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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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January 3, 2004

Horse Race Now! Horse Race Tomorrow! Horse Race Forever!

The origins of the term "inside baseball" are in one writer's view of sports reporting during the 1980s. He's Bill James, now a famous scholar of baseball. The arguments he made then explain why the term migrated so easily to politics. The inside, said James, is a hall of mirrors.

The horse race lives in 2004. It lives defiantly, as two recent accounts show.

Let the record reflect that on the first day of 2004, Adam Nagourney, political reporter for the New York Times, wrote an assessment of the campaign for president in which the word Internet did not appear once. (Although he did mention an email message the Gephardt campaign sent out.)

The next day a similar article—taking stock of the race so far—appeared in the Washington Post. There too the word Internet did not show up. “Rivals hone their stop Dean strategies” was the headline on Jim VandeHei’s page one account. It’s a standard entry in the horse race category, strategy division:

The strategies range from Rep. Richard A. Gephardt’s one-state last stand in Iowa to Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman’s rapid-fire attacks on Dean to retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark’s national campaign on electability. All of them depend on Dean stumbling during the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary the following week.

In a horse race world; polls are a baseline reality. They can tell you who’s ahead but not why. And they are mute on a favorite horse race question: how things are going to “play out from here,” as reporters and pundits say. For that we need savvy analysis, and this especially means the view of insiders, the savviest of all.

Right there is the connection between the horse race—a master narrative—and “inside baseball,” which is a reporting method. The insiders know the horse race best, they understand how Things Play Out. In his sources, statements, and overall style, Adam Nagourney of the Times Washington bureau—well respected among peers for his experience and knowledge of the game—is as inside as they get.

And so his quotes came from established observers like former Senator Bob Kerry (who had once run in the primaries), Bruce Reed of the “centrist Democratic Leadership Council,” (the ascendant faction during the Clinton years) and Simon Rosenberg, “former adviser to Mr. Clinton who now heads the New Democrat Network, a group of moderate Democrats.”

Along with his named sources, Nagourney invents an interesting composite figure to pass along the wisdom of his worried insiders— wisdom he’s collected by calling around, doing his reporting. The source’s name is usually “Democrats” or “some Democrats,” placeholder terms for a political faction speaking through Nagourney, who in this case is their medium. Why this faction, at this time? It must have something to do with what the reporter thinks is going on. I wrote down the phrases that appear when the composite talks. Each creates room for Nagourney to characterize the political moment:

  • party officials say…
  • many Democrats describe…
  • a state where Democrats say…
  • what Democrats described….
  • many Democrats say they believe…
  • concerns among many Democrats…
  • unsettling Democrats who have said…
  • some Democrats expressed concern…
  • many Democrats said…
  • several Democrats said (twice)…
  • many Democrats warned
  • some campaign officials argued…
  • and some Democrats said …

And what are his “many Democrats” chattering about? Well, it’s an insider-ish thing, but real enough: Changes in the primary system intended to produce a stronger candidate are compressing the action and forcing the candidates to attack each other. Nagourney figured he had the goods for a Race Turns Negative Early story. And he did.

Now eleven days earlier Frank Rich, of the same New York Times (Sunday arts section) had described how tone deaf this kind of coverage could be in 2004. (And I wrote a response.) How, he asked, could the establishment press overlook the rise of the Net, and the intersecting trends in politics, public media, and popular culture, and yet hope to understand the success of Howard Dean, frontrunner in the bloody horse race? Nagourney’s theme was attacks have come early. But Rich wrote: “A tough new anti-Dean attack ad has been put up on the campaign’s own site, where it’s a magnet for hundreds of thousands of dollars in new contributions.”

In between the quotes, horse race journalism has its own sound. We know this sound. It’s there in the sports and military clichés that characterize daily writing in the genre. “The nastiness of this campaign makes it difficult to go to an overarching message,” Bob Kerrey says. Listen to the language as Nagourney comments:

This verdict comes after a long year of preliminary skirmishing. Now the battle among nine candidates moves into a critical phase with the start of the new year and with a rush of contests that Democrats say is likely to produce a nominee by mid-March.

