Journalism Abolishes Itself

This excellent Swiss take on the American presidential election was published last week in the Basler Zeitung. The author examines the reasons why virtually every media outlet, every pundit, every journalist, every expert — on both sides of the Atlantic — got it so wrong in the weeks leading up to the election.

Many thanks to JLH for the translation:

A Profession Abolishes Itself

by Markus Somm
November 12, 2016

Trump and the consequences. Why didn’t the journalists see it coming?

As it is in a cult — The reporters didn’t detect it, because they didn’t want to.

If there are losers from this insane election in America, who do not live in America, but in London, Paris, Zurich, Berlin or Munich, and who populate the appropriate cafés, where the familiar vintage scent can be savored, where bearded young men usually sit and are busy searching their I-Phones, although they really have nothing to do, where there are no books to be seen — just laptops — If there are losers, it is these people (predominantly men) of whom I am speaking, who are also sitting here — mostly without beards, in suits but no tie, pursuing the same profession as I: the international community of journalists. Seldom have the interpreters and opinion-makers suffered such a defeat as in the election of Donald J. Trump to be president of the United States — the man who from the start refused to be afraid of the media.

According to a study by the Center for Public Integrity — an independent think-tank, American journalists donated $396,000 in the presidential election. $382,000 or 96% went to Hillary Clinton. Almost all of the newspapers and news websites in America declared for the Democratic candidate. Almost all television sources followed suit even if not officially, and even conservative Fox News was split. And of course in Europe, where the media are even more in agreement on almost every subject, Hillary was the choice.

If only that were all. A mistake was made, someone was wrong. You’re allowed to make a mistake. Harsher and more unpleasant is the admission no journalist can make. We have no influence — or rather, we do have influence — everybody hears us, but no one believes what we say.

In the Cult

The international cult of journalists could console themselves that it was just about opinions that did not apply; that opinions were less important than facts and reports. But the media also distorted, ignored, suppressed, invented or falsely presented the facts. For example, the polls, which most journalists did not merely believe, but bore aloft before them like a monstrance. Anyone who doubted these prognoses was regarded as a member of the Flat Earth Society. There was a memorable exchange between Brianna Keilar, a CNN reporter, and Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s lawyer.

Keilar said, almost cheerfully: “You guys are down.”

“Says who?” answered Cohen, and his face was as readable as a steel plate — as only American lawyers can do it.

“Polls. Most of them. All of them!”

Cohen was quiet for a long time, then: “Says who?”

“Polls. I just answered your question,” and now she sounded a little desperate.

“Which polls?”

“All of them.”

This sequence spread like lightning in the internet. Countless variations popped up, making fun of Cohen — the supposed idiot. But who was right? Who is laughing best? The same is true of the fact-checkers — a new profession in America, in which people claim to be testing facts for their truth content. A closer look reveals that these people, too, are not neutral or objective, Many of their judgments — delivered with the serious mien of a physicist — are based on their preferences, and these are almost always in favor of Hillary Clinton.

The Normative Power of the Factual?

If this election has made anything clear, it is the undependability of the media. It happened to me, too. Often, when some statement of Trump had brought every editorial office on the East Coast into vibration, the only thing I could do was to listen to the original interview. Almost invariably, Trump’s words had been repeated inexactly, if not incorrectly, or exaggerated maliciously. When there was any doubt, the most negative possible interpretation was chosen. In short, whatever it took to stop this man — no holds barred. Editorials, opinions, pictures, quotations, reports, facts — much too much was bent, manipulated, twisted and squeezed, until reality appeared as it was predicted that it should be. The normative power of the factual? Rather, it was the factual effect of the normative. Not what is, but what ought to be, had become what was.

Having been swamped by structural changes as if by a mudslide, losing them thousands of readers, the American media are now on the verge of being inundated and charred as if by a lava flow. It is the lava of total irrelevance. Whatever journalists advised, the voters did not care. Whatever they reported, many Americans disbelieved.

We Are All So Nice

Why did it get so far, not just in America, but also in Europe? We are familiar with it, right here in Switzerland. For decades, all our media journalists (with few exceptions, me too for a long time) have approvingly commented and reported on joining the EU. The voters have never gone that far. In the end, no one believed us journalists [when we said] that joining the Union would be better for our country. Since then, many journalists have been limping along. They don’t comment on the EU anymore.

