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September 14, 2004

Stark Message for the Legacy Media

Journalists find before them, with 50 days left, a campaign overtaken by Vietnam, by character issues, attacks, and fights about the basic legitimacy of various actors-- including the press itself, including Dan Rather. It's been a dark week. And the big arrow is pointing backwards.

ABC’s The Note, which I find essential these days, has its own term for them: the Gang of 500. That would be the 500 people whose decisions matter to the political news and campaign narrative we get from the major media. The Note writes a lot about this group, of which it is a self-conscious part.

At this precise time every four years, the most media-savvy members of the Gang of 500 begin to think about their roles in the premiere post-election forum that revisits the actions and players of the presidential race.

This turns out to be an event—or “quadrennial gabfest”—at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, held in the winter, after the campaign has ended but while memories are fresh, where the task is to write the second draft of history for campaign 2004, and to figure out what actually happened. Check out the guest list:

a group of journalists who covered the campaign leading top political players from all camps through a chronological discussion of who-did-what-when-and-why behind the scenes during the course of the nomination and general election periods.

The Note on September 10th told us that journalists are now starting to project to what they will be saying in recap then. They are bouncing forward to the post-mortem, planting imaginary feet, and looking back at what happened in the 2004 election cycle.

For the Democrats in Cambridge (under a Kerry loss scenario), the talk will be about August, reliving the Dukakis nightmare, and the press’s inability to live up to the shared claim about the historic “importance” of the election.

According to The Note, the issues on the table for the press will be “the ease with which the establishment media was led around by the nose by the Internet, cable, and paid media that was just above the video-press-release level.” Led around by the nose— and by inferior material!

Nothing new in that, but I found this prediction revealing: “… even if Kerry wins, there will be much talk about the discipline, focus, success, and, yes, shamelessness of the [Bush Cheney] team.” What that team will be said to have accomplished:

Avoiding a nomination challenge; merciless distribution of message of the day; deflection of any serious discussion of the war in Iraq, health care, jobs, or the tax burden; installing a White House press secretary willing to use the podium for political purposes but not respond directly to any hard questions; making the race not about the incumbent’s record but the challenger’s, all the while claiming to want to focus on “the future”; and the wielding of national security as the ultimate political trump card.

Come winter, I doubt there be much talk at Harvard about the amazing “discipline,” consistent “focus,” or indeed the success of the news media’s effort in 2004. It will not be seen as an election where the press won ground. And there will be devastating portraits of ground lost.

The current crisis at CBS News is certainly that. (Go here and here for some of the latest.)

But in fact there are other signs of drift. The Gang of 500 reporters, editors, pundits and producers who were supposed to tell us, as best they could, the story of the 2004 election, find news of their own helplessness in the very headlines they compose.

They find a campaign with 50 days left overtaken by Vietnam, by character issues, by attacks, and by fights over the legitimacy of various actors (including the Gang itself, including Dan Rather)— rather than all the problems Americans face looking forward. Here’s Jonathan Alter of Newsweek and MSNBC, a representative figure in the 500, on the distinction:

But there’s a second reason Bush wants to spend valuable time debating debates. It runs down the clock on discussion of important stuff, like his record in office. The debate over debates is a classic “campaign issue” as opposed to a “real issue.” Campaign issues have little to do with how a candidate would perform as president; they are manufactured by the campaigns to score points.

How did we get here? A campaign full of “campaign issues” when there are so many real world issues going unaddressed. Alter adds:

The media, particularly cable TV (which drives so much of the agenda nowadays), make it worse by favoring hot-button stories over complex, hard-to-illustrate real problems that the next president can actually work on.

What is manufactured as a “hot button” issue by campaigners finds a fellow manufacturer in the cable networks, news magazines and newspapers of the nation. They have hot buttons of their own to push. Alter knows this. He can explain why campaign 2004, with fifty days to go, isn’t about “hard-to-illustrate real problems that the next president can actually work on.” The political press can opine on things like that, but seems helpless to change them.

What the Gang of 500 is failing at, by its own verdict, is in this paragraph from Howard Kurtz’s Media Notes (Sep. 12):

“Here the campaign is dealing with terrorism and war, but we’re still capable of losing ourself in matters 35 years old that belong on ‘Jeopardy!’ or ‘Trivial Pursuit,’ ” says Frank Sesno, a George Mason University professor and former CNN anchor. While he blames Kerry in part for putting Vietnam at the center of his campaign, Sesno sees an “almost ridiculous contrast” between the country’s problems and the media’s obsession with old controversies.

