Picture a flustered Sean Spicer shouting at the White House press corps just as he did the day after the inauguration. But, sitting in front of him, representing the networks and newspapers, is a room of college interns.
Writing on his blog PressThink.org, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen argues that sending interns to the White House could be a serious step towards forging new trust between the press and the public. He and Brooke discuss this proposal, as well as the rationale for interviewing Kellyanne Conway, where political reporting went awry in 2016, and how the press can re-learn to listen to Americans.
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BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Writing on his blog, PressThink.org, New York University Journalism Professor Jay Rosen noted that after last weekend's spectacular display by Press Secretary Sean Spicer, the case for sending interns to the White House briefing room is stronger than ever. He said there are no good words to describe that – event. We can't call it an announcement because no new policy was revealed. It was not a conference because Spicer didn't take a single question. To the untrained eye, it was merely a tantrum over the press’s coverage of President Trump’s inauguration. So what do we call this?
Rosen says it's a coded, quote, “relationship message delivery vehicle for Trump’s staff, the press and the public. Welcome back to the show.
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Thank you so much, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what message did Spicer's tirade send to Trump’s staff?
PROF. JAY ROSEN: You’re gonna be expected to lie for your boss.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then to the press, the message that the press will be regarded as hate objects.
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Yeah, the press is a kind of a prop, playing a part in a theatrical set piece in which the administration launches resentment bombs [LAUGHS] and assembled journalists kind of behave to type in that they cry about it later on. [LAUGHS] The message was, we can do this to you and what are you gonna do about it?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And we’ll get to what you suggest they do about it in a moment. First, let's talk about that third group of people Spicer was messaging, the viewer at home, which you divide into three distinct groups.
PROF. JAY ROSEN: First, for the Trump supporters one of the messages was that you are going to get something you want, which is we’re gonna put down the press corps, put them in their place. In a way, Brooke, this is fulfilling a campaign promise, but [LAUGHS] in exchange for that, you're gonna have to take on our lies as your lies. People have to decide they're going to either support Trump, no matter what he says, or they’re gonna deal with this really tricky thing of the guy that I supported actually says stuff that’s not true, what do I do? That's painful, that’s hard.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that's to group one, the Trump supporters.
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Trump supporters. Then there was another message to Trump’s [LAUGHS] dedicated opponents, many of whom turned out in the streets the day after the inauguration, which is simply, go nuts, we’re gonna continue with the spectacular lies and there’s going to be day after day of stuff for you to hate. The more extreme you get in your reaction and your rhetoric, the better for us, so do it!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, ‘cause you’ll just embolden our supporters even more. You'll drive them deeper into our arms.
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Totally, yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Then you’ve got the group that fall into neither of the previous two camps.
PROF. JAY ROSEN: I call them the neither/nors.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
PROF. JAY ROSEN: They’re not Trump’s hardcore supporters but they haven't decided that they’re in opposition to him, either. Maybe they’re in wait-and-see mode. Maybe they voted but they're a little bit doubtful, the neither/nors. For those people, the message is, everybody’s shouting again, it's very hard to figure out what's going on, this spectacle is getting uglier, trying to find out who's really right, the people who say there’s no evidence of voter fraud, the people who say, are you kidding, it’s obvious. It would take a lot of work to figure that out, so you should just go on and live your life. And for that group of people, the Trump world is raising what economists call search costs, what it takes you to get enough information to make a good decision. And sometimes we make bad decisions or we act irrationally not because we’re irrational creatures but because the search costs are just so high that we can’t figure out what's going on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But why doesn't the Trump camp, rather than generate this fog machine to further disorient and paralyze the neither/nors, try to attract them?
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Lots of the things that Trump wants to do aren’t necessarily popular, so if you can surround them with fog and confusion and people don’t pay attention as much, you can get a lot more done.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, contributing to this fog of confusion and apathy is Kellyanne Conway.
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Mmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’ve been ensnared in a controversy about her because of remarks you made to the podcast Recode. The Washington Free Beacon wrote, “A journalism professor is calling for a boycott on White House advisor Kellyanne Conway because of her ability to deflect criticism of the administration.” What really happened there, Jay?
