From fake news to a lying White House, the media has a difficult job right now, says Will Oremus.

Will Oremus on Covering the News When It Is the News

Will Oremus on Covering the News When It Is the News

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June 13 2017 12:06 PM

Fox News, Filter Bubbles, and Fake News

Slate’s Will Oremus on when the news is the news.

White House briefing room
Reporters ask questions as National Economic Director Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin unveil a tax reform proposal on April 26.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

From Fox News’s conspiracy-mongering to social media’s filter bubbles, the media is often as newsworthy as the stories it covers these days. In this Slate Extra podcast—which is exclusive to Slate Plus members—Chau Tu talks with Slate staff writer Will Oremus about his approach to critiquing the Fourth Estate, why he thinks Sean Spicer is actually doing a pretty good job, and how technology might help fix our nation’s filter bubble problems.

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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Chau Tu: Your writing on Slate has changed a bit in the past few months. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you’re focusing on since Trump started?

Will Oremus: Right. Before Trump was elected, my beat was technology and the internet, now my beat is the media, mainly. I still write about the tech and the internet, and I write about the ways they intersect with the media, but first and foremost I’m writing about the media.

What are some of the similarities that you’ve seen between these two beats? Are there any similarities?

There are a lot of differences. I think the idea to have me cover the media in the Trump era came partly from the fact that it’s just always been an interest of mine and I’ve always been weighing in on our Slack discussions with thoughts about what’s going on in the media. But it’s also because one of my big focuses on the technology beat was the way that different internet platforms are changing the incentives for the media and just around how we communicate with each other in general. The playing field is being changed by these big tech companies. That was the entry point for me to the media beat, which is: How is technology changing the media? How is technology shaping how the news gets covered?

From there, it turns out that there’s just so much to write about on a more traditional framing of the media beat that I’ve been doing a lot of writing about the mainstream media as well.

Right, because the media has become a really big story since Trump started. I mean, how do you think the media is doing in terms of covering the president and his various scandals and controversies?

I think there are a lot of notable ways in which media coverage has changed, but before I go into those, I should give a caveat, which is also a spoiler by the way, of a story that I’ve been planning to write, which is that I think this term “the media,” which I myself use and we all use, is really useless these days. In fact, it probably confuses more than it illuminates.

When you talk about the media maybe 50 years ago, people knew what you were talking about—you were talking about a few major broadcast networks, you were talking about the major metro newspapers across the country. Then came cable news and suddenly the media started to mean different things whether you were watching Fox News or CNN or MSNBC. Now with the internet, the media can mean so many different things. Is there any useful category that contains both Breitbart and the New York Times? Or, that contains a podcast by an alt-right guy from his living room in Oklahoma, and CNN?

I think to talk about how the media is covering Trump, it is really hard to do because there are so many different media. But I think if you’re talking about the mainstream media—the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN—I think what they’ve had to do is adapt to a world in which everything that the White House says, there’s no longer a presupposition that it’s either true or that it’s even been really vetted or carefully considered. That was a presupposition that was really a bedrock of political reporting for a long time and the idea that because the White House said something, that it conveyed some sort of authority, was very powerful. You could still question it, but to question the truth of it, there was a high-bar for that. It was rare that you would actually attack the truth or the validity of what the White House or the president was saying.

Now, you can’t help but ask that of everything that Donald Trump says. So many times he has said things that are just patently untrue. That really poses a challenge because when you call him a liar, then some people will see it as a partisan attack and Trump himself and his deputies have encouraged the public to see that as a partisan attack when he gets called a liar in the mainstream media. Then, they respond by calling the mainstream media fake news and it becomes this weird scenario. I mean, the administration talked about how the media is really the opposition party, and I think, to a large extent that’s become true, the fake news media if you’re a Trump supporter versus the lying president if you are a liberal. It’s a weird state of affairs that I think is fascinating and troubling.

You did used to focus on technology and the internet, and right after the election, there was a lot of talk about fake news and there was some criticism toward companies like Facebook, accusing them of helping them of helping them spread this. What do you think of that? Are these social media companies to blame?

They’re probably to blame somewhat. That’s not the most important word here. I think what social media has done and, maybe Facebook in particular, but Twitter and other social media as well, is they have changed the rules for how you communicate and they’ve changed the rules for how people get their news and information.

Facebook likes to portray itself as this neutral platform. They are bunch of engineers who build some tools that people can use to communicate with each other, but the reality is, tools are never neutral. I mean, tools always lend themselves to certain functions and they’re not very useful for other functions, and so having a nuanced discussion with somebody on a complex topic is not something that the tools of social media are particularly good for. Coming up with a witty one-liner that reduces a complex topic in a funny way or particularly in a way that resonates with people’s partisan biases, that’s something that social media is a really good tool for. Social media changes the nature of discourse.

