This is an archive, please visit for current posts.
PressThink: Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine
Recent Entries
Like PressThink? More from the same pen:

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

Syndicate this site:

XML Summaries

XML Full Posts

January 23, 2004

Psst.... The Press is a Player

It is an open secret in political journalism that the press is a player. But by not developing that thought, journalists maintain the "view from nowhere." This helps explain some of the familiar rituals in campaign coverage.

Originally published at, Jan. 22, 2003.

“Political stories don’t just ‘happen’ the way hailstorms do. They are artifacts of a political universe that journalism itself has helped to construct.” — Paul Taylor, former political reporter, Washington Post.

Here are seven interlocking parts in a kind of contraption political journalists operate for us every four years—campaign coverage, as we have come to dread it. Recognize any of the following?

The Gaffe: when a candidate on the campaign trail takes a pounding in the press for something that just isn’t said to the press on the campaign trail.

The Expectations Game: when a candidate “wins” by losing but doing better than the press expected, or “loses” by winning but doing worse.

The Horse Race: when the press centers its coverage around shifts in who’s ahead, based on poll results the press says are bound to shift.

The Ad Watch: when the press converts political advertisements—and the strategy behind them—into political news, and then analyzes that news to advertise its own savviness.

Inside Baseball: when the press tells the story of politics by going to insiders, the “players” who know the game because they play the game and get paid to know it.

Electability News: when the press shifts from reporting on a candidate’s bid for election in the here and now, to the chances of the bid succeeding later on.

Spin Alley: when, after a debate, the press shows up in the spin room to be spun by stand-ins and spokespeople who are gathered there to spin the press.

The contraption makes it easier to report on a presidential campaign. Also safer. With everyone using the same “instructions,” competition among journalists is reduced. Risk is spread. If the press narrative breaks down (a fairly common event), or brings twisted results (also common), if at critical moments reality and reason escape it entirely, these failures will tend to be seen uniformly across coverage. Coverage that is all made from the same contraption.

This makes it possible for journalists to stand back from the ritual, and comment on its absurdities, knowing that other journalists will continue the ritual, and thus continue the absurdities.

For example, here is Mitch Frank of Time magazine on the expectations game this year: “For a year Dean benefited from low expectations. No one took him seriously, so his rise to the top was all the more dramatic. Now it’s the opposite. If he wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s not big news. But if loses either one, even by a few votes, he leaves the door open for more stories about how Democrats aren’t totally comfortable with him.”

Now here’s Chuck Raach of USA Today on the spin room, from 2000: “The most absurd exercise in American politics always takes place in the hectic moments after a debate. It’s ‘Spin Alley,’ where talking heads dispense partisan patter in a roomful of hundreds of hectic, on-deadline journalists.”

And here’s William Powers of National Journal on the inside baseball approach: “The class of true political obsessives is tiny, and the media feel a little guilty about belonging to it, about behaving less and less like everyday people and more and more like the political operatives they cover.”

But feeling guilty and changing your behavior are two different things. Spin Alley is absurd, and called so by journalists. (See PressThink, Raze Spin Alley.) But Spin Alley is there after every big debate, and it still draws the journalists. Why is this?

The answer, I think, involves an open secret in political journalism that has been recognized for at least 20 years. But it is never dealt with, probably because the costs of facing it head on seem larger than the light tax on honesty any open secret demands. The secret is this: pssst… the press is a player in the campaign. And even though it knows this, as everyone knows it, the professional code of the journalist contains no instructions in what the press could or should be playing for. So while the press likes being a player, it does not like being asked: what are you for?

In fact, the instructions are not to think about it too much, because to know what you are playing for would be to have a kind of agenda. And by all mainstream definition the political reporter must have no kind of agenda. The Washington Post, National Public Radio, CNN, Newsweek, the Des Moines Register, and all similar competitors, are officially (and rhetorically) committed to “no agenda” journalism, also known as the view from nowhere. So while it might be recognized that the press is a player, journalists also see an unsolvable problem if they take one more intellectual step. So they dare not.

Except that some do because it’s patent. “No longer are we just the messengers, observers on the sidelines, witch’s mirrors faithfully telling society how it looks,” said Mike O’Neill, former editor of the New York Daily News. “Now we are deeply embedded in the democratic process itself, as principal actors rather than bit players or mere audience.” He made this observation in a 1982 speech to newspaper editors.

