What Went Wrong With Trump and the Media
The business model is pulling in the wrong direction for democracy.
There aren’t a lot of people who have not yet been blamed for the election of Donald Trump.
FBI Director James Comey. Vladimir Putin, Jon Stewart, Sean Hannity, Twitter, Facebook, CNN, Hillary Clinton, the DNC, and oh, Donald Trump. There’s a good case to be made for almost every culprit you can imagine, and a tweetstorm or thinkpiece to lay it out.
This is not going to be one of those pieces. As my colleague Kevin Drum writes, “For the most part, people are just blaming all the stuff they already believed in.” But in the flood of emails that have poured into MoJo since the election, many readers have asked us to dive into one issue in particular—the role of media.
And it happens to be an issue we’re obsessed with. We believe that the business model for media in the United States is broken; that if we’re going to have the kind of journalism that democracy requires, we’re going to need different ways of paying for it; and that critical among those will be reader support in many different forms.
So we’re not going to pussyfoot around: By the end of this piece, we hope you’ll invest in our hard-hitting investigative reporting. And if you’re already in for that, you can do it right now. Meanwhile, let’s take a look at where things stand.
We’re preparing to be governed by a man with a record of contempt for truth and transparency, at a time when every potential countervailing force, from the Democratic Party to the courts, is on the ropes. We’re also headed for nearly unmitigated one-party control of the federal government and a growing number of states.
In the past, the Fourth Estate has been essential at moments like this, holding the powerful accountable until the pendulum swings back toward checks and balances. Whether that can happen this time, though, is not so clear. Because this time, the press itself is among the institutions under strain—and that strain may well be part of what made Trump’s ascent possible.
Here’s what played out during the campaign, and is playing out again in the transition: Individual journalists and individual outlets do amazing work under the most difficult circumstances, facing down virulent abuse in person and on social media. But the larger gravitational forces of the industry pull in the opposite direction. Those forces push us toward the lowest common denominator. They reward outrage and affirm anger—and they don’t incentivize digging deep, explaining complex problems, or exposing wrongdoing.
One person who understands this better than most is…Donald Trump. He knew from the get-go that as a celebrity known for saying outrageous stuff, he could call up any show, anytime, and count on being put on the air because he brought the eyeballs. As CBS chairman Les Moonves put it way back in February, his bomb-throwing “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
Trump could have capitalized on this at any time, but he really hit a perfect-storm moment. Media revenues are under enormous pressure across the board. Newspapers and magazines are battling cheap and free digital competitors. Cable is threatened by cord-cutting. And digital publishers are watching new ad dollars rush over to Facebook and Google.
That made news organizations desperate for eyeballs and content, and Trump gave them both. Airing his interviews, covering his rallies, turning his tweets into posts and his comments into tweets was quick and inexpensive—far less expensive certainly than digging through his business record or analyzing how his campaign has emboldened white nationalists.
When it comes to news, you get what you pay for, and when the answer to that is “zero,” that’s also the value of a lot of what you get in your Facebook feed.
Which brings us to the other part of the perfect storm: social media. Rage (and fear) motivate sharing. Rage-sharing reinforces the beliefs we and our friends already hold, which makes us want to signal those beliefs even more. Each “OMFG, Trump just_______” pushes the button again, and motivates.
And it’s not just media organizations that noticed Trump driving the clicks and shares. A network of bottom-feeders, bots, and outright provocateurs have discovered that you can cash in on ad networks by simply making up fake news stories that will spread wildly on social media. And what a coincidence that we didn’t learn until after the election that Facebook had a way to tamp down fake news, but held back because it was terrified of a conservative backlash. Google likewise waited until after the election to kick fake-news sites out of its ad network; Twitter didn’t crack down on far-right accounts until November 15. That really bodes well for the future decisions of companies that govern our digital life (and know more about each of us than the National Security Agency ever will).
The last part of the perfect storm was—is—the evisceration of newsrooms. There are, give or take, 40 percent fewer journalists in America than there were a decade ago, and there are about to be even fewer as companies cut back dramatically post-election. Univision is shedding more than 200 jobs, many of them at millennial-aimed Fusion; the Guardian is in the process of reducing its US newsroom by 30 percent, the Wall Street Journal is trimming positions and consolidating sections, and the New York Times has said it has a newsroom downsizing coming in January.
For those journalists who remain, the pressure will only increase—to bring eyeballs, but also avoid offense. Because while big media companies feed on controversy, they are terrified of being targets of controversy themselves. They built big audiences and revenue streams on a style of journalism that avoids any semblance of a point of view, so as not to drive any part of the audience away. Trump’s attacks on journalists as biased are designed to reinforce that fear. That’s one reason why for much of the campaign his lies weren’t called out, his falsehoods weren’t fact-checked—because that would have appeared like injecting a point of view.
Grim, right? Here’s another link where you can support our work during these challenging times with a monthly or one-time gift (along with a Harvard study showing that the act of giving may promote happiness).
