‘We Live in a New World Where Accountability Barely Exists’

Janine Jackson interviewed the Lever‘s David Sirota about accountability journalism for the January 13, 2023, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: Forbes Magazine is throwing out some corporate wisdom in the wake of the utter failure of Southwest Airlines over the December holidays. The upshot is that “even the best, most well-managed companies are not immune to failures in the customer experience.” But if those companies engage smartly in “memory making,” they might make customers even more loyal.

Oh, and also, “It’s not that the glamorous, buzzworthy projects aren’t valuable, but they must be balanced alongside investments in more ‘boring’ (but no less important) endeavors.” In this case, that means scheduling software that would ensure that airline crew are available where and when they need to be.

Actually listening to employees is also offered further down as a possible leadership lesson. So that’s exciting.

For analysis explaining not just what went wrong, but how we could prevent it happening again, we saw a lot of news media content, but little space for the difficult, real debate that could move us forward.

Our guest says that has to do with what he calls “the algorithm,” a formula for generating news content that, while profitable, doesn’t really do the core work we look to journalism to do.

David Sirota is a journalist, writer, screenwriter and the leading force behind the Lever, a relatively new news outlet focused specifically on power and accountability, online at LeverNews.com.

He joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, David Sirota.

David Sirota: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

 Partisan Ghost in the Media Machine

Lever (1/2/23)

JJ: Your recent piece, “The Partisan Ghost in the Media Machine,” begins with the Southwest Airline meltdown from last month, but you focus on the way that this clearly unacceptable series of events was explained or interpreted to the public.

What leapt out at you as the sort of void in the news coverage here that pointed you to a systemic problem?

DS: I think there was a lot of, obviously, coverage of the canceled flights, and Southwest in particular, the specific airline, and why it had broken down in comparison to other airlines.

But there was relatively little coverage of which government officials, which government agencies, are supposed to be protecting the consumer—in this case, the traveling consumer, the passenger—which government agency is supposed to deter the kind of behavior that we saw from Southwest Airlines.

And the answer, of course, is the Department of Transportation. That is the sole regulator of the airline industry in the United States since 1978, when the airlines were deregulated; the bargain that was struck was that the transportation secretary would be the sole regulator of the airlines.

State regulators can’t regulate the airlines. You cannot bring a class action suit against the airlines. That context, because it really is important context, was not part, as far as I could tell, of much of the coverage of what was going on.

The other context, of course, is that state officials, congressional lawmakers, have been begging the Department of Transportation for months to strengthen rules that are designed to create a financial deterrent to the behavior that we saw Southwest engage in.

So Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has been pressed for months—by, by the way, elected officials in his own party—to use his existing regulatory authority to strengthen the punishments, strengthen the deterrence against the kind of behavior that we saw Southwest engage in.

Now, I understand that there’s an argument out there that the transportation secretary isn’t responsible specifically for Southwest’s computer system, the outdated computer system that the company hasn’t invested in.

But, of course, the decisions by the company to not invest in the necessary upgrades to its computer system, those decisions were made inside of a regulatory environment in which the company felt that it could presume that if it was punished at all for any kind of meltdown-style event, that the punishments would be a kind of corporate rounding error.

So in other words, the company figured that because the existing government regulators had not strengthened the rules, the company effectively didn’t have to make the upgrades that it needed to make.

It could instead, for instance, pay a $400 million shareholder dividend, and pay its executives $112 million.

 States warned Pete Buttigieg was giving airlines pass months before Southwest Airlines meltdown

New York Post (12/29/22)

And to come back to the media part of this, this was not part of the coverage of what happened and what should happen and what the fallout should be—except it was part of some of the coverage on the right, right-wing media, Fox News and New York Post, etc.

