September 15, 2004
Campaign Puzzler: How the Press Comes Out with a Win
If a newsroom boss had walked into a conference room a year ago and asked a team of political journalists, gathered to plan election coverage, "how can we come out with a win in 2004?" I am reasonably sure that puzzled glances would have been exchanged around the table...
This developed as the conclusion, or part two of yesterday’s post, Stark Message for the Legacy Media.
… For around the table, the traditional assumption would have held: it’s the candidates, the parties, the players who are trying to prevail and beat the other guy. We’re the press, we cover the campaign. It’s not our role to affect the outcome. We’re there to tell people what happens, and ask questions. We’re there to dig and get answers. We’re not running for anything. We’re a kind of umpire, at best. So what do you mean by win, boss person?
Well, the press doesn’t and shouldn’t try to win the election for a candidate or a cause. But they had all been in situations when they suddenly felt sick with disappointment at how effectively they had been sidelined by a certain tactic, how thoroughly they had been manipulated by certain actors, how far from the real issues and problems they had once again strayed, how little, in fact, they were serving voters by covering what they were covering, even though they were just covering what every other political journalist thought worth covering, even though they were completing the exhausting ritual—campaign coverage—as it then stood.
How many of you, the boss might have asked, ever felt professionally defeated in that way? All hands would shoot up. There is a lot about campaign journalism that smart journalists are sick of. And this is the moment a wise boss would have waited for.
So let me get this straight. (He might have said.) When you have lost during the campaign you absolutely know it. I come to this meeting to ask you how we can win in 2004, and the question doesn’t even make sense. Why? I think that’s unaffordable. It may be part of our legacy, but we cannot afford it in practice. Agenda-less journalism has gone the way of the punch card system in computing.
Before we commit planning on election coverage, we need to know: what’s a victory for us? As political journalists, this year, at this point in our careers, and at this moment in… how else can we phrase it? History. How can we, who are the press, post a big public service win in a political year, so that when it’s all over and we go to Harvard for the post-mortem with our friends in the profession, they ask us… how did you do it?
You’re political journalists. Tell me our strategy for winning in this election cycle, as an independent actor who gets acted on by all the others. Tell me who and what we have to defeat in order to prevail. Tell me what our campaign coverage agenda should be. And tell me why our cause is just.
Generally speaking, newsroom bosses don’t have that kind of discussion with their best political people. In fact their legacy is not to have it. The press knows it can lose in the campaign struggle, and wind up reporting the news but distracting the nation. It cannot say clearly, which also means openly, what for the press is a win.
This is part two. Part one is 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.”
Latest PressThink: Rather’s Satisfaction: Mystifying Troubles at CBS.
Andrew Cline at Rhetorica says, in reply, that the question, “how can the press win?” effectively “highlights the lack of criteria by which journalists could measure something called success.”
I do not want to suggest criteria now. Instead, I’d like to suggest something that might lead to the discovery of criteria: Tell a different story.
The story of campaign politics as portrayed by the practice of journalism is the story of politicians and their world. Tell a different story. Tell the story of citizens and their world.
Now we’re talking— and thinking. Read the rest.
What’s a Loss for the Campaign Press Corps? Paul Farhi, reporting in the Washington Post, Sep. 16:
“The Democratic presidential nominee has not held a formal news conference or even answered questions from smaller groups of reporters — an ‘avail’ in campaign-speak — in more than a month. In the two weeks before the Democratic National Convention, Kerry spoke to the media just twice, answering a total of six questions.
“If anything, President Bush has been less available on the campaign trail, and in the White House generally. The president delegates all press inquiries to his White House communications staff and his reelection campaign. He has not taken a question from the reporters who are following his campaign for several weeks.”
— For Media on Campaign Trail, Little Access to Candidates (WP).
When you say obsolete, you mean….? Here’s a big picture view from from PressThink reader Mark J. McPherson in the comments, using the new lingo MSM for Mainstream Media.
… Legacy Media is an awkward phrase for an institution that has, through self-mutation, rendered itself obsolete. The advent of cable television and the freedom of the Internet gave the 500 an unlimited opportunity to primp and preen. Cable yawned before the MSM as an awesome chasm of airspace to be filled, and the simultaneous conglomertization demanded that it be done on the cheap. And what in this wide world is cheaper than talk, talk, talk? Bureaus and in-depth investigations were seen as losers instead of loss leaders. So at the very time the content demand was growing exponentially, MSM was pulling its own intelligence circuits off-line, playing both the Dave Bowman and Hal 9000 roles.
