

Remember that when we read a news story, the interaction that took place between journalists and their sources is usually hidden, so we can’t really form an opinion of it. My favorite example of these negotiations at a high profile level is Bill Clinton answering questions about Monica Lewinsky, a fundraising scandal, and other domestic topics while flying over the Amazon on Air Force One. He wanted to “avoid being hammered by domestic questions” in his press conference with Brazil’s Prime Minister later that day (ABC’s Good Morning America, 10/14/1997, 7 AM broadcast).

Would you be critical of this kind of backroom deal leading to one on-the-record soundbite in a short story? These agreements are the engine that makes day-to-day reporting work. We don’t know much about these negotiations because even if a researcher gives everyone anonymity observing the interaction changes it. When Matt Lauer is interviewing the two main presidential candidates live, it’s a rare theatrical event that draws our attention. We expect journalists to do a more active job moderating the discussion because it’s the rare chance we actually get to see how they ask questions as they ask them.


It’s easy to look back on Matt Lauer’s performance asking questions and point out mistakes. Most pundits used this as a jumping off point to talk about what they thought the ideal moderator should do, what they should avoid doing, and how poor moderators could hurt the public. It’s important to discuss ideals. However, we know people’s definition of an “ideal” debate moderator is extremely subjective. I doubt I could sit down with my neighbors and reach a consensus on the appropriate number of questions to ask about particular topics. It’s even harder to figure out how hard to push a candidate who is giving a deceptive or non-responsive answer. One person’s “holding candidates accountable” is another’s “biased moderator hijacks debate.” Candy Crowley became a partisan lightning rod after challenging Mitt Romney in 2012.

As someone who taught sociology, I’m far less concerned about Matt Lauer’s individual performance than pundits. I don’t care if you want to give him a 55 or a 35 or a 0. They are all failing grades. What I am concerned about is the institution of journalists moderating candidate forums and debates. Can any journalist do well enough to get a passing grade moderating a debate in our current system? It’s easy to assume that Lauer is an individual incompetent and we just need to replace him with a better moderator. However, debates are such rare events that it’s easy to forget what the baseline is for an “average” moderator as we hold out for perfection. We forget that most debate moderators are closer to Lauer than Crowley, because the post-debate scrutiny makes it very hard for the Crowleys to keep their job (Crowley left TV news in 2014.) Hohmann argued “[moderators] are bound to be heavily criticized no matter what they do.” Fox News’ Chris Wallace has already explained why he will choose the more passive facilitator role:

WALLACE: I see myself as a conduit to ask the questions and basically to get the two candidates … to engage. I view it as kind of being a referee in a heavyweight championship fight. If it succeeds when it’s over, people will say, you did a great job. I don’t even remember you ever even being on the stage.

Q: What do you do if they make assertions that you know to be untrue?

WALLACE: That’s not my job. I do not believe it is my job to be a truth squad. It’s up to the other person to catch them on that. … If one of them is filibustering, I’m going to try to break in respectfully and give the other person a chance to talk. But I want it to be about them. I want it to be as much of a debate, people often talk that it’s simultaneous news conferences. I want it to be as much of a debate as possible. Frankly, with these two and the way — as Keith Jackson used to say about football rivals, these two just plain don’t like each other. I suspect I’m not going to have any problem getting them to engage with each other, but I don’t view my role as truth squading and I think that is a step too far. If people want to do it after the debate, fine, it’s not my role. “

Whatever you think of Wallace’s politics, he is offering a coherent theory of what debate moderators should do. Some progressive bloggers have already given Wallace an F, over a month before he takes his turn as debate moderator. On the other hand, staying out of the way as much as possible may be the only viable strategy for any kind of moderator to try and pass journalism’s hardest final exam. When I taught summer school, I only wanted to spend one day’s worth of class on an exam. That meant the final covered everything. I knew it would be a hard final, so I added an extra credit question to pre-emptively weight the grade. If challenging presidential candidates when they lie is so hard that almost every moderator assumes they will fail, we need to change the structure of the debate to let them succeed.

Here’s what I would do. Get a range of voters from across the political spectrum to sit in the debate room, like a jury. They have a green button when they can press when they want the moderator to dig deeper and challenge a candidate. They have a red button to press when they want the moderator to move on. If a majority (or maybe 60 percent) of the panel rings in, everyone gets notified. Moderators get the feedback, the viewing audience gets the feedback, even the candidates get an alarm. I would experiment with letting the panel pick the question topics too. The only way to become a debate moderator is to be a veteran DC journalist. These journalists are relatively experienced in interacting with politicians (it is a skill), but probably have different priorities than the audience.

