July 23, 2017

"Journalistic Integrity Is Dead." Is The Mainstream Media Next?

Welcome to another Sunday in the fever swamp. Been getting tons of great feedback and responses to this newsletter in the past few weeks. I so appreciate the kind words but want to remind you that if you love getting this in your inbox every week, please, please fwd, share, post about it so we can grow this weird experiment.

Mini-essay: Let's never forget what this is really about.

It's easy to get lost in the myriad outrages of the pro-Trump media as the group deftly moves from CNN to Don Jr to any number of other topics.  But every so often the real mission of the pro-Trump media breaks through as it did this week via Breitbart's Matthew Boyle during a speech at the Heritage Foundation. Naturally, Breitbart wrote about the speech. The headline?

For outlets like Breitbart and Gateway Pundit every editorial decision and headline and pull-quote is in service of the ultimate destruction of the legacy press. Journalism, in the pro-Trump media ecosystem, is less a craft to inform a readership or get at some greater truth than it is a convenient tool to wage an ideological war — one that, if won, means that they stand to profit and gain influence. Here's Boyle in his own words:

"The media is an industry in crisis that refuses to admit that it’s an industry in crisis. It’s almost like an alcoholic refusing to admit that they have a problem...Journalistic integrity is dead. There is no such thing anymore. So, everything is about weaponization of information."

Those last three sentences are incredibly important. Boyle's statement that "journalistic integrity is dead" isn't just a criticism of the MSM — it's an admission of the pro-Trump media's tactics. In Boyle's eyes, the days of Cronkite-style 'fair and balanced' reporting without ideology are done so just get over it and realize that we're in an information war without rules. The only goal is to win at all costs.

A few things about this:

1.) This mindset is why the usual tactics of the mainstream media (calling out hypocrisy, trying to bring the argument into the arena of morality) don't often work against the pro-Trump media, which enjoys trolling and frequently engages in bad faith to appease its base. All their language (weaponization of information, The Great Meme War) is the language of battle. They don't care about rules or being vilified or playing fair. It's about winning.

2.) And that obsessive focus on winning is why this movement aligns so well with Trump in general. Above all else, Trumpism is about winning (one reason why we're going to relive the 2016 election forever and ever).

The role ~bias~ plays in all of this:

At the end of his speech, Boyle makes an important point that I hear over and over from those in the pro-Trump media:

"Our viewpoint at Breitbart has always been that we’d rather be open about our personal biases. We’re openly conservative. We don’t hide it. We’re very honest with our audience. We told people we all wanted Trump to win last year. If you’re open with your audience about that, I think you’re honest with your audience."

Again, Boyle lays it all out nicely. The problem with the liberal media isn't that they're liberal, but that they pretend to be objective. This isn't a new criticism but it's one that's gaining more and more currency — perhaps because it's a better argument than lying about the MSM as simply "fake news." I thought a bit about what they're trying to do with this talking point and here's what I came up with:

They're trying to bait the mainstream media into ceding the idea of objectivity and leveling the playing field. And it's a sneakier tactic than yelling "fake news" (though that works, too). What Boyle is saying here is: 'Hey MSM, if you just drop the whole idea of objective reporting without a motive, we'll lay off. And we can both retreat to our camps. You take the liberal talking points and we'll tell the other side. Just stop pretending.' Of course, it's much bigger than that. What Boyle and the rest of the pro-Trump media hope to do is to push the MSM over to an extreme and — in doing so — get them to forfeit the real principles of journalism (attempts at uncovering the truth) for pure advocacy.

Which is not to suggest that there's no bias in the MSM. There is! And advocacy journalism and ideological outlets should do better to disclose it and do the service of separating themselves from independent reporting. There's a lot of room for improvement, here. There's a sense among pro-Trump leaning readers that the press is out to get Trump with its Russia reporting and I think there's an opening — especially for the big newspapers — to explain a bit more (in the context of the bombshell stories) why there's so much focus on Russia and remind the audience just how strange and unprecedented a situation we're in.

The big legacy papers often don't like to explain their rationale, but I think — especially with Russia — it's not an awful idea to continue to drive home the context of the story and bring it back to the fundamental point: this is perhaps less about Trump and trying to sink a presidency than it is about attempting to learn the *entire* story about foreign meddling in a U.S. election.

The aesthetics of the pro-Trump media.

A fun piece this week from Matthew Kassel in NYT mag which is a profile of Peter Duke, "the Annie Leibovitz of the alt-right."  You should read it first but after you do — a few thoughts!

The bit that resonated the most was the idea that many of the figures in the pro-Trump media (and the alt-right...a SEPARATE GROUP, mind you) "don't take enough care to make themselves look good." This is very true! In the same vein of shitposting, there's also a very stark shit aesthetic to the whole movement.

Which is something my boss, Ben Smith, wrote about this week in his piece, 'What if Trump TV was good?' Read it.

