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Read about Jay Rosen's book, What Are Journalists For?

Excerpt from Chapter One of What Are Journalists For? "As Democracy Goes, So Goes the Press."

Essay in Columbia Journalism Review on the changing terms of authority in the press, brought on in part by the blog's individual--and interactive--style of journalism. It argues that, after Jayson Blair, authority is not the same at the New York Times, either.

"Web Users Open the Gates." My take on ten years of Internet journalism, at

Read: Q & As

Jay Rosen, interviewed about his work and ideas by journalist Richard Poynder

Achtung! Interview in German with a leading German newspaper about the future of newspapers and the Net.

Audio: Have a Listen

Listen to an audio interview with Jay Rosen conducted by journalist Christopher Lydon, October 2003. It's about the transformation of the journalism world by the Web.

Five years later, Chris Lydon interviews Jay Rosen again on "the transformation." (March 2008, 71 minutes.)

Interview with host Brooke Gladstone on NPR's "On the Media." (Dec. 2003) Listen here.

Presentation to the Berkman Center at Harvard University on open source journalism and NewAssignment.Net. Downloadable mp3, 70 minutes, with Q and A. Nov. 2006.

Video: Have A Look

Half hour video interview with Robert Mills of the American Microphone series. On blogging, journalism, NewAssignment.Net and distributed reporting.

Jay Rosen explains the Web's "ethic of the link" in this four-minute YouTube clip.

"The Web is people." Jay Rosen speaking on the origins of the World Wide Web. (2:38)

One hour video Q & A on why the press is "between business models" (June 2008)

Recommended by PressThink:

Town square for press critics, industry observers, and participants in the news machine: Romenesko, published by the Poynter Institute.

Town square for weblogs: InstaPundit from Glenn Reynolds, who is an original. Very busy. Very good. To the Right, but not in all things. A good place to find voices in diaolgue with each other and the news.

Town square for the online Left. The Daily Kos. Huge traffic. The comments section can be highly informative. One of the most successful communities on the Net.

Rants, links, blog news, and breaking wisdom from Jeff Jarvis, former editor, magazine launcher, TV critic, now a J-professor at CUNY. Always on top of new media things. Prolific, fast, frequently dead on, and a pal of mine.

Eschaton by Atrios (pen name of Duncan B;ack) is one of the most well established political weblogs, with big traffic and very active comment threads. Left-liberal.

Terry Teachout is a cultural critic coming from the Right at his weblog, About Last Night. Elegantly written and designed. Plus he has lots to say about art and culture today.

Dave Winer is the software wiz who wrote the program that created the modern weblog. He's also one of the best practicioners of the form. Scripting News is said to be the oldest living weblog. Read it over time and find out why it's one of the best.

If someone were to ask me, "what's the right way to do a weblog?" I would point them to Doc Searls, a tech writer and sage who has been doing it right for a long time.

Ed Cone writes one of the most useful weblogs by a journalist. He keeps track of the Internet's influence on politics, as well developments in his native North Carolina. Always on top of things.

Rebecca's Pocket by Rebecca Blood is a weblog by an exemplary practitioner of the form, who has also written some critically important essays on its history and development, and a handbook on how to blog.

Dan Gillmor used to be the tech columnist and blogger for the San Jose Mercury News. He now heads a center for citizen media. This is his blog about it.

A former senior editor at Pantheon, Tom Englehardt solicits and edits commentary pieces that he publishes in blog form at TomDispatches. High-quality political writing and cultural analysis.

Chris Nolan's Spot On is political writing at a high level from Nolan and her band of left-to-right contributors. Her notion of blogger as a "stand alone journalist" is a key concept; and Nolan is an exemplar of it.

Barista of Bloomfield Avenue is journalist Debbie Galant's nifty experiment in hyper-local blogging in several New Jersey towns. Hers is one to watch if there's to be a future for the weblog as news medium.

The Editor's Log, by John Robinson, is the only real life honest-to-goodness weblog by a newspaper's top editor. Robinson is the blogging boss of the Greensboro News-Record and he knows what he's doing.

Fishbowl DC is about the world of Washington journalism. Gossip, controversies, rituals, personalities-- and criticism. Good way to keep track of the press tribe in DC

PJ Net Today is written by Leonard Witt and colleagues. It's the weblog of the Public Journalisn Network (I am a founding member of that group) and it follows developments in citizen-centered journalism.