Again, I don’t think it’s so much a matter of blame, but I think it’s really important to look carefully at the ways in which these media platforms bias the way we talk to each other and to understand that. I do think that there is some responsibility on the part of these companies if they realize that they’re biasing the public conversation in a destructive way, to think about how they could try to not do that.

Going back to the mainstream media, you wrote a great feature on Fox News and how it’s been downplaying Trump’s scandals and losing its grip on viewers because of that. So what’s going on there at Fox News?

Fox News has been really interesting for me to follow in the past few months. I have never been a big cable news viewer and, to digress for a second, the media beat is a challenge for me because a lot of people in the media beat have been in the media forever, they know it inside and out, they have been top editors, they’ve wrestled with questions of sourcing and objectivity, and all that kind of stuff, in a way that I haven’t. So, there’s this steep learning curve for me on the media beat, and there are aspects of it I just stay out of because I don’t think I could write originally or intelligently on them yet. I don’t know enough. The story of how an online publication, The Intercept, may have allowed the alleged leaker Reality Winner to be compromised, that’s a story I chose not to cover because I just thought, “I’d rather hear from someone on this who is an expert on sourcing, on off-sec, and not just somebody who is new to the media beat and thinks they should write about it because it’s a media story.” I’ve tried to be careful in that respect.

This is a long way of winding around to the point that while I’m not a long-time student of, or expert on cable news, the fact that a lot of Slate readers don’t watch Fox News—that they avoid it like the plague in fact—I think creates an opportunity for me. It’s unfortunate in a way because I don’t want to watch Fox News either, but by subjecting myself to Fox News on a regular basis, I’m able to almost treat that part of the beat as a foreign correspondent kind of thing. I mean, Fox News is the most watched cable channel in the country, it is hugely influential in the way large swaths of the country think about what’s going on in our politics and in our culture, and yet, it’s ignored by so much of what Fox News would call “the coastal elite.” So, I treat it as a chance to visit this world of the news as filtered through Fox News’s lens and then report back to the bubble, the coastal elite media bubble, on what are they saying and what do we make of it and where is it coming from and where might they have some legitimate points and where might they be subtly distorting the news in ways that we should know about, given how much of the country is getting their news this way.

Fox News, I think, one of the fascinating things about it has been that in the immediate wake of Trump’s election, Fox News did great. I mean, it was an all-time record ratings. Trump voters and Trump supporters were so excited to tune in and see he was going to make America great again. Then, as the narrative for Trump started to sour, Fox News had a real problem because cheerleading for Trump doesn’t fly at this point in his presidency with his approval rating as low as it is, and so what they’ve had to do instead is go back to the story of Hillary Clinton’s corruption again and again even though she’s not particularly relevant to today’s debate. You’ll see a lot of criticism of Hillary Clinton to this day on Fox News. Then, they’ve also had to almost cook up alternate storylines to follow, one of which was this Seth Rich conspiracy theory, the idea that this young DNC staffer had been killed for somehow leaking Hillary’s emails or the DNC’s emails. It’s gotten them in all sorts of trouble and their ratings have suffered.

At the same time, they sometimes cover stories that the mainstream media are neglecting because they’re not obsessed with Trump in the way that CNN and MSNBC are. The Manchester terror attack happened, and CNN and MSNBC already had their night full of Trump coverage planned and so they really struggled, I think, to juggle the relative import of the Manchester attacks with the ongoing Trump saga. Fox News was really happy to have something to cover other than Trump’s scandals—not that they were happy that the attacks happened—but I think you can almost see the sigh of relief as the Fox News anchors slid back into their element. “Here’s a story we know how to cover and we know that our audience cares about.” Fox News actually won the ratings that night.

Another media story you were following pretty closely was the role of the public editor at the New York Times. That position has been on for a while, but when Liz Spayd took it over last year she got a lot of criticism. Then, recently the paper actually decided to eliminate the position entirely. Can you tell us a little bit more about what happened there?

Well, to back up for just a second, I have written a fair amount of criticism of the New York Times in my new beat and so that people can understand why that is, [it’s] not because I think the New York Times sucks, it’s not because I hate them or have an axe to grind.

One of the ways that I conceive of Slate as an institution is that when Slate started in the 1990s, my favorite part of the journalism world was the local alt weekly. The alt weekly was that scrappy local paper that was always taking aim at the pompous voices who were on the local news or who were the columnists in the big metro paper. A lot of what the alt weekly did was actually criticize their local mainstream media and critique it, and I loved about them. Slate, I always thought of it as an alt weekly for the national mainstream media. You would go to Slate in the ’90s and early 2000s to read the stuff that they couldn’t say in the New York Times or the Washington Post, the story behind the story. So, I have treated my media beat partly as a chance to critique the likes of the New York Times—and, by the way, I think it’s a wonderful institution, a fantastic paper. Thank God for the New York Times, really, but it’s also both worthwhile and fun to call them out when they are too full of themselves or when they’re being disingenuous.

