Frank Bruni

Reforming the Press

Air Date: August 19, 2016

New York Times journalist Frank Bruni talks about an alternative to political coverage by horserace.

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Our esteemed guest today is New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, author most recently of Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. I’ve asked him here today to discuss political journalism in the digital age, his perceptive analyses of binge coverage during this presidential election cycle. Three columns in particular caught my eye. “Despicable Us: Our Insane Addiction to Polls,” and the “Millions of Marginalized Americans,” which I recommend Googling after our program. Collectively they constitute amendments to laws of journalistic practice. For starters, Bruni implores, “…don’t buy tickets to circus acts” … “…resist glorifying certain horses for the sake of having a horse race,” …“resist declaring emergencies where they don’t exist,” and “resist overly tidy diagnoses of the nation’s mood or moods.” Bruni counseled us to heed these oft-neglected protocols back in February, February of 2015. Undeterred, he has revisited and amplified his critique in this election year, and now I want to ask him if his peers, his contemporaries are beyond repair.

BRUNI: [LAUGHS] That would be a pretty stern judgment. Um, I don’t know that they’re beyond repair but there are economic forces right now, um, that are shaping journalism, that, that push back against everything that I’ve recommended that you just talked about. I mean there, there are reasons, um, kind of cold, brutal, financial, economic reasons why we’re getting the journalism we’re getting, um, and so it’s hard to reform it to the extent that I’d love to see.

HEFFNER: But what do you make of the fact that they, these columns went unheeded in large measure, you attribute it to raw economics but do, do you think that it’s a lack of creativity in the journalistic class as well in seeing how you can use the vehicles of expression now to channel those rules as opposed to what we see in the horse race?

BRUNI: You know, I don’t know that it’s a lack of creativity so much as it is um, a lack of resources. Um, and maybe a little bit of a lack of will but when you look at what fills every hour, let’s just take CNN as an example, not because I think they’re particularly egregious, but you know, they’re sort of the ongoing hour, hour, hour. Um, why do they give us bulletins every single day on the latest poll? Very easy to cover a poll, right? You get the news, you talk about it, it doesn’t require having a bunch of reporters go out, gather information, interview people. It’s a really simple way to fill ten minutes of time. You give the poll numbers and then you have three pundits, maybe someone like me, discuss what they mean, you know, and you have gotten a bunch of programming at not a lot of cost, at not a lot of sweat, at not a lot of moving around of pieces. I think that’s a big part of why you see what you see.

HEFFNER: Well of course you acknowledged the problem, as did some of your compadres on the Times editorial board and fellow columnist Nick Kristof wrote a column, uh, bemoaning the press’ obsession with Trump as well. But do you think it really emanates from this insane obsession with polling as the measure of the body politic?

BRUNI: No I think the Trump obsession is, is bigger than just polling. I mean it’s funny because we’ve been harping on polls like never before, Trump was harping on his own polls endlessly. I mean his stump speeches would begin with him crowing about his latest poll numbers and that was just a kind of odd convergence. Um, I think with Trump we’re seeing the sort of utterly vanished line at long last of enter—between entertainment and politics. I mean there’s always been an enormous dose of entertainment in politics. Trump has completely erased that line but the Trump phenomenon when it comes to where the media’s culpability is, um, how much we should be beating ourselves up, that’s a complicated question because one of the distinctive features of our era is we know exactly what consumers are doing almost in real time. You know, at the Times, if, if you are one of the people who looks at this, if you have the software, if you know how to use it, you can tell at any given moment who’s reading which articles. You can tell whether they came to those articles, uh, via a smartphone or via a tablet or whatever. Um, and similarly, it used to be that there would be a multi-day if not a week lag before TV programmers knew how various hours of television had done. Now they know the next morning. So we’ve given people both in print and even more so on TV these enormous doses of Donald Trump because people are consuming enormous doses of Donald Trump. If we had gotten a signal that John Kasich got as big an audience, believe me, you would have seen a lot more of John Kasich so it’s complicated who’s to blame, the media or the people consuming the media.

HEFFNER: Well as you contemplate that question, I think in terms of rescuing ourselves from that infotainment culture, where do you see the path to amusing ourselves back to civilization, right? Not to death. And what is the media’s role there if we appraise, if we do an honest appraisal of their culpability during this election cycle?