Here's Simon Waldman's blog. He's the Director of Digital Publishing for The Guardian in the UK, the world's most Web-savvy newspaper. What he says counts.

Novelist, columnist, NPR commentator, Iraq War vet, Colonel in the Army Reserve, with a PhD in literature. How many bloggers are there like that? One: Austin Bay.

Betsy Newmark's weblog she describes as "comments and Links from a history and civics teacher in Raleigh, NC." An intelligent and newsy guide to blogs on the Right side of the sphere. I go there to get links and comment, like the teacher said.

Rhetoric is language working to persuade. Professor Andrew Cline's Rhetorica shows what a good lens this is on politics and the press.

Davos Newbies is a "year-round Davos of the mind," written from London by Lance Knobel. He has a cosmopolitan sensibility and a sharp eye for things on the Web that are just... interesting. This is the hardest kind of weblog to do well. Knobel does it well.

Susan Crawford, a law professor, writes about democracy, technology, intellectual property and the law. She has an elegant weblog about those themes.

Kevin Roderick's LA Observed is everything a weblog about the local scene should be. And there's a lot to observe in Los Angeles.

Joe Gandelman's The Moderate Voice is by a political independent with an irrevant style and great journalistic instincts. A link-filled and consistently interesting group blog.

Ryan Sholin's Invisible Inkling is about the future of newspapers, online news and journalism education. He's the founder of and a self-taught Web developer and designer.

H20town by Lisa Williams is about the life and times of Watertown, Massachusetts, and it covers that town better than any local newspaper. Williams is funny, she has style, and she loves her town.

Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing at is a daily review of the best reporting and commentary on the presidency. Read it daily and you'll be extremely well informed.

Rebecca MacKinnon, former correspondent for CNN, has immersed herself in the world of new media and she's seen the light (great linker too.)

Micro Persuasion is Steve Rubel's weblog. It's about how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the business of persuasion. Rubel always has the latest study or article.

Susan Mernit's blog is "writing and news about digital media, ecommerce, social networks, blogs, search, online classifieds, publishing and pop culture from a consultant, writer, and sometime entrepeneur." Connected.

Group Blogs

CJR Daily is Columbia Journalism Review's weblog about the press and its problems, edited by Steve Lovelady, formerly of the Philadelpia Inquirer.

Lost Remote is a very newsy weblog about television and its future, founded by Cory Bergman, executive producer at KING-TV in Seattle. Truly on top of things, with many short posts a day that take an inside look at the industry.

Editors Weblog is from the World Editors Fourm, an international group of newspaper editors. It's about trends and challenges facing editors worldwide. keeps track of developments from the British side of the Atlantic. Very strong on online journalism.

Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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October 25, 2003

Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate, part two

The charges keep flying. But often the subject--journalism--disappears. Now there's a Party of Peace in the bias wars. They favor perspective, and they're telling us something. This is part two. Part one is here.

The only thing I ever saw that came close to Objective Journalism was a closed-circuit TV setup that watched shoplifters in the General Store at Woody Creek, Colorado. I always admired that machine, but I noticed that nobody paid any attention to it until one of those known, heavy, out-front shoplifters came into the place… but when that happened, everybody got so excited that the thief had to do something quick, like buy a green popsicle or a can of Coors and get out of the place immediately.

— Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.

Answers (Questions for bias critics, click here.)

How can a debate that’s become kind of dumb be conducted with more grace and intelligence? This is a hard question.

When in doubt, look for a distinction to draw. I have two, and they are my only answers. If we get into the habit of making these distinctions, we might become a little smarter about the things people talk about when they talk about bias. The first distinction is from the political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain. In Democracy on Trial, (1995) she writes:

Education is never outside a world of which politics—how human beings govern and order a way of life in common—is a necessary feature… Education always reflects a society’s views of what is excellent, worthy, and necessary. These reflections are not cast in cement like so many foundational stones; rather, they are refracted and reshaped over time as definitions, meanings and purposes change through democratic contestation. In this sense education is political, but being political is different from being directly and blatantly politicized— being made to serve interests and ends imposed by militant groups.

See the parallel? The news and the act of putting it together are “political,” in the sense she means: never outside a world in which we struggle with how to govern and order our common life. This is not how many journalists see it, (they prefer apolitical status) but that’s because they’re not getting help from Elshtain’s distinction— between recognizing that journalism is always political in the broad sense (a good thing), and allowing it to become overly politicized (a bad thing).