Liz Spayd, their most recent public editor, she just was not good at the job. The job of the public editor is to be an in-house critic for New York Times, but she clearly saw her job as answering emails from random readers who complained that there was too much diversity in the sports page. She thought that one of the Times big failings was that it wasn’t sympathizing enough with readers who supported Trump or readers who didn’t believe in climate change or that sort of thing, and so I just tore into her for that. But then, when the New York Times responded by actually eliminating the public editor position, I criticized them for that too because just because Liz Spayd was not good at the job, was not a good reason to get rid of the job. I think it was a position that always made the Times uncomfortable, and that’s what it was supposed to do. I think they used Spayd’s incompetence as an excuse to get rid of this thorn in their sides.

What was the reasoning behind eliminating the position?

The reasoning that they gave, that the publisher gave in a memo was that, “We live in a different world today, and the public editor job was conceived at a time when criticism in the New York Times was not readily available at a time when the Times’ reporters and editors didn’t have great access to what their readers might be thinking, didn’t have these tools that we have today where you can see exactly what readers are reading in a given moment.” You can see more comments than you could possibly want on any story, you can see all over Twitter—everybody with a Twitter account now is a New York Times critic in a way. So, their justification for it was it becomes superfluous. “We should really all as editors and executives and reporters, we should be listening to our audience directly rather than funneling them through this artificial construct of the public editor.” I think there’s some legitimacy to that argument, but I think really that’s not an argument to get rid of the public editor. That’s an argument to re-conceive the public editor job.

In fact, Spayd’s predecessor, Margaret Sullivan, who’s great, she now writes for the Washington Post about the media, she had done that. She had reconceived the job, she had seen the ways in which social media necessitated a different role for the public editor, which was basically to take all the noise out there, all the noisy criticism of the Times from 100 different angles on 100 different topics, and find the strands that were really worth listening to, either because they were getting a lot of attention, but they were wrong, or because they weren’t getting a lot of attention and they were right. I think that role for the public editor would be more valuable than ever because when everybody on the internet is a New York Times critic, then the task of filtering which of those critiques are valid and which should we hear, I think that becomes actually more important.

I’m sure you’ve been watching Sean Spicer and his press briefings pretty closely as well, so how do you think he’s been handling his role?

This is a really unpopular opinion, but I think he’s pretty good at it. Spicer gets a lot of flak because he says dumb stuff and sometimes he says stuff that’s demonstrably false, and sometimes he ties himself up in ridiculous knots, trying not to say stuff that’s demonstrably false, while also not saying anything that could look bad for Trump, but really it’s impossible an impossible task. The president says things on a regular basis that are utterly indefensible, and his job is to go up and defend them, and given the impossibility of that task, I think the fact that he hasn’t done even worse, that he hasn’t made things even worse for the Trump administration than he has at times, is really a testament to his capacity for intellectual acrobatics. I think he’s obviously a very smart guy, a very sharp guy. I think there’s a fundamental dishonesty in what he does because his job is to go up there and defend stuff that probably even he, in his more honest moments, knows is indefensible.

That said, he has some connection to the truth, which sounds like a really low bar, but it’s actually one that I think the other person that the White House has been trotting out there, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, does not clear. She, in my view so far, has a blatant disregard for the truth. She’ll just go up there and flat out lie. When you’re willing to flat out lie, that makes the job a lot easier. Mike Pence won the VP debate during the campaign because he was willing to just flat out say stuff that wasn’t true and he was able to say that very convincingly. When you don’t mind just lying, it becomes easy to say anything. Spicer really does, I think, try not to lie, and that’s why we all laugh at him because he ties himself up in these knots trying not to lie. But I think there is some public good in the fact that the media has this spokesperson for the White House who does care enough to not just intentionally spout falsehoods and then walk off the stage.

During the campaign and so far in the Trump presidency, there’s been a lot of emphasis from the mainstream media on fact-checking. So 1) Do you think this is a valuable service? And 2) Are there any problems with the way they’ve been doing that?

I think that’s a really interesting question. I mean, I think the media has to take seriously its role as a fact-checker, especially when you have the leader of the country who has a habit of saying things that just aren’t true. At the same time, I think the media can sometimes overestimate the power of its fact-checking role.

We live in a time when a large portion of the country doesn’t trust the mainstream media anymore, so when the Washington Post says that something is true or is not true, that’s taken with big grains of salt by a lot of people. Trump has encouraged that for reasons that are pretty obvious, when people don’t trust the media then you can lie and get away with it while he’s here.