Howard Fineman and Michael Isikoff, also of Newsweek, also part of the Gang, try to explain why it’s “slime time” again in 2004.

Bush primarily sells himself, rather than his policies (after attacking Kerry in $60 million worth of ads); Kerry defends in kind, turning the Democratic convention into the Biography Channel. Though voters face profound questions, the war on terror has engendered not a high-minded discussion of geopolitics but an obsession—even by American standards—with our would-be commander’s character.

If you can explain why that “high minded discussion of geopolitics” turns up missing in 2004, well at least you’ve added something. If you can show how those “complex, hard-to-illustrate real problems” get buried while point scoring goes forward, hey— that’s information too.

I’m partial to the recent statement by 26 year-old Brian Keefer, creator of, in Sunday’s Washington Post (Sep. 12). He is not a member of the gang, just disgusted with what they’re doing:

Perhaps it’s because I’m young enough that I missed the Vietnam War by the better part of a decade and would rather hear about Iraq, where people my age are fighting and dying. Or perhaps it’s because I think that political campaigns should turn on more than trivia and silly political point-scoring. Whatever the reason, the last few weeks of presidential campaign coverage have struck me as symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with the establishment news media from a young person’s perspective.

“The establishment news media” is another name for The Note’s Gang of 500. (I tend to call it the press tribe.) Many online have been using “mainstream media,” abbreviated as MSM. Big Media has also been popular. Recently, however, a new term has come into the lexicon— new to my ear, though it’s been around for a while. “Legacy media” is what some are calling it now, as in “What people in the legacy media need to ask themselves is…” (See further examples from Glenn Reynolds here and here.)

What are known as “legacy carriers” in the airline industry (United, American, Delta, Continental, US Airways, Northwest) are those with “legacy costs” that are slowly forcing the firms into bankruptcy. The legacy media means, of course, the old world firms that employ the Gang of 500, with their traditional platforms, ideas, and ways.

Like the airlines, the legacy media is still around, and still important. But legacy costs, which new competitors do not bear, coupled with the complacency of being longtime big shots, endanger the beast’s survival. When Reynolds and others call it the legacy media, then, they mean it is a backward pointing force in media history, always referring to its legacy rather than battling out in the open for its future, for its view.

Here’s Bryan Keefer on other forms of legacy thinking in the press:

They’re still wedded to outdated ambitions like getting the “scoop” or maintaining a veneer of objectivity, both of which are concepts that have been superseded by technology. We live in an era when PR pros have figured out how to bend the news cycle to their whims, and much of what’s broadcast on the networks bears a striking resemblance to the commercials airing between segments.

That news and advertising are “kept separate” is a foundational belief for the professional journalist. It creates professional pride. It’s part of the legacy. News is one thing, advertising another. Keefer says: when news is filled with spin, that difference disappears.

Like other twenty-somethings (I’m 26), I’ve been raised in an era when advertising invades every aspect of pop culture, and to me the information provided by mainstream news outlets too often feels like one more product, produced by politicians and publicists.

I agree with Andrew Sullivan (writing in the New Republic): CBS defaulted when it “dug in against an avalanche of evidence against it” rather than investigate. Sullivan about Dan Rather, who this week is the legacy media personified:

His attitude, moreover, has bordered on the contemptuous; and the blogosphere has chewed him up and spat him out. He has acted as if journalism is a privilege rather than a process; as if his long career makes his critics illegitimate; as if his good motives can make up for bad material. The original mistake was not a firable offense. But the digging in surely is.

Digging in might have worked at one time. “Fifteen years ago — maybe even five years ago — the world would simply have accepted the legitimacy of the documents,” wrote John Podhoretz in the New York Post. “After all, CBS said it had gone to an expert to have them authenticated.” We were still within the pale of trust me journalism then. “Well, this isn’t the old days,” Podhoretz warned. We stand by our story… won’t last an hour without solid proof or greater transparency.

CBS News incurs huge legacy costs when it errs because of the way it has always constructed authority. “When you’re a news anchor, you’re not just putting your arguments on the line — you’re putting yourself on the line,” Glenn Reynolds wrote yesterday, trying to get at the cost differentials.

