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. 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.

Bernie Sanders’ Mystery Address?

Did you know Bernie Sanders was going to have a major video address tonight? You probably won’t find any news coverage with headlines like “Sanders to Make Big Announcement Tonight.” The only way I found out was by talking to a Sanders canvasser last night. Here’s what Sanders is saying on his campaign Twitter page:

Sanders has pinned similar tweets for the last few days. You’ll notice there is no link directly to the live stream in the tweet. What happens if you click on Sanders tweet?

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 4.08.24 PM

I got to the following landing page. In case you are reading on a phone and can’t clearly see the text in the photo, Sanders is only giving the video link to people who fill out an online form with their e-mail, zip code and mobile phone number:

The political revolution continues. Submit the form below to receive the link via text message for the Bernie national live stream before it begins on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. ET / 5:30 p.m. PT.

[form to fill out, then in smaller print]

By submitting this form, you are subscribing to mobile alerts from Bernie 2016. Periodic messages. Msg & data rates may apply. Text STOP to 82623 to stop receiving messages. Text HELP to 82623 for more information.Terms & Conditions

Modern political candidates are always looking to build the size of their e-mail lists. The Sanders camp likes text messages too. I got an unsolicited text the week before the California primary with my name and polling place! (I try to avoid all these lists and hate the spam messages.)

Sanders restricting his video to people who join his e-mail and texting list is emblematic of his media strategy. He is creating an event for core supporters and creating a barrier to entry. Other candidates would probably go on cable news to maximize their audience size. The Sanders campaign could always post a link for everyone to watch, whether or not they want to make a broader commitment to his political revolution. I don’t think any of these decisions is inherently better or worse than other decisions.

One of the main things I studied in graduate school is how decisions like Sanders’ restricting his live stream to subscribers could affect subsequent news coverage. How can news organizations like CNN or the Los Angeles Times cover Sanders’ live stream? Well, someone has to tell them about it. Smart communications staffers don’t just say “we’re having a live stream” if they want a lot of attention. If the Sanders camp told CNN “we’re going to have a big announcement so go to us live” they may cut to Sanders at 8:30 ET. If the Sanders camp leaked something like “Sanders will / will not concede. See full announcement at 8:30” then news organizations would have written preview stories. Print and online organizations could publish any hour of the day but need to make sure writers and editors are available.

With an hour before Sanders’ live stream, there are no preview stories. One possibility is that Sanders doesn’t have anything groundbreaking to day – despite days of promotion on his Twitter account – so news organizations deliberated a possible preview story and rejected it. The other possibility is the Sanders camp hasn’t given reporters a preview of what he is going to say. Preview stories tend to rely on advance leaks to set the context for the main event. No leaks mean no previews and a more concentrated audience. Sanders is speaking after the nightly network news for most of the country, which gives even more evidence that Sanders is following a narrowcasting strategy. Selecting your ideal audience instead of maximizing the total audience is often a good strategy.

[edit: I added this around half an hour before Sanders’ live stream since it needed more detail]:

I imagine Sanders supporters will complain about a lack of media coverage, but getting a small amount of coverage isn’t always a bad thing. Sanders is designing his event in a way that makes it harder for other politicians to respond before East Coast reporters’ deadlines. The most likely situation is a small amount of coverage focused solely on what Sanders says, unless he says something dramatic enough that other politicians choose to respond immediately. One of my core research findings is that drawing more attention to a planned news event generates more coverage, but it also leads reporters to seek out additional sources. Ronald Reagan used prime time press conferences to monopolize the next day’s newspaper coverage for six years before House Democrats learned to wait by the telephone and call reporters to respond to Reagan that night. Rapid response is much easier today, but there’s still going to be a tendency for Washington reporters to write stories quickly and then go home for the night. Sanders may be looking to exploit this opportunity even if fewer words are written about him.

Edit #2: 

This was posted maybe 5 minutes after my first edit:

Thanks to @GeorgWebb on Twitter for pointing this out!

We also have a preview from ABC. Campaign manager Jeff Weaver e-mailed the following to Sanders supporters:

“Our political revolution is not just about what happens in Philadelphia, or even at the election in November.” Weaver said they would work to keep Donald Trump from being president, but added, “In order for the work that we have begun to be long-lasting for years to come, we must continue our political revolution.”