Hear it? It’s that sportsy, heading-into-showdown sound. There are aural passages connecting it to This Week in the NFL. Then there’s this, which seeks to establish who’s to blame for “race turns negative.” It makes double use of the composite figure:

Dr. Dean’s complaints notwithstanding, many Democrats said it had been his campaign — the hard-hitting outsider mocking the Washington Democratic establishment candidates to approving cheers — that set the tone. Those attacks have rankled his opponents, and raised, or lowered, the bar on campaign discourse, several Democrats said.

Nagourney, if you read carefully, cannot here decide whether the standard of campaign discourse has been raised or lowered by Howard Dean. The inside baseball dialect has its limitations.

The first time I recall hearing the phrase “inside baseball” the context was major league baseball. The originator of the term, so far as I know, is the author and baseball abstracter, Bill James. I was a Mets fan reading him in the 1980s when he began to attract attention for his analysis of players and teams in The Bill James Baseball Abstract.

James was originally a press critic. He came to his ideas via philosophical conflict with the sportswriters’ tribe. He thought baseball journalists had a firm grasp on the wrong end of the telescope. They were looking at their subject in a way that shrank it to insignificance, compared to the big picture James saw by tinkering with different measures over longer arcs of time. Thus, he spoke against inside baseball but also for “outside baseball,” taking the longer view but bringing that longer view into the game played tonight.

James thought the baseball establishment—which included the press—knew a great many things that were demonstrably wrong. Lore and legend counted for more in the industry than fact and pattern, despite all the time the professionals spent studying baseball, talking about it— living it. “My goal when I started writing wasn’t to create a lot of statistics,” he told USA Today. “My goal was to create a field of knowledge.” This alternative field was the outside baseball view, “what baseball looks like if you step back from it and study it intensely and minutely, but from a distance.”

That image reminds me of author Gay Talese, who tells how he tacked the pages of his magazine articles to the wall, in order to step back and read the draft with binoculars. Talese was studying his narrative minutely and intensely— by backing up. This was the Bill James approach (and he was a good writer.) Today he is hailed for revolutionizing the understanding of baseball for insiders and the people. He makes a good living with his knowledge, and works as a consultant for the Red Sox.

The sportswriters who covered major league baseball (as well as executives who ran it, James said) had made themselves clueless about certain patterns in the game. Journalists had too much confidence in their standard way of knowing, and in order to call attention to this, James needed to call it something: “inside baseball.” It was both an unquestioned practice and a semi-conscious belief among sports reporters.

The practice was to head into the locker room after the Yankees defeat the White Sox for interviews with players and coaches about all manner of “inside” stuff. How George Steinbrenner’s latest rant about his team was affecting the players under his microscope. What pitch was thrown to Derek Jeter, who got the big hit.

This may be knowledge only three people—pitcher, catcher, hitter—have. In soliciting it during post-game interviews, reporters say they are taking us inside the event, closer to its reality. The missing knowledge, they believe, is in the locker room, the dugout, the team bus, the psychology of the players and the relations among them. These are all “restricted” areas that reporters pry into for us. Thus we too can be inside, with the team, by virtue of what sociologist Erving Goffman called “backstage knowledge.”

Inside baseball is both a knowledge system and a belief system; and James, I believe, was the first to point out how comically prevalent its sound and metaphors were:

Inside stuff is very big in sportswriting today. TV shows, newspaper columns and sometimes whole books are dubbed “Inside Baseball” and “Inside Football”; magazines run features called “Inside Pitch” and “Inside Corner” and promote “Inside Scouting Reports.” A book appears called “High Inside,” and months later, another follows called “High and Inside.” The Society for American Baseball Research, an aggregation of dedicated outsiders outside of whom one can scarcely get, compiles a collection of research pieces into a book; this is called, of course, “Insiders Baseball.”

James was satirist to this trend, before it showed up as the prevalent pattern—and a commonly used phrase—in political journalism:

Inside looks, inside glimpses, inside locker rooms and inside blimpses; within months we shall have seen the inside of everything that one can get inside of without a doctor’s help, and now that I think about that I remember seeing a sample copy of a Las Vegas tout sheet that featured an “Inside Medical Report.”

