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February 23, 2004

What Time is it in Political Journalism?

Adam Gopnik argued ten years ago that the press did not know who it was within politics, or what it stood for. There was a vacuum in journalism where political argument and imagination should be. Now there are signs that this absence of thought is ending. The view from nowhere is being challenged.

It was December 1994, Bill Clinton’s first term, in the weeks after the spectacular Republican takeover in Congress. Adam Gopnik, writer for the New Yorker, sketched a portrait of the political press that I clipped because it drew on his many talents as a stylist. What he said may have been obvious to any alert and informed viewer, but it was also at odds with how journalists think of themselves and their problems. It remains that today. Remember, it was during the Clinton years that he wrote this:

“Any ordinary television viewer who has watched Presidential news conferences over the last couple of Administrations can’t have failed to pick up a tone of high-minded moral indignation in the reporters’ questions, which seem designed not so much to get at a particular fact or elicit a particular view as to dramatize the gulf in moral stature between the reporters and the President.” (“Read All About It,” the New Yorker, Dec. 12, 1994, not online.)

Gopnik found a dearth of reasoning in the press think of the day, a vacuum where journalists might have developed stronger ideas. Since Watergate, he wrote:

the American press has undergone a transformation from an access culture to an aggression culture: the tradition, developed after the Civil War, in which a journalist’s advancement depended on his intimacy with power, has mutated into one in which his success can also depend on a willingness to stage visible, ritualized displays of aggression. The reporter used to gain status by dining with his subjects; now he gains status by dining on them…

The key word was displays. Gopnik looked with a drama critic’s eye on the journalist’s (increasingly televised) presentation of self. He told how the culture of aggression was fatally constrained in journalism; it could not develop into a new kind of political institution, for it “still has to thrive within the old institutions of the commercial press.”

American newsrooms, he said, tend to suppress “political thought in the interests of an ideal (or at least the appearance) of objectivity.” This produces strange results. Journalists now “relish aggression while still being prevented, by their own codes, from letting that aggression have any relation to serious political argument, let alone grown-up ideas about conduct and morality.” I’ll let him elaborate:

Aggression has become a kind of abstract form, practiced in a void of ideas, or even of ordinary sympathy. In a grim paradox, the media in America, because their aggression has been kept quarantined from good ideas, have become surprisingly vulnerable to bad ideas… the jaded tone and the prosecutorial tone are masks, switched quickly enough so that you can appear active and neutral at the same time. Or, to put it another way, the cynicism and the sanctimony turn out to be a little like electricity and magnetism — two aspects of a single field, perpetuating themselves in a thought-free vacuum.

Attempted use of the “gulf in moral stature” is still common. (I wrote about Wolf Blitzer doing it with Dennis Kucinich.) For example, Chris Matthews, the host of Hardball on MSNBC, was profiled this week in USA Today. He’s been climbing in the ratings during the political season. On that count—440,000 viewers and gaining—Hardball is one of the few bright spots for the network. Listen to Matthews explain his success:

On Hardball, we assume that issues are important to the American people. What America does in the world, what kind of government we have, all that stuff is damn important… But we also know that politics, in addition to having incredibly high stakes, is not always on the level and that what politicians say about why they do things and what they say about interest groups and what they do to win votes is not the truth. You have to wangle that from them.

That’s Matthews as truthteller, exposing those who are “not always on the level.” Later in the same portrait, Mandy Grunwald appears. The former political consultant, now a peformer in what Eric Alterman and Michael Tomasky rightly call “journalism-related program activity,” is a Chris Matthews admirer: ”Chris doesn’t put up with bull, which is the tough thing about doing his show. If people try to get away with just doing their talking points, he’ll interrupt and say, ‘That’s ridiculous,’ or, ‘Come on, answer the question.’”

This is a rhetorical and visual stance, but also a favorite job description: the professional crap-detector, de-illusioned and well informed, sifting out the half truths, calling out the evasions, sizing up the scene in an analytical way, asking tough, necessary, cagey, impolite and just newsworthy questions. It’s the self-image of choice for a great many who do political journalism today. It’s what Tim Russert, Jody Wilgoren and Howard Fineman would probably say they’re about. And it provides an easy answer to:

The consensus reply—the one most commonly repeated, readily defended, roundly believed in by journalists—is in serious trouble these days. It says:

Our politics? We’re professionals who have no partisan role. We are neutral toward all parties, factions, candidates. We’re on the public’s side. We supply vital news, a context for understanding it, analysis and interpretation where needed. Beyond that we play the roles of crap-detector, truthteller, probing questioner of politicians and other players. Here, as everywhere, we are contrained by the journalist’s imperatives of fairness, accuracy, relevance, timeliness, and equal treatment. And we try not to bore you. Those are our principles, those are our politics. Is that what you meant?

