SXSW Panel: Good Night & Good Luck: Media in Election Years

Freedom of press in the age of alt-facts

The Trump administration wouldn’t provide Washington Post presidential campaign reporter David Fahrenthold with answers for a story. Instead, they sent the responses to CNN in a strategic and calculated effort to get the news network to poke holes in his reporting.

Jamelle Bouie (l), John Avlon, David Fahrenthold, Jo Miller (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Rather than panic, Fahrenthold got creative: He began posting his questions to Twitter for the public to see, and made sure they knew Trump wasn’t responding. "The Trump campaign would rarely ever answer my questions," said Fahrenthold. "So I started posting my notes and work on Twitter so I could get people on their side to see how hard I was working to get Trump’s side of the story."

From direct threats to members of the media to attacks on freedom of speech, the Trump administration has waged war on not just the Fourth Estate, but on the truth itself. Fahrenthold, Slate columnist Jamelle Bouie, The Daily Beast’s John Avlon, and Jo Miller, head writer of Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, discussed how they navigate the besieged media landscape during Sunday, March 12’s “Good Night & Good Luck: Media in Election Years” SXSW Interactive panel. Some tangible tips suggested for other journos: Publish your primary documents; address the “strongest version” of the argument; provide context; engage with the public; and don’t show alarm.

Slate's Jamelle Bouie (photo by Jana Birchum)

Media representatives also unpacked lessons learned from covering the 2016 presidential election, an upset most journalists and the public at large didn’t predict. The biggest takeaway for the panelists was an over-reliance on election polls (“We really didn’t understand the weaknesses of polling data,” said Fahrenthold) and a general underestimation of Trump’s chances, held at 30-35%. “I didn’t take that percentage seriously enough and a lot of people in the media didn’t take it seriously enough,” said Bouie. Miller pointed out that while the TV news media (a voice geared mainly toward beltway insiders, panelists agreed) obsessed over every new poll there was a “vanishingly small fraction” of airtime devoted to actual presidential policies.

But even when presented with reporting of factual policy, you can’t necessarily count on readers and viewers to digest and process the information. Confirmation bias often overrides the actual facts, argued Bouie. “Even though journalists traffic in facts, we can’t make everyone believe them,” he said. “Most people just adopt facts that fit with their identity.” The real solution, he offered, is ensuring institutional party elites rely on those facts and use them responsibly ­– but don’t expect the party in power now to heed that call.

The panel turned to Miller of Full Frontal to “puncture” that power structure with sharp satire. “Our job is to try and articulate what our audience is feeling; put a finger on the thing that’s bothering them; get them to laugh; and give them catharsis,” said Miller. What the political comedy show is not set up to do, she said, is follow the norms of partisan objectivity mainstream media strives for – it proudly serves a progressive audience. (Although, as Miller interestingly notes, they’ve attracted quite a conservative following who don’t mind the self-ridicule.)

“Yeah, we’re church, we’re not missionaries,” said Miller, responding to critics who say her show isn’t reaching those who disagree with its politics. “Yeah, we’re preaching to the choir – so the choir can sing.”

Good Night & Good Luck: Media in Election Years

Sunday, March 12, Hyatt Regency

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