Today in politics, there’s the CNN show, “Inside Politics.” The Washington Times and the Seattle Times have columns with the same name. In exact parallel to the locker room crush, campaign reporters head for Spin Alley after the debate to interview the inside players, the same names and faces seen on pundit shows. Analysts like Nagourney call around to those players, and package the results as “Democrats say…”

The post-game interview is the ritual at the center of inside baseball. James doubted it had much information value. After all, the players knew the sportswriters’ methods. (Just as political players know the ways of the press.) The foolish athlete gets into wars with the team writers and vows not to cooperate. “Silence, though, is but the ultimate weapon, the last line of defense,” James wrote, “The first line of defense is the cliché.”

How do you feel today Jim I’m optimistic I’ve always had good luck against Lefty Grove what did he throw you that you hit into the seats I think it was a breaking pitch that didn’t break is this the biggest day of your life no this is just the first step we still have to win the series has Willie helped the team Willie has added a dimension to the team that we didn’t have before and how about Frank Frank has adapted to his role well and hasn’t complained at all about not being used more why did you fire Charlie I’ve the greatest respect for Charlie but sometimes a change just has to be made…

“An army of sentries encircles the game, guarding every situation from which a glimmer of fresh truth might be allowed to escape,” James wrote. (Substitute for “game” the word “campaign.”) From his angle, the sportswriter is less interested in dispensing knowledge than in monopolizing analysis and discussion of the game. This is done by popularizing the sportswriter’s clichés until they become the sound fans expect to hear.

The outside view didn’t require locker room access. It was there in the action itself, in the part of baseball the fans could see for themselves, or read in a box score. Or even study. Outside baseball was publicly-available knowledge taken deeper by the writer, and that’s the formula James followed to fame and modest fortune. Inside baseball is backstage knowing, and it requires a gate. It is in some sense about the gate.

How is it you know you’re the press? Because you have a pass that says PRESS, and people open the gate. The locker room doors admit you. The story must be inside that gate; that’s why they give us credentials. We get closer. We tell the fans what’s going on. And if this was your logic, Bill James tried to bust it. Fellahs, said he to the baseball press, you have to realize that you are the gate. Your clichés, and the athlete’s clichés and the clichés of the coaches are a barrier between fans and the beauty of the game. James was a radical. He was out to destroy and re-build. What he said was: access means zip. You can learn more from the outside.

And sometimes you can. (At other times, access means everything to the story.)

I hope other journalists confronting the political puzzles of 2004 will read James, read Adam Nagourney and Jim VandeHei and hear their defiant cry: Horse Race Now! Horse Race Tomorrow! Horse Race Forever! And I hope other journalists will ask themselves: must this go on indefinitely?

Meanwhile, the weblog world is starting to stir a bit with the idea of monitoring individual campaign reporters. (But for what?) Steve Gilliard: “I think it would be a really, really good idea to track reporters, word for word, broadcast for broadcast, and print the results online. Not just for any one campaign or cause, but to track people’s reporting the way we track other services.”

Atrios adds his vote: “We spend a lot of time focusing on the pundits, but it’s really the journalists under the cover of ‘objectivity’ who turned the ‘00 campaign coverage into a travesty. We should have an ‘adopt a journalist’ program. As Steve suggests, people should choose a journalist, follow everything they write, archive all their work, and critique and contextualize it where appropriate.”

There is already one “tracking” weblog for an individual journalist: the Wilgoren Watch, which monitors the reporting of Jody Wilgoren from the New York Times.

Of course, you have to know what to watch for.

Wow. Baseball revolutionary Bill James, Daniel Okrent (now the public editor of the New York Times and the man who invented Rotiserie baseball), ace weblogger and Reason writer Matt Welch, bestselling author Michael Lewis of Moneyball are connected into one story by this wonderful post from Henry Copeland, Dan Okrent Discovered Bill James. (Link via Ed Cone.)

Read baseball writer Bill James on the Inside Out Perspective.

Okay, so what are some of the alternatives to the horse race thing? PressThink: Nine Story Lines in a New Campaign Narrative.