Dan Rather has a problem with that. For journalists of his generation, admitting an error means admitting that you’ve violated people’s trust. For bloggers, admitting an error means you’ve missed something, and now you’re going to set it right.”

What people in the legacy media need to ask themselves is, which approach is more likely to retain credibility over time?

Tom Rosenstiel, once a participant in the Gang of 500 as a reporter for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times, wrote this week about an historic change, which has been a long time coming. The broadcast networks, he says, are “ceding TV journalism to cable” and an editorial tradition is being lost. “Network news was built around the carefully written and edited story, produced by correspondents and vetted in advance to match words and pictures.” But that part of the legacy is being dropped.

Cable news is a live and extemporaneous medium built around talk. Only 11 percent of the time is devoted to edited stories. Eighty percent is given over to in-studio interviews, studio banter, “anchor reads” and live reporter stand-ups, in which correspondents talk off the top of their heads or from hasty notes.

What is lost in the cable obsession with “live” is the chance to double-check, to rewrite, to edit — and often to even report.

The chance “even to report” can be lost to journalists, though the news rolls on and in a sense there is more of it. Consider, in this connection, a report on September 10th from the Chicago Tribune’s Jill Zuckman, national correspondent covering the Kerry campaign. “Who knows what lurks in the heart and mind of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry?” she wrote. “Not the traveling press corps, that’s for sure.” They can’t get the candidate to take questions.

…Kerry travels across the country on a 757 airplane packed with staff, Secret Service agents, reporters, photographers and cameramen. The candidate sits at the front of the plane while the media stay in the back. Usually, reporters can get a glimpse of his gray mane when he stands in the aisle chatting with staff. Occasionally, he throws around a football on the airport tarmac, sometimes inviting a reporter to join in.

But ask him a question and Kerry shakes his head, puts up his hand and walks away with a small smile.

Remarkable, no? John Kerry, a candidate who is clearly behind in the final quarter, who has never come clearly into focus for most pundits let alone voters, who has been unable to explain his position on the war in Iraq, or define an approach to fighting terror, and who is still sketchily known to the American people… finds that no purpose is served by participating in the most elementary ritual there is in political journalism: answering reporters questions.

Wonkette recently ran some samples of “pool reports,” where one or two reporters are allowed up close on behalf of the entire press corps, which is kept back. The pool reporters have to tell everyone else what happens. These are sad days:

From: kerrypool
Sent: Fri Sep 10 19:58:02 2004
Subject: [Kerrypool] “Over zealous staff”

Despite your pools best attempts to get information about the candidate’s meeting earlier - your pool was told it was private.

Senator Kerry disclosed at the rally - to 15,000 people - that his private meeting was with 9/11 widows.

You try every way you know to get an answer to a simple question, “who is the Senator meeting with this morning?” You are told the information is private. So you write that down. Then he announces it instead to the entire rally. So you write that down. And that’s campaign reporting.

From: kerrypool
Sent: Friday, September 10, 2004 6:15 PM
Subject: Re: [Kerrypool]

The senator left hangar 7 at 6:10p ET and saw a group of seven people waiting in the parking lot. The senator took a picture with the group and upon leaving your pooler tried yet again to get the candidate we all cover as he runs for president of the united states to answer a question from his national press corps. Your pooler asked whether saddam hussein would be in power if he were president and then when if ever he would talk to the press.

The pooler did not get an answer. But I thought it was interesting the way futility was phrased. “Tried yet again to get the candidate we all cover… to answer a question from his national press corps.” Kerry had earned it—the national press traveling with him everywhere—but Kerry didn’t want it. That is he couldn’t risk engaging with the press. And so one of the ways journalists have of bringing issues into the campaign— to ask and keep asking about them—is effectively stilled.

“Think of the next 11 weeks until the election as a challenge: as a test of weblogs’ real value,” wrote Jeff Jarvis on August 23. Then he asked a legacy question— but of the a new Gang, the webloggers.

When we wake up after the election, will we be able to point to the ways and posts in which this new medium contributed, or at least tried to contribute, to improving the coverage of the campaign and the policies of the candidates and the wisdom of the electorate? Will we have made a difference at all? Or will we have made it worse?

Did we push the coverage and the candidates in ways that mattered? Or did we wallow in mud?

Now is our opportunity to show what we can do. So what can we do?

