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December 18, 2003

Interesting Theory. But Journalists Don't Do Theory. Do They?

Everett Erlich calls Dean a Third Party "taking over" the Democrats. Jeff Jarvis says the Dean campaign is really a one way machine pumping out propaganda like all before it. Meanwhile, Tom Mangan, newspaper editor, wonders what good "theory" does in journalism.

In a deft commentary for the Washington Post, Everett Erlich, former Undersecretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration, took apart the 2004 campaign and put it back together as a three-sided contest. Dean vs. Bush vs. the Democrats. Dean is trying to start a third party, and at the right moment turn the Democrats into that. He’s using the Internet and the “small pieces loosely joined” approach to replace the party that Terry McAuliffe heads:

Other candidates — John Kerry, John Edwards, Wesley Clark — are competing to take control of the party’s fundraising, organizational and media operations. But Dean is not interested in taking control of those depreciating assets. He is creating his own party, his own lists, his own money, his own organization. What he wants are the Democratic brand name and legacy, the party’s last remaining assets of value…

This theme has been sounded before. Ryan Lizza got at it in the New Republic: “Dean, by contrast, has come to represent the party’s anti-establishment forces.” But Erlich’s explanation is new. Lower information costs and new media are giving small networks the same capacity to reach voters, and so the big national party can be gotten around.

Read his argument. Now suppose he’s right, and there is a three cornered competition among Dean and his network, the “old” Democratic Party, and the Republicans. (With the Christian right ready to pull a Dean on the GOP, and split off.) How does campaign reporting by the national press—let’s say at the Washington Post—absorb this possibility? Covering a three-sided race is different, more complicated. It demands a different deployment of people and use of news space. And yet it might be a more accurate picture—a savvier read on the situation—which means it would produce better coverage.

But this would require acceptance of a thesis, Erlich’s thesis. The trouble there is the press does not ordinarily choose between one thesis and another in setting its sights for campaign coverage. It has a third choice, which is to say: “Thesis? What thesis? We don’t do that. No sir. Our job is to report the campaign, not to theorize about it.” I said this was a choice, but it might also be a style of decision-making that is common in journalism. Not recognizing an issue can be an effective way of handling it.

For example, Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times argues that disclosing an editor’s basic political philosophy is always a mistake because the material is irrelevant. The news is not edited to political taste. We don’t care what political party the umpire in baseball is from, and we should not be revealing that information when groups have a passionate rooting interest and the umps stand between the people and a just victory.

Our politics are irrelevant, just like the umpire’s, and political bias is not a significant problem. “Programmatic politics of any sort are at best a vestigial presence in all but a handful of American newsrooms,” Rutten writes. Poof. There goes an issue critics thought was relevant. Press think in this style can “disappear” things.

So which is the more accurate image as we begin events in calendar year 2004, a two-party or three-party race shaping up out there? To me, that’s an interesting pair of alternatives for any sharp journalist to tackle. And I think the smart ones will tackle it, as the coverage goes on. But these are not two different stories. They are different premises for stories. We might also say different theories.

Meanwhile, Jeff Jarvis wants to cool down some of the passions for Dean’s distributed model of campaigning and its “two way” features. He’s in a contrarian mood about it. His three theses:

1. In terms of policy and substance, presidential campaign weblogs are not two-way. They are necessarily one-way.
2. In terms of policy and substance, presidential campaign weblogs must be essentially propagandistic.
3. In terms of organization, presidential campaign weblogs and community effectively exploit their participants.

He also says there is nothing scandalous about this, it’s just the reality of trying to win. Now you have to watch journalists—well, everyone, but especially journalists-when they set out to debunk. Not always but very often, the debunker will first inflate the claim, and then write 800 words about how ridiculously inflated the claim is.

The trick is easy to learn. You exaggerate what “others” are saying (or just make it up) but in a manner that sounds close enough to what some people actually have said that the inflated paraphrase gets by without scrutiny. After that, the argument falls into place. This is considered kosher in column-writing. “The fashionable view is… (insert writer’s wish)… but I disagree.”

To guard against this, I dock points from any debunker who does not quote real live people saying the things that need to be debunked. It’s cheating. And it usually means there are no people (or very very few) making the “fashionable” claim. It’s the writer’s wish to argue against them, however, and this is what the column is actually about: that wish.

Last month’s example (entertaining in its way) was John Dvorak’s PC Magazine column debunking the weblog’s ultimate importance in journalism. Here’s the trick I was talking about: “We’re told that blogs… are sure to become the future of journalism.” Are we? Told this by whom? And do they know anything, have any authority whatsoever? Dvorak didn’t say, of course, because he didn’t want to argue with real and reasonably bright, informed people. He wanted to strike a controversial pose amid those people while doing close to zero work. He succeeded at that.

