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February 25, 2004

Zachary Roth (And His Boss) Respond to "The Morals Squad at CJR's Campaign Desk"

I thought CJR's Campaign Desk was triangulating and moralizing to excess when it went after weblogs on exit polls. "It‘s a clever-sounding theory," says the Desk's Zachary Roth, "but it doesn’t come close." Mike Hoyt, top editor at CJR, agrees. Their letters and my response.

To: Jay Rosen
From Zachary Roth
Date: February 24, 2004

I wanted to respond to your lengthy piece about Campaign Desk posted on your site. I’m not speaking for Campaign Desk here— this is a personal response.

First, I agree that, as you say, “there are some standards emerging online where webloggers meet the mark and the press falls short.” I personally have no interest in holding bloggers out to be any less responsible than anyone else, and where I’ve implied that they are—by talking about being “taken seriously”— I’d have done better to focus my criticism more narrowly on the issue at hand: the release of exit poll results. Kos is right to say that his readers will decide whether or not he gets taken seriously.

But I’m a little confused about the moralizing charge. You write, “If Campaign Desk is worried about sounding too moralistic, then it’s a good bet there is some moralizing going on.” Are you saying that our stance on the exit polls issue is itself “moralistic”, and therefore worthy of dismissal, or are you taking issue simply with what you see as our moralistic tone? If we were making our point in a more self-effacing way, would that make it okay?

These aren’t rhetorical questions. I honestly don’t know, since you never make a substantive argument challenging our position on exit polls, or on much else. I think we’re right on the substance of what we said to Shafer and Kos, and you say nothing to challenge that.

Part of the moralizing charge, if I read you right, is that I’m a 28-year old former Washington Monthly intern. The implication is that this diminishes my argument to Kos.

Now I’ve tried here, really I have, but I just don’t follow this. If I were however old you are, and a professor of whatever you’re a professor of, would that make me right? Weren’t you just telling us about “horizontal authority?” I thought that “things are changing under the pressure of a platform shift that is creating more players, amplifying other voices, exposing the need for new standards.” Sounds exciting. But I guess it doesn’t also apply generationally.

If you want to make an argument against my actual position, knock yourself out. But I read through 9 printed-out pages of your piece and I couldn’t find one.

So okay, your main problem with CD is this:

“Sending the vice squad out on exit polling was not intended to shame political webloggers into dropping a bad habit, which might be a modus operandi for the Desk when it addresses the press corps. The action was not supposed to be effective in reform.” Instead, it was to put “moral distance between (ourselves) and webloggers so as to impress the traditional press.”

I really don’t get this either. It‘s a clever-sounding theory (and it lets you use the word “triangulation”) but it doesn’t come close to accurately representing even the subconscious thinking behind making an issue over the release of exit polls— whose purpose really was to discourage the practice, hard as that may be to believe.

Part of the problem here is your reliance on Cotts’ piece, which badly mischaracterized what our site is about. Cotts wrote that our “mission is to patrol the blogosphere”. Had she given CD more than a cursory glance, she’d have seen that 90% of our media criticism takes aim at the mainstream media. We “patrol” the press as a whole, and since blogs are widely-read and increasingly influential, we “patrol” them too. If we didn’t, bloggers would be arguing, rightly, that we weren’t giving them their due. The point is: If The New York Times had been releasing exit polls early, we’d have pointed that out too. I think this is hard to deny if you look at the content of our site.

(Some might argue that since blogs aren’t The New York Times, they can’t be held to the same standards. But if you believe - as we do - that releasing exit poll results early is indeed damaging, then who cares who’s doing the releasing?)

The argument that our goal is to “impress the traditional press” would be stronger if you could point to a case where we’ve ever pulled our punches on the traditional press. Or where, in the handful of posts in which we’ve criticized blogs, we’ve ever held them to a different standard than in the hundreds of posts in which we’ve criticized the traditional press.

I get emails all the time from mainstream campaign reporters who aren’t just taking issue with the content of a post, but who are genuinely pissed off and unsettled by the fact that we’re monitoring them. I tell you this not because I think that makes us particularly transgressive, but just to show that, if our goal is to impress the traditional press, we’re sure going about it in a funny way.