A tentative explanation. The 96% for Hillary Clinton in America indicates the answer. We journalists are too unanimous. The competition of opinions and the struggle for the best argument, philosophic differences — including genuine, deep things that cause pain when mentioned, as well as partisan sensitivities — they are almost non-existent in our milieu. With specific reference to Switzerland: There are hardly any journalists who vote SVP [Swiss People’s Party], a few of the undaunted for FDP [Free Democratic Party], almost no one for CVP [Christian Democratic People’s Party], while most of them are for SP [Social Democratic Party], although they may often vote Green or GreenLiberal because that seems more original. In short: They are almost all Middle-Left, if not actually on the leftist fringe. Their opinions are like those in a cult. Prophet-less, they pray to the same god.

The consequence — and this, not the preference itself, is the problem — is that we no longer recognize the world as it is. Anyone who takes refuge in a cult is constantly reassured by like-minded people, that two plus two is five. It is the blind asking the blind if the sun is shining.

The Great Consensus

Certainly it is possible to object: But Donald Trump is, objectively seen, a disaster. Perhaps. But in every trial there is an accuser and a defender. The Romans long ago assumed that the truth is best recognized when things are observed from two diametrically opposite directions. Have we ever seen 96 accusers versus four defenders? Would we think it fair, but also consider it epistemologically useful, if the accuser were given 96 minutes to speak and the defender only four minutes?

Because we journalists, whether here or in America, are unanimous in all questions, especially those which concern the broad segments of the population, and which those “forgotten people” often answer differently than we, many of us are incapable of seeing what is happening before our eyes. Journalists from New York flew to Ohio, to investigate the natives, but they found nothing. They returned with the same pre-judgments they had set off with. The reporters did not intuit that a majority of the people in Ohio leaned toward Trump, because they didn’t want to know it.

I repeat. Everywhere in the West, there are more and more people for whom the amount of immigration has become too much. Almost all journalists are of the opposite opinion and like to report that those who are worried are basing their opinion on false numbers, are afflicted by false emotions, are driven by hatred, are molded by prejudices or are just plain stupid. And anyway, immigration is good. Wasn’t the BBC founded by foreigners? And Nestlé and Maggi?

As in a cult, the milieu of journalists develops recognizable opinions whose function is less as an interesting opinion, than as a social one. These are signs of membership in the milieu of journalists. A journalist is not someone who writes and researches, but someone who believes that the immigration is good.

Do not misunderstand me. It is not about immigration in and of itself, and also not about Trump or Brexit, or about the EU, or the question of to what extent climate change is destroying us. There can be divided opinion on all these things. No, it is about a profession that is so one-sided that it is doing away with itself, because journalists can no longer report on what is moving the world and what is happening in it, but only on what is affecting them themselves. And that is a small world.

23 thoughts on “Journalism Abolishes Itself

  1. “Says who?” answered Cohen, and his face was as readable as a steel plate — as only American lawyers can do it. [«Says who?» – «Sagt wer?», fragte Cohen, und sein Gesicht blieb zugänglich wie eine Stahlplatte, in jener Art, wie das nur amerikanische Anwälte fertigbringen.]

    This enigmatic passage brings up two topics I have never considered before: the readability of steel plates, and the allegedly well-known talent of American lawyers for facially impersonating a steel plate. Are steel plates hard to read, or easy to read? Hard to read when blank, but easy to read when something is written on them. Readability is not a concept that even applies to steel plates, is it? Can anybody figure out what this passage means? Is there some famous German saying about the communicativeness of steel plates?

  2. I suppose this metaphor would infuriate many Americans. But it’s something all Europeans would instantly recognize. It’s admittedly strange, but European faces somehow seem more pliable, like there are 10,000,000 possible subtle expressions, and in the US (but also anywhere in North & South America) the face is ‘shut-face’, implacable, unmoving, as if frozen. Very similar I suppose to the native American facial form. Regrettably Europeans falsely think this reflects an implacable intransigence of attitude or a resistant religiosity in ‘Americans’. So all of that feeds into the steel plate image of the frozen American face. Really, it’s a very common European belief, just ask any Brit. Of course though they think it’s only ‘Americans’, but it characterizes all of North & South America. D. H. Lawrence wrote about such an implacable violence at the core of American identity. But then his novels set in Mexico evoke this even stronger. As a Canadian I’m always amazed at how expressive European faces seem, even the stilted British seem hugely varied.