Well, no. It isn’t. And that is why this belief system is in serious trouble. It answers a political question with an evacuation of politics, toward which professional correctness in journalism allows only neutrality and its endless equivalents— one of which is equal opportunity aggression in the watchdog role. Gopnik saw this attitude not as undesirable, but strangely non-descript.

For it fails to say anything meaningful about the journalist’s role in the American political system as it stands. It is also relentlessly ahistorical, defeating thought about changes in public life that might present new problems or require new ideas. As the press scholar Michael Schudson once wrote, “The news media necessarily incorporate into their work a certain view of politics, and they will either do so intelligently and critically or unconsciously and routinely.”

Leonard Downie, editor of the Washington Post, gave a speech last year at Harvard. Heard any of this before?

“So if you do tough investigative reporting about Democrats or about issues that are important to the left, you’ll get a strong backlash from the left. Similarly, if you do tough investigative reporting of the Republicans or people on the right, you’ll get a strong backlash from them. And I think this is also having an impact on the media. It’s scaring people.” (Quoted here.)

Reasoning like this is an example of what Gopnik meant by a vacuum. There is no attempt by Downie to examine and understand either backlash. The noise around him is just the predictable squealing when the press does its job. What’s the job? Apolitical truthteller; and (shrug) some don’t like it. (See my earlier post about Downie’s press think.)

Here the ritual of balance cancels out the criticism from both wings and locates journalism where it should be, and must remain: between left and right, telling inconvenient truths to both, and resented for that reason. (What other reason could there be?) The imagery—press in the middle against the extremes—is a case of what Gopnik called “abstract form” in journalistic argument, where practices are defended “in a void of ideas, or even of ordinary sympathy.”

The excruciating post-Scream interview that Howard Dean felt he had to submit to, with his wife beside him, meant watching Diane Sawyer of ABC News “relish” a certain style of aggression lacking in “grown-up ideas about conduct and morality,” to quote Gopnik again. It’s true that Sawyer is a celebrity journalist, and not at all typical of the larger tribe. But his point was that Sawyer and other journalists on television think with the ideas of the tribe— and give evidence of the same vacuum by being, uh, vacuous.

The big, consensus stories at the time of Dean’s sit down with Sawyer were the scream in Iowa and the “temper, temper” issue, along with “where’s the wife?” Both were proxies for “is Dean presidential enough?” and “is he a normal American?” The herd mind of the campaign press had struck; these were the “issues” for Dean. And Sawyer conducted an interview that stuck entirely to that script— refusing in bald fashion to think for herself. So stylized were the results that she had to ask at one point:

One thing I actually heard somebody say is, this is like Bill and Hillary Clinton. This is the stand by your man interview. The public relations event. Does it feel like that?

That is questioning that has left politics—and all the concerns of politics—behind, even as it enters into the game and affects it. Gopnik had warned about such. Ten years later, the press is still officially attached to, “We’re professionals who have no partisan role— end of story.” But the costs of denial and of reasoning in a vacuum have built up over the years. There are stresses and fractures that can no longer be ignored. Default reasoning in journalism seems more and more unreasoning about what’s going on out there. Here, then, is a tour of recent commentary that tries to tell what time it is in the American press— politically speaking.

Howard Kurtz: Drop bad habits. “It’s time for political reporters to swear off some long-standing habits,” wrote Howard Kurtz on Monday. The habits worth dropping were over-reliance on the money chase, polls, endorsements and ground organization in judging a candidate’s strength. They all performed poorly in predicting the 2004 race. That, of course, is another habit that could be dropped— “a prediction-obsessed culture in which many pundits and journalists were all but writing off candidates as the voting began and constantly trying to push the narrative to the next phase.”

In a downcast mood, Mark Halperin, ABC’s political director, told Kurtz: “Any political reporter whose humility level has not at least quintupled based on the events of this cycle should probably find something else to do in four years.” What he means by humility is realizing: we did many stories, we knew very little about what was going on. That’s a discouraging result. Kurtz’s ideas for fixing it are mild, but if the bad habits he names were dropped, there would room for lively argument over what should replace them. And this would require of the press its best political thought.

