Media Critic Calls On Journalists To Be Obedient Stenographers

from the wtf? dept

Media critic Michael Wolff has a fairly long history of being hilariously wrong about just about everything. It's sort of his thing. He also has a history of being a ridiculously bad journalist in those rare moments when he tries to do journalism. We normally ignore him, but last week he said something so ridiculous and so crazy, that it deserved calling out. He called on journalists to be stenographers to those in power. Literally.
I think what’s required is for the media to do its job. I feel deeply the media hasn’t done its job. It’s abdicated its responsibility, has lost itself somewhere. Right now it’s an interesting moment where the media looks at Donald Trump as a threat instead of a story, possibly the biggest story of our time. Certainly a story that needs to be told in rather conventional ways. Who are these people, what motivates them, where are they from, where are they going — just basic storytelling.

I thought these people have won an election, so now is the time to go in and say who are you and what do you think. We are not in an oppositional moment right now; that has passed. I actually asked very few questions. I said tell me who you are. He talked and I took notes. Yes, you do want to be stenographers. That’s a very significant piece of journalism. We don’t want to hear [the reporter]. Write it down. You’re there to literally convey what someone in power says, and you bring it to people who want to know. Journalism is now a profession filled with people who are not journalists. They’re all under 25, talking to people under the age of 25. Let me send the message: stenographer is what you’re supposed to be.

[The move against normalizing Trump actions and language] are just institutional biases. This is formally saying we are biased and want to be biased, we are judge and jury.
This is wrong and idiotic on so many levels. First of all, a big part of the problem is that journalists have been stenographers for way too long. Their ridiculous "view from nowhere" where "person A says X, but person B says Y" journalism, without ever delving which is correct between X & Y, is a huge part of the problem. Calling bullshit on bullshit is not "bias." It's called accurately informing people. But Wolff apparently thinks we've had enough of that.

For years, calling journalists "stenographers" was a punchline to highlight how feckless many journalists had become, where they looked to pull punches to retain "access." There's a reason you have lots of articles online mocking journalists because they became stenographers. There's a reason that Stephen Colbert got such big laughs by calling White House correspondents stenographers. Because it was all too accurate:
Let's review the rules. Here's how it works. The President makes decisions. He's the decider. The Press Secretary announces the decisions. And you people of the press type those decisions down. Make. Announce. Type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you've got kicking around in your head. You know the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know: fiction.
Back when he performed that, it was satire. Now here's Wolff saying the same thing seriously. This is how far we've come.

The good thing about this election was that it finally shocked some reporters out of this mode, and it's insane to argue that that was the mistake. There is some truth in the fact that reporters got too focused on Trump, the person, as opposed to focusing on actual issues and policies, but to argue that they should just be stenographers is insane. Politicians thrive on misleading the press and Trump is an expert at it. He's the king of "hey, look over there" whenever any legitimate story against him comes out. He plays the press like a banjo. And, while I'm not convinced they'll figure out how to counter that and to do what the real press should do -- which is hold Trump accountable -- the idea that their role should be stenographers is insane.

Filed Under: donald trump, journalism, michael wolff, reporting, stenographers, truth


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Nov 2016 @ 11:24am

    Three Tiers of Reporting

    The problem is that all sorts of stuff, from blog-style op-eds to baseball scores, gets lumped in as "the media". Off the cuff, there should be 1-3 tiers of coverage per piece.

    The base tier is the raw take with a basic, neutral, short synopsis. Covering a press conference? Provide a link to unedited audio or video of the press conference. Covering the latest dump from Wikileaks? Link to the documents that you are summarizing. Covering something that appeared in other media (mass media, social media, whatever)? Provide the raw other material, both as a link and as a screenshot or other capture (in case the original is deleted). Basically, provide the proof behind the synopsis. "Unnamed sources" need not apply -- use that for some gossip rag.

    The second tier is fact-checking and cross-referencing. Covering a press conference? Identify the sources of all facts cited at that conference (or indicate that the party making the statements declined to provide evidence), plus provide links to term definitions and other related explanatory material. Covering the latest dump from Wikileaks? Provide cross-references to other supporting material that refer to the same people/places/things/events. Covering something that appeared in other media? Identify the sources of those facts (or indicate that the party making the statements declined to provide evidence), plus provide links to term definitions and other related explanatory material.

    The third tier is analysis, which inevitably winds up involving some degree of opinion. This analysis needs to build upon the first two tiers (no hand-waving). Include cross-references to other analyses on related topics.

    But the key to all of this is that the results need to be a living document.

    The first tier should be able to be assembled fairly quickly. Get it up and posted, with placeholders for the remaining tiers (and ETAs, where applicable). Add in the fact-check/cross-reference work progressively, with timelines showing the changes. Add in the analysis for those topics that warrant after the first two tiers are complete... and if new evidence comes in, update the materials and deprecate (mark as outdated) analyses until they can themselves be updated.

    Mass media is too used to creating ephemeral work product: the article, the blog post, the 90-second segment for the 5pm news broadcast. Something a bit more like Wikipedia/Wikinews would go a long way towards showing enough of "how the sausage gets made" to help rebuild trust.


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