Halley of Halley’s Comment points to this Nagourney story from August 2003 about “worried Democrats” contemplating the field, a similar theme. Snippet: “Many prominent democrats said…”

Doc Searls comments on this post: “War and sports won’t go away. But some other metaphor will come to describe more of what’s really going on in a field where networked citizens get smarter faster than the insititutions that that govern them.” And possibly the institutions that inform them?

Dick Morris, column in The Hill: “Dean is only beginning to educate us on the impact of the Internet. When the votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses, I believe, he will achieve a level of turnout and an intensity of support that dwarfs that which can be stimulated by conventional media, mailing or phoning campaigns.” In other words, the Internet is a horse race story.

See comments section with Dave Winer, Tom Mangan, Halley Suitt, Heather Gladney, TwinsFanDan, Douglas Kutach and Matt Welch, among others.

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 3, 2004 11:09 PM   Print


Jay, what's weird is how the Internet came into US politics at the top first, which is the hardest place for it to come in because the stakes are so huge and television is so entrenched.

I'm turning my attention to local races now, because this presidential election cycle won't empower the individual any more than the Y2K election did. It ended in a tie, exposing no issues, not inspiring any public debate, activing no braincells. Basically that's what will happen this year in the presidential race.

I'd love to be surprised, but I don't expect to be.

Posted by: Dave Winer at January 2, 2004 6:52 PM | Permalink

Why the horserace & inside baseball persist: because they are useful to reporters on deadline. Not to readers, viewers or sources, mind you.

Ideally, reporters would never sleep, or there'd be three for every beat so that everybody could work 40 hours a week and have ample time to reflect on the outside picture.

But the reality is that journalists have lives, families, hobbies, bad habits; their employers have stockholders and budgets to appease. So: we get this campaign shorthand which streamlines the business of finishing today's work and moving on to tomorrow's, and leaving time for lunch and coffee breaks.

Bloggers *can* play outside baseball and fill in the gaps of insider coverage ... still to be settled is whether it does any good. Bloggers have lives too, and I suspect they too will lapse into similar shorthand after they've been at it awhile.

Posted by: tom mangan at January 5, 2004 9:25 AM | Permalink


If you appreciate the "other end of the telescope" as it relates to baseball you should read Also check out the following blogs:

Great article.

Posted by: Robert at January 5, 2004 5:10 PM | Permalink

I take your points, Tom. Many things happen in journalism because they solve the problem of how to make the whole thing--a finished news report--"happen" at the end of a day. They're practical solutions to what is primarily a production problem: getting the news reported, written and edited in an eight-hour day.

No one defends the horse race as the most brilliant of ideas, just the most practical, workable. Or as you said: easiest. I understand all that. (Although I think there are "believers" in the horse race within journalism.)

But if it's the dull, practical and probably unmovable facts of newsroom life, economic life, (suburban life!) that constrain the news from being way more imaginative and better, how do people agitate for a better press? How do you make demands for a more creative daily press? Or is that not worth doing?

Please advise, earliest convenience.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 5, 2004 5:15 PM | Permalink

Dave: I agree that the Internet came into politics as the wrong angle--mass delivery of a mass message in a top down, poll driven fashion--but I also think people never understand the new medium right away, just as the medium does not understand itself. You have "content overhang," or what McLuhan called rear view mirror driving.

I agree also that the opportunities for something as grand as "empowerment" of the individual in a massive undertaking like a presidential campaign, well... only in the most limited and symbolic ways can that happen. To me the issue is not "empowerment over," at that level, but just participation in the campaign-- better participation, if you will.

Is it better participation to be, not just a reader of political news and commentary but also a writer of your own political news and commentary at, say, your campaign weblog, or a popular one you visit? I would say yes. Big plus for participation. That itself counts.

And participation, in a democracy, always has power. More than that, it's effects are unknown. I don't think 2004 will be a replay at all of 2000. Life has moved on, seems to me.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 5, 2004 5:34 PM | Permalink

Jay = Great post. I especially liked the idea of bloggers tracking reporters (per Steve Gilliard) and anticipating what they will say. Their no-story reporting style is lamentably obsolete.