I think there’s a tendency at times, from the likes of New York Times and the Washington Post, to assume that just because you have fact-checked the president that your work here is done. I think that they have to fact-check in, but I think you the way people think about politics, they don’t think of it in terms of facts that are either mostly true or partly true or mostly false, and I don’t think that’s really how they judge politicians. Our brains work by telling stories about the world and so when we think about politics, we think about competing narratives. The idea that anyone’s minds are going to be changed by a really good fact-check of what Trump said, I think, it’s just misguided.

I think what the media really needs to be doing is finding the proper way to tell the story of the Trump administration. One way that I’ve praised some mainstream media outlets for doing that was Time magazine devoted a cover to Donald Trump, which I’m sure must’ve really excited Trump because he loves you stuff like that, but what Time ended up doing with that cover story was fascinating. They made it about Trump’s penchant for dishonest and they told the story of Trump’s dishonesty, not in 10 different fact-checks of little things that he said that turned out to be inaccurate or false, but in the context of Trump’s career and his life and the way that he’s built his public persona. They really dove into what is Trump’s relationship to the truth and when is he lying, when is he bull-shitting, when is he saying something just without real concern for whether it’s true or not but just saying it because he wants to have a certain impact on people? I think that’s a really valuable way not to fact-check Trump but to report on Trump’s relationship to the truth that I think cam resonate with people more than just a straight up, was this accurate or was this inaccurate?

You referenced this a little bit earlier about the coastal elite bubble. Can you tell us a little bit more about filter bubbles—basically do they exist, and is there anything that we can do about it?

Yes. The “filter bubble” was this term coined by Eli Pariser, who was an entrepreneur and media guy who founded Upworthy or co-founded Upworthy—and a lot of people found that ironic because Upworthy was famous for pandering to liberals. The idea of the filter bubble is that in the age of social media, the version of reality and the version of the news we get is determined by our pre-existing biases. That’s because the way the social media platforms work is that they cater to what we say we like. On Facebook, when we like a story, Facebook will give us more stories like that, so there’s this self-reinforcing cycle whereby there’s a bubble of our own making, in which our behavior on social media shapes the lens through which we view the days’ events. I think that was a really valid point that Eli had, but I think it is real, and I think it’s more relevant now than it’s ever been even than when Pariser wrote about it.

I think that a really simple way to view it is just Fox News versus MSNBC. If you watch those two networks on any given night, the version of the news that you get is so different that it’s like they’re describing two different realities, and so it’s not just social media, it’s cable news and other forms of media as well. But I think that the big tech platforms are starting to think about this more seriously, they’re starting to take seriously their responsibility to maybe puncture people’s filter bubbles a little bit, or at least consider the effects of them and what they could do to mitigate those.

I wrote about Twitter’s algorithm, and Twitter claims, at least, that they’re actually intentionally building into their algorithm a little bit of bias toward diversity of thought. They’re not going to show you tweets from the same people every day. They’re going to throw in some tweets from people who you don’t always engage with. The idea being that maybe what people fave on Twitter or like on Facebook, in the moment is not actually what they want their media diet to consist of long-term. I’m hopeful that we will see a little bit of course correction from social media companies in the next couple of years where they realize that maybe in the short-term pandering everybody’s biases was a great strategy for boosting engagement, but in the long term, it’s going to make people just exhausted by spending time on Facebook or Twitter, and that the way to keep them around long-term is to start to find ways to feed them more nuanced discussion and also some views that run counter to their own, maybe some intelligent views that run counter to their own. I think that could be a really good thing if it happens.

It’s part of your job now to consume a lot of media as you were talking about, so who are you reading in the news and who are your dependable sources of journalism?

Those are two different questions in a way. As I mentioned, I watch a lot of Fox News, [but] I would not consider them one of my dependable sources of journalism. Who are a couple of people that I turn to on a regular basis? I mentioned Margaret Sullivan, the former public editor of the New York Times, I think she’s doing great work over at the Washington Post. She’s very good at distilling some of the big trends in both how the media is covering Trump and how the media is interacting with the public.

For a long time, I’ve liked the work of John Herrman, who was at Popular Science and then at BuzzFeed. He’s now at the New York Times. He writes really specifically about these technology platforms and how they shape the news and how they distort the incentives for the media. He’s brilliant, and I think the best on that count. His former colleague at BuzzFeed, Charlie Warzel, has shifted from doing much the same as Herrman to now focusing on conservative media, reading the likes of Breitbart and Infowars every day and covering them. So, if you want to know what the right-hand fringe of the country is thinking and why, he’s a great resource for that.

Just for day-to-day media news, I think Politico’s media reporters do a great job, Hadas Gold is one. They have a great newsletter. David Uberti at Columbia Journalism Review is also doing a great job just on the news and analysis side of the day-to-day media beat.