I should say that we at the Lever broke the story of all of this context: Secretary Pete Buttigieg had been warned…. Our reporting was amplified and discussed at length on Fox News, the New York Post, but it went almost completely undiscussed in corporate, or I guess center-left, Democratic-affiliated media, and it went undiscussed and effectively erased from the coverage in those outlets, because we now live in a world where news organizations are making news decisions about what to cover and what not to cover, what facts to mention, what facts not to mention, based on how they perceive it will be received by their partisan audience.

So Fox News and the New York Post are not covering our reporting about Secretary Pete Buttigieg because they think the airlines need to be better regulated. They’re doing it because they have a chance to bash a Democrat.

And the MSNBCs of the world, the CNNs, the New York Times, Washington Post, etc., they’re not covering the central role that Secretary Pete Buttigieg played in this, because they don’t want to offend the partisan loyalties, the partisan affiliations, of their more liberal audiences, who have been inculcated to believe that Democrats should never be criticized or pressured, or that pressuring or criticizing Democrats is simply a way to help Republicans.

So in other words, our tribalized politics, the supremacy of the tribal nature of our politics, my team versus your team, has bled into the way news organizations now make coverage decisions.

JJ: I guess I would say that I give more primacy in some ways to media, to telling folks that this is the way to herd their opinions, and that this is the way to think about things:  that you can only translate your frustration with a regulatory system, for example, into an anti-Democratic point of view.

At FAIR, in general, we have a policy of don’t blame the people.

DS: Oh, sure.

JJ: And in the sense of, media are really working overtime to herd us into very particular understanding, and to understand that everything is—there’s no there there. It’s just about which party you support.

DS: Yeah, absolutely. And I agree with you that it’s a self-reinforcing process, in the sense of, I don’t think there are editors at a lot of news organizations, I don’t think there’s editors sitting around at the New York Times saying, oh, we know our audience is liberal and therefore we’re not going to cover Pete Buttigieg in an accountability kind of way. I don’t think it’s that explicit. I just think it’s sort of baked in at a really media-culture level.

I think you’re right about the news-consuming audience. Essentially, after decades of this, this is how the audience, I think, is taught to think about politics. There’s one way to think about politics, which is the way I think about it, which is that regulators are public officials, and the public should hold accountable its public officials when its public officials refuse to regulate the parts of the economy.

But I think that we live in a culture now where this sort of symbiotic political culture and media culture has taught each tribe to think the goal of politics is to defend my team, no matter what. And if a regulator on my team did something problematic, then it’s my job as a news consumer to defend, on social media or whatever, to defend the regulator if that regulator’s on my team.

Because he is on my team, my job is not to pressure that regulator to actually take action.

So it’s the supremacy of the tribal instinct, I think, is the world we now live in. And it’s a world that certainly politicians have taught voters, and it’s certainly a world that media has helped, I think, inculcate to the population.

And I think it’s problematic. It’s obviously problematic, and I should say there’s a self-reinforcing aspect to this. Once Fox News or the New York Post and the like start covering a story, it’s not like they’re honest actors, then it gives media outlets like MSNBC or CNN or whoever, and gives liberals writ large, the argument, well, you know, that’s just a Fox News story, so it can’t be real. That’s just right-wing media.

And ultimately, who benefits from this dysfunction? The public officials who don’t have to face accountability, who don’t have to face trans-partisan, mass accountability. They know that their voters or their constituents in their own party will rarely ever be exposed to inconvenient truths about their negligence or malfeasance.

JJ: Absolutely. And we’re all, as media critics, dealing with this state of play where some folks are invoking a moment that never happened, where we were all around the water cooler and we all agreed on what the news of the day was, and we all agreed on how we felt about it.

And there’s a kind of big old media lamentation that that era has passed, and now everyone’s in a silo and they only hear what they want to hear. And I just, as people who care about journalism and care about social change, they’ve made it pretty freaking difficult for us to thread this needle.

And at the same time, we can just say we think that journalism is about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, you know? There’s a space that has gone missing. And I understand that that’s what the Lever is trying to do, and I understand that’s what a bunch of other organizations are trying to do, but it’s unfortunate, let me say, that we need to do it.

