He used to edit political stories at the Chicago Tribune. Now he says the press is failing our democracy.

Posted Created: 2023-05-06


In the autumn of 2021, I began noticing threads like this from Mark Jacob, a former editor at the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times. It’s not uncommon for journalists to become more critical of their occupation once they retire, but Jacob’s observations cut deeper than most. (“Yes, media should be fair – to the readers, to the facts. But not to the 2-party system. To our democracy.”) So I asked if he would do an interview with me about his own “pressthink,” and how it developed an edge. He graciously agreed. Here is our exchange.

Jay Rosen: On September 27, 2021 you published on Twitter a kind of confession:

“I used to edit Page 1 stories for the Chicago Tribune, including many from Washington. In this thread, I explain why the media (including me) have been unintentionally complicit in the rise of fascism that threatens our democracy.”

I want to unpack that observation — unintentionally complicit, the rise of fascism, the threat to democracy— but first: You are a retired journalist now. When you were working in the newsroom, where did you intersect with political journalism? What experience do you have with its rules, rituals, frenzies and forms? I gather that in Chicago you edited stories about politics coming in from the Washington bureau. What else did you do that brought you into contact with the tribe of political reporters and their crafts?

Mark Jacob: I started out as a copy editor at the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial, the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette. But in that job, as you know, you’re somewhat removed from the newsgathering process. I worked more directly with reporters and their editors (including those based in Washington) when I was at the Chicago Sun-Times 1984-1999. I started out there as a news copy editor and became Page 1 editor and then Sunday editor.

In 1999 I jumped to the Chicago Tribune as a news editor with occasional Page 1 duty. In 2002, I was promoted to nation/world news editor, which meant I was running the show at night for both the nation and world desks. I edited Washington stories almost every night, and often more than one. I dealt directly with Washington reporters and editors. This 2002-2008 period forms a large part of my experience as related in the Twitter thread from last September.

In 2008, as the Tribune’s nation and world reporting got downsized and combined with that of the Los Angeles Times, I went over to the Trib’s metro desk with a promotion to deputy metro editor. In 2015, I was named metro editor. In both jobs I worked with the Washington bureau on a variety of news stories while also separately supervising and editing the Tribune’s DC-based reporter who was tasked with covering Illinois angles on Washington stories. While I was on the metro desk (2008-2018) I also had a hand in virtually all local political stories, including the Blagojevich scandal, the Hastert molestation case, etc. Since a Chicagoan was in the White House most of that time, national and local politics often melded. For example, I was the main editor on our attempt to fact-check the birther allegations against Obama.

The Chicago Tribune has a carefully crafted reputation as a fairly conservative but mainstream newspaper that scrupulously tries to maintain balance in its coverage of Republicans and Democrats. A saying by Lincoln is engraved on a lobby wall at Tribune Tower: “Let the people know the facts and the country will be safe.” The ethic was to state the facts and arguments on both sides and then let the readers draw their own conclusions. That was a fine policy if all sides played fair and told the truth. Not so much if they didn’t. And they didn’t.

Jay Rosen: Indeed, you have said that as an editor of political stories you would count the quotes from Republicans and Democrats, “thinking an equal number would make us fairer.”

“I didn’t think I was helping either party,” you wrote. “I thought I was helping the readers. I was wrong.”

What were you wrong about — I mean what exactly, where in the chain of reasoning was the error — and what led you to that conclusion?

Mark Jacob: There were a number of errors in my process. One was in thinking of a news story as a stage that allowed Republicans and Democrats to perform their talking points, rather than as a way to inform readers about the issues and the facts as much as possible. It was also a mistake to prioritize who was speaking rather than what they were saying. There are times when a party’s leadership has coalesced around a lie. The Republican disinformation about the Jan. 6 committee, for example. If you’re obligated to run a quote by Republican leaders on that, you’re going to run a lie. And if you don’t debunk it at the same time, you’re enabling the liars.