You quote, approvingly, Matt Welch, asking “when did Campaign Desk get to decide what (basic standards of accountability and verifiability) are?” That seems like it could sum up much of the criticism of Campaign Desk – from you, from Welch, from Kos, from Cotts, and from Al Giordano.

To which I’d be the first to agree: We don’t get to decide on those standards any more than anyone else does. Those standards get worked out organically over time, thru the process of public debate. And the way to engage in that debate is to lay out what you think those standards ought to be.

The point is: We’re making an argument, just like anyone else. Forgive me for saying this, what with being only 28 and everything, but that’s what people do in opinion journalism. And yes, that argument involved calling people out on ethics. Jack Shafer disagreed with that argument, so we posted the exchange on our sites. I think that was a pretty useful debate to have. (So does Jack, who has suggested we all “do it again” on whatever our next point of contention might be.) I don’t think it’s too useful—in fact I think it’s a “barrier to learning”—to dismiss our argument because we’re too young, or because we somehow must have ulterior motives, or just because nobody “gets to” decide any of this stuff.

To: Zachary Roth
From: Jay Rosen
Date: February 25, 2004

Thanks for these specific criticisms, which give me a chance to clarify my own. On what you call the “substantive” issue, I would not release early exit polls myself. Nor would I scream about webloggers doing it because I believe practical responsibility in this case rests with the company, which did not secure the exit data. Perhaps it sounds peculiar to you, but my argument was not about the policy question: release, don’t release. Even I would not do 3,000-plus words about that.

“Alright,” you may say, “so you didn’t like our tone… big deal.” But “tone” does not capture what I was talking about, either. It just minimizes the dispute so that it seems to be about style points. I examined the tone the Desk took because I thought it revealed something. And mine is not the only reaction to the indignant moralist’s voice. Jack Shafer of Slate and Cynthia Cotts of the Village Voice (both press critics), journalist Matt Welch of Reason Online (who has written for CJR) columnist Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News all mentioned it in some form. Why do you think that is?

You say above, “We’re making an argument, just like anyone else.” Your right to make an argument is secure. Your right to criticize webloggers for their practices is absolute, certainly what I expected when the Desk was announced. I’m sure we’ll see more, and I hope we do. But consider this: in what situations do we feel justified in saying to someone: you are behaving like a child, why don’t you just grow up?

Well, it’s not when one kind of reasoning contests with another, argument to argument. We use language like that where adult reasoning, fuller and deeper, has to assert itself over immature behavior that does not meet some basic test of reason or does not recognize a simple reality.

Was that the situation you thought you were in, vis a vis webloggers like Josh Marshall, when they offered links to early exit poll data, and Campaign Desk moved to object? Not argument to argument, but parent to child. Ethical person to unscrupulous operator. First Amendment caretaker to First Amendment freeloader. (My take on something managing editor Steve Lovelady said.)

Maybe this was how you and your colleagues saw the debate. But I kind of doubt it. Nonetheless this is what the writing said (in my interpretation) and journalistic prose does that in part through its tone.

Campaign Desk made other choices besides the ones that might be grouped (without really fitting) under “tone.” One of them is “argument by authority.” If I say to you: I’m a priest, you’re the laity, and I know what the Church says on this subject… that’s argument by authority.

On the other hand, if you said to me: I was there, Jay, you were not, and I wrote down what was said… that’s argument by authority, too— the authority of the eyewitness, the reporter. So there’s good journalistic argument by authority and bad journalistic argument by authority. In fact, this is what the Desk has mainly been about— its critique of the traditional press for saying things without much accuracy, authority, reason.

Now some lines of yours: “If you’re happy with a situation where your community of readers and other bloggers knows to take whatever you write with a giant grain of salt, then so be it.” These words surprised me. For it seemed you’re saying that the Daily Kos readership will now—because of the data episode—be treating everything from Kos with more skepticism. A lot more, since it’s a “giant” grain of salt he earned with his election night antics.

But did you in any sense know that Daily Kos users would react that way, with greater skepticism toward everything heard in the future? It seems unlikely that you could know, especially since it didn’t happen. Perhaps what you meant is: the Kos community should, in our view, treat everything hereafter with a big grain of salt because basic journalism ethics were violated.