BRUNI: Well I think the media has to continually remind itself, and I think we do but sometimes not well enough that we’re not just an economic property. You know, we are not just here, um, to make money and to return a profit margin to investors or stockholders or whatever, we’re a more curious organism than that. Yes, we have to make enough money to stay alive, but we’re also fulfilling hopefully, if we’re doing our jobs correctly, an important social role, an important role in a democracy and so I think the media has to constantly remind itself that it is not to be judged solely by the bottom line. Uh, writers and reporters need to remind themselves they’re not to be judged solely by the number of clicks or eyeballs on a given story, but there is this other value and this other important mission, and the key is balancing the two so that you stay alive long enough, whether you’re an individual writer or whether you’re a whole news organization, to keep doing what you’re doing but that you don’t get so driven by that that you forget that what you’re supposed to be doing in a higher sense is informing people, is elevating the debate and not lowering it.

HEFFNER: In your realm now as a columnist, you of course don’t have to listen to the polling data that is on the front page of the New York Times today and in fact, probably tomorrow and the next day. CNN had a policy um, that revoked access to certain commentators supporting Donald Trump because they were saying misogynistic, racist, bigoted things. Um, those commentators if they appeared on, on any Times channels I’m sure would be sanctioned in some way. Is there a po—a policy informing appropriate use of polls at the, at the Times because honestly it does feel like it’s sort of a trickle-down effect and everything starts from a poll and ends with the poll.

BRUNI: Yeah well I mean I, I can’t speak for the news side ‘cause I’m on the opinion side. But what I have noticed that the news side has done, um, and, and to be really honest I think the news side pays too much attention to polls, but I think they’re trying to restrain themselves by for instance there’s a rubric called Poll Watch, um, that appears in a stream of a whole bunch of other political news where they can gather all that polling information for those people who really want it, um, and it’s there. But they can then not feel the need to integrate it into every last story. Um, we still write too many stories that are “state of the race” stories that are informed almost solely by what the polling shows and by what we’re then deducing about who’s up, who’s down, um, and I’m just not sure that’s very helpful to readers, it certainly doesn’t elevate the debate and, and the problem is if you, if you cover these things, and I don’t think the Times is particularly culpable, I think other news organizations are worse, if you cover them in an entirely “who’s up, who’s down” horse race way, you’re encouraging a response in citizens and the public, um, that has nothing to do with an informed decision, that has nothing to do with policy, that has nothing to do with any of that but that just kind of turns it into a competition they’re watching as if they’re watching the Preakness or the Belmont Stakes and I think if we want people to make more cool-headed, you know, sober-minded decisions covering elections as horse races is the antithesis of doing that.

HEFFNER: And the resulting feedback loop is antithetical to…

BRUNI: Right.

HEFFNER: Democratic values.

BRUNI: Right but we’re, we’re trying, I think, uh, to create a drama because we’re aiming for an audience, and we do need that audience, and again it goes back to striking that very, very difficult and delicate balance between bringing enough people in that you can continue to do your mission but not drifting so far from that mission which is a mission of informing, um, that you cease to really have the role that you should.

HEFFNER: I was saying to you off-camera, I remember delivering a talk at Drake and speaking with students by the way who were disappointed, maybe even dejected or depressed at this notion that they could not perform the function of journalists that they saw fit, that they saw in All the President’s Men, that they saw as the, the lasting impression historically of this as a positive profession, um, in terms of the dissemination of information but I mention this experience because I cited, and, and I want to come back to “Our Insane Addiction” and then to “Marginalized Americans” but “Despicable Us,” um, they, they wanted to deny this fact that political journalists are in a bubble where they can’t see nuance and that it is a failure in part again in creating a feedback loop where there is a black and a white but no gray area and I thought that you sniffed this out rather early in the cycle to, to be able to sort of see the, the result of this experiment in political journalism, Donald Trump, the candidate from whom anything, you know, follows, I think I had Michael Lynch here, philosopher at UConn, he said anything follows from a contradiction. And I think it is in that spirit that you really understood the media’s role, not just the candidate’s role in fueling that kind of um, simplistic understanding of policy.