When did I come to grips with this problem? As the Republican Party became more corrupt and at the same time more adept at laundering its message through legitimate media. You see, my equal-time approach made more sense when the two major parties were equally corrupt and dishonest. They were both pretty bad in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and there are still bad actors in the Democratic Party today. But as the Republican Party en masse has become an increasingly dangerous, anti-democratic force, equal time for the parties has become equal time for truth and for lies.

Jay Rosen: When journalists who are “out of the game” come to these conclusions it could be because they finally feel free to say what they think. Or it could be that retirement provides the necessary distance to see what was hard to see before. Or it could be the shock of recognition when you begin reading the news as a citizen, a voter, a participant in democracy, rather than a professional observer. Which of these describe your experience?

Mark Jacob: I came to these conclusions before I left. That was only four years ago. I asked for a buyout and got it. The rise of Trump made it clear that the old-fashioned mainstream journalism approach of letting Republicans and Democrats “have their say” was failing our democracy. That passive approach, which undercut the power of journalism and fact-checking, was increasingly being exploited by propagandists.

The idea that we had to be fair to Republicans-vs.-Democrats instead of being fair to the public and the facts was a great gift to professional political liars. They were able to insert fake issues into the mainstream news agenda. And they saw their falsehoods repeated by “objective” journalists, conferring a sense of legitimacy. Old-fashioned journalism has been no match for right-wing propaganda. It’s been a slaughter.

But to answer your question more directly: Obviously, I couldn’t say any of this publicly when I worked in mainstream media. That’s why old-fashioned journalism stays old-fashioned.

Jay Rosen: When you came to the conclusion that the passive approach undercut the power of journalism and was being exploited by propagandists, did you argue that the practices of the Chicago Tribune should somehow change?

Mark Jacob: I’m sure I could have been louder, but my superiors and co-workers certainly heard my concerns about whether we were confronting disinformation effectively. Our determination to be nice to lying politicians in order to appear “objective” made that job harder. For example, a superior ordered me to never say in the newspaper that Trump was lying. He told me to report what Trump said and what the facts were and let the readers come to their own conclusions. Many other legacy news outlets took this same position, and the consequences are now obvious.

In my later years at the Tribune, I was dealing with local news more than national news. And that showed me that disinformation isn’t something that only Republicans do. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat, was an outrageous manipulator of news, rewarding his friends in the press with exclusives and punishing his perceived enemies, such as my staff, which was doing an honest, aggressive job of oversight. If you look at the Emanuel administration’s actions after the police murder of Laquan McDonald, you’ll see a textbook case of official lying. The Tribune did a strong job on that story over-all, but the video of the McDonald shooting was released because of a lawsuit by a freelance journalist, not a legacy news outlet. We were being too nice to lying local politicians in the same way that the Washington media is too nice to lying national politicians.

But don’t get me wrong: The Tribune was better than a lot of news outlets on this score. We sued the Emanuel administration for records. And we were much less likely than the Washington press to use anonymous sources. Even so, we could have been better at calling out the liars.

Jay Rosen: I want to ask you about motivations. This question arises from my experience in trying to explain press behavior to people who aren’t journalists or media critics. Thanks to the reply function on Twitter, I am now an expert in how non-journalists explain some of the things you have been describing. Here are the most common tropes they use to make sense of that “flawed approach” you have outlined, in which disinformation is rarely confronted:

Commercial pressures: News is about ratings and selling subscriptions. It’s a business, and journalists have to deliver the profits. They don’t confront disinformation because there’s no money in that, and making money for the firm is what motivates them. “It May Not Be Good for America, but It’s Damn Good for CBS.”

Hits and clicks: What journalists really care about is drawing attention to themselves. Truthtelling and confronting disinformation is less important than grabbing headlines, impressing people on Twitter, and building a personal brand. They do what’s required by the attention economy.

