Lucid Interview: Jay Rosen
Thinking about the press and challenges to our democracy
I’m pleased to present this interview with Jay Rosen, who has been teaching journalism at New York University since 1986. He is the author of PressThink, a blog about journalism and its ordeals (www.pressthink.org), which he introduced in September 2003. His 1999 book, What Are Journalists For? (Yale University Press) is about the rise of the civic journalism movement during the pre-internet era. In 2017 he became director of the Membership Puzzle Project, funded by the Knight Foundation, Democracy Fund and Luminate. It studies membership models for sustainability in news. Rosen is also an active press critic with a focus on problems in the coverage of politics. On Twitter he is @jayrosen_nyu. This interview, conducted April 16, 2021, has been edited for flow and clarity.
RBG (Ruth Ben-Ghiat): Many journalists were unprepared for former President Donald Trump's autocratic ways. The asymmetry between the traditional paradigm within which they were operating and Trump's own playbook soon became evident. You expressed this concern very well by pointing out, many times, that the "White House" did not exist, there was only Trump, and thus the conventions of the press-presidential relationship, like the "press briefing," no longer existed.
JR (Jay Rosen): I started to understand that the practices of the White House press were built on assumptions and conventions. Assumptions about how presidents will behave, and the conventions, or forms of practice, that follow from those assumptions. They built up over the entire post-war history of American politics, to a point where the assumptions on which practices were based became invisible, since they were so normal. So, when a president came along who contradicted those assumptions, journalists kept on with the practices because they couldn't trace the construct back to its origins.
An example of this would be: all presidents prior to Trump tried to expand the coalition that elected them. You get elected and then you try and appeal to people who did not vote for you so you can get re-elected. That's how presidents behave and we developed a convention for measuring whether they were succeeding, which was the approval rating. If your approval rating was higher than the percentage of people who voted for you, then you were succeeding. Trump had a completely different idea, which was to maximize polarization in the polity and hope for a bigger half of the crackup he was inspiring.
Another example, important during the pandemic, was that presidents tried not to give out bad information that was unreliable and could injure your health. This doesn't mean they were always truth-tellers, there was always propaganda and spin, and they always avoided mentioning things that weren't good for them, all of that. But disinforming the public about matters of public health? That they tried not to do. When you realize that Trump was perfectly willing to do that if it met some of his other goals, then the argument for another convention - what the president says is news - fell apart. That's why I ended up concluding that simply attending these Covid-19 sessions, which were called briefings but were not, was a bad practice. But the press never got there.
RBG: During the Trump administration the press was caught in a difficult place. They were demonized and threatened by the administration and its followers, but many liberals and the left criticized their coverage and looked to the media to be a savior. They were disappointed - they expected something that the press couldn't or wouldn't deliver.
JR: I do think opponents of the Trump regime over-identified with the press as the proxy for an opposition. And that was a pattern people on the liberal left could fall into, which I think was a mistake. Journalists aren't your friends. They are not part of your coalition and they have no duty to achieve your political goals. To expect the press to function as the opposition is not only unrealistic, but plays into Steve Bannon's hands.
So that was a mistake some critics of the president made. But it is more complicated, because even though [former Washington Post editor] Marty Baron's line, "we're not a war, we're at work," expressed common sense thinking of the journalism profession, it didn't capture the fact that Trump was at war with journalism and was trying to destroy it. Resisting that war on the press as an institution certainly had to be part of journalism's job.
It was frustrating to me that it was hard to get journalists to see that they were in a situation in which democracy, truth, facticity, public knowledge, verification, public records, the whole machinery by which we try to establish what actually happened, and have a common set of facts - all of that was under attack. And it took them a long time to figure out how to stand up for those things. I wrote in November 2020 that they finally figured out that they had to be in that role in the tense weeks when Donald Trump was trying to overturn the election.
RBG: In your latest PressThink piece, you focus on some encouraging developments. You argue that the shock of Trump refusing to concede defeat was a potential "democratic breakthrough” for the press. You call attention to ProPublica's establishment of a "democracy beat," and Votebeat's efforts to educate the press. In doing this, it seems to me that you are following a pro-democracy strategy, shining light on the positive developments and on people who can inspire others.
JR: The reason I did it was not to give a sense of hope. I'm not trying to say there is a trend of a pro-democracy press breaking out. These are isolated signs. But they are encouraging, in one sense. I wrote about a public broadcasting company in central Pennsylvania which decided to keep reminding its audience of the Pennsylvania politicians who went along with the "stop the steal" movement and supported it in some way. I thought this was inspiring because they had a sense of duty, but also because when they published it the world did not cave in. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting did not say, "we will no longer financially support this station." They did not lose their jobs; they were able to take a stronger pro-democracy stance and go on doing their work. So that's what important. It's possible for people to come up with a whole new way of operating from within the original values that drove them into journalism in the first place.
RBG: So, what are you most concerned about right now? Disinformation?
JR: What I'm most concerned about right now is that we have a two-party system and one of the two parties is anti-democratic. And we don't have a political press that knows what to do about that. It's happening in plain sight, it's not a secret, and yet as one of the world's oldest democracies, and as a culture of journalism, we don't know how to react to that. I spend a lot of time thinking about this but I don't have the answers myself.
RBG: It is the problem of asymmetry again, between one model of journalism anchored to democracy and bipartisanship, and the other to far-right politics and shock and grievance journalism - the Tucker Carlson problem.
JR: You can't have the modern Republican party without the media as hate objects right in the middle holding the entire thing together. That's why I say the problem is structural. The way the Republican party is built now, it has to not only rage at the media, but provoke criticism by doing counterfactual things and making crazy claims. Those, of course, result in negative media coverage, which then becomes proof of the media's bias. It is a cycle that is perfectly designed to keep grievances against the media in place as a centerpiece of Republican politics.
RBG: As a press critic, you are immersed in the news and constantly "on." What do you do to keep serene? You are a very clear and lucid thinker.
JR: I watch a lot of gangster movies and movies that present New York the way it used to be before the pandemic. Lately I've also been hunting down a lot of music documentaries that explain how musicians I love got to be the way they are. So, the music of my youth...I'm going back to its roots. I'm listening to a lot of Bob Dylan lately.