BRUNI: I mean I chose that moment because we were at the beginning of, of you know, the 2016 campaign was really heating up and there were things I’d seen us do in2012, in 2008, you know, again and again that I was hoping we would do less of, and it wasn’t just about covering it as a piece of entertainment, which as you note, um, played right into Donald Trump’s hands, um, he’s sort of the perfect creation of that, but it’s all sorts of other stuff. I mean we’re, um, uh, I think I mentioned in that article the attention that we’ve sometimes paid in the past and we haven’t done it as much this time around to candidates’ spouses as if they are the perfect mirror of a candidate. Um, when often you choose a spouse at a very young age and people’s private lives are so different from their public lives, we’ve had so many examples through history of people who were great leaders in one context and had very messy private lives, um, that was one thing I wanted us to be careful about. I also wanted us to be careful about um, going to the corner diner, interviewing three people and saying, “here’s the mood of the public.” Um, I do think we’re in a little bit of a bubble and I think you saw it this year primarily in the fact that everyone was surprised by Donald Trump’s success. He was saying things and he was tapping into feelings and resentments in the electorate that the media was almost completely blindsided by. Um, and that suggests we are not spending enough time talking to people out there who are living the lives and feeling the problems that led them to Donald Trump. We are spending so much time in studios, um, and in chairs listening to somebody at a lectern, and if we really understood what Americans were concerned about and what resentments were building, we would not have been as shocked by Donald Trump’s success…

HEFFNER: Right.

BRUNI: Um, and we would have understood his message might have a lot of traction.

HEFFNER: So how do you not read too much into those two guys sitting at the diner counter and still understand from the journalist’s perspective these marginalized Americans?

BRUNI: Well I mean you have to talk to a lot of people, not just the two people sitting at the diner. Um, and you know, these people are available, uh, you know, I remember going to a Trump rally in South Carolina, um, and it was really important and it was really interesting to talk to the people who’d shown up there because they were not caricatures, and so often Trump voters, Trump supporters were being portrayed in the media, probably I’m guilty of it as well, as caricatures. Each of these people, and I talked to maybe a dozen of them, had a very particular reason why he or she was supporting Donald Trump and it may not have been a reason that held a lot of resonance for me or for you, um, it may have been something that edited out whole bunches of Donald Trump just to like this one thing, but these were not casual, inexplicable decisions. Um, we need to talk to voters, um, in, voters in large enough numbers and we need to have conversations that are probing and sustained enough that we understand where they’re coming from because nothing is nonsensical. You know, in a democracy, in an election, in an electorate, there, there’s a reason why things are happening and it’s incumbent upon us to delve deep enough to get at those reasons.

HEFFNER: In that populist anger and the resulting resentment and, and that deepening chasm between urban and rural that’s manifesting,

BRUNI: Which is a big one, yeah.

HEFFNER: In, in the Trump and Sanders phenomena, uh, that’s at play but another thing that’s at play, and that’s why I thought that these, these op-eds all, these columns all framed the problems in our politics beautifully because there’s also this question of representation,

BRUNI: Yes.

HEFFNER: And people are marginalized not just necessarily because of the one percent concentrated wealth but because in many election cycles to date, there have been very homogenous districts, congresspeople are picking their districts as opposed to the voters choosing, um, from you know,

BRUNI: Right.

HEFFNER: A cross of ideologies and perspectives so what do you think your role as a columnist and the journalist’s role is in um, understanding that failure of representation?

BRUNI: Well we have to point out why people feel marginalized and you know, let’s take right now we’re gonna watch, uh, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, um, duke it out and play on a very small battlefield in just a, just a selected number of states. Um, they will spend almost all of their advertising resources in maybe half a dozen states, maybe eight, tops. Um, they will visit those states over and over again. Meanwhile, there are these 40-plus other states that are not gonna receive the attentions of either candidate because they’re either so reliably red or so reliably blue. How are the people in those states supposed to feel at all invested in the election to the same extent? How are they supposed to feel like their voices are being heard? I mean that’s an enormous problem. Um, and I think we need to look at some structural things that might get us past that, uh, and I think what we journalists too often do is we assume the status quo is unchangeable. Um, and I think all sorts of issues of political reform, electoral reform need more discussion than they get.