I imagine ABC would be quoting Weaver from an interview if he agreed to give one beforehand. Right or wrong I’m going to lock this post down (if I can) and own it even if I am completely off base.

Is Trump Biting the Hand that Feeds His Campaign?

Yesterday Donald Trump made the following announcement on his Facebook page:

Based on the incredibly inaccurate coverage and reporting of the record setting Trump campaign, we are hereby revoking the press credentials of the phony and dishonest Washington Post.

The Post joins Politico, The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Univision and Fusion (both targeting Latino audiences) and leading newspapers in Iowa and New Hampshire as some of the media organizations banned by Trump. The presumptive Republican nominee didn’t single out a specific story he thought was inaccurate. I pasted in Trump’s entire explanation above. Josh Voorhees at Slate guessed that Trump took particular offense at a story “Donald Trump suggests President Obama was involved with Orlando shooting”. Trump was quoted saying the following:

“Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind,” Trump said in a lengthy interview on Fox News early Monday morning. “And the something else in mind — you know, people can’t believe it. People cannot, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can’t even mention the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on.”

A few minutes before I heard about Trump’s outrage at the Washington Post, I was listening to an “On The Media” podcast segment where Paul Waldman of The American Prospect was interviewing Jake Tapper (look for the 6/9 episode). In case you missed it, Tapper got attention last week for asking Donald Trump whether or not his comments about the judge handling the Trump University case were racist:

Waldman argued that Tapper didn’t go far enough. For all his persistence, Tapper didn’t directly confront Trump and call him a racist. Waldman said journalists need to step up and morally condemn Trump. Tapper responded that’s not his job. He needs to get Trump and Clinton on his show as much as possible and try to get them to answer questions so the viewers can see what candidates are saying. Tapper wanted the focus to be on Trump (and Clinton). He feared taking a more aggressive stance would make him the story. Waldman countered that Tapper was too concerned with protecting his access…a few days before Trump reminded every journalist just how willing he is to deny access.

For journalists in today’s media environment, getting access is a strange strategic calculation. Barring a news organization isn’t going to stop them from covering a campaign. A wide range of bloggers and online only media organizations have been able to cover news and develop their audience without any direct access to newsmakers. Marty Baron, the Post’s executive editor, posted this response on Twitter.

Strategic decisions about how to get access from presidents and campaigns is fundamentally different from most sources. Reporters normally want to develop sources because they never know when they could benefit from having more access in the future. Campaigns and administrations have a specific end point. I There’s a reason why we see stories like anonymous Sanders staffers blaming Sanders for the nastiness towards the end of the Democratic primaries near the end of the primary campaign, not the beginning. If staffers throw Sanders under the bus, what can Sanders really do to retaliate?

Game theorists argue this is a common problem with games that have a clear ending point that is specified in advance. People know they can defect at the end of the game, because there will not be any repercussions. In a related story, candidates who win an election tend to start off with a honeymoon period from the press. Reporters know that president will be around for 4 or 8 years and do not want to lose access early. But towards the end of a president’s second term, news coverage falls off and/or becomes increasingly negative. In games where both parties have a reasonable chance of interacting again and they have no idea how long the game will go on, there are more incentives for cooperation.

I imagine most readers wouldn’t think of applying game theory to relations between campaigns and the media. The most common game is the “prisoners’ dilemma” – will one criminal cut a deal testify against their partner even though the police lack concrete evidence? The prisoners’ dilemma gives two options and no middle ground. It’s a simple game because each of the prisoners only makes one decision. Campaign coverage can have a “game” every day: will a certain story get in the news today? Journalists like Jake Tapper cooperate by going to campaign events and publishing an account of what happened. They defect by refusing to cover an event or pursuing stories the administration tries to bury. Waldman of The American Prospect tried to argue defection means directly criticizing Trump – partisans have different definitions of “cooperation” and “defection” because they are playing a different game than objective journalists.

Presidents cooperate by offering a journalist as much or more access than they offer any other news organization. Cooperation doesn’t have to be giving one group special treatment. Giving everyone a media credential is an example of cooperation. Presidents defect by offering one journalist less access than others. Good examples are Barack Obama going on the View and a wide range of local television stations instead of having long sit down interviews with leading news organizations.