Which is fair comment. It is also fair for others to say: “Ethics violated, credibility trashed— says who?”

The Desk does. But note: the Kos community—about 97,000 users a day—does not. “If my readership was outraged about my running exit polls, then I would stop,” he wrote. That is an ethic the newspaper press understands very well. When the public asks, “well, who is the newspaper accountable to?” it is often told: we’re accountable to our readers, to the marketplace. That’s precisely what Kos said in reply to your ethics charges. It is a very traditional answer, and not a two year-old’s acting out.

So here was Campaign Desk describing to Kos the “situation” he himself faces in his own community, now that he’s gone and done it— published the data, violated basic ethics, diminished his credibility, possibly damaged the election, lost the right to be taken seriously by journalists and their readers.

To some ears, this particular portion (which, granted, is only a few pages in five weeks of Campaign Desk) sounded not like argument-to-argument talk, not like reform-minded critique, not like one ethic meets another, but something way different: parent’s advisory to misbehaving child. When we tune into the tone of something like that, it’s often because there is more information there, we feel, than in the formal content or argument. The critics of Campaign Desk whom I quoted were saying that, I believe.

You said to Kos in earshot of his 97,000 readers: “Sooner or later, you’re going to have to choose between the rewards of being taken seriously, and the rewards of behaving like a two-year-old who has just discovered he can break things. You don’t get both.” And it was in the context of that statement, its metaphors, and my critique of them that I mentioned your age, 28. In normal practice, this would be irrelevant.

Does being 28 or 33 or 60 have anything to do with the validity of the Desk’s position on exit polls? None that I can see. Inserting your age, in that situation, is a comment on the imagery in use. But as an aside, journalists often stick people’s ages into articles, don’t they? Critics may when there’s an argument about who’s the two year-old here.

I don’t find Campaign Desk pulling its punches toward the press. You are right to point out that most of the Desk’s work is informed and aggressive criticism of the campaign coverage (not of weblogs, which are a minor theme). And I am sure it pisses off some journalists who don’t like the scrutiny.

This part I should have made clearer in my piece, or a future one. The editors of the Desk, the editors of CJR, Nick Lemann, Dean of the Columbia J-school and a great many bloggers who noticed the announcement online were right that, because of its track record and credibility with journalists, CJR’s extension into a campaign weblog makes total sense.

A product like yours can reach journalists without alienating journalists; it can speak to public frustration with deep knowledge of standards in journalism and how they should work. Campaign Desk by the Darts and Laurels people is thus an important undertaking for journalism, (and for the nascent weblog form) in a way that the amateur press watch is not, and PressThink is not. The foundations supporting the Desk with money saw that. So, I assume, did the staff who signed on. So did I, Matt Welch, Dan Gillmor and others. We all want it to succeed.

Perhaps we agree, then: The Desk will succeed if it finds just the right voice.

CJR’s executive editor Mike Hoyt sent this to me in further reply to The Morals Squad at CJR’s Campaign Desk:

Dear Jay:

First, credit where credit is due. Your piece in PressThink about CJR’s Campaign Desk has prompted us to get off the dime on setting up a readers’ comment section. We agree that a site like the Desk needs one like a duck needs water. We’ve been slow to move because of a specific legal experience. To explain: when CJR first set up the magazine’s Web site a few years ago it had an open forum. A reader used the forum to attack a former FBI official; the official subsequently sued the university for libel; the case was dismissed on a jurisdictional technicality but we’ve been gun shy ever since. We’re now talking to the lawyers, thanks to you, and we’ll find a way.

That’s the end of the thanks part.

We sometimes run your thoughtful articles in our magazine—including one in the issue that’s about to hit the mail—so it goes without saying that I never figured you for a conspiracy nut. But wow! You say that Columbia Journalism Review’s Campaign Desk engaged in an online debate with Jack Shafer of Slate about the early release of exit polls as a “pretext” in order to beat up bloggers. The reason? To “get taken seriously by the old guard” of the media. What can I say? Way creative, way off. Sometimes things are as they seem. Campaign Desk took a position on an important issue of journalistic standards and practices, suggested and then engaged in a public debate about them, because that’s what we do here. The Desk’s goal is the same as the print magazine’s goal - “to assess the performance of journalism to help stimulate continuing improvement in the profession.” We welcome fair criticism, but your speculation about our motives is really odd.

