Friday, April 19, 2024

Alex, what is Fear/Overcompensation/Laziness/Self-interest/Insularity/Cognitive Dissonance?*

How news organizations filled with smart, dedicated, ridiculously overqualified people can be manipulated into making serious and seemingly stupid mistakes.

Uri Berliner's controversial article about his now former employer, NPR, didn't have much to recommend it directly, but it was indirectly responsible for some excellent (and very much overdue) examination of the venerable institution.


 The Washington Post's Erik Wemple did a superb job addressing Berliner's arguments, but if you're looking for a higher level view of what's wrong with NPR (and with publications such as the NYT), you could hardly do better than Alicia Montgomery's piece in Slate.

As you read it, think about how the following factors (which we all fall prey to) lead people who disliked Trump arguably to aiding and abetting him.

1. Fear -- particularly since the conservative movement, the right has gotten exceptionally good at working the refs.

2. Overcompensation -- a sincere but misguided desire to address bias that ends up creating other biases.

3. Laziness/Self-interest -- the right is good at making life easy for boys and girls on the good journalists list.

4. Insularity -- Elite groups are always prone to this, but add in a cliquish, dysfunctional culture that discouraged honest communication.

 5. Cognitive Dissonance -- never underestimate the ability of individuals and groups to rationalize away uncomfortable thoughts.

 I could use this same list of five with lots of other publications that lost their way around 2015.

Uri’s account of the deliberate effort to undermine Trump up to and after his election is also bewilderingly incomplete, inaccurate, and skewed. For most of 2016, many NPR journalists warned newsroom leadership that we weren’t taking Trump and the possibility of his winning seriously enough. But top editors dismissed the chance of a Trump win repeatedly, declaring that Americans would be revolted by this or that outrageous thing he’d said or done. I remember one editorial meeting where a white newsroom leader said that Trump’s strong poll numbers wouldn’t survive his being exposed as a racist. When a journalist of color asked whether his numbers could be rising because of his racism, the comment was met with silence. In another meeting, I and a couple of other editorial leaders were encouraged to make sure that any coverage of a Trump lie was matched with a story about a lie from Hillary Clinton. Another colleague asked what to do if one candidate just lied more than the other. Another silent response.


I left NPR in the early fall of 2016, but when I came back to work on Morning Edition about a year later, I saw NO trace of the anti-Trump editorial machine that Uri references. On the contrary, people were at pains to find a way to cover Trump’s voters and his administration fairly. We went full-bore on “diner guy in a trucker hat” coverage and adopted the “alt-right” label to describe people who could accurately be called racists. The network had a reflexive need to stay on good terms with people in power, and journalists who had contacts within the administration were encouraged to pursue those bookings. 

*A friend of mine was on Jeopardy recently.

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