I think the main advantage of this new debate institution is to diffuse responsibility away from the moderator as auteur. Wallace acknowledged he is responsible for everything: the questions, the follow-ups, when to cut someone off. He and other moderators bear the full responsibility for the performance. If the “jury of voters” decides when to challenge a candidate’s assertion, people will still get mad at the jury when it goes against them. This is actually the point – it would be easier for moderators to pursue the truth if it looks like an independent group is giving them permission to do so. I suspect letting people buzz in is also a more effective way to contain a candidate like Trump, who tend to ignore or attack journalists trying to corral him but is deeply unpopular with the general public.

People live tweet debates already. We are increasingly ready for a debate institution where people buzz in to give live reviews of candidate and moderator performances. Lots of people had feedback for Matt Lauer. Why not create a way to help him and help the country instead of just sitting on the couch saying “I could do better than that?”

Why Shoot the Objective Messenger?

Donald Trump continues to frustrate progressives. His latest offense is tweeting out a meme over the weekend calling Hillary Clinton the “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” Trump’s graphic appears to have been copied from a white supremacist message board. Mic.com has consistently pursued the links between Donald Trump and white supremacist groups since November, when Trump tweeted out a graphic from the “Crime Statistics Bureau” in San Francisco claiming that most whites and most blacks are killed by blacks. A wide range of news organizations criticized Trump’s November tweet, pointing out that there is no “Crime Statistics Bureau” and that most homicides with a white victim also have a white killer. Many pundits on the left expect a more vigorous media response to Trump’s latest tweets:

Carlos Meza is a research fellow at Media Matters for America, the largest think tank specializing in progressive media criticism. This type of argument dates back to the Vietnam War. Anti-war protesters wanted to get in the news in the first place (initial coverage excluded them). Then they wanted the media to avoid “taking both sides” and take an explicit anti-war stance. For 50 years there have been progressives who want media organizations to take an explicit moral stand with the left. I read a lot of these critiques in graduate school, dating back to Todd Gitlin’s relatively sympathetic take on Students for a Democratic Society. The argument hasn’t really changed over the years. Progressive critics always say news organizations care too much about money when they should be using their platforms to take moral stands.

Critics like Meza don’t spend as much time thinking about what would happen if mainstream media organizations all embraced progressive moral stances when reporting the news. What would happen if the media emphasized “combatting open bigotry” instead of “impartiality and balance”? How much could media organizations actually do here? Meza argued any media organization that takes both sides instead of taking a moral stance against Trump is “aiding and abetting evil.” Ironically, I was already working on a post explaining why it doesn’t make sense for most mainstream media organizations to take these stances before this weekend. The short answer is people don’t know why media organizations make particular choices, so they apply their political bias to interpret any news report. A media organization’s claiming that “TRUMP IS A BIGOT” won’t convince people who don’t already believe Trump is a bigot. It will only label the media organization as left-wing and make the accusation of bigotry more ideological. The full answer is much longer and explains why Trump can get so much media attention in the first place.

Connecting the Dots

Before getting in to the weeds of how media organizations work, it helps to review the research of former UCLA sociologist Harold Garfinkel. He wanted to see how people made sense and maintained order in everyday life. He intentionally provoked unsuspecting people in order to see how people made sense of things and what they took for granted. He would erase your circle and draw an X through it in tic-tac-toe. He had students try to barter for the price of their groceries and interrogate bus drivers about how we could be absolutely sure the bus was going where the driver said it was going. Tic-tac-toe makes for a funny game in the classroom, but most of these experiments outraged people. (I’m obligated to warn you not to try this at home…unless you want to mess with a telemarketer.)

My favorite of Garfinkel’s “breaching” experiments actually took place in a laboratory. Participants were allowed to ask 10 yes or no questions and get replies from a social psychology professor (presumably Garfinkel) in the next room. All the participant had to do is write down what they thought about each response before asking the next question. One after another, people asked deeply personal questions and explained how the answers made sense. However, the “expert” in the next room was just someone flipping a coin and then saying “yes” or “no” in to the microphone. The answer was completely random, but the research subjects accepted the validity of the answers. More importantly, they wrote elaborate stories to justify the response.