But the best thing about this “make a wish” device (if your editor lets you get away with it) is when people howl in protest at your purposefully lame paraphrase, telling you how bad it is. These howls not only become proof of a great column (“struck a nerve, did I?”) but permit the writer to feel contrarian, even brave under assault. Dvorak’s is a feel good piece of this type. If those wrongly paraphrased don’t protest, the trick works well. If they do protest, it works even better.

Now Jeff Jarvis, one of the top journalist webloggers, (fourth in this recent poll) is also one of the best quoters and linkers around. This is part of what makes Buzzmachine such a good read: he sends you to what he’s talking about. And it’s different stuff. But this…

seems to me that we have been assuming — in a case of accepted wisdom I now don’t fully accept — that presidential campaign weblogs and communities are all about the people gaining control of campaigns.

… is not up to Jarvis standards. Whose assumption is that, Jeff? How come no quotes, man, and no links? This is Buzzmachine, right? You aren’t trying to pull a Dvorak on us, are you? Please, take me to some of those observers who claim that “the people” have gained control of, say, the Dean campaign—via their weblogs—and the people are now running the show, policy-wise. Not Joe Trippi, not Dean himself, but the people are calling the shots and determining the candidate’s stands on what you call “substance.”

It should be a snap, especially for a Webbie with your skills, to find lots of people spouting this view. I don’t know any, myself—any who say that campaign weblogs allow webloggers to gain policy control of presidential campaigns—but I’d love to read what they say in support of such a strange thesis. (Thesis? Do we do that?)

Well, over at Andrew Cline’s Rhetorica, Tom Mangan, boss of Prints the Chaff and a newspaper editor, wrote this in a comment thread, and it made me think.

I’m curious: how would more study of these structural biases help journalists? A reporter still needs to quote official sources, there is a finite amount of time available to report stories, there are inevitable fiscal pressures that discourage more authoritative reporting, and the audience’s attention span gets smaller by the day.

The journalism we have feels like an organic reflection of the environment we live in. Maybe my own blindness to the profession’s “under-theorized” tendencies is another of your structural biases … I wouldn’t deny there’s a sense that we know all we need to know about how to report the news, and that the stuff we need to fix its failings simply is not available.

I suspect most working newsies would say, “don’t give me more theory; just give me more time, talent and money.”

He has that right. Journalists and people who choose to become journalists have a strained relationship to “theory.” It is axiomatic that they don’t need it, don’t want it, and really don’t like it, but so axiomatic that after a while a close observer begins to wonder: maybe they do need it, in the sense that self-definition requires things one is definitely not.

During 17 years on the journalism faculty at NYU, I have heard many hundreds of students complain that they are not in J-school to learn “theory,” a statement I fully agree with. But it is odd to keep hearing it because we have no “theory of…” courses in the journalism curriculum, no professors whose specialty is theory, and no reputation as a theoretical program.

Without being instructed in this, journalism students pick up on an act of self-definition that will later be expected of them, and some of them use the word “theory” to show themselves, and us, that, yes, they’re becoming journalists. There’s nothing really amiss in that: acculturation is part of learning to be a…

I’m not for dumping press theory texts on newsrooms, either (it would be a disaster). But go back to Erlich’s theory that the 2004 campaign is really a three-way race. This notion, if accepted, affects everything an editor and a team of correspondents would do with the “more time, talent and money” they need to cover the 2004 campaign. Suppose the campaign team in the newsroom says: “Nah, we’re not convinced. It’s an interesting theory, though. We will stick with the premise of a two-party race.”

Aren’t they deciding to go with their own theory?

Read Britt Blaser and Jeff Jarvis, among others, in the comments section.

Matthew Stinson comments in a similar vein with Jarvis: “I think blogging and other forms of Internet communication have altered the general dynamics of the campaign, but the campaign blogs, up to this date, have not impressed me very much.”

Ed Cone also reacts to Jarvis: “As a debunking of the starry-eyed, campaign blog-as-Woodstock meme, good stuff. Howard Dean and Joe Trippi are trying to WIN AN ELECTION, not run an encounter group. Ditto the other candidates using or about to use the Internet to manage their campaigns. That’s the whole point of setting up your own parallel media. But I think Jeff sells short the collaborative possibilities of an Internet campaign.”

Those interested in the Erlich thesis should read the full rebuttal from Professor Bainbridge. Headline: analogy flawed.

Here’s one writer supporting the case for Dean as third party force. Part One. And two.

Posted by Jay Rosen at December 18, 2003 6:47 PM