How Journalists Need to Begin Imagining the Unimaginable
Journalist Masha Gessen has spent years reporting on Vladimir Putin’s rule in Russia. She has written that the focus on Russian influence over now President-elect Donald Trump has been overstated and the result of a failure of imagination: the inability to imagine that the president would profoundly break with the norms of our country’s political discourse and practices.
A few days after Trump’s win, Gessen wrote about what citizens should be on the watch for with the incoming administration. ProPublica’s Eric Umansky and Jesse Eisinger sat down with Gessen to talk about how exactly journalists should be covering Trump.
A few highlights from the conversation:
Journalists needed to realize Trump wasn’t playing chess…
I'm going to borrow a metaphor from Garry Kasparov, the chess champion, who when he first quit chess and went into politics, he was explaining to people that going up against Putin was like playing chess against somebody who keeps knocking the figures off the board. It's like he's not playing chess.
I think that what the papers failed to do was write the big story of the fact that Donald Trump wasn't playing chess. It's like the endless fact checking was a little bit like reporting on a chess match by saying, "Okay, well, she opened E2 to E4 and he knocked all the figures off the chess board. He knocked the bishop off the chess board and he knocked the knight off the chess board." Well, just say it! Just say he was not playing chess!
I think that it would have been a story about how Donald Trump was running for autocrat. I think at that point there should have been a big journalistic break with American exceptionalism and that's where we would have gone to other countries to look at what has happened to other countries when politicians have run in democratic elections for autocrat. It's happened many times and it's succeeded many times.
There was a collective failure of imagination…
Many reporters had gone directly from the state of total disbelief that Trump will never be the Republican nominee, even when he had the nomination locked in. Their argument, when I would ask people, they would say, "Well, I just can't imagine it happening." Well, if you can't imagine it happening, that's your problem.
When somebody says, "I can't imagine it happening," that's a problem.
Then what happened was that there was this whole direction of coverage that held, incredibly to me for the entire campaign, this idea that Trump was somehow Putin's agent and that Russia was meddling in the election and that Russia was rigging the election. There's a little tiny bit of evidence for it, but that's a classic conspiracy theory phenomenon where's there is a little bit of evidence but that's not what happened.
What happened was an American phenomenon, a home-grown potential autocrat who was elected by Americans.
It was so difficult to imagine that this was happening here that it was actually easier to do this complete bend over backwards maneuver that would position him as some sort of agent of Putin and Clinton's campaign ran with it.
Journalists should look at how this has played out in other countries...
I would look at the world and I would look for parallels.
When I was reporting on [Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor] Lieberman, a lot of people in Israel, this is 2010, they were saying, "Never mind, he's on his way out because there's this corruption scandal that is going to finally engulf and derail him." Then it didn't happen. There was the corruption scandal, the corruption was proven. It was the sort of thing that would have derailed any traditional Israeli politician and it didn't stick to Lieberman.
It turns out that populist resentment politics can overtake a lot of that, possibly all of that, but also in the specifics, right? We have Lieberman, who turns out to be impervious to the kinds of things that would have damaged a different politician. That's a lesson that would have been very well learned in the summer and fall as more and more details were coming out about Trump.
I was absolutely convinced that he was going to win. The reason why I was convinced he was going to win is because I've been reporting on these people, mostly Putin, but a little bit of Lieberman, a little bit of [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orban. I've been seeing this happening everywhere.
The job for journalists now is to document changing norms...
We really have to figure out how to tell the truth and not just report the facts. Which is a pretty good sentence but not a great prescription.
I think that I would create new beats. The language beat, language watch.
Understand that normal is going to drift and shift and all sorts of things are about to happen and part of our job is to notice and document how it's happening. We may not be able to influence the course of events, but our job is to at least be able to tell the story."