Sports fans know that people tend to tell bad stories when they start with an end result and then work back to discuss process, despite all the data available in sports. Let’s imagine every time Derek Jeter bats is like rolling a 20 sided die, and he gets a hit on 1-6. Random coincidence could lead him to keep rolling low numbers in big at bats – and a 30 percent chance of success isn’t that rare. However, luck and coincidence make for terribly unsatisfying stories. Sports fans are like the people in Garfinkel’s experiment. Did this team win? It’s a yes or no question. Most fans start with the final answer, then have to come up with a story of why this happened. That’s how some athletes get labeled as “clutch” and others as “chokers.” The label is usually based on winning and losing, not direct knowledge of the athlete’s decision-making and whether he made good decisions.

Why Can’t We See How Journalists Make Decisions?

I started with sports because we can objectively measure athletes’ performance, look at how many championships they won, and still tell awful stories connecting the process to the result. Imagine what it would be like if we didn’t see every play that went in to the progress of the playoffs or the regular season. That’s what it is usually like when we try to explain news coverage. Most social scientists don’t even try to compare the starting point of news events to the final story (or lack of a story). You can get published in the top sociology journal just by looking at a collection of final news stories and then proposing a story about why those news stories would have one set of themes instead of another. Why is it so hard to study the process of writing news more directly and systematically? Once we understand this, it will be much easier to understand why news organizations may not want to take explicitly moral stances against Trump or anyone else.

1) What counts as “news”?

When I taught undergraduates about the newsgathering process, I always started by asking them what counts as news. You may not be a journalist, but you can easily play along. What kinds of things would you post on social media? What do you want to read? Even when I taught a small class of under 20 people this fall, we quickly realized that no one would have identical rankings of potential news stories. Every newsroom I have worked at could get in to the same arguments. When Gaye Tuchman wrote one of the classic ethnographic studies of newsrooms in the 1970s, she found newsworthiness was the hardest thing for journalists to define. Even professionals use a “know it when I see it” philosophy to assess newsworthiness.

2) Content producers need heuristics

Let’s imagine you were working at a newspaper. Maybe it would be more appropriate to imagine you are writing your own blog like I am right now. You want to make sure you keep producing the best stories for your audience, so you keep searching for new stories and eliminating possibilities. How much do you write? The answer is nothing! The rate of new things happening in the world is faster than the rate at which we can eliminate possibilities. Even if we are writing our own blogs and don’t have to argue with anyone, deliberation takes time. The only way to get anything written is to limit your search and say “I’m going to write about the most interesting thing I can find by a certain time.”

Journalists use a wide number of heuristics to manage the influx of potential stories – and most partisan sites seem to use similar heuristics. One of the main heuristics is to sit down and write a list of who is most likely to provide news stories, then assign reporters to check in with these sources on a regular basis. Planning events in advance lets journalists know “if I show up at a particular place and time, I can produce a story.” Reporters may not be able to verify if a source is telling the truth, so they default to trusting officials because they should have legitimate knowledge to information (Fishman 1980 holds up surprisingly well).

3) Everyone has incentives to hide the process

When we read a final news story, we don’t know if the reporter spoke to any press flacks to arrange an interview. We don’t know if anything was said off the record to explain the goals of the story, limit the scope of questions, or ensure a story is published at a particular time. When reporters selectively quote from interviews, we don’t know what was left on the cutting room floor. If reporters summarize what someone said and what they meant, we don’t know if the reporter understood correctly. (Most complaints about misquoting are really complaints about misunderstanding the intent of a statement.)

It’s probably easiest to understand why journalists don’t want to show the full process. They appear to have a lot of freedom. When reporters really have a lot of options, they don’t want to be second-guessed. Remember that Meza works full time at Media Matters, a think tank founded to second-guess journalists. When reporters have limited ability to search for stories before deadline or can’t get access to desirable stories, they want to hide their failure. When in doubt, reporters rely on official sources, but they want to hide an overly cozy relationship. The news organization that opens itself up to second-guessing may lose its audience to a tight-lipped competitor.

Everyone else involved in the news process also has incentives to hide the process and just focus on the final result. Audience members don’t want to sift through the reject pile every day – we have other things to do with our lives! If a source spoke off the record to attract news coverage or coordinate an interview, they would want to hide the friendly relationship. It looks better if the politician’s event is really the most important news of the day instead of merely being the easiest story to find. (Donald Trump’s media deluge is going to be much easier to understand by the time we’re done.) Sources who don’t know how to catch journalists’ attention or who say really embarrassing things in their interview may not want to explain how they were stupid.