I don’t think a politician criticizing the media, in and of itself, counts as defection. Let’s say a president got angry about a question at a press conference and attacked the reporter:

George W. Bush cut off NBC News’ David Gregory, but he offered some response to the question first. You can decide for yourself how well he answered the question. In this case, a confrontation and refusal to keep discussing the issue was still newsworthy. This was one of four press conferences I looked at for my master’s thesis. The main way presidents “defect” during a press conference is by ignoring the topic of a question and moving to something else that reporters don’t want to write about. This strategy creates a shortage of news. Refusals to answer can still give reporters a story.

Most presidential candidates in 2016 have tried to emphasize their independence from the Washington media. News organizations need to emphasize their independence from politicians in order to maintain credibility. Hillary Clinton is the only candidate who has not railed against the media, so some progressive pundits think she is colluding with the Beltway media. I think the tone of Ryan’s critique of the Associated Press is ridiculous, but he did stumble towards truth. Bernie Sanders’ campaign is as close as we have come to a presidential candidate who refuses to cooperate with the media. He wanted no part of the Clinton e-mail story. He routinely blasted corporate media in his stump speech. More importantly, Sanders campaigned by giving his stump speech across the country instead of relying on photo ops and interviews. Trump used the machine instead. He fed the media and got rewarded with far more news coverage than Sanders.

Since the 1950s most leading politicians have realized they need the news media to reach the largest possible audience, and the news media needs politicians to keep generating stories. It’s not a perfectly symmetrical game. Scandal-ridden politicians are better off hiding everything from the press then leaving enough breadcrumbs for a scandal to explode. But as long as journalists are looking for routine news stories to fill their pages, a politician has every reason to fulfill this need. Most of the time mutual cooperation is an optimal strategy. Both politicians and reporters want to set the terms of cooperation. They push each other back and forth all the time.

But there’s a reason Nixon didn’t pull the Washington Post’s credentials during Watergate. Once the story was out there, completely cutting off the media wouldn’t help him. Trump told the Washington Post he intends to defect for the rest of the campaign. It’s a credible signal; none of the other news organizations on Trump’s banned list have gotten off the list. Trump appears to be betting that the only way news organizations can “defect” is by refusing to give him attention, and no news organization would do that. However, there is nothing more Trump can do to try and negotiate the terms of cooperation with the Post or the other news organizations he has banned. They are now free to dig up every skeleton without fear of losing more access to the campaign. Trump’s core supporters may not care what the Post uncovers.

However, Trump has played games with the media every day, trying to maximize attention. As much as Trump criticized and insulted reporters during his rallies, his campaign has been the most cooperative with the press. He was always giving access new stories – the biggest thing reporters want. Now Trump is saying he will not be giving as much access. He’s not cooperating with everyone. This may give Hillary Clinton an opportunity to get more attention and take away Trump’s biggest advantage from the primary.

Why Does the LA Times Know they Can’t Rally Readers?

There was a shooting two days ago in the same building at UCLA that I taught a few classes in. Over the last year I met a number of engineering, computer science and biology students looking to add statistics to their skill set. I couldn’t work on Wednesday. I was too busy texting friends to see if they were on campus and safe. Thankfully all of my friends are safe, but I know there are people in the UCLA community who cannot say the same. After any mass shooting we see various editorials and thinkpieces. To quote a Los Angeles Times staff editorial posted an hour after police gave the all clear sign:

“In this case, it was only two dead. Murder-suicide in a small office. And so America shrugs. Just another violent incident in the daily parade of gun violence that defines contemporary America.”

This shooting was much closer to home. It turns out the shooter was a former graduate student with a grievance against his professor. Teach enough students and you will run in to someone who is neurotic and absolutely refuses to take responsibility for their failures. Six months ago a student told me she turned in a homework assignment but got a zero because my teaching assistant missed it. I grabbed my phone, emailed my TA, and said I would get back to the student. Problem not solved. This student kept insisting she did the assignment. It didn’t matter how many times I said “we’ll check.” This student followed me out of the office and through the quad, continuing to insist she did that assignment. I think the only reason she stopped following me was because she recognized we were walking to the main administration building! She never did that homework, of course. Her final had explicitly racist answers. Good thing she was unarmed.