The use of pooled video grew, but so did the practice of “anchors” sitting and watching video, stupidly and uninformedly commenting on what we could all see for ourselves. After an awkward time of this kind of stream-of-consciousness self-dialog for mass-consumption, the anchor would turn to a “reporter” and ask, in weak desperation, “What do you think?” And at first, it was if each reporter had been waiting their entire lives for someone to ask, and a new, and essentially identical stream of consciousness would flow. Video played in endless loops.
With few “soldiers” on the ground, few grunts to work the stories, the practice devolved into who could get the best pictures the fastest. Self-referencing became more pronounced, as anchors and reporters began to qualify their blather with such tags as, ‘we’re seeing this for the first time’ and ‘this is just speculation at this point’. The Internet begat mail lists which begat newsgroups which begat forums which beget blogs. In the beginning, much of it was anonymous and unconnected, and had a seat-of-the-pants bite and charm to it. It was loosey-goosey enough to allow rumor and innuendo, and anonymous enough to bring some of the locker-room banter into the public light. It was about the furthest thing from face-to-face, and because there was no immediate way to make it pay, it was fundamentally derivative, feeding off MSM. It was outsiders commenting on the Gang of 500, and no doubt many in the Gang got their chuckles from it.
But having starved its own brain of oxygen, MSM was beginning to stumble and struggle and to repeat itself. It was not as if the drift into a new dark age was a winning sales plan, so something had to fill the space between ads, and MSM increasingly began poaching on the blogs’ stakes, mining 2 separate veins. One was the partisan vein. The partisans were only too happy to spoon-feed content to MSM, and to bear much of the cost. Not only did the partisans provide content, they also provided platforms and talking points, told MSM what to show and what to say, and how to think. It is easier and more comforting to an intellectually hamstrung MSM to track a consistent partisan worldview, wherein everything is understood and conformed to mode of thinking, than it is to try and make objective sense of a complex and uncooperative world.
Posted by Jay Rosen at September 15, 2004 11:43 AM
It's kinda funny, I was writing up my own alternate reality to respond to your previous post. Here's how I started:
[While the "blogosphere" congratulates itself on "sticking it to the MSM", I think it would be useful to speculate on what might have happened in a world that valued integrity in the public sphere. In that world, some institution (perhaps a "newspaper of record" or a university department or a private foundation) would have published an analysis of the CBS story that said, in part, something like this:
The weakest part of the CBS report was the revelation of new documents concerning Mr. Bush's service in the Guard. CBS won't reveal who provided the documents, why they were provided or how they came into existence. Instead, they ask us to trust them and accept these low-quality reproductions as valuable evidence. Without information about the provenance of these documents, they become nothing more than scurrilous innuendo. No respectable independent document expert can verify or debunk their authenticity without access to the actual documents and some information about their provenance.]
Now, after reading this post, I think it's more useful to answer your question. Here's one possible answer:
Our role as journalists covering a Presidential election is to provide a context for citizens to make reasoned decisions about the candidates. To that end, we're going to do things differently this time around. For too long, we've been cynically manipulated by the political class in this country. By our emotional attachment to the notion that we are passive observers, we've allowed those with the basest of instincts to use us as the purveyor of their peculiar brand of smut, the political smear job.
This year, we're going to be consciously, openly, and consistently activist. Not for some candidate or party, but for you, our fellow citizens. We're going to layout what we think are the most important issues facing our community and provide each candidate the opportunity to address those issues. We'll also give each candidate the opportunity raise any one issue they think we've missed. We're going to search out independent thinkers who specialize in each topic area and give them the opportunity to address it. We want to provide you with information about each issue for you to make up your own mind, but we also know that true citizenship requires participation. So, we're going to be sponsoring a variety of forums for citizens to interact to discuss the issues and the candidates.
We're also going to completely change our approach to campaign coverage. We are very deliberately not going to publish any articles about polls. There's nothing wrong with polls, but we believe that there are too many more important things to talk about during a political campaign. We're going to focus our coverage of the campaigns on their integrity. Every time a candidate or campaign surrogate distorts their opponents positions or statements, we think that's news. We're going to make no effort to be "balanced" in this regard. We stand proudly on the side of truth, honesty, and respect for others. We intend to try to shame the campaigns into real debate about the issues that concern all of us.
Finally, we're going to turn a harsh light on the rest of our industry. Much of what passes for political journalism in this country is truly contemptible. Every time our tribe mentions the clothes the candidate wears or knowingly parrots false information, we're going to call them out to receive the ridicule they so richly deserve. We hope you hold us to the same standards. By the same token, we'll be pointing out excellence wherever we find it and we want to hear from you about that as well.