DS: It is unfortunate. Look, I’m proud of the work that we do at the Lever. I’m proud that we broke that story about Secretary Buttigieg. And it’s a story that if it was Elaine Chao from the Trump administration, I’d be similarly proud that we would’ve reported.

And I think that reporting is, obviously, it’s rare, as we’re discussing. It’s few and far between, but that’s the way news should be reported.

I joke on social media that, looking back on the halcyon days of the Bush administration—I’m kidding, but you know, there was a time when an underqualified person was running the Federal Emergency Management Agency, during the Hurricane Katrina disaster, and George Bush went out and said, you’re doing a heck of a job. That got ridiculed, and that government official had to resign.

And that’s the way things are supposed to work, right? If the political appointee falls down on the job and doesn’t do his job, the public gets outraged and there’s public pressure. The media covers it with an accountability kind of posture, and there are consequences. That’s the way the system should work.

David Sirota as depicted in the New York Times

David Sirota: “If public officials know they’ll never be held accountable, then they never have to actually do anything other than serve the powerful.” (photo © New York Times/Benjamin Rassmussen)

Not to get too grandiose about it, but I think we clearly now live in a new world where accountability barely exists. The people who perpetrated the financial fraud that created the financial crisis, there was almost no accountability for them. The people who lied us into the Iraq War, there was no accountability for them.

I could go on and on with different examples, and then you arrive at a million people get stranded during the holidays, and the regulator whose job it is to regulate, who refused to listen to members of his own party demanding that he regulate—I mean, maybe there’ll be some accountability, but there was very little, at least in the initial stages, very little accountability from media, very little mention of the idea of accountability in the media coverage of that.

And I think that’s a central problem that relates to so many of the problems in our country, which is that if public officials know they’ll never be held accountable, then they never have to actually do anything other than serve the powerful corporate and moneyed interests that bankroll their political careers. And you can trace that back to every single problem that we’re talking about.

And I think the airline situation, the way it was covered, the lack of accountability, the omission of it by the sort of left-center and center-left side of the spectrum as any kind of context for the coverage, is a microcosm of that larger problem.

JJ: Absolutely. And continuing on that note, elite corporate media, if something can be described as bipartisan—oh my gosh, they’re all over it. If both parties agreed that every person over six feet tall should be thrown in the ocean, I just feel like elite media would be like, it’s bipartisan, therefore it’s fantastic, right?

DS: That’s the interesting thing with the Buttigieg story, of course, which is the pressure that he was facing, he has been facing, from attorneys general across the country to actually get tougher on the airlines, that was pressure from attorneys general of both parties. So it actually is a bipartisan issue.

Ro Khanna on Twitter

Twitter (1/29/22)

Now, I agree with you that part of the reason it wasn’t really covered very much is because there was no, as far as I can tell—well, there was one, there was only one Democratic elected official amid the Southwest meltdown, who was willing to go out and say we had warned Secretary Buttigieg to do these things and he didn’t listen to us, and that was Congressman Ro Khanna of California.

And of course he was harshly criticized by liberals, on Twitter etc., for stating the obvious, because, again, protecting the tribe, protecting, in that case, the Democratic tribe, liberals protecting that tribe, was more important than actually looking at the facts of what he was saying.

And so, you know, I do think that it would’ve gotten more coverage had members of both parties come out amid this meltdown and said, hey, listen, we’ve been warning Secretary Buttigieg about this. Because I do think the media is interested in covering, at some level, conflict or the perception of conflict. But it didn’t happen this time.

And, again, I also think that speaks to the political culture as well, especially, by the way, on the Democratic side, that on the Democratic side, we are now living in an era where intraparty tension, intraparty back and forth, which I consider small-D democratic and healthy, on the Democratic side, that just doesn’t happen very much.

