not your transcription robot

Have you heard of Axios? If you don’t follow political reporting closely, you likely haven’t. It’s a site whose main draw is “snapshot” like newsletters, filled with tidbits of reporting in bullet-form. It’s like a digest, only instead of summarizing others’ reporting, it intersperses its own, often in the form of texts from “well-wired” Republicans and unnamed insiders. It’s the most potent remaining form of a certain style of political reporting (that my boss/BuzzFeed News’ editor-in-chief Ben Smith wrote about here) in which politics is conceived of as a game, or a horserace, with incremental winners and losers.

My primary objection to Axios is simple: treating politics in this manner, as a wholly dispassionate observer, means you lose sight of what “winning” and “losing” actually does. Politics has real, tangible effects on humans and their lives. But look at this classic example of an Axios tweet, written this morning:

“Be smart” is the phrase Axios uses to try and signal what a story is really about. But again, that attitude evacuates what any policy — in this case, immigration — is actually really about: PEOPLE. Be smart: immigration is about what happens actual people when they cross the border. It’s easy to distill immigration down to “cultural arguments to turn out base voters,” however, if you look at it as if you were watching an episode of Game of Thrones and writing a recap of it. This stance is possible only when insulated from the actual ramifications of the policy.

Today’s morning newsletter recapped a speech on “how to fix fake news,” given by Axios CEO Jim VandeHei to students at University of Wisconsin - Oshkosh. Apart from the (simply false) suggestion that our Facebook newsfeeds are garbage because we click on garbage, VandeHei also argues that “News organizations should ban their reporters from doing anything on social media — especially Twitter — beyond sharing stories. Snark, jokes and blatant opinion are showing your hand, and it always seems to be the left one. This makes it impossible to win back the skeptics.”

As New York Times critic James Poniewozik put it, “Does Axios believe that, as long as their staff never share opinions, its readers will assume they have none? What idiot would believe that? In what other aspect of journalism do we believe that hiding information from the public serves the public?”

Social media has certainly changed the way we think about journalists and “bias,” but not because Twitter suddenly caused journalists to develop opinions. Those opinions have always been there; they’ve just been largely inaccessible for the mainstream public. The paradigm of the “unbiased” journalist is also a relic of a time when the vast majority of journalists were white, straight, male, and middle-class — something that many news sites have actively attempted to change, while Axios, largely, has not.

“Jim VandeHei is also an older cisgender white male executive. Issues like access to abortion, lack of maternity leave, discrimination against Blacks, Asians, Latinx and Indigenous peoples, transgender rights, and sexism don't affect him the way it does for many other journalists,” media reporter Karen Ho points out. “Why are the biases of straight white cisgender men considered objective and everyone else's is considered bias? If Axios' staff mostly interviews or features other white men working in politics, isn't that a kind of bias?”

When I’m out reporting, I’m often asked in passing about my politics. I never articulate them explicitly, but I also say that you can probably extrapolate certain positions if you read things I’ve written, or my book. I say, if I wanted to hide these things from you, then I wouldn’t publish a book about unruly women. I would never tweet. But because they’re not hidden, there’s even more expectation that whatever I write passes that bar of fairness. It’s a challenge to myself. When I’m writing a big story, I tell the subjects that my hope isn’t that you’ll read it and be so happy that you’ll email or call, over the moon. It’s that everyone involved, on all sides of an issue or dispute, will look at it and think “well, that’s fair.” The way I asked them questions, the way I situated their arguments within the large issues-at-hand, the accuracy with which I reported their statements — fair.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no summary, that there’s no analysis. It means that the summary and analysis I did was rooted in my research, which included reporting and reading and history. It means I did my homework, and didn’t hide what it yielded out of fear of a reader calling “FAKE NEWS.” If anything, the most biased reporting comes when we act out of fear of perception, instead of simply pursuing the fairest portrait of what is happening, and has happened, and will happen.

(Of course, there’s a difference between fairness and “both-sides-ism,” which offers false equivalency to, say, a handful of white supremacists and the people who are actively threatened by their presence, or suggests that those who don’t believe in climate change for ideological reasons deserve just as much authoritative space within an argument or piece as scientists who’ve studied it for decades and produced peer-reviewed work rooted in truth. Just so we’re clear.)

The real problem with “fake news” isn’t that journalists make jokes on Twitter. It’s that a large number of people — both here in the United States and globally — have decided that news that counters their existing world view is fake. Journalists tamping down on their social media platforms won’t change these people’s minds about a given piece of news. The only thing that will change their minds is if the news itself bends itself to their existing views.

And that’s not a crisis of journalistic authority. That’s a crisis of generalized integrity. The refusal to admit and acknowledge facts, even when — especially when — they challenge your world view? That’s cowardice. It’s not isolated to either end of the political spectrum, but it is perpetuated by explicitly ideological news organizations that cloak that cowardice in righteousness, calling it strength and patriotism instead of their opposite.

Like anyone else, there have been times when a deeply reported, story has infuriated me, saddened me deeply, threatened my entire world view. That didn’t make those stories, or the reporters who wrote them, fake. But when you’re given permission — by the President, by other politicians, but oppositional journalists and religious authorities and people you’ve come to trust — to deny or ignore anything that challenges you? If you’re operating from a position of fear and anxiety, convinced that no one cares about you — least of all the political media, who often write about you as a political plaything, not a person — it’s incredibly easy, even thrilling, to take that position.

“Politics” is the name we’ve given to the way that elected leaders turn policy decisions with real-life ramifications into a game. Part of politics is the actions of the politicians themselves; the other is the way those actions are framed and disseminated and fed back to the people whose lives are affected. The best way to restore faith in the press isn’t to make reporters stop tweeting. It’s to make us stop pretending we’re transcription robots — and stop writing in a way that suggests we’re far more interested in politics than actual people and the way policy affects them.

Some things I read and loved this week:

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