That is how we intend to win this year.
Weldon: You ask a good question. What agenda does a news organization need beyond: tell the truth and do a good job? Normally, that is a perfectly fine mission in life. But the American press has worked itself into some strange situations--he said, she said is one--where agendalessness is being taken to harmful extremes.
We have what might be called an abuse of neutrality going on. I just wrote about one: editor of the Miami Herald says: No Springsteen, staff, it's a benefit concert and we're the newspaper-- we're neutral.
In the case of election coverage, a high stakes game played for keeps by all players, the press gets beat up, led around by the nose, manipulated and abused by all if it doesn't have some demands of its own to make on the players and the process.
At a certain point in the 1990s, the national press took on the "ad watch" as a permanent part of political coverage. That became an agenda item: we're the press, we're going to evaluate your claims in those ads. This was a modest addition to the arsenal. But it was pushback, of a type.
I think the candidate should lose the traveling press corps if the candidate cannot answer the questions of the traveling press corps. And if I'm an editor in Atlanta, I may pull my person off the plane, especially if I know others are going to.
If we win that fight, the candidate will make time to answer questions, and we'll return our reporters. So my question to the hypothetical election team, meeting a year ago, was: how do we post a big public service win in campaign 2004?
I admit it's a strange question. That's the whole point in thinking it through. Any clearer?
I have the winning formula! Reboot to the DOS prompt. Then type: "format MSM".
Seriously, I fear that the ground beneath MSM has been irretrievably lost, but the Gang of 500 is so engrossed in their real-time and projected future post-morteming that they haven't noticed that its all gone and they're in free-fall.
Legacy Media is an awkward phrase for an institution that has, through self-mutation, rendered itself obsolete. The advent of cable television and the freedom of the Internet gave the 500 an unlimited opportunity to primp and preen. Cable yawned before the MSM as an awesome chasm of airspace to be filled, and the simultaneous conglomertization demanded that it be done on the cheap. And what in this wide world is cheaper than talk, talk, talk? Bureaus and in-depth investigations were seen as losers instead of loss leaders. So at the very time the content demand was growing exponentially, MSM was pulling its own intelligence circuits off-line, playing both the Dave Bowman and Hal 9000 roles.
The use of pooled video grew, but so did the practice of "anchors" sitting and watching video, stupidly and uninformedly commenting on what we could all see for ourselves. After an awkward time of this kind of stream-of-consciousness self-dialog for mass-consumption, the anchor would turn to a "reporter" and ask, in weak desperation, "What do you think?" And at first, it was if each reporter had been waiting their entire lives for someone to ask, and a new, and essentially identical stream of consciousness would flow. Video played in endless loops.
With few "soldiers" on the ground, few grunts to work the stories, the practice devolved into who could get the best pictures the fastest. Self-referencing became more pronounced, as anchors and reporters began to qualify their blather with such tags as, 'we're seeing this for the first time' and 'this is just speculation at this point'. The Internet begat mail lists which begat newsgroups which begat forums which beget blogs. In the beginning, much of it was anonymous and unconnected, and had a seat-of-the-pants bite and charm to it. It was loosey-goosey enough to allow rumor and innuendo, and anonymous enough to bring some of the locker-room banter into the public light. It was about the furthest thing from face-to-face, and because there was no immediate way to make it pay, it was fundamentally derivative, feeding off MSM. It was outsiders commenting on the Gang of 500, and no doubt many in the Gang got their chuckles from it.
But having starved its own brain of oxygen, MSM was beginning to stumble and struggle and to repeat itself. It was not as if the drift into a new dark age was a winning sales plan, so something had to fill the space between ads, and MSM increasingly began poaching on the blogs' stakes, mining 2 separate veins. One was the partisan vein. The partisans were only too happy to spoon-feed content to MSM, and to bear much of the cost. Not only did the partisans provide content, they also provided platforms and talking points, told MSM what to show and what to say, and how to think. It is easier and more comforting to an intellectually hamstrung MSM to track a consistent partisan worldview, wherein everything is understood and conformed to mode of thinking, than it is to try and make objective sense of a complex and uncooperative world.
