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    HomePoliticsMetaphors Journalists Live By (Part I)

    Metaphors Journalists Live By (Part I)

    In my first column for the Prospect, I set down a harsh marker: I said that the conceptual tools, metaphors, habits, and technologies that make up what we understand as “political journalism” in America are thoroughly unequal to the task of making sense of what, in America in 2024, politics is.

    Bold words. Except, honestly, I have little idea what journalists and the editors who send them out in the field should do with them. Which is why, in the months to come, I’ll be asking a host of brilliant journalists, scholars, media watchdogs—and maybe even some politicians—to help all of us think through what a journalism adequate to understanding American politics right now might look like.

    If you have suggestions, hit me up at infernaltriangle@prospect.org. But I couldn’t think of anyone better to start with than Jeff Sharlet, who in his latest book The Undertow: Scenes From a Slow Civil War and elsewhere wrestles with a reluctant but carefully considered conclusion drawn from intimate conversations with ordinary people around the country: A significant portion of Donald Trump’s base are fascist. That means they won’t stop until democracy in America is gone for good, no matter what it takes.

    How, I began by asking, can the likes of Dan Balz at The Washington Post and Maggie Haberman at The New York Times make sense of that? Wend your way to the end with me, and you’ll learn something about how ill-prepared our vaunted Newspaper of Record is for the attempt. How stubborn they remain in making sense of a nation, as it heads into an election where the most salient question to answer may well end up being not how many people will vote for Donald Trump, but how many are willing to take up arms for him.

    When I asked Sharlet an open-ended question about how journalism can do better, he chose an unlikely way to begin: events in Africa 30 years ago. He was working as an intern at The Nation. “This was in 1994, before the Rwandan genocide, which most people don’t realize began in the neighboring county of Burundi, where Hutus were killing Tutsis.”

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    He knew little about the region, but enough to recognize that the Times’ reporting on it was suspect. As he put it in a Nation piece that year, it “reduced a nuanced political and social conflict to irrational (and by implication unsolvable) ethnic differences.” He recognized, in other words, a trope. He could recognize it because that was also the way journalists were framing the simultaneous conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Ah, these uncivilized foreigners and their ancient ethnic grievances, what can you do? Writing like that, he concluded, served to point readers away from, not toward, what was actually happening: a “calculated struggle for land and power.”

    A surprising subject helped him draw the conclusion. He was, just then, studying the films of John Ford and reading a classic book that analyzed them, Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. He thinks it’s the kind of book all journalists ought to read. I agree. Slotkin’s great subject is how Western films sedimented a quite nearly fictional understanding of the real-life violence that “settled” the American “frontier” into the subconscious of generations of Americans. We came to project this frame onto conflicts in every exotic realm, at the expense of realities—calculated struggles for land and power—right under our noses.

    He was particularly alarmed by a New York Times piece that quoted an anguished representative of the community suffering the massacre who all but begged the media to dig into the calculations behind those struggling for land and power. “The situation is very complex,” Burundi’s communications minister said. “You don’t have cowboys on one side and Indians on the other. It is not a moral problem, it is a political one.”

    That same piece, however, precisely reduced the conflict to the “cycle of ethnic violence” trope.

    In journalism, metaphors matter profoundly. Labels matter profoundly. Narrative frames matter profoundly. They matter most precisely when they function unthinkingly. That is when they soothe us into not bothering to look. “Cycles of ethnic violence” is like cowboys fighting Indians: natural, inevitable, unchangeable. In fact, in the case of East Africa, the “ethnic groups” themselves were virtual colonial inventions. Freezing the region’s tribes of farmers (“Hutu”) and herders (“Tutsi”) into rigid racial identities was Europe’s divide-and-conquer strategy. And by unreflectively reproducing those distinctions—cowboys fight Indians, what can you do?—American journalists could not but have influenced the world’s non-response to the violence as it shaded into outright genocide.

    It was from there that our conversation finally wended its way to 2023—and from Africa to the frozen reaches of northern Wisconsin.

    He had received an invitation from a bookstore to discuss his new book alongside a Washington-based reporter from The New York Times. He related to me a story of how frustrating that conversation turned out to be. Later, I watched the recording myself. It was astonishing.

    Sharlet doesn’t want me to name the Times reporter. “We look for villains,” he warned. “We look for bad apples. The way Maggie Haberman has become the receptacle for All Bad Things. If we’re going to get biblical: The problem is the vine, not the fruit. By their fruits ye shall know them. The bad apple who’s thriving is obviously serving a function for that publication. What’s true for the David Broders and Maggie Habermans is even more true for [this guy], who is not a star, just a yeoman worker, doing his job, and most of the time doing his job solidly.”

    He also urged me to convey that he is not against The New York Times.

    He made the point even more aggressively on the recording, telling the assembled: “If you don’t subscribe to The New York Times already, subscribe now. Give them more resources. There are things only they can do. But they can’t do it all, and they’re not doing enough.”

    The reporter disagreed. He said, literally, that they do do it all—so passionately that he almost shouted it. Then he said that if you disagree, he didn’t want to hear about it. It was thoroughly astonishing.