    • I find the phrase superlatively Germanic and satisfactorily projectionist.

      It’s source, if it is established idiom and not creative writing, is no doubt a comment on Wood’s painting and everything that means. Or maybe they have watched too much Law and Order.

      If I think of US lawyers, cheap cable advertising, ambulances, inopportune flashes of garishly white teeth and the whiskey-gelcap jitters come to mind.

      Otherwise, Americans have always been broadly known for their gregarious friendliness, be they students or businessmen in Chinos. There was/is a basic happiness and satisfaction with life that I suppose is very one-dimensional.

    • Thank you, Stephen J Carter, Mark H, and Sally, for your explanation of the expression “his face was as readable as a steel plate”. A steel plate can be either easily readable or not readable at all, depending on whether anything is written on it. It turns out that what was meant was “his face was as readable as *a face made of* a (rigid) steel plate”. Such a face would have unmovable facial muscles and would be very inexpressive and unreadable.

      Here I took “steel plate” literally, not as a face-type. Coincidentally, a half hour ago I read ,
      which says “I have a vague hunch that part of the Flynn Effect is that people over the last century have learned to take things more literally from having to deal ever more with machine logic, which makes them better at taking IQ tests.” So I didn’t understand this expression because my mind was too cyborg-like.

      By the way, I have never noticed that New World faces are less expressive than faces elsewhere in the world, but henceforth I’ll be on the lookout for evidence to confirm or contradict this claim.

  3. In at least one case, Cox Enterprises, they really would have had little choice but to lean toward Clinton on general principle, i.e. better a bad Democrat than any other.

    As for people from New York understanding political drifts in Ohio, it might be as simple as, “That bunch has been in office long enough — high time for something else.”

    On the other hand, Ohio claims eight presidents and some potential ones. It seems unlikely that it would be easy to comprehend.

    • Interesting, when considering that Ohio has never been lawfully admitted to the Union of States, (q.v.).

  4. If I was employed as a journalist, I would tell my mother I was a piano-player in a whore house. Much more respectable occupation.

  5. Overcomplification. Admit that there is a conspiracy going on influencing the governments for demolishing western civilization and the media hotshots and politicians are being brainwashed in universities for some decades by behind the scene powers. Those reporters knowingly sold themselves, some for an easy, lucrative job, some for promised positions, money or job security and willingly tried to serve the “powers behind the curtain” by any means necessary. There is no way that so many idiots could get influential positions holding so many weird opinions and being so organized in their lies and attacks. The average reporter either toes the line or out of their jobs and that’s enough to reach the 96 percent majority. They did not make mistakes, they did not misread the facts, they were only beaten because there is still more decent Deplorables who didn’t believe their lies and choose to speak up and vote. Thankfully there is Breitbart, Gates of Vienna and such sources we can get real news, and more importantly there was Mr. Trump to give us a voice. Would have been up to any of the other candidates, everything would have stayed the same. Unfortunately the establishment won’t give up easily and rest assured that they will try hard to bring the new government in line.

    • I’m not convinced that’s the whole picture, Tom. The veteran BBC journalist John Humphrys said in an interview a couple of years ago, that the organisation has long attracted graduates in, eg, humanities, who tend to be broadly on the centre left. So not so much a conspiracy as like the self-reinforcing cult referred to above.

      Hence their disbelief and denial at the Brexit vote,let alone Trump’s victory.

  6. No, it is about a profession that is so one-sided that it is doing away with itself, because journalists can no longer report on what is moving the world and what is happening in it, but only on what is affecting them themselves. And that is a small world.

    Mr Somm, I appreciate your perspective.

    I, the non-journalist, perceive that government by the people–parliamentary, constitutional, representative republic, and so on–can NOT function properly WITHOUT a proper press. You have stated very well the illness.

    Will someone suggest the remedy, any remedy?

    • The real problem is funding, professional writers need to eat, and the money is only there for those who write what the ‘money men’ want to hear.

      The remedy is to ensure that writers of truths don’t starve. this blog is ‘crowd funded’ and can therefore write truth. If it was sponsored, then it would have to write what the sponsors want.

      The answer is that we of liberal conservative values must be prepared to donate to the alternative media wherever we find it.

