Flying Blind: Truth, Journalism, and the Digital Age

February 13, 2017 | 3 books mentioned 8 min read

1.
In 1798, a decade after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, President John Adams signed the infamous Sedition Act. The controversial law, passed alongside a slate of Alien Acts aimed at cracking down on immigrants deemed dangerous to the state, made it illegal to produce any “false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States…with intent to defame the said government…or to stir up sedition within the United States.”

coverThe brief history of the Sedition Act, which expired in 1800 after Thomas Jefferson succeeded Adams as president, had its comic moments. One day, an elderly New Jerseyan, Luther Baldwin, stopped to watch President Adams and his wife parade down Newark’s Broad Street accompanied by a 16-gun salute. According to James MacGregor Burns’s judicial history, Packing the Court, someone in the crowd shouted, “There goes the President and they’re firing at his a – !” Baldwin, who had been drinking, retorted that he “did not care if they fired thro’ his a – !” and was promptly clapped into jail.

But the Sedition Act was also used to silence press criticism. Scottish-born polemicist James Callender spent nine months in jail and paid a $200 fine for calling President Adams, among other things, a “repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor.” More famously, Benjamin Bache, editor of the virulently anti-Federalist paper the Aurora, was arrested under the Sedition Act after printing stories attacking Adams and accusing George Washington of secretly collaborating with the British during the Revolutionary War.

I was reminded of the Alien and Sedition Acts in the opening days of the Administration of Donald Trump when, in rapid succession, the president halted immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and his chief policy adviser, Stephen Bannon, told The New York Times that the media “should keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” Like a lot of people who read Bannon’s interview during that first tumultuous week when the president was signing one new wildly controversial executive order after another and millions of Americans were flooding the streets and airports in protest, I heard only the line about the nation’s media needing to sit down and shut up.

When I reread the Times piece some days later I realized that Bannon wasn’t simply trying to muzzle the American media. He was also delivering a blistering critique of a media culture so lost in its bubble of urbane liberal comfort that it missed what may one day prove to be the story of the century. “The media got it dead wrong, 100 percent dead wrong,” he said of the 2016 election, calling it “a humiliating defeat that they will never wash away, that will always be there.” This, the blown coverage of the 2016 campaign, is the context for his headline-making denunciations. “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and should keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” he told Times reporter Michael Grynbaum, adding: “You’re the opposition party. Not the Democratic Party. You’re the opposition party. The media’s the opposition party.”

Now, obviously, mainstream media outlets weren’t the only ones who misread the Trump election. Everybody missed that story, including some members of Trump’s own campaign staff. It is also absurd to suggest that “the media,” en masse, are out to get Trump and his administration. There is, after all, a well-financed network of right-leaning news sites, one of which, Breitbart.com, Bannon himself has run, offering full-throated support to Trump’s presidency and even more full-throated condemnation of his enemies.

But if you look past the bombast and exaggeration, you can detect in Bannon’s comments the outlines of a chillingly accurate analysis of an American news media crippled by half a century of technological disruption. The national media did miss the white-working-class rage that propelled Trump into office last fall, and even now large swatches of the mainstream press seems perplexed by — and in some cases, openly opposed to — the president that populist anger helped elect. Meanwhile, the news sites that saw Trump coming, the Breitbarts of the world, seem dangerously uninterested in facts and instead relentlessly push a hard-right political agenda.

This, then, is the predicament facing the American news consumer today. It’s not just that we live in a polarized media universe. It’s that we are, journalistically speaking, flying blind. One segment of the population, the one that just elected a president, is in thrall to a fact-challenged ideological fringe while the rest of the population relies on a badly weakened legacy media whose reporters are highly educated and professionally concerned with facts and evidence, but so deeply ensconced in their elite, urban echo chamber that they’re not always capable of making sense of the facts they find.

Thus, as we stand in the still-smoking ruins of the 20th-century American media machine, we risk returning to a media environment not unlike the one before the rise of the mass-circulated print newspapers when a hyper-partisan press free-for-all pushed an American president to sign a law allowing the government to lock up journalists it didn’t like.

2.
I care about news because I read and watch a lot of it and because I rely on it as a voter, but in another way, this is personal for me. Thirty years ago, as a 22-year-old straight out of college, I lucked into a job at my hometown weekly, the Mill Valley Record. I had no journalism training, and I hadn’t written a news story since high school. I just showed up one day in the newsroom looking for work and the editor handed me a press release for an upcoming public meeting. “Why don’t you go to this?” he said. “If there’s any news in it, we’ll print it.” Three months later, I had a full-time job covering local politics.

covercoverLike many young reporters in those days, what little I knew about journalism before I began practicing it myself came from two books, All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and The Powers That Be by David Halberstam. The Halberstam book is a massive doorstop history of 20th-century journalism while the Woodward and Bernstein book is a tick-tock thriller about a single major news investigation, but both books offer riveting accounts of American print journalism’s finest hour, the Washington Post’s reporting of the Watergate Scandal, which ultimately caused the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

At the Record, I may have been covering planning and zoning meetings and writing puff pieces about local businesses, but in my mind I was a junior Bob Woodward nailing down that last fact, making that extra phone call, so that one day I would be able to speak truth to power on the front pages of a major metro daily. What I didn’t know — what no one of that era understood — was that in a little more than a decade the Internet would strangle the small-town weeklies that had trained generations of cub reporters like me and put the major metro dailies that I aspired to join on life support.