Tim Porter: Time to get off the defensive. At First Draft, ex-newspaper editor Tim Porter is saying: re-gain your nerve, journalists of America. Writing about this provocative column from Eric Alterman and Michael Tomasky, Porter says now is the time to:

invigorate a profession that has allowed itself to be cowed into political correctness of all varieties—left, right and center—by a frameset of meta-messages that taint journalists as liberal pawns, conservative dupes or middle-of-the-road wimps. Taunted and attacked into stagnation, and therefore bereft of the serious purpose for which it, and it alone of all professions, is granted constitutional protection, journalism fills the void with faux news.

“Itís time to start talking about whatís good about journalism and what can be done to make it better,” Porter writes. ” Itís time to get off defense and take the offensive. Itís time, as Alterman and Tomasky put it, for the ‘ambitious men and women of the Fourth Estate to reassert their power and professional pride.’” The end to stagnation will come when people in the press reclaim their power and re-examine their purpose. How else to get there, but through political argument that overcomes the taunting?

Geneva Overholser: Let’s talk about Fox. Overholser, in her Poynter column, has another “it’s time to…” The doctrine of objectivity, she says, has been successfully challenged by Fox News Channel. Let’s stop pretending. It’s time to have the conversation:

Fox News is arguably the first mainstream, widely distributed news medium to leave the objectivity God behind. And it looks as if it will be far from the last. A group calling itself “Progress Media,” for example, is now aiming to form a liberal radio network, and Al Gore is pursuing a liberal cable TV network.

If we’re jettisoning the objectivity commandment, though, shouldn’t we have the discussion? You can make a strong case for it, you can make a strong case against it, but you can’t make any case at all until you acknowledge that it’s happening.

Overholser is saying: we don’t have one model of political journalism any more, there’s two. Our long history with a partisan press is being revived by Fox, and there will be others. (She resigned from the National Press Foundation board when it gave an award to Fox News anchor Brit Hume.) Let the case be made for the revival of partisan rules in journalism. Let the gods of objectivity restate their case against. Any way you look at it, this is a political argument the press needs to have— about itself.

Jim Bettinger: We’re too much the establishment. Bettinger, a newspaper journalist for twenty years, is director of the Knight Fellows program at Stanford University. Writing in the new Nieman Reports about the recall election in California (“The Anger Journalists Never Fully Understood,” Winter 2003) he says:

Now journalists face the challenge of having an awful lot to learn about what happened, with perhaps not much time to learn what they need to know. This challenge arises not because the coverage of the recall was bad. It wasnít. In fact, by measures that serious journalists use to evaluate political coverage, it was very good. But good coverage didnít seem to matter much and, in fact, it served to link journalists to an established political order that voters were determined to chase out of office three years ahead of schedule.

To Bettinger, it’s past time to admit that “journalists are entwined in established politics.” The recall election won by Arnold Schwarzenegger “showed this graphically and also demonstrated how angry a significant segment of voters are at that established political order.” But he has more to say, words many conservative critics say they rarely hear from figures in the mainstream press:

The fact remains that a significant segment of the public believesó to a moral certaintyóthat mainstream media work from an agenda of actively promoting liberal political goals and that they work in tandem with the traditional political system. As journalists, we need to figure out ways to connect with these angry voters and disentangle ourselves from the political establishment, rather than dismiss this new political force as crazies who just arenít like us

Bettinger thinks this “disentangling”—certainly a political project in journalism—is an urgent matter. The ground is shifting beneath the press. Reaching the disillusioned with a new argument is going to be hard, but the risk of not trying is greater:

The warning I take away from the recall electionís coverage is that serious journalism risks becoming irrelevant to a political process that may be undergoing fundamental change. For those of us who want to see journalism be a major force in democratic society and not just a constitutionally protected license to make money, significant challenges lie ahead. The toughest one: figuring out how to reach growing numbers of disillusioned citizens without pandering to them or jettisoning our core values.

Alterman and Tomasky: Rouse yourself, press, you have the power. Writing in the American Prospect, Eric Alterman and Michael Tomasky also sense some movement. But their eyes are on the state of power politics between the White House and the Washington press, and the degree to which journalists can be a true oppositional force. “Are our national media—schoolyard silly during campaign 2000, by turns somnolent and sycophantic ever since—starting to rouse themselves from their long torpor?”