Eight years later, Paul Taylor, once considered David Broder’s protege at the Washington Post, refined the theme. In See How They Run (1990) he wrote: “The premise of this book is that the political dialogue is failing because the leading actors in the pageant of democracy—the politicians, the press, and the voters—are bringing out the least in one another.” Paul Taylor was a superb reporter. He was also the one in 1988 who asked Gary Hart point bank about adultery during events that ended Hart’s bid.

Principal actor, leading actor. Those are revolutionary words in an observer’s mentality. But Taylor knew, like Broder and many others knew, that changes in the political system and culture at large had weakened the hand of the parties and created the modern media campaign. And the press, at key moments, had made itself a factor in events it was supposed to be merely covering. Taylor and O’Neill went one step further: not just a factor, but a key actor.

And as other players in the game realized this, they naturally began to incorporate the press into their contraptions, embedding journalists further into politics every time the contraption was run. Thus, the news stories we now expect out of Iowa wherein candidates try to influence news stories about the “expectations” in Iowa. (“Managing Primary Expectations” was the headline Time chose for its January 9th report.)

The seven artifacts on my list are part of a “political universe that journalism itself has helped to construct,” as Taylor wrote. There would be no expectations game if the press did not play in it. Inside baseball would not exist if reporters went “outside” the political class more often. Electability, the Gaffe, the Horse Race, Spin Alley, converting ads into news— each does its offense to common sense.

Yet these rituals persist because they do one thing well. They preserve the fiction of a view from nowhere, which is needed for ideological reasons (professional neutrality in journalism) and commercial ones (agenda-less news is for everyone, advertisers included). The press has power. It is an actor, of sorts. But it is also a herd of independent minds, and in this sense it is organized not to think. Spin Alley depends on that kind of thinking.

Horse race journalism does have an agenda. It maintains the political universe of the press. “Trust us, we take the view from nowhere” explains, I think, why the press can be so blind.

Tim Porter of First Draft comments on this post and Cole Campbell’s, “Innocent in Iowa”

I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know where to start looking - outside the “campaign coverage contraption,” as Rosen puts it, or, in my view, outside the normal newsroom hierarchy that operates the contraption and whose decision-making is too often driven by an ingrained fear of missing the news rather than by an emboldened desire to make some news.

What does that mean? It means breaking away from the pack. It means not being the 110th reporter in New Hampshire. It means throwing out the political playbook of chestnut stories - folksy chats in coffee shops, poll stories, reaction to poll stories, etc.

This incredibly simple advice: “do something else” is, indeed, the place to start.

Terry Heaton reacts at his weblog, Donata: “This conundrum is the inevitable fruit of living within Walter Lippmann’s smokescreen of a ‘professional’ class of journalist.”

Arguing with Signposts argues with this post: “The Dean Scream was the only visual that could have come out of the Iowa caucuses that had any sort of draw. To ask television, the visual medium to end all visual media, to ignore that bit of TV gold is to retreat from the reality of the television business.”

See also, PressThink, The View From Nowhere

And… Horse Race Now! Horse Race Tomorrow! Horse Race Forever!

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 23, 2004 6:55 AM   Print


This argument is well constructed and beautifully presented. It's what we've come to expect from you, Jay. Thank you for having eyes to see. I would add that the political press is the inevitable fruit of Walter Lippmann's social view that we're better off with a group of educated elites running things. Lippmann's "professional" class of journalist has always been a smokescreen for what he knew how to do best -- public relations.

Posted by: Terry Heaton at January 23, 2004 8:34 AM | Permalink

If we were talking about any other industry we'd say "these problems are a pollutant, an inevitable side effect of the industry's manufacturing processes, so we need regulation to protect the environment." And we of the press would be leading the charge to have these regulations enacted, regardless of the effect on the industry's bottom line, because it's for the public good.

By constitutional edict the press cannot be regulated, so the best you can hope for is voluntary self-regulation, a notion we scoff at when other industries say "look, you can trust us to police ourselves."

The volunteer watchdogs of the blogosphere can try to keep the press honest, but they have no financial incentive and severe limits on finding a wide enough audience to do any good. And once the demands on the blogger's time (kids, jobs etc.) become too stringent, the blog goes away.

Maybe I'm focusing too much on the limits vs. the possibilities, but the prospects for change don't seem too strong in the current environment.