In the end, political journalism is deeply conservative—not in the partisan sense, but in the sense of being invested in institutions, ways of doing things, and the foundational belief that the system works and destructive forces will be neutralized in due time. That was what made it hard to imagine a Trump win, or to recognize Bernie Sanders’ movement as more than the usual protest candidacy.
And it’s what now is driving coverage inexorably toward normalization. Already, public radio hosts banter as they inform us that Steve Bannon, a man who ran an openly race-baiting website, has become the senior White House strategist; already People, just weeks after publishing a harrowing article about its own writer’s experience of being assaulted by Trump, has compiled “27 Photos of Ivanka Trump’s Family That Are Way Too Cute.”
Demagogues are dependent on a compliant media. It is the air they breathe, the fuel they run on. They rely on it to legitimize their lies and give their bombast a veneer of respectability. They deploy it to bestow favors and mete out punishment. And they will not abide disrespect from the press, because it’s contagious.
Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire and Trump champion, showed one way of punishing journalists when he spent millions on the lawsuit that shut down Gawker. (Mother Jones was a target of similar litigation—though we won.) There will be many other opportunities, from rewriting transparency laws like the Freedom of Information Act to defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. (So in addition to supporting Mother Jones with a monthly or one-time gift, consider pitching in for your local public media station.)
We need an alternative—and we need it now.
Back to where we started: The business model is broken when it comes to ensuring the kind of journalism democracy requires. In the uncertain, dangerous times ahead, we’ll need something better, and a lot of it.
We’ll need media that doesn’t have to bargain for access or worry about backlash.
We’ll need media that isn’t dependent on giving bigots a platform. (CNN expects to make $1 billion this year—in large part thanks to election coverage that had many high moments, but also employed paid Trump operative Corey Lewandowski.)
We’ll need media that doesn’t sell out its own for political ends. (Remember when Fox News’ Megyn Kelly had to “make up” with Trump after nearly a year of bullying and threats?)
We’ll need reporters who can chase after what is shaping up to be cronyism and corruption of epic proportions, and who can stand up to the intimidation that is bound to ensue.
We’ll need a business model that—to circle all the way back to Les Moonves—isn’t dependent on pumping up the eyeballs at any cost.
That’s what we are determined to build here at MoJo.
We don’t claim to have all the answers on where things go from here. But we know a free, fearless press is an essential part of it, and that means doubling down on the investigative reporting that readers like you have demanded, and supported, for 40 years.
Instead of focusing on the controversies that Trump and other politicians spoon-feed the press (over here, five candidates for secretary of state! No here, a fresh Twitter rant against the New York Times!), we’ll dig into the stories they want to keep secret. We’ll go after the unprecedented conflicts of interest and corruption wherever they arise. (These, as you well know, are not limited to either party.)
We’ll expose the danger to vulnerable communities like immigrants and religious minorities, while also exploring how people are organizing and fighting back. We’ll listen to people whose voices aren’t heard enough—including the working-class people who voted for Trump because he promised them better times. And we will ask you, our readers, what else is important to cover now—your input is key as we all find our way in this new landscape.
Whatever the story is, we won’t be held back by timidity or fear of controversy. The only thing that limits us are the resources we have to hire reporters, send them into the field, and give them the time and job security they need to go deep.
That’s where your tax-deductible monthly or one-time donation makes all the difference. (So does subscribing to our magazine, giving a gift subscription—we have some great holiday savings going on—or signing up for our newsletters.) A full 70 percent of Mother Jones’ revenue comes from reader support. It’s the core of the business model we think will be critical to saving watchdog journalism. And many of you agree: Since the election we’ve been seeing unprecedented support from readers who have flocked to our site to read, subscribe, donate, and share their thoughts about where we need to go from here.
And let’s take one more step. While it’s critically important to shore up independent reporting, you’re going to want to take action in other ways too. Here are some things we’re thinking about as we head toward the holidays.
Many of you will talk—and listen—to people you disagree with, to understand where they’re coming from and maybe find the tiniest sliver of common ground. Arlie Hochschild did that in our cover story about Trump voters, and she saw many of the trends others in the media missed. Some of you might want to try to open up your Facebook feeds to people you differ with; we put together a list of tools to get out of your “filter bubbles.” And one of our editors, James West, has started a project where he’s friending all the Trump supporters he interviewed this year. He’ll tell their stories as that evolves.
Finally, we’re remembering to be thankful—not least, to you. Mother Jones as you know it today is the result of a big, risky bet at a moment not unlike this one—2006, when we were looking at media that had failed to challenge a war-mongering government’s lies and a digital news landscape where hot takes had overtaken original reporting. We asked you, our readers, to help us counter that trend, to build a 24/7 digital operation and a newsroom to go after the big stories of the day. And you did.
Ten years later, at a moment of even more radical upheaval, many of you have told us that you want to be part of a movement that builds a bigger, stronger independent journalism scene. Thanks to you, we are ready.
MoJo will need to be stronger, more agile, and even more fearless in an environment that’s growing more dangerous to journalism and democracy. Let’s go.