I wouldn’t say I am completely back to normal after the shooting. On the other hand, most of the performances around the shooting feel very familiar. Newspapers have played the LA Times’ role condemning gun violence before. Progressives have criticized the National Rifle Association before. If everyone fills their part of the script, we will see he main spokesman for the NRA come out in a few days and say this tragedy could be prevented if more people were carrying guns (as if that would pre-empt the initial shooting.) The LA Times editorial staff concedes that the nation accepts gun violence as “commonplace” and “that society will just shrug this off is tragic in its own way.” How did we get to the point where a leading newspaper would openly concede that their editorials are unlikely to sway the public?

The last time I remember so many people asking “why can’t the media blow the whistle about something outrageous” was in November. Donald Trump tweeted out a graphic from the “Crime Statistic Bureau” in San Francisco claiming that most White murder victims were killed by Blacks. However, the “Crime Statistic Bureau” does not exist. FBI statistics show most Whites are killed by other Whites. Reporters traced the graphic back to a self-identified neo-Nazi. Could reporters call Trump a liar? A racist? What would it take for reporters to “blow the whistle” and get people’s attention? I changed my lecture last minute to try and address this question, and tried addressing it in more detail the next week. After the shooting at UCLA, I thought it would be a good time to dust off my notes and try to explain why it is so hard to shake people in to believing something is serious and needs attention.

Media Setting Priorities?

A generation ago Walter Cronkite famously turned against the Vietnam War. (Cronkite’s own short retrospective on this is also worth watching.) Many historians think that Cronkite – a journalist – took the single most important step to sway public opinion on the war. Cronkite was famously stoic and detached as an anchor, even when describing how President Kennedy was shot and killed. I showed this clip in class once, then asked my students if they could or would take the same tone if they had to announce President Obama had been shot. Most said no. I imagine if we go back 50 years, most people would say no as well. Cronkite’s stoic detachment was part of what made him so trusted. He came off like a neutral arbitrator of what is important. Cronkite breaking character when condemning the Vietnam War showed an intensity and importance that went beyond day-to-day news coverage.

Walter Cronkite was famous and well-respected, but his journalistic standards weren’t that different from other journalists of his era. Nightly network news was seen as a public service. It was a requirement to keep a broadcast license. Edward Epstein wrote in his 1793 book News From Nowhere that the NBC executives he studied didn’t think about maximizing the audience or potential profits – they incorrectly assumed broadcast news could never turn a profit. Since national journalists of the 1960s and early 70s thought their job was entirely about public service, they didn’t care too much about audience preferences. Journalists thought it was up to them to educate the public and tell them what they should be caring about. If the nightly news could only contain 15 stories, then journalists would give you a list of the 15 most important stories they found that day. Major events like California’s upcoming primary election could get multiple slots in the top 15 to show even greater importance than just getting the #1 slot.

Media organizations play some of this filtering role today. Every media organization looks through a huge set of events happening in the world and pulls out a smaller set of things to write about. I go through that process myself as a small time blogger. We need this specialization and division of labor because we only have so much memory and so much time. It is impossible for us to be fully aware of everything that is going on in the world. Everyone produces their top 15 stories of the day, or top 30, or maybe their single story of the week if they write part-time.

The difference is today we have a much wider range of top 15 story lists to choose from. Audiences can comparison shop. If you want someone who feels as outraged as you about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, some partisan media site will fill the “ragehole” for you. If you want minute details about state-by-state primary rules and how they affected the election, there is a site for you. If you want a little update on the presidential election but don’t want it to gobble up 5 of the top 15 story slots, local newspapers and local television broadcasts will screen out the obligatory daily campaign updates.

Walter Cronkite didn’t have to think about creating a brand specializing in national news. Newspapers were regional. There were only three television networks, and they all broadcast similar types of news at similar times. Nightly news could ignore the audience’s preferences because there was minimal competition. Cronkite’s successors at CBS, along with reporters at national newspapers like the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, have to cater to a specific audience. People who want to read about national politics on a regular basis tend to have strong political opinions. One of the main ways that older media organizations have tried to keep this audience is by treating single statements as enough for a full news story – as long as what the politician said would outrage part of the audience. These stories are very easy to write. It’s a cost-effective way to give the core group of politics readers the feeling of being immersed in a campaign.