News Stories Aren’t Enough

We know that news stories do not emerge from some alternative dimension. When we only see the final story in the newspaper, on television or online, it may not be completely satisfying. We want to be able to tell our own story of how reporters did their job. Trump coverage is a great example. If a news organization doesn’t call Trump a bigot, many progressives will be outraged. Meza and the thousands who liked or retweeted him need a story of why the media covered Trump neutrally.

Since reporters don’t want to tell us how they make decisions, we need to construct a myth from somewhere. We know people have likes and dislikes. We know news coverage emphasizes certain things more than others. Therefore, it is very simple to infer that reporters emphasize the things they like and ignore the things they dislike. Meza engaged in a very simple form of this, asserting that journalists inherently like objectivity and neutrality. Tuchman argued objectivity is more strategic. It’s a way to minimize the number of people who are outraged like Meza is.

When I studied press conferences I found the president got three out of every four quoted words in the New York Times the next day. Shorter stories about press conferences only had one source: the president. When journalists told longer stories they added more sources to give reactions. You probably didn’t realize that. I didn’t realize it until I did the study. A certain kind of news story can be mathematically unbalanced for decades and people won’t notice. When I presented these findings most audiences were stunned. Then they got angry. It helped me realize that people aren’t used to thinking about balance or imbalance in the news as some formal mathematical property. My audience mainly thought about how news gets produced when they see a story they don’t like! This is when people need to create some sort of myth to explain why the media isn’t giving what they want.

Let’s Trust the…Politicians?

The only people with a real incentive to talk about how reporters search for and write up news stories are the people who feel screwed over by the process. Let’s say someone was left out of the news. They could complain about censorship and say the press was playing favorites. Reporters don’t want to share “here are the sources who are in my top tier, second tier, etc.” Now let’s say someone is getting negative coverage. Pick any presidential candidate from 2016. They have all made mistakes and gotten negative coverage as a result. Why is the press focusing on this one negative story instead of other positive stories? Candidates have complained about an overly negative press for 50 years. It’s a claim that news organizations have never really been able to deflect. We know reporters choose a few stories from a wider set of potential stories. Reporters want to hide the process and their own political preferences. Now that I am no longer a news reporter I can say there was little correlation between whether someone was a good source and whether I personally agreed with their politics.

There’s something very unusual in how we think about political bias in the news. Politicians sell a myth that the media is biased and there are always better stories (about them) for reporters to focus on. We believe the politicians! After all, what possible reason could someone have to lie when asking for our vote? It’s absurd to think about how many people buy in to politicians’ myth of how news gets created by biased reporters. This shows how unsatisfying reporters’ claims of expert news judgment are. We want to tell some myth or origin story of how those news stories are created and why they favor some people or topics instead of others. Politicians may be extraordinarily self-serving, but they are the main group offering an explanation. Activists like Meza – who want to fundamentally change media organizations – are the other group offering explanations.

How Does This Help Us Explain the Trump Show?

Donald Trump announced he was running for president a year ago. He has dominated the airwaves since. We probably haven’t seen such a dramatic imbalance in how much coverage one candidate got relative to others in his party’s primary. A few months before Trump announced, I predicted someone who ran a campaign based on social identity would get considerable media attention. However, Trump’s media strategy has gone beyond what I predicted. He emphasizes getting a large volume of coverage like no candidate before him. He speaks almost entirely in feelings, often subverting the entire premise of a “fact check.” I think Trump’s strategy takes full advantage of an audience that needs to manufacture coherent stories to explain patterns in news coverage and a press that refuses to tell this story themselves.

Conventional Wisdom: Avoid Gaffes

Before going in to Trump’s strategy in more detail, it is important to know how over the last 35 years political communication has gotten more professional and strategic. One of the main lessons for these strategists is to minimize gaffes. Politicians hold a lot of choreographed media events and photo ops. They may try to answer the question they wish they were asked instead of the question they were actually asked. Strategists probably don’t think they can completely bowl reporters over with these strategies. Any veteran reporter will recognize the manipulation at work. But they can’t stop it. The goal of these strategies isn’t to make a big impression. It is to limit the number of things a reporter has to choose from.