      The opposition is rich and powerful because the elites make sure that it is well funded, it is the way that their voice, and only their voice is heard.

      If I wrote as a shill for Soros I woukd be a very unhappy but well fed person, as it is, most of my time is spent writing and repairing 40 year old software so my literary output is limited by the need not to starve, there is no money in writing for the ‘right’, it has to be a labour of love.

      There is a remedy, but it means all of us taking an action, or better still. a monthly subscription…..

      • …most of my time is spent writing and repairing 40 year old software…

        Ouch! I was a programmer in a mainframe lab 25 years ago, but had the luck of doing application support for quality assurance. I feel your pain.

        Thanks, MC.

    • May I be so bold as to correcting your opinion of Journalists being professional. My understanding of the meaning of professional is ,to deny ones own ego (opinion) to execute ones task. ……in this case reporting facts .They would not know how to tell the truth if it came up and bit them on the backside

  7. “…journalists can no longer report on what is moving the world….only on what is affecting them themselves.”

    The word for such people is narcissist. They are narcissists. It would be more accurate to say that they live in a condition of group narcissism. On an individual level they may well be able to see their colleagues, friends, lovers, wives and husbands as more than objects, as other separate individuals of worth. But beyond the group? Beyond the profession? Objects. Subhuman things. How else to explain the obtuseness to the very real suffering of “the deplorables?” How else explain the blindness to the palpable rage building for decades in the common people – to them the herd – in Europe and America? Or, to the extent it is noticed it is immediately discounted as primitive, incomprehensibly repugnantly primitive. Of course the New York journalists who flew to Ohio to “investigate the natives” learned nothing! What can group narcissists learn from insects?

    As to a remedy? Possibly the sudden total economic implosion of the entire West. But that would be quite the steep price to pay, yes?

  8. Eastern European Countries that have recently been freed from the yoke of communist rule…are inoculated from the scheisse that the soft poodles and inbred , effeminate western pundits accept as truth. The new frontier is that gigantic land mass called Russia. If Putin opens his borders to intelligent..hard working..TRADITIONAL peoples; the world may still be a place where some human beings can live decent , productive lives. The confused ; so called Elite fops { both about their sexuality as well as fundamental economics } can expire in Western Europe as the fourteen hundred year scourge on humanity ” Islam ” sucks dry…what is left of their culture and wealth. Good riddance to the fools who elected Merkel and Hollande. The world is a ” JOKE “

  9. This cult mentality of the journalists is a bit like schizophrenia. They describe a world that doesn’t exist (populated by fictional characters like the White Supremacist©, the Islamophobe), where slavery is still practiced by white heterosexual males, everything is the fault of the West and virtue signal it to everybody out there that theirs is the correct view, the correct opinion. And they expect us all to play their “Emperor has new clothes” skit.
    The Truth trumped the narrative.

    The proper way to handle this is… at the ballot box. Nothing will tell them better how irrelevant they became than moving the Country and the World in the opposite direction of their “goodthinkingness”.

    Every time I get a bit down, from now on I’ll stop and think “oh yeah, Trump won”.
    Faith in Humanity restored!

  10. I can’t say that I did a thorough study, but the author’s point about how often Trump’s statements were distorted or exaggerated in a way that made him sound loony, was something that really impressed me in the course of the campaign, every time I had a chance to compare what he actually said with the media’s take on it. Of course that isn’t new. One always knew that the media was, or could be biased (at least since about the age of 15), and just how willfully biased, really hit me during the coverage of the Nicaraguan election of Violetta Chamarro, when she ran against Daniel Ortega during the Presidency of George H.W. Bush. The press tried to present her as a marginal candidate, even with poll numbers of 45 vs 55 per cent; and the local paper (in the People’s Republic or Maryland) dismissed Bush’s reasons for thinking the poll might be wrong (i.e. intimidation by the Ortega government) as “Too stupid to repeat”. The New York Times did allow an Op-Ed piece presenting that line of reasoning. That was the first time that it really hit me how allergic the press was to even repeating views that differed from theirs. Then, Chamarro won the election 55 to 45%, the exact opposite of what the polls had shown, and the media people couldn’t figure out how they could have gotten it wrong. To me, it was obvious, their prejudices got in the way of the facts, i.e. reality.

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