PROF. JAY ROSEN: I was asked about Kellyanne Conway, how the press should handle her, and I said that I think the journalistic rationale for continuing to interview her had eroded, in that I could see two reasons why you would continue to have her on. One is because she represents the views of Donald Trump. But frequently, what she says is contradicted by Donald Trump or she’ll say, I don't know, you’ll have to ask him. Well, if we have to ask him, why are we talking to you?
Another reason might be to get clarity on how Trump world thinks, but I don’t know about you, when I’m done listening to Kellyanne Conway, I feel I know less –
- about what Trump world thinks, in the sense that introducing confusion is a part of her method.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It subtracts from the general store of information about Trump.
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Yes, so what I said was, [LAUGHS] if you're gonna continue to interview Kellyanne Conway, the logic has to be somewhat different. One would be entertainment. It is entertaining to watch her fence with Chuck Todd. Another would be we don't want to get criticism for being one-sided so we ask Kellyanne Conway on so we can say the Trump world is represented – avoiding criticism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But in that case, you have to cop to it
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Yeah, you have to say it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That we are doing this for pure numerical balance.
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And we don't expect to get any real information.
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Right, just level with us. Say, this is why we’re doing this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We can’t resist.
PROF. JAY ROSEN: I know the press is gonna continue to interview her.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which brings us back to the White House press room and something you wrote in one of your posts, “Send in the interns.”
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE] You don’t have to serve as a hate object. There’s nowhere it is written that you must do that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: However, it is written in most intern contracts. [LAUGHING]
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Right, if that's all we ask you to do, then that’s what you will do. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There's another reason I love the idea of sending interns, and that’s the optics of it.
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I mean, the younger, the better.
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have Spicer unload –
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - his big guns –
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - on 18-year-olds –
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Uh-huh.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - and blame them for the collapse of civilization.
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Yeah, and maybe they would come up with a different way of fencing with Sean Spicer than the pros do, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: True.
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Maybe they would come up with almost like a Stephen Colbert-ish, you know, misdirection play that would constitute their cultural theater being practiced upon the White House, as opposed to the reverse, so that that’s another –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I love that, super ironic –
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Yeah, whatever.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - people in the newsroom. That would be the best! Let’s get back to that up for grabs, the neither/nors. The silver lining here is that these are people who are not already so subsumed in confirmation bias on either side that they can actually be open to information.
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’m really struck by what you said in one of your posts, when you directed us to make a distinction that sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote about in the 1950s, between troubles and issues.
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Right. Troubles are the things that are actively bothering people in their immediate environment, the problems they can see in their daily lives that they discuss with family members. Issues are public disputes about what to do that are also affected by what the political system needs to mobilize people, create coalitions, avoid criticism. So if journalists just come into the picture after the issues are formulated by somebody else and start reporting on how they get fought about, they are going to miss out on this earlier step, where people's troubles get transformed into issues.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s not political reporting really to go out there. It’s - as you say, it's troubles reporting –
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - so that you don't end up just reporting on someone else's definition of someone else's experience.
PROF. JAY ROSEN: And that's where I think reporting in 2016 fell down, and that's where I think journalists now have to go back and try the big listen and get a very good read on the troubles that led people to be so disgusted with the establishment and some of them to vote for Donald Trump, to go back and fashion out of that a kind of anchoring reporting agenda; they could begin to speak to that third middle group in a way that the Trump administration or Congress is not prepared to do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then you want that to inform all the rest of the reporting, right?
PROF. JAY ROSEN: Yes, an example of this is the Texas Tribune. Their bread and butter is policy reporting, you know, they’re in-
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And data.
PROF. JAY ROSEN: And data. And they’re in the capital a lot. They’re based in Austin. After the election, they put out a job listing for a reporter whose job is specifically to listen to Texans. That’s their whole job, to make sure that the issues talked about in the Texas Tribune don't disconnect from the troubles that Texans feel in their daily lives. So that’s, that’s one way of doing it, to try and go back to that wrong turn when, for example, the pundits on the roundtable say, well, how do you think this is gonna play –
- with the white working class, that’s viewing [LAUGHS] the white working class through the eyes of the consultants and handlers and pollsters, right? They’re objects. They’re like balls on the billiard table. Will they break this way, will they break that way? That way of seeing people was corrosive.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jay, thank you very much.
PROF. JAY ROSEN: You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University and writes about the media on his blog. PressThink.org.