Bloggers should also be blogging in advance about the bogus media plants we can expect from the Karl Rove-type consultants -- we've seen them all before and can predict just the kind of junk they are ready to launch. By predicting them we might defuse some of them and show that meta-reporting and meta-campaigns hold no interest any more.


Posted by: Halley Suitt at January 5, 2004 5:43 PM | Permalink

Thank you very much, Halley. I love that phrase, the "no story reporting style."

On anticipation: I didn't fit this into the piece, but at the end of December, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post says: the press is turning now to who's the other mano in the mano vs. mano "clash" with Dean? "There's starting to be a hunger for a Credible Alternative so reporters can get what they want for Christmas: a two-man race," says Howard in his weblog on Dec. 22.

So what happens? Twelve days later, front page, at Kurt's Post: "Rivals hone their stop Dean strategies." (Jan. 2.) Predictable? On that evidence, yes.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 5, 2004 6:22 PM | Permalink


Great post on many levels. Can't remember where I first ran into your blog, but am thankful for the now-mysterious link.

Plus what a well-read audience you have! ;-)

Keep up the good work.

Btw, I think Tom's last line is wrong.

Posted by: TwinsFanDan at January 5, 2004 7:55 PM | Permalink

Jay: You have to ask what enables change.

As much as I take pride in deflating the pretensions of the blogosphere, I'm becoming increasingly convinced that blogs will be that agent of change.

Blogs provide more expedient ways get the story out and connect with people who use it.
The blogs of the pros won't be like the blogs of the amateurs ... they'll take shape some new way we haven't anticipated. But at some point all the news will be on blogs of some kind.

Posted by: tom mangan at January 5, 2004 11:47 PM | Permalink

Well, I admit I'm biased on this topic.
I like hearing that the outside view can be as informed and insightful as the insider view.
It sounds like outside viewing requires more brain, more active thought, whether or not it takes more time to perform.
But it offers the great virtue of greater perceived objectivity to the readers.

Insiders are often suspected of being corrupt.
(Particularly so in politics these days, no matter what end of the spectrum your reader may be on.)
This may strike reporters as a rude thing to say, given how much automatic effort they put into combatting bias of all kinds.
But don't your neckhairs twitch in alarm whenever you hear that cozy, familiar, "hey-we're-all-good-buddies-here" tone?
At its worst extreme, it becomes this scenario:
"The dance steps are well-established and absolutely nothing is allowed to disturb it, especially nosy questions."
The campaign noise about insider corruption seems pretty loud to me already.

Posted by: Heather Gladney at January 6, 2004 12:00 AM | Permalink

I think Jay's answer to Tom's comment can be improved....

Any explanation of the prevalence of the horse-race genre in terms of institutional constraints like time, salary, etc. is by itself insufficient because it can explain too much. If it is easier for a reporter to write a predictable horse-race piece, it is easier still to fabricate political actors and agenda. If you are only presenting your sources under the cover of "Democrats say...", "Some argue that..." why not save yourself the trouble of talking to sources? With any experience, you can probably guess accurately what some of them would say anyway. If you need quotes, just make them up. (Any sticklers for truth can just feed pre-generated quotes to a Democratic buddy and have him read them back to you over the phone.)

In short there are all sorts of ways reporters could do things easier, but there are institutional structures designed to hinder the reporter from making things too easy. So we have an editor or manager who is responsible for making sure that the reporter isn't plagiarizing or fabricating sources or interviewing his children regularly or writing too far off topic--all the usual things editors are supposed to look after.

The question Jay is raising is, why can't the bar be set so that unimaginative horse-race pieces are ruled inadmissible by editors just like they dismiss other kinds of inferior work?

All the constraints that a business has to work under--need to get a product out, make money, save on wage costs, etc.--make it the case that the bar must be set according to a bunch of factors. The optimal bar setting is a weighted sum of the costs and benefits and the actual setting is more or less a function of the perceived costs and benefits. Prodigious plagiarists are usually perceived by editors to be not worth the cost even though they produce more copy per dollar of salary. Same for really sloppy fact-checking. How well the perceived optimal level matches to the actual optimal level is a soft area where a press critic can make some good points.