HEFFNER: What would be your recommendation to the political journalists, um, having been a reporter and now a columnist, in terms of being sucked into the swing states? Now if you’re working for a major network as an embed, you’re gonna be deployed, you have no choice, you’re going to Cuyahoga County, you’re going to…

BRUNI: Oh and if you’re a journalist covering this election, you really actually should be sucked into swing states. My complaint isn’t that the media spends its time there, my complaint is that the, the system is set up. I mean the way the electoral college works, the way the, the states have kind of sorted themselves out in such a way that most states, um, the, the conclusion is foregone and there’s no reason for the candidate to be there and for that reason, for that same, because of those same dynamics there’s no reason for the journalist to be there combing the opinions of voters there because we know, we know that California’s gonna vote Democratic, you know?

HEFFNER: But back to that example, yeah.

BRUNI: We know that Wyoming’s gonna vote Republican.

HEFFNER: But back to Drake in Des Moines, one of the things that the political scientists there identified was this vic—this vicious cycle of um, moneyed interests fueling the cable operators, I mean the, the local affiliates and you know, did they have a choice to run ads that were potentially you know, dangerous or not factually driven? No, because of the business model that you described, that’s their big payday during these election seasons. So, of course the candidates are gonna be in these swing states and the journalists are gonna be deployed there but in terms of the journalist’s job to expand the discourse so that it is not so narrowly bound to those states, isn’t, isn’t the media responsible there too because the structural changes as you can testify to and Rick Hertzberg who’s been an advocate of electoral college reform…That’s, you know, he is getting close to the informal non-constitutional amendment approach by which a majority of states agree to abide by the will of the voters nationally,

BRUNI: Yeah, yeah.

HEFFNER: And whether or not the constitution protects that argument is not clear.

BRUNI: Right.

HEFFNER: So we’re a ways off from some of the gerrymandering reform and constitutional reform and I’m wondering just in the absence of that, should journalists try to examine the debates which are forthcoming and the nature of the politics so that it, it’s infused with the whole country, not just this, these swing states.

BRUNI: Well I think when we write about issues, um, I think we should and we do um, look to voters and look to examples of where those issues are playing out that go well beyond the swing states. When we write about the election and the uncertain outcome, um, and what the campaign strategies are and how those are playing out, we focus on the swing states because those are the ones that matter in terms of the outcome. I do think that it is incumbent upon us, and I do think we do this, that when we’re writing about larger issues, whether it’s the way Obamacare is affecting people’s lives, whether it’s um, gun control, we don’t only find our subjects, um, and we don’t only find our flashpoints in the swing states, so we do do that. What I don’t think we write enough about is, you’re referring to Hendrik Hertzberg and um, he’s looked a lot at electoral reform. Uh, the, the movement to have a national vote or have states abide by it, um, we don’t write much about that, and that’s what I meant by we assume that the system we have now, um, is one that we are somehow stuck with, you know, with no possibility to tinker with it or change it, and the truth of the matter is there might be ways to change it, um, and there might be increasingly compelling reasons to change it, um, and we shouldn’t ignore that as its own story.

HEFFNER: What are they?

BRUNI: Well I mean there’s a big movement, uh, toward national popular vote, which um, and you defined a little bit how that works. Um, that is something that could be accomplished. Um, it’s a matter, I forget about the intricacies of it sometimes when if I haven’t just written about it, the details sometimes, um, elude me but I mean various state legislatures have voted…

HEFFNER: Right.

BRUNI: On whether they would be willing, um, to go into a system where they would all abide, that their state’s electors would go toward whoever won the national vote regardless of whether, um, that was the outcome in their state and it turns out if you got enough state legislatures to do that, um, you actually could change the system. I don’t think many Americans know that. You know, we’re not close to that moment but we’re not nearly as far from it as Americans think we are because they just don’t know about the issue and they don’t know about the mechanism by which that would be changed. And that is partly on us journalists because we’ve ignored that story.

HEFFNER: And the explanation therein that I think voters can relate to is the accusation of apathy and why is the American electorate apathetic? Because New Yorkers and Californians and Texans and,

BRUNI: They have no voice. They have no voice.

HEFFNER: Only Floridians, Ohioans, and…

BRUNI: Yeah. If every…

HEFFNER: Virginians.

