Monday, January 14, 2019

The Real Crisis: The War to Save Democracy in 2020 Has Begun - Journalism Needs to Mobilize

This is one of the more complete of many prescriptions for journalists to manage this real crisis (and deflate the fake ones) -- but it is just another cry against the storm with no concrete plan for action.

The imminent crisis

The 2016 election in the US, similar problems around the world, "fake news," and disinformation have surfaced as crucial problems. Many are at work on solutions, but most will take time to be effective. We do not have that time.

In the US, and for the rest of the world, the most imminent threat is that Trump will use the press as he did in 2016 -- and still does. He still orchestrates a Trump-centric media circus. As Bruni points out, we need to restore meaningful conversation on the issues, whatever the policies at issue. 

Even most of those who support many of Trump's policies are dismayed at the dysfunction of this media circus (entertaining as it may be) -- this is not a partisan issue, but one all reasonable people can support.

Journalism needs to rally around best practices for containing this real and present danger now. Define them, follow them, and call out those who do not. To do that, leading journalists, publishers and J-schools should organize a Manhattan Project to unify and act now! If you do not do it right now, you may never have another chance.

Such a project should be inclusive, drawing in all who share the core values of intelligent discourse. 

Are you journalists, or cheerleaders (and profiteers) in a flame war?

Bruni's starter list

It is a long op-ed, well worth reading, and no doubt there are other important practices and tactics, but let's begin with some extracts from Bruni's op-ed (see the original for attribution of quotes):
“Pocahontas” won’t be lonely for long. …how much heed will we in the media pay to this stupidity? …That’s a specific question but also an overarching one — about the degree to which we’ll let him set the terms of the 2020 presidential campaign, about our appetite for antics versus substance, and about whether we’ll repeat the mistakes that we made in 2016 
Trump tortures us. Deliberately, yes, but I’m referring to the ways in which he keeps yanking our gaze his way.
“When you cover this as spectacle…what’s lost is context, perspective and depth. And when you cover this as spectacle, he is the star.” 
Trump was and is a perverse gift to the mainstream, establishment media, a magnet for eyeballs at a juncture when we were struggling economically and desperately needed one. Just present him as the high-wire act and car crash that he is; the audience gorges on it. But readers…[are] starved of information about the fraudulence of his supposed populism and the toll of his incompetence. And he wins. He doesn’t hate the media...He uses us.
Regarding their fitness for office, they [Trump and Clinton] were treated identically? In retrospect, that’s madness. It should have been in real time, too.
We need to do something else, too, which is to recognize that Trump now has an actual record in office and to discuss that with as much energy as we do his damned Twitter feed.
“Instead of covering Trump’s tweets on a live, breaking basis, just cover them in the last five minutes of a news show. They’re presidential statements, but we can balance them.”
We can also allow his challengers to talk about themselves as much as they do about him. …“It was deeply unfair… the question was always, ‘What’s your reaction to what Trump just said?,’ there’s no way to drive your own message.”
“It got to the point where it was one outrage after another, and we just moved on each time” …Instead, we should hold on to the most outrageous, unconscionable moments. We should pause there…. We can’t privilege the incremental over …the enduring. It lets Trump off the hook.
"…if you put enough experts on arguing… people will watch. And that’s what we’re doing with our politics. The media is not using their strength, their franchise, to elevate and illuminate the conversation. They’re just getting you all jazzed up about the game.”
But the lure of less demanding labors …is always there, especially because readers and viewers…reward it. What they lap up …is Trump the Baby…the Buffoon…the Bully… And that’s on them.
The real story of Trump isn’t his amorality and outrageousness. It’s Americans’ receptiveness to that. 
“Trump basically ran on blowing the whole thing up.…It’s critically important that we find ways to get at what it is people imagine government should be doing and…really look at what kind of leadership we need.”
A Manhattan Project for Journalism - the war to extinguish the flame war

When America became the "arsenal for democracy" in the battle against fascism, we mobilized for conventional warfare -- and with a massive Manhattan Project to change the game with an A-bomb. The best minds were assembled, tested many alternative strategies, and then focused the best resources in the world on what worked.

Trump has conquered the presidency with an artful flame war. Many have written very intelligently about the issues and strategies that Bruni raises. There is no silver bullet (or A-bomb), but there are a suite of strategies that promise to contain the nonsense -- but only if widely understood and practiced. No one person or organization has the knowledge or ability to do this alone. Bruni's points (and similar suggestions from many others) can be distilled, formalized and supplemented to provide a guide to best practices, both at high level, and in the guts of how journalism is practiced. Our best minds for journalism must come together and quickly define these best-practices, and then we must see to it that all understand them and work to enforce them.

If we have clear guidelines, we can call out and marginalize those who fan the flames - whether Trump and his supporters, or others.

Fair process is not partisan - the real challenge for "mainstream media"

Such a focus on process is not partisan, but simply a matter of a fairness to all citizens, and to the spirit of enlightened democracy that made America great. To the extent Trump or others (on either side of any issue) make responsible policy proposals and argue them responsibly, this would treat them fairly. To the extent they do not, it marginalizes them fairly.

Obviously our current government will not make this happen - no new "fairness doctrine" can be expected now. Journalists are uniquely positioned to step up to their responsibility. It must be a voluntary effort. Some prominent pundits and outlets will not cooperate, for political or business reasons. But a truly responsible "mainstream media" can work together to become a powerful force for reason. If we do not all hang together to fight the flame war, we will all hang separately.

Real Journalists of the World, Unite!

(If any broad effort to do this already exists, please let me know.)

(I am not a journalist, but one focus of my career has been on how technology can augment our collaborative intelligence. Journalism in this age is a form of such augmentation -- or more lately, de-augmentation.  I am ready to contribute to this effort as I can.)

Originally posted on my User-Centered Media blog.


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