Posted by: tom mangan at January 23, 2004 9:47 AM | Permalink

I noticed when I tried to click in to 'PressThink' from bloglines this morning, for the first time the NYU server gave me a "directory listings denied" message. Since your RSS feed probably hasn't changed I think you had better have a talk with the IT department of whoever manages your server -- and if things don't go the way you want, change hosting for PressThink. It's too good to lose to a bureaucratic department's 'new policy' (I'm talking about IT -- maybe they're unacknowledged players too)

Posted by: George Girton at January 23, 2004 10:19 AM | Permalink

Great piece. Don't miss my post today about a real non-story from the AP wire talking about polling numbers in New Hampshire and NEVER MENTIONING ANY ACTUAL NUMBERS. It's amazing.

Posted by: Halley Suitt at January 23, 2004 2:47 PM | Permalink

George: The directory problems were caused by my goof, failing to enter key words and complete the url for this piece-- since fixed. Thanks.

Terry: Many thanks for the kind words. Lippmann's argument are a bit more complicated than that, although he did say public affairs should be managed by an informed class of experts because of the average citizen's limitations. One echo of that is when journalists refer to "political junkies" as the only ones who would be paying close attention to the very things the press reports. Of course sometimes people label themselves "political junkies," and I am not sure they realize what they're saying.

Tom: Perhaps it is time to share with you an attitude I picked up from historian Christopher Lasch: "I am not optimistic, but I do have hope."

I wonder, Tom, whether a majority of journalists (those not on the bus), or at least a significant faction, are not themselves fed up with the campaign press. What do you think?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 24, 2004 5:48 AM | Permalink

All pundits aside,
It would be well to remember, just as with physicians, as Jonathan Miller has said, "Often we get the 'C' student." That is true of reporters too, and given that most of today's 'reporters' were trained in "journalism" within the last 20 years, and none of this is a surprise. The last 2 decades: the upturn of reactionary posing; the advent of 75 tv channels; the upturn in computer tech; the internet, which isolates rather than _engages_, by its very nature; vast increase in the sheer number of journalism programs. The profession is diluted by orders of magnitude no one can measure. Going on and on about media integrity is a hopeless task. They mirror the culture..., and the Reactionaries now control the culture from top to bottom. Put that _all_ together and we get a media unable to think, and responsive only to implanted messages carefully crafted to affect them, their polls, and their punditry. None of this is intentional. Its a cultural phenomena, in keeping with Alexander Hamilton's adomonition in _Federalist Papers_: "This nation should be run by those who _own_ it." Now, it is so....

Posted by: daigu at January 24, 2004 9:32 AM | Permalink

HELP TO THE WICKED, embedded innocence

Chicken Little and Proliferating
When Henny Penny said to Chicken Little, "Weapons of mass destruction-related program activities."
Then Chicken Little told Dubya, "Weapons of mass destruction-related program activities." Then George W. Bush told us, "Weapons of mass destruction-related program activities," and now we are all complicate in "Weapons of mass destruction-related program activities," How does it feel to be a conspirator in WMD related proliferation? We here at Scari.Org find our involvement to be unsettling, knowing our only crime is free speech, dangerous as that is.
The Patriot Act is the one measure to stamp out the proliferation of "Weapons of mass destruction-related program activities." By calling to task, all those involved in "Weapons of mass destruction-related program activities" discussions, there still may be time to stamp out this disease before we, The American People, must declare preemptive war on the planet to save us from ourselves. Only by sticking to principle and signing a blood oath to forget that WMD were not responsible for our initial act of preemptive war can we be bound to the task at hand.
Conundrum: Irony and paradox don't fit into the Shibboleths of our current reality but yet the persistence of doubt carries on mindlessly authentic, reconciled in confusion with no intention of relenting –– a salient carbunkle on our psyche.

Yes, we are as guilty as two ex-members of the Baath Party talking about those bastard Americans –– how they'd like to nuke'em till they glow.

The Press, The Patriot act, along with Justice is hard tasked to stamp out this Weapons of mass destruction-related activitiy.

Posted by: Mickey O. Ganesh at January 26, 2004 4:08 AM | Permalink

Two other points worth a mention: "likeability" and "electability." If the media decide that they enjoy your company, you get favorable coverage. If not, you are presented as having a personality defect ("He's too angry"). The media also collectively screen candidates. Deciding, for example, that Kucinich is not an equal competitor with Dean, Kerry, etc., and therefore affording him little coverage.

Posted by: Bill Appel at January 26, 2004 7:46 AM | Permalink

From the Intro