Three decades on, I understand that the media landscape that I knew as a small-town reporter in the late-1980s and early-1990s was just one iteration in the ever-shifting continuum of American journalism. In the early days of the Republic, the era that brought us John Adams’s Sedition Act, newspapers were a luxury item sold by subscription to a relatively narrow, educated elite. Often, these journals were owned and operated by political parties with the express purpose of advocating for their candidates and embarrassing their rivals.

That changed with the advent of the steam-powered press, which so radically reduced the cost and sped up the process of printing a newspaper that editors could slash the cover price from six cents to a penny and market it to a working-class audience. Over the next century, print newspapers grew from a handful of blog-like broadsheets into a complex network of newspapers ranging from tiny, one-man-band local weeklies to national publishing chains run by tycoons like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. In 1950, before TV began stealing eyeballs and ad dollars, there were 25 percent more newspapers sold each day in America than there were American households.

The midcentury American newspaper, written for a local readership and dependent on local advertising dollars, naturally reflected the political outlook of its audience A newspaper in a segregated Southern town had to toe the segregationist line or go out of business, just as a newspaper in a well-to-to liberal suburb faced disaster if its news columns contradicted the views of its readers. But in both cases, editors had a strong incentive to avoid extreme rhetoric or wildly inaccurate reporting because they depended on local advertisers, who would pull ads from a publication whose reputation besmirched their own.

The system was far from perfect, but it built the journalistic world I stumbled into the day I took that press release from my editor at the Mill Valley Record. The reporters and editors I worked with were not especially serious people, but they took their jobs seriously. When a reader buttonholed one of us on the street to complain about an issue of local import, we asked questions and followed up. We called both sides in any dispute, always. We knew the people we covered well, but we routinely rotated beats so we wouldn’t get too cozy with our sources. We called back to double-check facts, and when we screwed up, we wrote a correction for the next day’s paper. More than anything, we prided ourselves on being able to cut through the bullshit and explain in clear, direct prose what had happened.

Thirty years later, that world is fast vanishing into the digital ether. No footloose 22-year-old without journalism training could expect to fall backward into a full-time newspaper job today, unless, of course, he or she was of the social class that could afford to take a nonpaying internship and follow that up with two years of journalism school.

That, more than any nefarious liberal cabal, explains the leftward tilt of what remains of the mainstream media. As local newspapers in smaller cities and towns die off, we’re increasingly left with national publications and TV and cable networks based in liberal urban centers. Meanwhile, digital disruption has changed how reporters are trained, which is changing who enters the profession. A generation before me, news reporting was still a union job only a small step up from the guys who ran the Linotype machines. Today, thanks to the same forces of technological disruption that have hollowed out so many middle-class professions, journalism is the province of a highly educated and urban elite — precisely the class of person most likely to look askance at a man like Donald Trump.

3.
This, I think, is what Stephen Bannon means when he calls the media the opposition party. Bannon sees himself as leading a white working-class revolt against the multicultural liberal elite, which is neatly personified by the latte-sipping chattering classes of Washington DC. Of course, by declaring war on the media and by prodding his boss to make ever more alarming moves in office, Bannon is himself pushing an already liberal-leaning press corps in an ever more shrilly leftward direction.

But really, this fact is less frightening than the fact that he can do it so effortlessly. Without that truth-seeking ecosystem of healthy small- and mid-size daily newspapers to explain national news in terms local readers can understand, Americans are left stewing in separate echo chambers, one urban, educated, and liberal, the other working-class, rural, and spoiling for a fight. Not only do the inhabitants of these echo chambers not talk to each other; they barely speak the same language.

It’s heartening to hear that digital subscriptions to legacy media sites like The New York Times and The Atlantic are on the rise, just as it’s refreshing to see ordinary Americans using social media to organize and keep themselves informed. Maybe over time, as we grow more sophisticated about our digital tools, we’ll get better at using Snopes.com-like sites to knock down fake news stories and start crowd-funding citizen-journalists to cover small cities and towns the way I once did. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about the Internet. It’s a tool like any other. We just have to learn how to use it.

For now, though, we would be crazy not to acknowledge the danger we face as a nation flying blind without a media we fully trust. No one in government has discussed reviving John Adams’s Sedition Act, but every day that Trump sends his press secretary into the White House briefing room to dress down the media or uses Twitter to gaslight Americans into disbelieving the facts they hear on the nightly news is a day we inch a step closer to that reality.

Image Credit: Flickr/Ahmad Hammoud.

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. www.michaelbournewriter.com

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