Here’s one answer to that, from the New York Sun (Sep. 13):

Four little-known online commentators — known as Web-loggers, or bloggers for short— were instrumental in landing a blow to CBS News with their reports that documents involving President Bush’s Air National Guard service may have been faked.

Mike Jenner, executive editor of the community-minded Bakersfield Californian, said what he was going to do in an editorial Saturday. Jenner wrote that “our preoccupation with the military service of Bush and Kerry has overshadowed” more serious reporting that would help readers and viewers make informed choices. “Now, as we enter the campaign’s home stretch, we are taking a different tack. We will decrease the prominence given to the latest accusations and counterattacks.”

If the news is truly noteworthy, we’ll run it — but more likely on an inside page than on Page One. And more often than not we’ll summarize the news in a paragraph or two, rather than running a lengthy story.

I know this will disappoint some readers. And I admit that some of the smartest editors on our staff believe this is a risky position.

The candidates themselves both seem to spend much of their day-to-day campaigning focused on personal attacks. This may well be part of a strategy to keep the focus off what matters most.

“Just seven weeks and two days remain before Americans elect a president,” Jenner wrote, pledging to provide “more context and more information about the candidates that is truly relevant, while diminishing the focus on what happened more than 30 years ago.” So there’s one editor who isn’t helpless in changing the course of news coverage. But I don’t think the Institute of Politics will be inviting him to the big post-mortem.

When President Bush came to speak to the minority journalists’ conference in Washington last month, the big news was about the greater applause for Kerry—a standing ovation at the end—and whether this showed undue bias in the press. Alter might call that a “campaign issue,” not a real one. (See PressThink on it.)

How many Americans know that Bush made news that day when he said for the first time that he was opposed to so-called “legacy admissions” in colleges and universities?

I wonder if John Kerry agrees with that. I wonder if Bush could be made to elaborate: how would he actually end legacy admissions? Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear the two men, both Yale graduates, debate it?

Maybe they will puzzle over that, and other discussions that went missing this year, when the journalists get together with the political insiders at Harvard during the winter, and they talk about “who-did-what-when-and-why behind the scenes,” and put another election cycle to bed.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

See the Conclusion to this one, a separate post, Sep. 15: Campaign Puzzler: How the Press Comes Out with a Win.

Tim Oren at Due Dligence on the economic box the legacy media are trapped within… Dissecting the Media: Trust and Transactions. “The increasing competition from Internet information sources, and the exposure of incompetence and bias via citizens’ media, will have a fragmenting effect on existing information bundles. The attempts of many legacy media sites to forbid ‘deep linking’ and/or set up registration walls is testimony that they are— whether analytically or viscerally—attempting to retain the illusion of bundle, rather than the reality of cherry picking by the audience.”

Chris Nolan writes about CBS’s-ers (Sep. 14): “Thinking they were living in a world where reporters’ judgments aren’t questioned because—simply by doing their jobs, they demonstrate a nobility of purpose that make their work beyond question to outsiders.” I agree with that. The legacy is in the way of the reality. My favorite bit from Nolan:

In a day and age when people actually read newspapers and when the local rag had some power over day-to-day events in a community, where the paper or TV station was locally owned or where the place was staffed by people who actually spent time in the community, the public service argument made a lot of sense. Reporters and editors traded high salaries for power and prestige. Today, however, the public service argument is just cover for shoddily run businesses owned by large corporations with little, if any interest, in the communities they serve. Full of wire copy you can read anywhere on the web, staffed by kids just out of school who think day care and babysitting are the same thing, lacking the resources to pay overtime to let reporters cover meetings or other events where they might meet and cultivate sources outside the paper, paranoid about criticism of political or other bias, and under constant pressure from advertisers…

Journalist Kelly McBride at the Poynter Ethics Journal:

Journalists can no longer assume the audience will trust the story. Instead, newsrooms will take extra steps to articulate their mission and educate their audience with every story, every day. This is what we did. This is how we did it. This is why you should trust us. We used to hide all this. We didn’t want the competition retracing our steps, tracking down our sources, doing a better story. The mystery of making the news is no longer worth preserving.

Many-to-few journalism. Dan Gillmor in his San Jose Mercury News column:

Regardless of what one thinks of the bloggers’ politics, they advanced the memo story. And they did it fast — no doubt more quickly than the mass media would have done.

They could fuel the firestorm for several reasons. First, they were passionate about their cause: looking for reasons to shoot down the CBS report, which turned out to be a huge target.

