Several of Jay Rosen’s consistent commentary themes converge in this short posting.
Jay, long time ago, coined the phrase “The Church of the Savvy” to describe what he observed as a basic media pathology. It’s an assumption that most of the DC-based media starts from, namely that by virtue of being on the ground in the center of US government, that automatically makes them more knowledgeable about What Is Really Going On. They then can use that presumed knowledge to opine seriously on TV, cable, internet or in print. The implied message at least part of the time is “listen to us, we have the inside information”.
Leaving aside the issue that focussing obsessively on what happens in DC risks paying insufficient attention to what is happening in the rest of the USA (and I certainly think that this was a factor in the failure of the media to understand the scope and depth of the twin voter insurgency candidates, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, in 2016), there is a more fundamental issue that the rise of Donald Trump is now revealing.
The Church Of The Savvy pathology, almost by definition, requires that the media is able to explain everything in a way that makes sense. What, then, happens when you are confronted by a leader who appears to have no Grand Plan, who, to use an old expression, gets by on a daily basis by simply Making Shit Up?
Welcome to the confusion and head-scratching nature of Donald Trump.
The media, however, being mostly trapped in the Church Of The Savvy mindset, is not able to imagine or manage a scenario where anarchy and reaction are the predominant modes of operation. Their worldview has always been based on two underlying assumptions (1) every administration or component of the Legislative or Executive Branch has a Grand Plan, and (2) the media is in a uniquely privileged position to divulge elements of that Grand Plan to impress the hell out of its audience.
The media historically has relied for a lot of inside information from leakers in and around government. Of course, some of the leaks have always been deliberate. Over time, this has led to an unhealthy reliance by many media organizations on “unnamed sources” and other forms of non-verifiable information acquisition.
So, since Donald Trump was installed as POTUS, the media has been struggling to continue viably with the Church Of The Savvy approach. They have, like a lot of people, been attempting to amke sense of Donald Trump’s actions and pronouncements. However, their role as the savants means that they cannot throw their hands up and answer “I have no clue” when somebody asks them to explain why Donald Trump just said or did something. That does not make them look…savvy. It makes them look no better than the readers or listeners. What value can you add if you are not savvy?
So, in an attempt to perpetuate the illusion of savviness, the media are instead convincing themselves that there has to be a Grand Plan somewhere, somehow. This is leading them, in turn, to normalize Donald Trump’s behavior. The theory is that he has to have a logical coherent plan. Everybody else in that office has had one. Why should he be any different?
The logical next step, surfaced neatly by Rosen in this tweet, is that if there is no Grand Plan or playbook, then the media is Making Stuff Up if they claim that one exists. However, that gives them an advantage if they imagine one:
It’s a neat response to being unable to divine a Grand Plan. If you make up your own Grand Plan, using tea-leaves, the leak from the guy in the DoD, some coffee-room chat with a guy who knows a guy who knows somebody who painted the Oval Office, and some stiff drinks at the bar in Georgetown, then hey presto! You have a Grand Plan which you can then leak as an “exclusive”. Of course it’s an exclusive. You manufactured it out of next to nothing.
The other part of the rationalization thought process being engaged in by the media, which is potentially a lot more dangerous, is the desire to somehow explain Donald Trump’s more vicious and malevolent outbursts. It’s a lot more comfortable for the media to explain that picking on Puerto Rico is some part of a grand strategy to rally his base than to state that the POTUS is simply being an asshole. Many media outlets described Trump’s war of words with the Mayor of San Juan as a “feud”, when Trump actually launched a series of personal attacks on her. That was a transparently awful attempt at “both sides do it” framing.
Explanations of politician behavior based on the existence of a Grand Plan always tend to sound logical. Explanations that somebody just behaved like an asshole sound vicious and judgmental by comparison, and the media does not want to be seen to behaving like that in the current climate. The media has been cowed for decades by accusations of “bias”, mostly by the authoritarian wing of the GOP, and on topics like this, is only too willing to behave like the abused partner in an abusive relationship, so the media will hem and haw, circumlocute their language in a way that would have gotten high marks from George Orwell, and generally avoid making a definitive judgment. That’s another problem entirely, but if they do not address both of the issues I am discussing, there will not be worthwhile media in the USA within a few years. The sink of internet-focussed misinformation will sink it.