Sharing Is Caring…too Much?

How did you reach this blog post? Did you type the name of my website in to your browser? Set up an RSS feed? Chances are you came across a link via Facebook or Twitter, or maybe a Google search. That’s more and more common these days. One recent study indicated a majority of Americans get their news from Facebook instead of directly visiting media websites or watching / reading offline content. Of course not everyone is on Facebook, and many Facebook users have no interest in politics. Think about your friends and family who are the most actively posting about politics on Facebook. Are they a little…different than the other people in your feed?


I’m blocking this guy. Wouldn’t you?

If you can’t imagine one of your friends or family members constantly yelling at the computer screen as they click “share link” you are lucky. Most of us have a range of anger. Some things don’t bother us at all, some are just a little annoying. There are only a few things that would get me screaming – like seeing the news that a UCLA student shot their former professor. You won’t see me post the minor squabbles I have. I make the conscious decision that many things are not worth writing a short Facebook post about. It’s definitely not worth your time to read me talking about minor annoyances. Most of us have some kind of filter. But we also know people who will post every grievance they have about the political process or one of the candidates in this election. When I see someone who posts how they are angry about something in politics or culture most days of the week, it makes me think of one of my favorite lines from TV’s Justified:

Raylan Givens: It’s all somebody else’s fault. You ever hear the saying “you run in to an asshole in the morning, you ran in to an asshole. You run in to assholes all day, you’re the asshole.”

Social media caters to people who want to spend their time confirming their political views and demonizing the opposition. How could you search for people who feel the same way you do about Donald Trump without social media? It’s going to be a lot harder. Any in-person rally or protest will be limited by geography. Sites like Facebook and Twitter quickly realized their biggest comparative advantage is the ability to let users find other users who share a common interest, even if they have nothing else in common. Hashtags, suggested friends and search features made this possible for the first time. These sites also use algorithms to promote posts that have already gotten a large number of likes and comments. Facebook is very proactive in hiding posts that do not get engagement. And Facebook’s experiments have shown people engage more with emotional posts than neutral ones. When we put this all together, angry Facebook posts will get more visibility and engagement than anyone inspired by Walter Cronkite.

Because sites that produce some kind of political media content are increasingly dependent on Facebook users sharing links, they are increasingly dependent on the emotional content that elicits engagement on Facebook. Sharing drives web traffic. This media ecosystem is great at signaling who is angry about what. Even traditional media sites are embracing “who is angry about what” as a common story trope for national politics. It’s not an entirely flawed system. People who would get ignored in Cronkite’s generation have an opportunity to share their views now.

The main problem is every company involved in political media has an incentive to cater to the people who cry “wolf” over every offense, regardless of its seriousness. Every post playing up how offensive something is will attract some of the audience that is looking for something to yell about today. It’s a great way to maximize your page views among the core audience for day-to-day political stories. But this media ecosystem is what enables someone like Donald Trump to get a record amount of media attention. Even before Trump ran I predicted that a candidate could monopolize media attention by filling the “ragehole” – the core political audience’s demand for daily outrage.

Most people want to reserve the media’s outrage alarm for something serious like Wednesday’s shootings at UCLA. (Remember that for all the attention Trump is getting, most Americans do not vote in presidential primaries.) When I read the LA Times staff editorial, I saw the voice of a media organization that knew what most people needed…and that they could never fulfill this need. After a decade of giving the niche politics audience what they want to maximize page views, they knew their opinion wouldn’t stand out from just another hot take on gun control once it gets to our Facebook feed.


There is one important silver lining in my analysis. It’s something that my students taught me. We don’t need to rely on media organizations to change in order to solve this quagmire. We don’t need Facebook to tinker with their algorithms again or get off Facebook altogether because algorithms are evil. All we need to do is stop liking and commenting on everything that gets us a little riled up about politics. Watching those friends and family members who do nothing but rant about politics is a lot like watching a car crash. I know we all tend to stop and stare at accidents – and that causes a traffic jam on the other side of the highway. People who use social media to wage a daily battle are getting in accidents. They are causing a traffic jam for the rest of us who want a different kind of media coverage. We can all do our part to avoid these accidents by showing some restraint. My 19-23 year old students had already learned this.