On the one hand, it is unfair for the press merely to plead institutional financial constraints without explaining why the need for content variety (not having a reporter doing 10 stories that all say the same thing) is important, while content originality (not having a reporter doing 10 stories that repeat the usual cliches, quote the stock sources and reiterate the party lines) is not important.

On the other hand, it is unfair to request of the press merely that they raise the bar to exclude horse-race drivel because that has costs and who bears the costs? Like asking your grocer to lower the cost of his food because you think it's too high.

Here are a few of my ideas for how to advance the discussion.

One way a criticism could be formulated more reasonably is to say, "I think you in such-and-such segment of the press would produce a better product if you ruled out all those horse-race stories and compensate for the increased time your reporters would have to spend being original, by not being so demanding about X." Then, you argue that X is not so important as pressthink has took it to be. I think content variety is a good candidate here. Put more research into a novel story line and then milk it for more column inches by using various versions of almost the same thing. Run roughly the same story on different days with superficial differences. Most people won't notice because they don't read every part of the paper or hear every broadcast. This has an additional benefit related to the fact that people don't learn very well. Often the same message needs to be heard several times before people absorb the information. It is sad that often important stories run as special investigative reports. They present a lot of content in one broadcast or in a four day paper run, and then the story disappears into the morass of daily trivialities. Serious issues doesn't stick in people's heads as important even when on consideration, they can judge it as obviously important. [If someone knows of some empirical evidence that customers in the serious news market respond significantly worse to the kind of news repetition I have in mind than to news triteness (formulaic news), please post references.]

Another way to formulate the criticism more reasonably is to say, "I think you in such-and-such segment of the press could raise the bar and rule out all those horse-race stories at very little cost if you just became more efficient at using Y. Let me explain to you how using Y will let your reporters spend their time on original material without spending weeks doing research." I take it that Jay's nine story lines for the election are an attempt on Jay's part to serve as a facilitator: "Look, you don't have to come up with new ideas from scratch. Let bloggers help you brainstorm." Perhaps this is part of a larger argument that blogs are a good candidate for Y:
Original ideas are costly time-wise. But a lot of people are offering you their time for free. They pick up on ideas out there on the net, and by way of cross-linking, enough of the bad ideas get filtered out to make it productive to use blogs for new story ideas. So goes the argument, (although I'm skeptical). A reporter could save a lot of time by writing stories that already half-written. While I'm not advocating plagiarism as a paradigm for the press, isn't the preference for horse-race politics itself already close to plagiarism? Why do we accept these stories as original reporting if they involve little more than filling in the blanks with new names? Is a musician performing a well-worn traditional song any less of a copy-cat than one covering a recent release?

Having said all that, I think I see an argument implicit in the connection Jay draws between sports reporting and the press that hasn't been brought out yet....

Suppose the plausible. People like a lot of predictability in their lives with just enough surprises to keep things interesting. I have in mind here the psychology that draws people to brands or television shows or music. Too inefficient to continually try new things. Try just enough new things to get a sample of what's available, then latch on several fairly specific types of experience or content where you can expect to be rewarded. After a while you may get bored, so keep sampling a bit here and there for optimal utility. This psychology lends itself to branding. A brand gives you a symbol to associate with a specific experience types.

One good explanation of the horse-race reporting in elections is that it arises from the effectiveness of branding. In the press structure, receptiveness to branding obviously plays an important role in drawing audience: Why do pundits continually follow the horse-race story line? They are on staff to have an opinion for whatever topic might come up. How can you sensibly say something about so many important issues? You can't. So you spin any topic you think you can't address sensibly into the one generic topic that anyone can easily have an opinion on--how this is going to affect political player X. The horse-race story line is just a special case of the generic story line. (E.g. "How is it going to affect X in the polls?", reciting conventional wisdom as valuable professional insight, etc.) The charade is natural given that the media company can do better by pitching their content to the audience by way of associating the time-slot with the pundits or the forum. Much harder to continually attempt to draw viewers to whatever current topic is being discussed.

If this line of reasoning is right, the question about how to improve the press is not centrally focused on issues about media ownership or about the capitalist structure of media with all the money/efficiency-related constraints on press coverage. It is instead about the audience.