In the course of giving five recommendations for spine-stiffening, Alterman and Tomasky note the no-access terms the press has been handed by the Bush White House. “On a regular basis, our greatest media institutions are accepting conditions that every undergraduate journalism student in the country is taught to reject,” they write. “Individual reporters, scrambling for access and scoops, can’t change this on their own. It’s up to their bosses and owners.” And the bosses and owners have a lot of power, with which they can back up their journalists:

What’s one presidential administration to them? In time, Bush will be back in Crawford swatting Titleists. The Sulzbergers and the Grahams, to say nothing of General Electric and AOL Time Warner, will never be removed from office. That their journalists in Washington—with a small but still significant number of admirable exceptions—have quietly caved in to these conditions may or may not be unethical, but it is disgraceful. That the owners have let it happen will be their shameful legacy.

Alterman and Tomasky treat the press as a player in a contest for power in official Washington. The press should understand its underlying might and use it against truth management by the White House.

Dan Walters: Arnold is coming into our house now. Walters has been The Sacramento Beeís political columnist since 1984. He agreed that the serious press had been successfully bypassed by Schwarzenegger during the recall. But as governing in Sacramento begins, “those of us in the real political media will also have our shot, because the nuts and bolts of governance are far more complicated and treacherous than selling a simplistic campaign message.”

Journalists who covered the recall “tended to be pure political reporters who specialize in campaignsóand often know little about, and usually ignore, the intricacies of government as they obsess on polls, television ads, and other forms of political minutiae.” Listen to what’s in store for the new Governor:

But once Schwarzenegger takes office, he will face the Capitolís resident press corps, some of whose members have been tracking legislation and administrative policy for decades, and he will have a much more difficult time blowing smoke on the budget and other issues.

In the blunt account that Walters gives, the political press has already proven its potency by sinking the previous Governor:

Gray Davis could tell him about that. After all, it was the Capitol press corpsí intense and critical news coverage of his actions as governor that sent Davisís approval ratings on a tailspin from 60- plus percent to just over 20 percent and set the stage for the Schwarzenegger phenomenon. Heís coming into our domain now, and we wonít tolerate campaign-style sloganeering as a substitute for substantive action on the budget and other critical issues.

He’s in our domain now, and we want to see problems addressed. Walters seems to have no problem describing the press as a political actor. For him it’s time to show that journalists know how to act with intention.

Jim Bettinger, in response to a question I asked him, emails with this:

“I think there are some parallels between the Howard Dean campaign coverage and the California recall coverage, particularly in the difficulty that mainstream journalists had in grasping the energy of the Dean wave. This is not surprising. The radar of mainstream political journalism is aimed pretty high and calibrated for large objects, and a swarm of small objects flying close to the ground will go largely undetected.

“This was true of the recall and true of Dean. The difference is that national political journalists had a lot longer to examine the Dean phenomenon after it got on the radar screen than did the California political journalists, and they didn’t have the dominating presence of Schwarzenegger to contend with.”

Political philospher and weblogger Peter Levine comments on this post:

Along similar lines, I’ve been asking myself, “What would happen if reporters showed more respect for our democratic institutions?” There’s a big debate about whether reporters are too solicitous, or too critical, of various major figures, especially the President of the United States. But that’s not what I mean. In fact, to respect democratic institutions might mean paying less attention to individuals and their motives and fortunes.

For example, who cares whether George W. Bush supports the anti-gay-marriage amendment in order to appease his conservative base, as the Times explains in its front page “news analysis” today? (By the way, we can’t know his motives, and the only people who possibly have insight are Administration insiders, who aren’t trustworthy sources.)

Imagine, instead, that the Times explained that a struggle between majoritarian institutions and courts has arisen because the fourteenth amendment requires “equal protection under the law,” yet many voters see marriage as a sacrament that can only apply to heterosexual couples.

Citizens need to wrestle with what the fourteenth amendment means and how it can coexist with one-person, one-vote. Respectful coverage might demonstrate that this is not an easy issue—not for those of us who strongly favor gay marriage but also believe in democracy; not for those who oppose gay marriage but also believe in equality.

Hence those decision-makers in Washington are not just playing games for political advantage. They are in a tough spot morally and they are doing their jobs.

The title of his post: The press and respect for democracy.

Posted by Jay Rosen at February 23, 2004 11:53 PM