In our last issue, The Argus profiled FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast host and University alumnus Jody Avirgan ’02. In addition to our conversation about his career, we spoke about the current state of the news industry, as well as the infamous BuzzFeed dossier released the day before our interview (Jan. 10), which contained a detailed report that intelligence chiefs had briefed President-elect Trump regarding alleged Russian efforts to compromise him. This discussion is presented below.
On the State of the Media Today
The Wesleyan Argus: On CNN, the day after BuzzFeed published the document, Jake Tapper tried to create a separation between the journalistic ethics involved in publishing the initial story and BuzzFeed’s decision to publicize the entire dossier. What do you think about fragmentation in the journalism community and how do contemporary battles over journalistic ethics affect the industry as a whole?
Jody Avirgan: I think, in a vacuum, those conversations are important. There are different valid opinions for how to do journalism in this country. I think the important thing is you always have to think through your decision-making. Are you transparent? Are you an honest broker? So it’s fine for Jake Tapper to think that the decision BuzzFeed made was wrong, but I think BuzzFeed’s decision-making process was…. I respect it. I understand their logic. I don’t know if I agree with the final decision, but the most important thing by far is if they have thought it through and they are doing it for what feels like genuine journalistic reasons.
In the context of the world we are living in now, they strike me somewhat as a distraction. The one thing Donald Trump has done consistently well over his life is played the press. And more importantly he thrives on chaos and a sort of fractured, distracted atmosphere. And so I think, whether it’s intentional or not, moments like we saw yesterday, where there’s this roiling conversation on the one hand concerning the role of the press and then this conversation between the press and the new administration that plays into his hands frankly. Or at least allows him to thrive.
A: On Jan. 11 on Twitter, you tweeted, “If there was any doubt, today has reinforced that the front line battle for the new normal in American democracy is with the press.” Can you elaborate on that?
JA: At his heart, [Trump is] a kind of New York tabloid guy. And he took that to the national stage and is now taking it to the presidency. It is also, if you read about the way other countries have had their democracy fray, straight out of a playbook. I think people attacking the press, and delegitimizing fact and truth, and just creating a chaos of unknowables, basically undermining certainty at all times, is straight out of the playbook. We just need to attend to that and so I think journalists are rightfully wary of talking about this because it comes off as histrionic or self-interested. But I also think at some fundamental level this is happening, and I think that the most important thing is for non-journalists to defend journalism, and for journalists to, as well.
A: At FiveThirtyEight, what kind of conversations have you had about responding to attempts by President Trump or others to discredit the press? How much do you intend to work across different news organizations to offer a unified front?
JA: Since the election, there [have] definitely been conversations, both in newsrooms and across newsrooms, about how to cover this administration. This conversation would be happening regardless of who was coming into office. I think that journalistic collaboration is going to be really important moving forward. Journalists defending each other is going to be really important. And I think news organizations calling out other news organizations when they do stuff to undermine the credibility of the industry is going to be really important.
At FiveThirtyEight specifically, we talked about this a little on the podcast a few weeks ago [on the Jan. 2 episode, “Data Under Trump”]. But data is something the government creates and something that is used to evaluate the performance of a government. There are some serious questions about the future of that kind of information and the future of facts and empiricism. And I think we as a site do not take political stances as often and are much more interested in analysis, but I do think we tend to defend transparency and openness, particularly when it comes to data. And the Obama administration was not very good at this, and my fear is the Trump administration is going to be even worse.
What People Might Misunderstand About Data Journalism and FiveThirtyEight
A: What do people most misunderstand about data journalism?
JA: I think people misinterpret the notion of data journalism as “you crunch numbers and whatever the numbers [tell] you is the truth.” In reality, you think about the actual piece that you are writing, quotes from real people, data that you have crunched, input from experts. The best kind of journalism has a mix of all those things and is up front about the tension between those things.
What I think people perhaps don’t understand about our site or journalism in general is that it’s really about the process rather than the outcome. So you take the FiveThirtyEight model, which is the thing that everyone was clicking on during the election [FiveThirtyEight’s final polls-only forecast gave Hillary Clinton a 71.4 percent chance of winning the election]. I’m much more interested about how you get to that number and the way that the model forces you to organize your thinking and evaluate all the inputs going into the model. Data journalism is a framework for thinking much more than a tool to spit out a final empirical answer. And I think to some extent FiveThirtyEight can be faulted for not making that clear to people. You come to our website and did see that big number, and it’s understanding why some people glom onto it or why some people don’t get the concepts of how that number came to be.
A: So it’s as much about shaping people’s perception of the concept of probabilities or what the model broadly suggests in addition to working to ensure the integrity of the final number itself?
JA: Yeah, so post-election, that’s something we are thinking a lot about, too: How do we provide more context? Some people are going to show up to the site three days before the election and interpret it however they want, and move on. And that’s fine.
I think anyone who listened to the podcast probably wasn’t totally surprised. There’s a difference between being shocked by the result, which I was. I think that’s the word I used after the election, and being surprised, which I was not. I think we did a good job of contextualizing it. That being said, FiveThirtyEight is not going to get Americans to understand probability… My head after the election is going more towards critical thinking skills, and what are facts, and how do we make sure we protect empiricism and thoughtfulness and depth and content.
Can the 24-Hour News Cycle Avoid Sensationalism?
A: As weekly Trump scandals continue to compound, from the inauguration crowd size fiasco to allegations of voter fraud, is it possible that this sort of frenzied mindset poses a danger to the ability for large news organizations like CNN to do rigorously empirical work?
JA: I think it does. [News organizations] have to be open to the act of not engaging, which is a statement itself. To give you a specific example, yesterday [with the BuzzFeed dossier] was an insane day in American politics. If a day like that had happened during the election, we would have done an emergency podcast, no question. We would have been like, “We need to talk about this; this is nuts.”
And that was our bar during the election: Is this nuts? Okay, we got to talk about it. Our bar is different now. We didn’t do an emergency podcast because the bar is what can we actually contribute beyond just reacting to what is happening. What context is there? What idea that is useful can we contribute? And sometimes you have to be comfortable with the idea that the answer to that is no. And we have the luxury to wait a few days and not have to break information.
A: Can context or depth take precedent at a place like CNN?
JA: I tend to think that format is destiny. When you decide that you want to fill 24 hours a day, it is really hard to get away from that.
There’s this sense that cable news producers are hosts. I get the sense that they don’t think they have agency and that they have a choice…. You can actually not talk about something and I think a lot of cable news hosts feel wedded to that. I would love to see some moments where they make a statement by not talking about something.
And it’s a real challenge now that the election is over to figure out what our new role is and what our lane is because this election provided us with just an unending list of hooks and easy things to talk about. You could get by just reacting to the latest developments. And I don’t think that’s as useful now. I think now we need analysis and context, and we need some more depth.
A: Is it possible to take complex and tedious issues that require more depth and make them mass producible?
JA: That’s the general handwringing of news, how you get people to eat their vegetables. And it is interesting. If you aren’t good enough, and thoughtful enough, and invested enough to convince people that it matters…people are convinced this stuff matters, and it’s compelling. If you’re not up to that task, then it might not be for you. I don’t buy that people aren’t interested. Then journalism hasn’t been consistently good enough to get people interested.