    The exchange began when Sharlet explained how he came to write The Undertow, and what he was trying to do with it. He explained that he spent many years, as a lefty writer, hearing people say, “Oh, this is fascist,” and he responded, “No, that isn’t fascist.” But in this case, he couldn’t abide by such a conclusion. “This is the real deal. There’s a real fascist movement. And I don’t think we have on the table all the storytelling tools we need to counter it. So the reporting is not just letting us know what’s going on, but … thinking about how we tell stories about what’s happening in the world, and how we can do so in a way that can resist what I call the undertow of fascism leading us to a darker and darker place.”

    He did not add what anyone who had read The Undertow would already know, that this was a conclusion he had arrived at after hundreds of conversations, witnessing dozens of political and church services, and logging thousands of miles on the road.

    “This is the real deal. There’s a real fascist movement. And I don’t think we have on the table all the storytelling tools we need to counter it.”

    But his New York Times interlocutor made plain that he had not read the book under discussion. He was especially smug in the first utterance he offered to the audience: “Yeah, I don’t know if I would use that word”—his eyebrows arched disapprovingly—“it’s not a word we use in The New York Times.”

    Then he practically giggled.

    Yes, the Times reporter allowed, “in the last couple of years especially, we have seen a good swath of the country sort of embrace anti-democratic ideals.” That “what we have is really a lot of the country that sees political power as, you know, as worth whatever it takes to acquire and hold onto it.”

    It happened to be the day the Tennessee Three were silenced, where two Black lawmakers were expelled from the state legislature for participating in a protest against gun violence. The Times reporter cited that as an example as part of his beat: “democracy on the knife’s edge.” He characterized this work as “just writing what’s going on.”

    The bookstore host asked Sharlet to share more about the kind of storytelling he did for the book. He began a characteristically thoughtful answer, then found himself gravitating back to his original point.

    Which is my point, too: The habitual ways of doing journalism no longer make sense. That the American way of politics has passed a watershed. That change is what Sharlet’s work struggles to characterize, as a desperate imperative—the way “these folks are changing the aesthetic of American politics.”

    He gave as an example an infamous interview Lesley Stahl did on 60 Minutes with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. It had been characterized largely by Stahl’s frustration in attempting to fact-check her in real time, and many viewers’ frustration that she wasn’t doing it right, or enough, or adequately; the way Stahl arched her eyebrows in the face of the most fantastical, hateful lies, for example.

    Quite brilliantly, Sharlet explained how this made his point about the inadequacy of political journalism’s inherited storytelling frames.

    “[Greene], I would say, is the congressman from the fascist party. And I actually would like to speak a little bit more about that term, because I think it’s important.” He noted Stahl’s consternation as a function of the brokenness of the very cosmos in which her career—a great one, he stressed—was built. According to the old rules, a respected gatekeeper from a marquee journalistic institution grills a “rising star,” as a sort of ritual vetting to which the politician cannot but defer. “But Marjorie Taylor Greene isn’t a ‘rising’ star.’ Those old frames don’t work anymore,” Sharlet explained. “Marjorie Taylor Greene is not trying to join the cosmos that Lesley Stahl and much of American journalism is set up to cover.” She inhabited an entirely separate one: a fascist one, which the likes of Stahl have no idea how to comprehend. “Fascism is a dream politics. It’s a mythology. You can’t fact-check myth. You can’t arch an eyebrow and make it go away.”

    Sharlet didn’t elaborate. But his book does: Within Greene’s cosmos, the likes of Stahl are what stands in the way of Trump’s deliverance of all true Americans to a supposedly perfect prelapsarian past. It is a story as told on the T-shirts abundantly visible at Trump rallies: “Journalist. Rope. Tree. Some Assembly Required.”

    The theocrats he wrote about in his first book, The Family (2008), he explained, were not fascists. But Trump—with his “cult of personality, and the celebration of violence”—brought a different political cosmos into being. He cited the scholarship of Robert Paxton and Jason Stanley, to no flicker of interest or recognition from his interlocutor. Sharlet then directed a question to him—“with love and affection for The New York Times and the dilemma that you’re in: What is the argument against calling that ‘fascism’?”

    At which his interlocutor doubled down on the smug.

    “For the same reason we don’t call Trump ‘racist.’ It’s more powerful to say what something is than to offer a label on it that is going to be debated, you know, and distract from the reporting that goes into it.”

    Sharlet: “Who is debating Trump’s racism right now?”

    Mr. Times: “You can say something is ‘racist.’ You can say something is a racist thing. But putting a label on someone is distorting from the reporting that we do. And the reporting is much harder. And much more powerful than the writingwhat he implied was the only thing Sharlet did, perhaps in an armchair in a book-lined study, smoking a pipe, mongering labels. “And people are welcome to label things however they want, but there’s frankly nobody else doing the reporting that we do.”

    Sharlet: “I’m going to disagree with you there.”

    Which was when the things that came out of the Timesman’s mouth started getting ugly and weird. His counterargument: “That’s what ten million people are subscribing to The New York Times for … And not to like sound too high and mighty, but the market has spoken, and they like what we’re doing.”

    He smirked.

    Come back tomorrow as I, and Jeff Sharlet, try to pick our jaws up from the floor in reaction to that comment.

    To be continued …

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