The New York Times on May 29th, the front page headline: “Trump Endorses Shadowy Plots, Eroding Trust,” followed by a subtitle: “Theories from Fringes,” with a further subtitle: “Agencies Undermined by Claims of Deep-State and Spygate.” The article by Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Maggie Haberman is smart and informative, packed with insights. It’s also astonishing: not purely news, nor clearly opinion, but something in between.
I have been reading The New York Times every morning for most of my life. It’s my hometown paper. As a fourteen year old, I subscribed to it in a special deal for high school students. I picked it up at homeroom, read it during study hall in the second period. Through this daily routine, I learned more about the world than I did in my classes. For the past thirty years, the physical paper has been delivered to my home, and I have read it online when I’m away. I’m still learning from it, although more critically as I have matured. Recently, I have noticed a struggle.
How to cover a president and his enablers who lie, and who fundamentally compromise basic democratic principles?
I read the Davis and Haberman piece with great interest a couple of weeks ago, but unlike most daily journalism, it’s sticking with me. In it, primary dimensions of the most significant challenge to American democracy in my lifetime are revealed: the mad Commander in Chief and his enablers, the resulting crises to liberal democracy, and the difficulties of understanding this in the face of the very real prospects that he may prevail.
It was inconceivable to me that Donald Trump would win the Republican nomination, let alone the election. Sobered now, I worry that the midterms may go his way. The paranoid style of American politics may become hegemonic. This is a reinvention of political culture that I never imagined.
The editors of The Times, obviously are also worried, so much so that they are breaking with the journalistic conventions that, in a very real sense, they created. In publishing in the news section “Trump Endorses Shadowy Plots, Eroding Trust,” they transgress the boundary between reporting and opinion, providing necessary background and insight to news reports that are otherwise hard to understand. This has been going on for a long time, but this is the first time that I have noticed such analysis as the lead article in the daily paper. Both the content of the article and the editorial decision to feature it are important.
The analysis is highly critical. The basic premise is revealed, as it should in good news reporting, in the opening:
“As a candidate, Donald J. Trump claimed that the United States government had known in advance about the Sept. 11 attacks. He hinted that Antonin Scalia, a Supreme Court justice who died in his sleep two years ago, had been murdered. And for years, Mr. Trump pushed the notion that President Barack Obama had been born in Kenya rather than Honolulu, making him ineligible for the presidency.
None of that was true.”
Davis and Haberman then proceed to spell out the implications of this, almost as if they were using Hannah Arendt’s classic essay “Truth and Politics” as their primer.
The relationship between truth and politics is textured, according to Arendt. On the one hand, factual truth provides the grounds for politics. It is absolutely necessary for those on all sides of a political contest to agree upon the facts of the matter. Without such agreement, free politics is not possible. On the other hand, philosophical, interpretive truth endangers politics. If singular interpretation decides an issue, there is no room for political debate and contestation. Davis and Haberman report how Donald Trump daily makes up facts, using crackpot “philosophical” conspiracy theories, and they analyze the implications.
On the perniciousness of conspiracy theories, they cite Jon Meacham, a presidential historian and biographer. On the fact that such theories are a combination of combination of cynical strategy, and individual and collective self delusion, they refer to the judgment of Gwenda Blair, a Trump biographer, as well as unnamed former Trump advisers. They note that he was first reluctant to push his conviction that there there are dark forces, a deep state, organized to undermine his presidency, but then since November, he realized that it plays well on right wing media, and he has been going with it.
Polls indicate people are buying this. It is also having success with Republican leaders, e.g. Senators Lindsey Graham and John Cornyn. Republican politicians, who should know better, are now going along with the madness, as Trump is playing the media with great success, which gives legitimacy to his idiocy. Davis and Haberman conclude with Congressman Peter King’s ominous assessment of Trump’s impact on American political culture: “’He has a talent for getting a point across using hyperbole,’ Mr. King said, adding, ‘There’s no doubt he has changed the debate.’”
The Times can’t just report that some people think there is a deep state conspiracy and some don’t, some people believe that the conspiracy was behind 9/11 and others disagree. Such changed debate becomes “big brother is good or un-good,” when lies and conspiracies are in the hands of the powers, as George Orwell classically depicted in 1984, his classic on newspeak. This is what the Times and we are up against. That the editors of the paper of record recognize the seriousness of the challenge is indicated by the placement of this article and by the double subtitles. Conspiracy theories that have historically been on the margins of democratic politics, are now in the White House, and as a result, the legitimacy of democratic institutions are being undermined.
Note the dilemma: given the extraordinary circumstance we are in, the Times editors have made a decision to report on “the conspiracy theorist in chief” in a different way, but in doing so, they are confirming that they are biased, compromising their claim that their primary responsibility is to report on current events, not to intervene in them. And their dilemma is ours. It’s a problem for journalism, but also a problem for the academy, and all those who pursue truth and engage in politics. It suggests that Arendt’s distinction between factual and philosophical truth isn’t as neat as she suggests, that it is not a black and white distinction, but a gray one, requiring careful judgment.
I started thinking about this on May 29th, and the more I think about it, the more implications I see in Davis and Haberman’s analysis and its mode of presentation. Today, on this very fine Friday afternoon, an absolutely beautiful day in New York, I promise my next column: “Editors Matter,” on how in the present media and political environment that the kind of editorial responsibility demonstrated by my home town paper is especially important, as editors are playing a diminishing role in our public deliberations. I also intend to write another piece, showing how Public Seminar has addressed this issue, and how it will be addressing it in a more concerted way in the near future.
That said I want to suggest what I mean by referring you to some of recent posts. Neil Roberts’s extraordinary call for citizen action, powerfully explaining “Why Frederick Douglass Still Matters.” Daniel Shaw’s account of the cult like quality of Trump’s support. The excerpt from Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City, along with Claire Potter’s interview with her on the book, revealing how a dry topic like city budgeting informs the lives of a city, New York City, and its people, fueling the politics of hope and despair. Jordan Smilan-Goldstein’s account of how a simple matter of school dress codes privilege boys and perpetuate pernicious sexual politics. And Jeffrey C. Isaac’s illuminating introduction to his book #Against Trump (for a free download click here ) that analyzes and responds to how we got here politically and considers ways out.
We are working to provide the context, historical and theoretical, for the urgent problems we face. We are seeking to provide a rich analysis, deeper than what is presented in my hometown paper. Appreciating the judgment and commitment to “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” but wondering what the “all” and the “fit” are, and going beyond the standard form of “news.”
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.