My take is that (mostly) the shit aesthetic is a badge of honor. A show of outsider-ness. Crummy Periscopes show that the pro-Trump media personalities aren't high-fallutin' rich guys (some are!) riding black cars to the Time Warner building and yukking it up in the CNN green room. These are 'no makeup' guys who're coming to you live all the time. They're accessible and they're just like you and me (Mike Cernovich is frequently Periscoping with his infant daughter hanging around. It's a thing that makes him relatable!).

Of course some of this has to do with money. Corporate sponsors are hard to come by in fringe-right media. Those who have money — like Alex Jones — have professional-grade operations. But still, don't discount the shit aesthetic and how it endears them to their audience.

Cernovich responds to Ben's piece!
As I was writing this newsletter Cernovich wrote his own response to the piece. He touts his viewership but also the quality of the viewership. Two points of his:

"On vacation at a vineyard, I released a 3 minute and 11 second response video. My “grainy Periscope” was watched by 75,000 people, created a news cycle, and even became an issue in the Ohio Senate race."

The bit that strikes me about this sentence is not the stats but the location and timing of the video. The pro-Trump media do not appear to ever stop or take days off. They are endlessly available and are always producing. Always.

"New right media is running a 1,000 True Fans model of media." 

There's something to the idea that Mike is touting. That his fans are intensely loyal and willing to support him (I'd also argue that Cernovich is the true superstar of this pro-Trump media movement. He moves books and raises money and is beloved by his fans — there are many imitators with far smaller and less obsessive followings). That's definitely important — especially at scale. Again, look to Alex Jones and Infowars, which relies on a fan-supported supplement business that makes it very difficult for an outside group to boycott and starve.

But make no mistake — Cernovich's piece also reveals that this is still a bit of a DIY media movement. He argues that Ben is right and they need to step up their game, too. But another way to read Cernovich's piece is that this pro-Trump movement is still in its infancy and not in a dominant position...yet! 

Controversy Du Jour:
This week the pro-Trump media's big outrage concerned a listicle posted by the Anti-Defamation League. The piece was titled: From Alt Right to Alt Lite: Naming the Hate.

The piece actually does a decent job of accurately categorizing the differences between the Alt-Right crowd and the New Right crowd (the biggest split being that one group — the Alt-Right — is actually concerned with race and ethno-nationalism). But the New Right crowd (Cernovich and Posobiec) were furious that they were included in a piece that used the word "hate" in the headline. On Twitter the two spoke out intensely against it — saying that being branded as hate group leaders was similar in nature to putting them on a hit list. They tweeted that they believed now that their lives and the lives of their families was in danger as a result.

Putting aside everything else for a moment (including the fairness of the list and the real-or-not-real threat it poses to those named), it's worth noting that the Posobiec/Cernovich victim posture is helpful in promoting a favorite narrative of the pro-Trump media: the violent and intolerant left. In their tweets about this, Cernovich and Posobiec frequently referenced the shooting of Congressman Steve Scalise, in an attempt to suggest that the unhinged and violent left is out to get them. And while there's no doubt hate on both far-extremes of the political spectrum, it's an attempt to frame the left as out of control and dangerous in comparison to the right.

The big question posed by the ADL list: how do you classify a hate group/hate leader in 2017? The short answer: thanks to the multi-layered irony of the internet and trolling, I'd argue it's trickier (and more important) than ever to make really careful distinctions. And — sorry to leave you hanging! — I am writing a piece right now on this. Out this week!

Milo continues pro-Trump media tradition of flipping the script and scooping legacy media on their own interviews.
Basically: Milo does book interview with NPR. NPR delays and delays airing it. Milo turns the whole thing into a spectacle to rile up his adoring fans and eventually releases bits of it. There's a lesson here: if you are going to interview the pro-Trump media, know your subject. Know their tactics. Sunlight is a disinfectant blah blah blah...YES...but only if you don't let your subject hijack it and use it as ammo against you. See: 60 Minutes. See: Megyn Kelly. Essentially what NPR did here was give Breitbart and 'exclusive.' Ugh. 

A fun tool for tracking Trump on Twitter.

I stumbled upon this amazing Twitter bot which tracks his family (and some top aids') follows/unfollows/and other Twitter changes. It's an excellent and fun little tool for reporters/Trump observers. I wrote about it this week and it led to one of my favorite ledes in a while:

"This past Tuesday evening, as the White House wound down after another tumultuous day, Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway was looking at corgis on the internet."

LAST THOUGHT: There's some stuff I left out here...like Spicer/The Mooch! But this sucker was getting too long. Anyhow. Maybe a mid-week edition if you're all nice!

Things you should read:
Joe on "Dr. Redpill" The pro-Trump plastic surgeon.

My colleagues on BuzzFeed News' investigations team on the old millionaire who has spent years quietly funding the alt-right. And now his moment is here.

A really good wrap up of Alex Jones and the Great Meme war from the Washington Post.

Oliver Darcy at CNN on pro-Trump media's embrace of 'The Mooch.'

A deep dive into OANN — the pro-Trump cable news channel that you should not sleep on.