BRUNI: Right, if every four years in a presidential election, if you’re a New Yorker or a Californian, um, and you realize that you are so much less important, that nobody is actually kind of targeting your needs because they’re laser-focused on what will play in Florida and on what will play in Virginia and on what will play in Ohio, um, and maybe some years Colorado although we just saw a poll that had Hillary Clinton up by more than ten points there. It’s interesting, I mean we will see in the coming months, we may not have the same swing states that we had before. There may be some coming into swing status and some exiting swing status because of the nature of these two particular candidates. Um, but yeah, you don’t feel you have the same voice in a presidential election if you live in a solid blue or a solid red state. I also don’t think we’ve educated voters well on the different ways in which primaries work in different states. It doesn’t need to be the case that you end up with one Democrat and one Republican, you have open primaries, you can have jungle primaries. There are various permutations and combinations of how to do this, um, that can be made to happen rather instantly with just a few tinkerings of laws, and I don’t think most voters realize, uh, that there’s this menu of possibility that could lead to a kind of a more compromise-oriented politics, a more moderate centrist politics and less of this, you know, just kind of people from the extremes duking it out. I mean if you look at why do we end up with the nominees that we get often? It’s because you have only a very small number of Americans participating in the primaries, um, and those people tend to be your most dyed in the wool partisans. You mentioned Iowa. Um, another way in which our system is unfair. Why do Iowans get so much of a bigger voice every four years than everybody else? Ditto for New Hampshire. There are proposals and it could well happen that we could have a rotating calendar where different years different states went first. I would endorse that.

HEFFNER: Do you think your fellow journalists, political journalists endorse that? I know that there’s a line at which you can’t be an advocate of democracy reform even as you report on the massive amount of dysfunction. I’m, I find you know, as a host, as a columnist we have carte blanche and a little more prerogative, mandate to say as we please political journalists back in that bubble, do they need to be part of this democracy reform beyond the acknowledgement of dysfunction? Because if you read Twitter, it’s sarcastic tweet after sarcastic tweet from political reporter tends to be.

BRUNI: Right. Well I was gonna say I mean your, your, your question, uh, presupposes that political reporters have to wear this mantle of pure object—objectivity, which used to be the paradigm but as you note on Twitter these days, there are various things that have happened, um, in terms of the rise of social media and the kind of discourse that it encourages, the kind of pointed attitude it encourages, in terms of the number of venues like our conversation here where reporters who are not technically opinion columnists are giving analysis that’s invariably gonna edge into opinion. So I think our journalism is getting much more almost European in terms of that, that ideal of objectivity exiting it. But even if you’re trying to remain objective, even if you’re trying not to mount any campaigns or endorse anything, um, when you cover an issue, um, you are at least encouraging people to think about all the possibilities and if you’re not covering political reform, electoral reform, I mean you can, if you think those things are things we should be having conversations about, you can write stories about them that don’t say we must do this but just educate people on the fact that there are various advocates who are tugging us in that direction, that can present the arguments of those advocates, and I do think that’s an issue we for some reason completely turned away from.

HEFFNER: And I guess the final question as we turn away from that issue and look towards efforts that ought to be underway immediately following the 2016 campaign to potentially realize some of those improvements, what do you think should be that blueprint for journalists to absorb the election and then identify as folks did in California with the open primary process that you described…

BRUNI: Yeah, right.

HEFFNER: Areas of reconciliation, compromise and um, you know, materially changing our democracy for the better, what is the road map to doing that after sort of recovering from this hyper-politicized election?

BRUNI: Well I mean the first step is talking about where we saw things happen or ways in which we saw, saw things happen that, that felt to us out of whack. Um, I think you know, uh, I was just talking about this this morning, we, we, we are constantly bemoaning right now, and, and justly so, that we have two candidates, two nominees, you know, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, who are when you put them together as unpopular a duo as we have ever had in our kind of Final Two for the presidency. There have to, there are reasons for that, right? And regardless of who ends up winning and going into the White House, I think we need to take a dig, deep, deep breath, those of us in the media, um, because we’re the ones who can foster these discussions in the month or two after the presidential election and ask the question what is it about the system that got us to a point where most of the people heading to the polls are holding their nose as they cast their vote? It has, there has to be a way to make some reforms so that we don’t end up in this position again and so that we have Americans who are voting for someone in whom they have confidence, about whom they have hope, because at af—after the election whoever wins is going to have to govern. And when you look at the tenor of this campaign, and when you look at the way people feel about these candidates and how partisan our country is for starters, how does the winner govern? I mean that’s the real, real problem.

HEFFNER: Well Frank, all I have to say is the lesser of two villains is certainly not a more perfect union so we ought to strive for that. I appreciate your time here today.

BRUNI: Thanks for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.