We are living in an era where there is really, really kind of lockstep loyalty, from the top all the way down through the party, to the idea that there shouldn’t be conflict. And I mean that in a good way, because conflict, I think, arguments, etc., that is what the small-D democratic idea really is, but inside the Democratic Party sphere, that basically doesn’t exist.

JJ: There’s a difference between bipartisan and nonpartisan, and I feel that, and I know that you talk about this too, the way that corporate news media, if you don’t identify with either party, you’re not on the page, you’re not in the story.

And there are all kinds of reasons that people don’t vote, for example. So we hear a lot of stories about the electorate, or about voters, and we don’t hear about the huge numbers of people who don’t vote—not because they’re stupid, but because they don’t see a connection between what they care about, and what their elected officials do.

So bringing it to news media, you’re not supposed to just go to the statehouse and tally up things on either side. You’re supposed to be looking for news and where people are at.

DS: That’s right. That’s absolutely right. And you’re right to point out that that’s really what we’re talking about here, is that the idea of something being nonpartisan, that’s gone.

And that’s the problem, because there is no culture of news is news, truths are truths, context is context and facts are facts, regardless of which party it helps or doesn’t help.

 The true priorities of the global elite

Popular Information (1/18/23)

JJ: Well, I see you. I see you in the media ecosystem. I see the Lever. I see Judd Legum at Popular Information. I see a number of organizations that are trying to do what we imagined we added an amendment to the Constitution for journalists to do.

But talk for a minute about the media ecosystem and where you see the Lever fitting, and for folks who are just—they come home, they’re tired, they worked a long day. They don’t want to have to sift through information to try to figure out…. Talk to news consumers about trying to be an engaged citizen.

DS: Yeah, I think the old analogy is a diet. You shouldn’t only eat fast food; that’s what corporate media is. So try to mix into your diet some nutritious stuff. And the thing is, is that I think that it’s not like eat your veggies. You know, eat your broccoli, eat your brussels sprouts.

There’s some very compelling news out there from independent media that will either provide context that’s not being provided to the news events of the day, or covering stories that are just completely off the radar that are super important. So that’s what we’re trying to do.

We’re trying to swim upstream, and it’s not easy, because, as I said in my piece, I call all of this the algorithm, because all of these news decisions, what to cover, what not to cover, based on a perceived audience’s partisan sensibilities, that’s also reflected and amplified by the literal algorithms and formulas on social media.

So there’s a symbiosis between news decisions and what gets amplified. So there’s a lot of days the reporting we do, we’re not benefiting from recommendation formulas and other opaque preference formulas that exist on social media. Our reporting is swimming against that current, and I think other independent media outlets are swimming against that current.

Now, I think there’s good news here. We have found an audience, and our audience is growing, and I think that because of the internet, all of this can change. But it can’t change unless people know about these options, and not only know about them, but share them with their friends, right, forward the email, post the story you like on your feeds, tell your friends to subscribe.

These are mundane things, and they sound like they wouldn’t really make a difference, but over time, if enough people do that, it can absolutely change the media landscape.

JJ: And I just would add, I always think of media—I overwork the metaphor of shadows on the cave wall from Plato, but media is just supposed to reflect reality and our ability to shape the world that we live in.

So we’re not interested in journalism just because journalism is so neat. We want to change the world.

DS: That’s right. That’s the whole point of what we do. At the Lever, we’re not just writing to have “content.” We’re trying to produce reporting that will give people the information they need to make the world better.

To go back to the Southwest story, the best thing that could come out of our reporting on the Southwest airline situation, as an example, would be that Secretary Pete Buttigieg feels so much public pressure that he passes, finally, a proposed rule that has been sitting at his agency for five months to actually get tough on the airlines.

And the way that that process can work is, media reports it, enough people see it, enough people get mad, enough people put pressure on him, file comment letters, send in comments, etc., that he feels that he has to act. That’s the way the system is supposed to work.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with David Sirota. He’s a journalist and writer, and the force behind the Lever, which you can find online at LeverNews.com. David Sirota, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

DS: Thank you. Thanks for having me.