Second, they are many. We in the media — at least those of us who might have been prepared to jump instantly into the question of whether the memos were real — are relatively few.

Just posted at O’Reilly Network: A Conversation Between Dan Gillmor and Jay Rosen. (Gillmor is the author of a new book on how citizens are transforming journalism, We The Media.) Excerpt:

Gillmor: The first thing we’d need to do is listen, pay attention to what is being said. To really get out of the lecture mode that we’ve been in and to recognize that something new is going on that will benefit not just our journalism — which of course we want to do — but benefit the people who are reading or listening to or viewing our journalism. Those are the people who we say we want to serve. So, the conversation part of it — the listening part, the responding part — is not just for journalists. It’s for all of us, it’s for everybody. And it comes back to what I’ve made a kind of a cliché in my own world, which is that my readers know more than I do.

Rosen: I want to ask about that cliché, because I don’t think it’s a cliché. I think it’s a major insight. First of all, tell me what happened to make you realize “My readers know more than I do.” And why didn’t it just freak you out?

Gillmor: Well, it did freak me out at first.

Very smart article from Jesse Walker at Reason, arguing that “the 60 Minutes saga is not essentially a conflict between the old media and the new.”

When CBS aired those dubious memos last Wednesday, it set off a reaction that began in cyberspace but by the end of Thursday had gotten all the way to Nightline. Bloggers and Freepers were doing fresh reporting and fresh analysis of the story. So were ABC, the Associated Press, and The Washington Post. The professional media drew on the bloggers for ideas; the bloggers in turn linked to the professionals’ reports. The old media and the new media weren’t at loggerheads with each other—or, to the extent that they were, they were also at loggerheads with themselves. They complemented each other. They were part of the same ecosystem.

That’s what is most fascinating about the elimination of media entry barriers, the rise of distributed journalism, and the new influx of reporting and commentary from outside the professional guild. The new outlets aren’t displacing the old ones; they’re transforming them. Slowly but noticeably, the old media are becoming faster, more transparent, more interactive—not because they want to be, but because they have to be.

Matt Welch cleverly illustrates one way that bloggers outperform the Los Angeles Times and its reporting standards: Forget Linking, Just Name the Damned Source, L.A. Times! As a bonus, he finds bias too.

Carroll Andrew Morse writes: “Somewhere along the line, the elite gatherers of information had forgotten that their rationale for providing partial information was a practical one — the limits related to the costs of publishing. They forgot that the ideal was giving out as much information as possible. They moved from an inability to report in maximal detail to an unwillingness to report in maximal detail.”

Michael Tomasky in the American Prospect, The Pathetic Truth:

Republicans understand the world, and Democrats do not. Republicans know that voters will respond emotionally to character questions, and they know that the media will lap them up like a thirsty dog. Democrats keep thinking that voters will do something as improbably nutritional as study a health care plan (as, surely, a scattered few do), and that the media will show themselves eager to write articles and broadcast discussion segments about health care plans. Both assumptions are folly.

George W. Bush has a record the Democrats should have made mincemeat of. Right about now, the media should be writing, and American voters should be thinking: Golly, a million jobs lost, millions more in poverty, manufacturing down; no WMD’s, 1,000-plus dead, Iraq on the brink of civil war, al-Qaeda larger than ever and still recruiting, acts of worldwide terrorism on the rise, North Korea and Iran responding to the cowboy routine by going nuclear. This should have been easy.

Now, it’s too late for the Democrats to create these narratives.

Billmon, Blogging Sells, and Sells Out (op ed, Los Angeles Times, Sep. 26):

What began as a spontaneous eruption of populist creativity is on the verge of being absorbed by the media-industrial complex it claims to despise. In the process, a charmed circle of bloggers — those glib enough and ideologically safe enough to fit within the conventional media punditocracy — is gaining larger audiences and greater influence. But the passion and energy that made blogging such a potent alternative to the corporate-owned media are in danger of being lost, or driven back to the outer fringes of the Internet…

That world of inspired amateurs still exists, but it’s rapidly being overshadowed by the blogosphere’s potential for niche marketing. Ad dollars are flowing into the blogosphere. And naturally, most are going to the A-list blogs. As media steer readers toward the top blogs, the temptation to sell out to the highest bidder could become irresistible, and the possibility of making it in the marketplace as an independent blogger increasingly theoretical.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 14, 2004 11:09 PM