In castigating the Desk’s tone—“preachy,” “moralistic,” etc.—you bring up a subject close to our heart. You cite a couple of phrases that both Steve Lovelady and I wish we could take back, and a headline and a longtime CJR slogan that you don’t seem to like. But you seriously overstate your case. We knew from the start that setting the right tone for the Desk would be a matter of daily, even hourly modulation. We want it to have sharp teeth, to make a difference. At the same time, we want it speak from a position of empathy for those working hard at their craft under difficult and rapidly changing circumstances. This is a tricky balance, one we talk about at CJR all the time. Has Campaign Desk ever slipped in tone? Sure. So has CJR. So has the Los Angeles Times and MSNBC and Morning Edition. So has PressThink (you got pretty condescending, in fact, in your reply to Zach Roth). In my opinion the Desk has managed this tone balance beautifully. Its voice is one reason we get so many compliments from readers.

The readers clearly were hungry for an ongoing daily critique of political journalism. That includes -news flash -blog journalism. You did not seem to have much of a problem with the Desk’s tone when it was zapping the mainstream press, not until it came down on some bloggers. Only then did we get the Jay Rosen Authority Argument (a version of which has run in CJR!). Then, presto, we became the elders of the high church, out to crush the brave rebels. But I don’t think you believe that, even though you wrote it, or quoted somebody to that effect.

We’re lucky enough to have a good name and funding enough to hire a strong staff. But we know, as do you, that authority in these matters grows out of the quality of the reporting and analysis, a devotion to discourse, high journalistic standards, fairness, openness to new ideas, and all that good stuff. That we combine some of the Web’s electric music with the some of the mainstream’s traditional backbeat seems to bother you but it shouldn’t. It’s a new sound; I would have thought you would be more open to it.

Mike Hoyt
Executive Editor
Columbia Journalism Review

Dear Mike:

Well, since you made me think about it, maybe I should have written first about what Campaign Desk is doing and why it matters. To me it matters because Journalism Review means a different thing when it goes real time, 24 hours, live on the Web. Different, exciting, and yes, new. Risky in some ways, but it had to be tried, and foundation support means you have a real staff, a team of journalists to fan out in editorial space.

Thanks to you guys, and your growing user base, the means are potentially there for an intervention—a clear, critical voice—in the stubbornly cyclical nature of campaign journalism. “It’s a new sound, ” you say, “I would have thought you would be more open to it.” Actually, I am open to it because as I said in my original and reply to Zachary Roth, anyone who hears about Campaign Desk and gets it says, “wow, great idea.” New sound is an interesting way of putting it.

One can imagine “real time review journalism” being defined, essentially for the first time within professional circles, by Campaign Desk’s success this year in the basic online tasks of building readership, defining a style, gaining notice, saying important things, getting feedback, and holding people to some standards. It’s evolving, made some mistakes, on the whole hit its mark, still modulating the tone, you say.

Yes to all that. And it’s true, speculation about motives in the absence of good information usually leads to bad journalism and risky conclusions. So if you tell me, “it is what it is, no conspiracy, and you got carried away…” point taken. I should have confined myself to what I saw and read at

Taking in that material, I was struck by some things that seemed very off, and they had to do with the tricky problem of online authority, which includes journalistic authority—credibility, standards—but also the online presence part, and the new and different part of that, which is the interactive portion. Maybe if there are one or two phrases I pointed to that you winced at, they carried an idea about journalistic authority (and when to assume it, when to create it, how you converse within it) that is worth questioning.

Anyway, if I am critical, I am a loyal critic too. I think Campaign Desk is something to be proud of for CJR. And it could make a big difference. Finally, thanks, Mike, for giving me stuff to make another really long post for that genre’s growing but still rather small fan base.

Jay Rosen
Department of Journalism
New York University

Posted by Jay Rosen at February 25, 2004 1:33 PM