Take the distinction over into press criticism. It too needs to be political; that makes it interesting, worth conducting. But the critique suffers when it’s politicized.

Despite the remarkable incorporation of the press into our political system—a fact that immediately strikes observers from other countries when they land in Washington—we still have a press that officially claims a position above and outside politics. This I have called the View From Nowhere. Leonard Downie, editor of the Washington Post, is especially clear on this point. He doesn’t vote (in order to keep his mind open), and has described himself as an “outsider to my society.” Not many journalists take it that far. They prefer softer versions: We don’t join the parade because our job is to report on the parade, and things like that. (See this transcript with Downie where he manages to say nothing, over and over.)

By now, the claim to be seated nowhere in politics strikes just about everyone as absurd, including intelligent journalists who know the world to be more complicated, the subject more nuanced, than official press think ever allows. Yet official doctrine matters, not for being the smartest, but for being the safest press think available. The claim to have no politics has produced a rowdy style of hyper-politicized criticism, the intensity of which pushes journalists back into the View From Nowhere, looking out at angry crowds. Or they tune the whole clamor out.

Which then angers critics more, (“they’ll never admit it!”) leading eventually, and sometimes instantly, to a discussion that is purely politicized— cured of ideas. That point is reached when there is nothing said about the press that is not a reflex in the speaker’s politics. It’s a strange effect. Aha, bias! is the easiest, most popular—we might say natural—path into a subject like, “what’s wrong in journalism today?” And if you keep going on that path, your subject—journalism today—disappears. There’s only another empty argument about politics. I see it sometimes at PressThink comments: a zero degree in press criticism. You’ve seen it too. This tells us there is something wrong in the engine of the debate; it keeps shorting out. (By the way, dialogues of the deaf are not harmless. They make more people deaf.)

Second distinction: Politicians represent the people. Journalists don’t. They don’t need to reflect the people, either, including the percentage who are red state and the percentage blue. We have other forums for that, and if they don’t work it’s up to us, not the press, to fix them. We don’t need the press doing what Congress and town council do already, a point on which conservatives, liberals, moderates, libertarians—everyone—can agree.

But while journalists do not represent the people, they do represent the public, and that is not the same thing. The people can settle matters by voting in and recalling their leaders. But the public never settles anything; it talks some more, it marches on, it joins in debate and hopefully it learns.

To represent the public is to defend the interests of a conversation that is going on all the time in an open society. Public conversation needs defenders; it needs an original source of information, as well as forums where it can happen. It needs open government, good questions, honest experts, good staging and lighting, quality sound and a hundred other things journalists try quite hard to supply you with. Here they are representing you, but not in the way a town council does, more in the way a public library does.

So next time you get mad at the media for not representing the people, look for the ways that it does represent your interest, in the sense of furthering the public’s conversation. Which, as James W. Carey says, is “ours to conduct.” This might lead you to strange verdicts about a given work of journalism, like: you know, it’s biased all the way through, but it makes me think.

Or: I know how she got there.

Or the even more effective: I know where this is coming from, so it’s fine.

Time to recognize that this attitude—which I see more and more in comments here—is not just a brief for the go ahead, become partisan press. Quite apart from that debate, (should the others follow Fox?) people who take the “I know where you’re coming from” approach are, in my view, the Party for Peace in the long running media bias wars. They are saying it doesn’t matter. What you’re calling a bias, and doing data about, they call perspective, which can be lame and stupid or subtle and good.

Those who favor a perspectival press make bias conversation a lot more interesting, I know that. As they argue their “side,” it’s clear how and why the Party of Peace was born in the war about bias, and these people come in all political stripes. If you favor a perspectival press, you give up the right to complain that Jones the Journalist didn’t network you and your view into his account. Are there people who won’t give up that right, no matter what? There are. I think this is something that bothers a lot of people about the bias wars.

Yet bias criticism—much of which is conducted responsibly, I should say—is easily the most popular form of press think. Anyone can see that. It’s also become populist form, a container of passions primarily ideological, a trend harder to interpret. I try to treat the you’re biased perspective as no better than professional press think, but no worse. Both have broad strengths, both can get pretty dug in, which is why the drumbeats have grown louder.

So what are my two answers? Get into the habit of making these two distinctions:

One: Treat the press as political, and argue about its politics. On the whole, this is a good thing, necessary to a free press. But when you argue about the press and its politics—which we should do—things cannot get politicized. And when they do, there is emptiness.