A good metaphor is a college football team that schedules Directional State University and Small School Tech to try and inflate its won-loss record. Large college football teams can essentially buy wins. Some teams also play in much more challenging leagues than others. A good team with a weak schedule may only have 2 or 3 games out of 12 that they have any real risk of losing. When most fans saw 13-0 Florida State in the first year of the college football playoff, they saw a great champion instead of a team that barely beat a number of teams in on a weak schedule. Florida State lost badly once they faced high quality competition in the playoff. Last year people were fooled again, this time by Big 10 champion Michigan State and runner up Iowa in the Rose Bowl. People saw college football teams that won a lot of games and told themselves a story that these teams were among the best in the country. They didn’t bother to check how these teams won and whether the process was solid.

Most politicians try to win our confidence with the same principle. They want to accumulate positive story after positive story mainly by limiting the pool of information that reporters have to pick from so there are only positive stories left. They try to avoid unscripted events that may give genuine moments that could inspire the audience, because these events could go badly. College football fans look the other way when a team from their conference benefits from an easy schedule. Partisan audiences do the same thing in politics. We want to see the other candidates go through the ringer and get beat up, but we assume our favorite candidate went through a much tougher schedule than they actually did. Clinton and Sanders were actually fairly nice to each other, compared to Obama v. Clinton in 2008.

Trump’s Casino Approach

Donald Trump doesn’t exactly come across as someone following the “avoid gaffes” conventional wisdom. He’s using a different strategy: try to be the lead story every day and accept some negative headlines rather than go a news cycle without being the top story. Flooding the airwaves is also a kind of gaffe deflection strategy. Most candidates try to avoid gaffes because they think one critical mistake could fester and sink a campaign. Trump tries to keep one gaffe from defining him by creating a new headline. Changing the story is an old public relations strategy. Most politicians try to use it to prevent negative stories, while businesses tend to use it after a scandal has happened. Trump is more than willing to give a new story about his campaign to distract from a gaffe, even if the new story is also negative.

If news organizations give media coverage based on whether a politicians has said something that will help the readers decide whether or not to vote for that candidate, then Trump has certainly earned the media attention he is getting. We expect certain things out of a generic Republican or generic Democrat. If a Republican says “Obama did a bad job” is that news? Republicans have been saying that non-stop for eight years. Regulation bad, free markets good is another very generic Republican position. Trump attracted attention by saying things that were well outside the Republican mainstream. He was more strident in disparaging Mexican immigrants. Trump also attacked mainstream Republicans, claiming they were too dependent on the Koch brothers and other big money Republican donors. Any member of a political party who criticizes their own party gets considerably more media attention (Groeling 2010). Sanders also got attention for attacking the Democratic National Committee. What makes Trump unique is his near exclusive reliance on a large number of news media appearances and social media messages instead of a balanced strategy including on-the-ground campaign staff or advertising.

Casinos tilt the odds so after enough games the house always wins. Trump has stacked the deck too. Whether it is intuition or calculation, Trump has a tremendous sense of what people will consider newsworthy. This doesn’t mean people agree with what Trump has to say. All it means is Trump can monopolize media attention. If people like Trump’s message, all the free media brings voters. If people don’t like Trump’s message, they may act like Meza and blame the media for giving Trump so much attention. People who don’t want to be subjected to the Trump show need some explanation for why so many media organizations pursue it. Maybe the media is politically biased. Maybe they emphasize Trump because Trump brings ratings and pageviews. The more voters question news organizations’ judgment, the more it helps Trump. Either way, Trump can get an advantage from dominating the headlines every day.

The other unusual thing about Trump’s campaign is his willingness to invent or ignore facts. Most politicians are afraid of saying something factually untrue. Reporters could run a “fact check” and embarrass the politician. Trump makes so many things up that the Associated Press used 10 fact checkers to review a speech on June 22. I don’t think Trump cares about fact checks because he is not trying to combine rational facts with emotional appeals. Trump’s campaign is entirely emotional. To borrow from Stephen Colbert, truth simply doesn’t appear to be a part of Trump’s message; Trump’s message is all about truthiness.

Truthiness Meets Hidden Journalistic Practices

Because journalists do not share every step of how they choose one news story and one angle over another, they have always required the audience to fill in gaps about who is credible. Everything a reporter shares about how they establish priorities is a gap people could use to undermine a reporter’s credibility. That’s why reporters use facts as supporting evidence as much as possible. When they don’t have facts, they use quotes and put someone’s claims in quotation marks. Most politicians and interest groups give some evidence to back their claims. We take it for granted that people will use some evidence. Trump doesn’t use facts as supporting evidence. There’s nothing to “fact check.” Audiences have to decide for themselves if Trump’s claims about America and policy proscriptions feel true, racist or fascist. Meza is the latest in a long line of progressive activists who do not trust the audience to reach the “right” conclusion without a massive shove from the media. Bigotry must be actively combatted. Journalists cannot be neutral. In his view, presenting both sides helps a bigot so much that it is “aiding and abetting evil.” (Has Meza linked to supporting evidence himself since I wrote this?)