Another way of thinking about this is to ask the question, which press are we supposed to be improving? The tabloid press that covers UFO landings? The entertainment press? The local paper covering the local Pecan Festival? There is a serious answer here. We should be improving the political press, i.e. any press that significantly affects the structure or substance of democratic decision-making. This part of the press is important because it is the portion of our current existing political structure that plays a crucial role in allowing possible democracy by facilitating information distribution. Maybe in the future social and technological changes will allow serious democratic decision-making without a press. When it does, press criticism will be irrelevant, but not now.

The effect of the political press is only by way of its audience--how it affects its audience and who that audience is. If no one is watching or listening or reading, the content of the press is irrelevant. So then we should not ask primarily how does the press operate and what are its methods, but what is the audience and what are its methods?

What does this have to do with sports reporting? I lived in the New York City area once, at a time when I mostly wanted to be alone, and during that time I listed to a lot of sports talk radio. There were several things I noticed about the experience. First, sports radio in New York has a lot of commercials. I don't think I've ever heard any music station with such a large fraction of time reserved for commercials, promotions, updates, etc. You have to be very interested in something about the show to put up with that many commercials. Second, people who called in to the show and probably the bulk of the audience were not greatly interested in sport itself. The audience was most involved when a minor moral issue arose--player spits on fan, owner hints that coach will be fired, etc. There was something the audience was interested in, but it seemed sports was merely the backdrop for what was really interesting them: the moral drama. Third, although I now have no patience for sports blather, I remember there was something strangely comforting about having live human voices, talking in a mostly intelligent way about something that ultimately didn't matter. Sports is obviously one of the most unimportant things about which you could have information, and sports enthusiasts, more than almost anyone else, care a lot about objectively useless information. The only use for their information is sharing it with their buddies. In fact, that's the primary role of the sports talk host, to be a buddy. (I speculate that this phenomena is much more general. I heard a report that people who watch more television will on average report having a larger number of friends. The likely hypothesis by my lights is not that couch potatoes actually have more friends but that somehow they are counting some of the TV characters as real friends.) So maybe it's that people who attend to the sports press care about it primarily because of its social role in their lives. Or they care about sports because caring about sports is important to their social lives. Reading the sports pages is talking to your buddy who was at the game. And you like hearing your buddy tell the story even though (or especially because) the information is not going to change your life in any significant way.

My hypothesis is that those elements common to the sports, entertainment and politics reporting, the cliches and stale story lines, are persistent because a good enough fraction of the desires the reporting satisfies is primarily social and something leagues away from any need for information to make a well-informed political choice. Who could ever express precisely what these desires might be? Whatever they are, I worry that they aren't sensitive enough to the quality of journalistic content for it to be all-things-considered rational for the press system to invest significantly in marginally better content. Satisficing at some point is necessary, even for journalist perfectionists.

I'm not arguing that we should take for granted that we are near the point of declining marginal utility for the press because the public doesn't care about the truth, they just want to be entertained, etc. People often do care about the quality of information they receive, and will sometimes make a significant effort to improve their informational position. There may well be an unfulfilled demand for higher quality journalism without all that "inside baseball". But the goal has to be to have enough people care enough about the quality that significant press improvements will be sustained, and that it will eventuate in political improvement. Achieving that likely would benefit from an examination of the political press audience in addition to pressthink. I think probably that a significantly more sophisticated pressthink would more likely come as a package with a politically more efficacious audience, but we should in any case keep up the work prying open journalistic logic.

Posted by: Douglas Kutach at January 6, 2004 3:32 AM | Permalink

Good, chin-scratching stuff, Jay. And those who haven't read Henry Copeland's free-associative post really oughtta, and not just because he mentions me a lot.

Recommendation: Read, or re-read, Bill James' "The Politics of Glory," his 1994ish examination of the history and practices of the Baseball Hall of Fame. It's a strange book, or three books within a book (one history, one rant against current practices, one series of arguments about standards), but suffused throughout is a nearly tangible cri de coeur that American *political* discourse can't be improved by something approaching Jamesean analysis.