Ideology: Hey, they’re Republicans. Down deep they’re conservatives. Or “centrists.” Liberals. Radicals. Globalists. That’s why they do what they do. Their motivation is to advance the interests of their political sect or tribe. So they generate a narrative that accomplishes that.

Prestige: What journalists really care about is their status and visibility. Winning prizes. Working at the White House. Mixing with powerful people. Making it to the Washington Post or the New York Times one day. And above all, a TV contract.

These are not the only explanations I hear, but maybe 80 percent fall into one or more of these buckets. Why do journalists do what they do? Because of their motivations. What are their motivations? Profits, attention, political identity, prestige within the profession, fame outside it.

From your experience, what motivated your professional peers to stick with the “old-fashioned journalism” that, as you say, has been no match for right-wing propaganda? And how would you explain that behavior?

Mark Jacob: Some of these theories have validity, but the vast majority of journalists do not belong to an evil cabal. Journalism is a business, and the owners would like to keep customers of various political stripes paying them money. It’s safer and thus more profitable to avoid coming to conclusions – to produce stories that are in essence “he says this, she says this, you figure it out yourself.”

That attitude filters down to the staff. You don’t get a lot of complaints if you just write down what everyone says and leave it at that. And I was always surprised and disappointed by how sensitive some top editors were about complaints from the public and from newsmakers. They really want to avoid that, which I find ridiculous. I’ve always said that if you don’t make anyone mad in the news business, you’re doing it wrong. But not everyone seems to agree.

There’s also the access issue. I felt that my department was under pressure from above to get more scoops, but Rahm Emanuel was giving out scoops only if you played along, and my staff and I refused to. There is a career cost to holding fast to that position. Also, the vast majority of the reporters I’ve worked with just want to get the story right, but they also don’t want to get accused of bias, especially by their bosses. They want to keep their jobs. Many journalists also hold the intellectually honest view that they don’t know the truth, so they put lots of different facts and opinions in the story to get as close to the truth as possible. And that’s a legitimate position.

When I was on the Tribune foreign desk in 2003, many of us suspected that the Bush administration was lying about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, but we couldn’t prove it either way. So we published what, in retrospect, were a bunch of government lies. The difference today is that a lot of journalists are quoting politicians they know are lying, and quoting them without debunking them.

Jay Rosen: On Twitter you have referred to “the forces of fascism” in the U.S., and “the rise of fascism that threatens our democracy,” as well as “Christo-fascism” and “Republican fascism.”

Without suggesting that the term cannot be used because it is always and everywhere over-the-top — which is a view I do not share, especially after reading Jason Stanley’s 2018 book, How Fascism Works — I want to conclude this interview by asking you: How did you come to the conclusion that fascism is the proper term for what is happening on the right wing of American politics, and what are the events that led you to that conclusion?

Mark Jacob: Let’s look at the characteristics of fascism and whether they define MAGA Republicanism. There’s a cult of personality. Check. There’s demonization of “outsiders” as a threat to the culture’s survival. Check. There’s the mindset that political opponents pose such a danger that stopping them justifies all means necessary, including lying and cheating. Check. There’s propaganda overwhelming or extinguishing journalism. Check. There’s coercion of businesses to force submission to the autocrat’s wishes. See Disney and Ron DeSantis. There’s social regimentation. See the efforts to roll back rights for women and LGBTQ people and impose Christian values in a country that’s supposed to have separation of church and state. Fascism also means there’s a drumbeat of violent rhetoric and corresponding violent actions. See January 6, 2021.

I grew up in a country where you’d occasionally hear the word “fascist” used as a joke. Now it’s an accurate term for what’s happening in our country. I invite people to read William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and see how much the description of the Nazi erosion of a civilized society reminds them of what they see on America’s news every day. I’m sure a lot of people in early 1930s Germany thought the warnings about the Nazi threat were overblown. You know, the very first reference to Adolf Hitler in the New York Times assured readers that “Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so violent or genuine as it sounded.”

Fascism is real, Jay. The only question is whether enough Americans will realize it before it’s too late.