Two: The press is not supposed to heed the people. It’s supposed to feed and sustain the public.

Maybe it’s time for journalists and everybody else to go back to the General Store at Woody Creek, Colorado, where Hunter S. Thompson looked in on objectivity and said to himself: cameras do that, I can’t.

Got answers to these six Q’s? Hit the comment button.

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 25, 2003 9:28 PM   Print


I think the analogy to Thompson and the store surveillance system camera and display is excellent, but not for the reason Thompson says. I thought about it briefly, the first time you used it. But this second time, the value is more clear. The camera, the 180 degree view it shows, is set and unchangeable, as is the video display on the other end, and are together a kind of technical frame. The placement of the camera and shot are chosen by the operators and reflect that operator's frame of reference, no matter how banal a security system might seem.

If you want to see it in McLuhan terms, the medium is the message, but more important for this discussion might be to understand that there is a certain bias with the use of that technology: it doesn't show everything. The technology forces choices, and makes some the operator can't control, that are built into the architecture of the technologies, independently, and as linked together. There is a kind of political nature to this, and it is important to understand the frames and politics of it when evaluating the information this system conveys. Though we know the system is biased and limited, we still use it, rely on it, and it's apart of the discourse over what goes on in that store, with the people, the Popsicles and the Coors.

I would argue this is very similar to journalism, where a person is built with certain frames based on experience, education and ongoing discussion, and is linked together with others in institutions and organizations with certain frames that evolve over time. Of course, the architecture of a person contains inherent limitations (we can’t see out of the back of our heads, one person can’t understand every and all cultural references across the globe, etc.).

These things are political, and it is important to know bias exists in both the journalism and video systems, but still take both feeds and use them to understand certain things. With journalism, the constant reassessment of bias as well as many other aspects of the media, has to occur because people, and institutions, evolve.

The part where the analogy falls a part for me is where Thompson says, "I can't be objective but the camera system can", because the camera system IS biased. But some journalists can still keep striving to be unbiased, while people simultaneously continue to evaluate the biases. Then, it seems to me the system might work, because it is causing discourse, which hopefully reflects interest and engagement by the public.

The bias debate is not really dumb, it just seems to me it now recesses and blends into a conversation that covers so much more, like discussions of story sources or the logic of arguments or narrative forms; it's only one evaluation component in the larger evaluation model for understanding media. Adding in other discourse components that make it easier for citizen particpation, like blogging and other forms of participatory journalism, is now more easily available in the information age, and so broadens discourse as it furthers the evaluation methods. So it’s worth discussing bias for the sake of learning more, but the results don’t produce a reason to get rid of either the bias assessment or objective journalism, especially in light of how they fit together with participatory journalism in discourse and evaluation models.

Posted by: mary hodder at October 26, 2003 1:44 AM | Permalink

Mary: Thompson didn't say, "cameras can do that, I can't." This was my phrasing of one thing I took him to be saying, presented without quotes. You're right: even a camera--maybe we should say especially a camera--has many "biases" built into it: the framing effect, the angle, the 180 degrees, ideas about what needs to be surveilled go into setting it up, etc. All that can be called "political" in the broadest sense. All I meant is that once that work done, there is a kind of objectivity there, and it is inhuman to expect people to match it.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 26, 2003 7:58 AM | Permalink

Thanks for clarifying Thompson, as I haven't read that particular work. I agree, to be perfect at anything, including objectivity, would be inhuman, and it's a standard no one can meet. But striving for objectivity is a worthwhile goal, even if the readership keeps in mind objectivity is impossible and therefore scans for bias while accepting the feed. The perspective view point is interesting too, because it seems logical that if you take it, you can't complain that all sides weren't covered, except that you might complain if all the perspectives weren't covered by a corresponding media outlet. Instead, you might have multiple kinds of journalism and discourse, objective, perspective, opinion, participatory, as well as multiple kinds of evaluative tools, with engaged discussion. That is a goal worth striving for, making room for more than two kinds of journalism (objective and op-ed). There may be many technologies coming that haven't yet been invented that will make these kinds of analyses much easier, and might even disrupt the bias evaluators like Media Research Center and right out of their current businesses, replacing them with something entirely new, less shrill, and definitely political in their own way.

Posted by: mary hodder at October 26, 2003 11:33 PM | Permalink

From the Intro