I find that doubly interesting, because at some level I believe he is wrong about this -- Scientific Method geeks frequently delude themselves into believing that there is one Knowable Truth about political considerations, and that if we just get some clear-headed Experts, all will be much better. This is actually a quite dangerous idea, it turns out ... but anyway, James I think clearly intended that one to be a bit of a symbolic comment on American politics, even though it's a stat-heavy book about a sporting institution.

Posted by: Matt Welch at January 6, 2004 8:16 AM | Permalink

"Inside baseball" as a sports term goes to at least 1907. "Scientific" or "inside" baseball was a big fad in the sport during the first couple of decades of the last century, and any newspaper search of the period will turn up hundreds, if not thousands, of citations for the term. In politics, the term goes at least to 1952, as far as I can find, though I have a couple of citations from 1927 which might be interpreted as being more about politics than baseball, or at least the crossover point for the term, given the baseball scandals of the time.

Posted by: Grant Barrett at January 6, 2004 3:33 PM | Permalink

Wanted to applaud Doug's posting. I can think of at least four other major hobbies (besides sports) where the appeal is in the comfortable rhythm of people talking to their buddies about stuff that really won't shake the earth if they're wrong.
The horse race rhetoric of politics is one of those stories that's been around so long it's comfortable, familiar, predictable. It doesn't shake their world, it's just something to kid each other about at the water cooler. That used to be plenty for most of them, in my experience.

I would give up in despair on the survival of a real democratic press against so many monopolistic and political pressures, if that was all we could expect in future.
But I'm not seeing that "love of the same old story" when I'm reading on the web.
I'm not seeing indifference.
I'm seeing people who worry about their country and care fiercely what happens to one another and will go to some trouble to check out facts and links and sort out what's really happening.
I'm seeing tremendous amounts of frustrated anger expressed in very sharp, cogent, and frequently scholarly arguments.
I haven't been hunting for this stuff, mind you.
This is showing up on things like the American Orchid Society News Forum, okay?
Over the last two years, I've been seeing an increasingly politicized content in postings on nonpolitical blogs and sites within live journal.
Beyond that, I read increasingly angry rhetoric coming from the news junkies who pop up with amazing links that none of the rest of us would ever find on our own.
About once a week, I see a post from somebody new, somebody who says that they never used to bother reading about politics, and just lately they became so outraged at how something was expressed in major media, or alarmed by some linked story from a buddy online, that now they're starting to read and comment about it a lot.
I don't know if some of this is just demographics, the natural progression of the baby boomers gaining time and financial security enough to turn their attention to politics and public life, among their other hobbies.
I would say a surprising number of these new folks are probably middleaged, people who were often first introduced to computers by the requirements of work, who took that knowledge home to pursue their other interests.
These folks don't sound like they're going to calm down and quit reading news postings any time in the next few years, either. I know they have no hesitation about posting online political and technical comments to the editors of local and national newspapers and magazines.
I don't know if there's enough numbers there to influence any press content. I can't tell you if there's enough numbers to matter.
Plenty of comments about Dean's campaign make the point that nobody knows how much this stuff will translate into real world political activism.
Nobody's sure if the blogosphere numbers matter. Nobody seems to know if the relatively priveleged number of people with computer access and time to read blogs are talking to those other folks who don't have access, and thereby influencing many more opinions.
Seemed to me we've got methods of measuring how much one person influences others in a rela world group, not just how many online links point to one website.
For that matter, if a few elite geeks are only talking to each other, does it matter?
I don't know if these newly active folks have any impact elsewhere--though I suspect pollsters could work out ways to get numbers for that, for how much influence the computerized have over the deprived, and over how many other people, and so on.
Are all these new people an actual increase in activists, or merely basic turnover? For any given election, any major party is going to see folks just becoming active and other folks dropping away, burned out on all the work involved.
Am I seeing merely a minor opinionated sliver of the electorate--the kind of excitable folks who always get riled up about this stuff, while everybody else sighs and tunes them out?

Or am I seeing the finest leading edge of folks who really do make things happen?

Horse race rhetoric isn't going to answer any of those questions either, is it?

Posted by: Heather Gladney at January 13, 2004 3:03 AM | Permalink

From the Intro