Veteran reporters know it doesn’t matter how much you try to shove the audience to a particular position, they are still going to create myths to explain why a journalist took a particular stance or covered a particular story. When reporters actually offer an explanation it is often fuel for these hostile myths. That’s why reporters don’t accuse someone of lying without documented evidence. The accusation doesn’t make someone any less credible without proof. Let’s say CNN’s Jake Tapper stood up and screamed “You are a racist!” when interviewing Trump a few weeks ago about the judge in the Trump University case. (In case you forgot, Trump cited the judge’s “Mexican heritage” as the reason for not dismissing the lawsuit.) I assume this would make a critic like Meza happy. I think this is what he wants Tapper and other journalists to do. But Meza already agrees with the assertion that Trump is a racist.

If people weren’t convinced Trump is a racist after that interview, there’s nothing that Tapper can say to change this. People tell myths about reporters’ ideologies and biases even when they have nothing to go on besides the final news story. These myths are mainly ways to discount news stories that don’t fit our political preferences. If Tapper took an explicit anti-Trump stance, he would just make it much easier for people to discount him as an ideologue. Just think about partisan media organizations for a moment. How much are they trying to actively persuade neutrals or the other side? Most of the content is giving true believers hot takes that make them feel good. If you really want to persuade people, you have to give them enough rope so then they can decide for themselves that they want to change their mind.

Ironically, the fear that media organizations are “legitimizing” Trump appear to be unfounded. Every public opinion poll has found many more Americans disapprove of Trump than approve of him. Trump’s favorability hit a record low of 29 percent in a recent ABC/Washington Post poll and has hovered in the low 30s in other polls. More than half of those polled in both the ABC/WaPo poll and a separate Bloomberg poll have a strongly unfavorable view of Trump. People can decide for themselves how they feel about Donald Trump without objective media organizations explicitly calling Trump a bigot or a fascist or something else. A wise progressive may conclude it’s better to present Trump in his own words and let the audience conclude he is a bigot than to add explicit condemnation, which could make it seem like a biased media is out to get Trump.

If you ask people “is the news media doing a good job?” most of them will say no. They read news stories, but most news stories just don’t give readers what they want to feel. Objective media is defined by stoic attempts to distance reporters’ feelings from their narratives. Partisan media is defined by outrage. If you want something else from the media, you are probably out of luck. We need some narrative to explain why the media doesn’t give us what we want. These narratives always ascribe motivations and preferences to the media while leaving out sources. People blame the news organizations for covering Trump so much. It doesn’t matter that objective, “both sides” media coverage is leading a majority of Americans to have a strongly negative view of Trump.

What Is News?

I went to grad school to research what counts as news. How do people make these decisions? I never set out to do a breaching experiment. But when I proposed that sources may have power over journalists – and this could be quantified – I broke several of sociology’s norms. I didn’t automatically buy in to any of the common myths that ascribed motivations or bias to journalists. I wanted to empirically test these theories, to the degree that these theories were testable and a regression analysis can test any theory.

After my fourth year of graduate school I was mocked for being the only person at the media sociology panel who wanted panelists to say something about their methods instead of skipping to the data. Each panelist described a different role for sources in their study. I asked them to speak more directly about the role of sources during the Q&A. I wasn’t trying to embarrass anyone – I only ask questions at talks that I think the speaker can reasonable answer. Three of the panelists froze and the fourth tried to hide under the table! I made the mistake of emphasizing sources and strategy at a time when my peers turned to critics like Meza to fuel their echo chamber.

Like I said earlier, veteran reporters know at a certain point they have to trust their audience because there is nothing more they can say to sway their audience. I think I’ve reached that point with my blog. Unfortunately, offering factual information to support claims of how journalists make decisions is harder than finding factual information on nearly any other topic. One of the things I taught my students when teaching research methods is that people can always find a way to discount research if they want to – and some people are highly motivated to discount research about news.

I’m not going to delete this blog. I could always bring it back at some point. But after a decade of banging my head against the wall I need a break.