The second vein was the kind of "inside baseball", wall-to-wall self analysis, self-congratulating, other-criticizing bloviating that much of the blogsphere had adopted. Sure it was easier for bloggers to link to MSM stories, but linking to each other, and commenting to and on each other, carried and added and self-affirming kick. For MSM, it was a pleasing application of the old fiction writer's adage to write what you know. As MSM dumbed itself down to a bottom line, it knew less and less about geo-politics, etc., but it sure knew itself and sure found itself endlessly fascinating. Its gotten to the point in this election cycle that often, the only way the Kerry campaign can get a coverage sniff is when a talking head indirectly comments on how the campaign is playing to MSM.
9/11 turbo-charged the race to the bottom. Already, in the Bush Administration, you had a cynical approach to the press that was equal parts contempt and kiss-kiss. Paul Westerberg wrote, "The ones who love us best are the ones we'll lay to rest. . .And visit their graves on holidays at best . . . The ones who love us least are the ones we'll die to please,". So Rove threatened and bribed, threatened some more, and as the MSM continued its collapse, Rove worried less and less about getting it right. It has become such a degraded institution that exposed lies are like so many gnats, easily swatted away with charges of liberal bias. The worse it gets, the better it gets for an Administration that takes such a cynical view of the process, and so little values such institutions. In this atmosphere of anxiety, it perfectly suits them if everyone throws up their hands and writes off everyone in MSM, because this Administration can play the Big Fear cards to cut through all the dissatisfaction and distrust.
In the wake of 9/11, there was an immediate and wholesale surrender of MSM objectivity which was a damning and critical component in the Grand Iraq Bait-And-Switch. MSM was so swept off its feet over being in bed with the Administration, and so agog over the cool pictures and adrenaline, that it never seriously got around to asking why we were in Iraq in the first place, and what their role should be in reporting it.
Its been bad before, but never this bad. Lies have been reported as news before, but never in such an open way. It reminds me of an old movie, a weird artifact from the 'swinging" mid-60's, called "A Guide For the Married Man" wherein a wolf, played by Robert Morse, counsels a faithful but beginning-to-wander husband, played by Walter Mathau, on how to cheat on his wife and get away with it. At one point in the planning session, Morse covers what to do in the event he and his mistress are caught red-handed, "Deny, deny, deny." The film cuts to a scene of Morse getting caught in bed with another woman by his wife. When the wife breaks in, Morse calmly gets out of bed and begins to get dressed, all the time responding to his wife's cries of "How could you!" by repeating, "How could I what? What are you talking about? What girl?" Morse flatly and persistently keeps up his denials while he dresses and ushers his mistress out of the house. His obviously false denials are so out-of-sync with his guilt that his poor wife becomes disoriented and begins to wonder if she's imagined the whole thing. In this dazed state, Morse's words of soothing comfort almost seem like a kindness. Deny, deny, deny.
I think an important point needs to be made: what if nobody wearing pajamas caught the fraud? CBS would have made a major hit piece on the president, based on fraud, and nobody would know the better.
The problem is that MSM members have been doing this for a long time. The only difference here is they got caught.
CNN went to conservative leaders once they discovered that they were losing conservative viewers to Fox. The leaders said: "Tell the truth and you'll get conservative viewers."
The issue isn't that CBS screwed up with malice aforethought, it's that this time they got caught. Conservatives know that around this time of an election cycle, an MSM outlet will "discover" new information that makes members of the right look bad. It's predictable - an American tradition - to lie about conservative candidates at this phase.
This was a great one. Documents over 30 years old conveniently jumped out of a moldy grave and perfectly fit the get-Bush mindset.
We can expect backpedaling. The Swifties were dismissed for a couple of discrepancies (some only in the minds of the press). Now the MSM is happy because the Swifties, those upstarts, have been neutralized. Rather will do the same thing. Bush will be wrong,wrong, wrong, evil, coward, daddy's boy, etc. It's going to happens.
It is this sort of thing that has caused to reduce their usage of MSM increase their use of samizdat.
By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, has anyone checked Rather's (Note: Burkett is a well known investigator of these issues).
This Sunday I went to the Vietnam Veterans' rally in DC. Burkett mentioned Rather, and the reaction was almost as bad as if John Kerry had walked on the stage.
On the slim hope that Ben's serial yorking of OT partisanship hasn't driven everyone in the community off this thread:
Tell me who and what we have to defeat in order to prevail.
[speaking as a political journalist, which I'm not ...] Ourselves. Our own structural biases and our instincts at gotcha journalism, our narcissism, and our ambition to gain recognition by destroying the lives and reputations of others. Our smugness and giddiness at being able to dramatize and sensationalize complex, tedious and serious stories.
Until we defeat our own demons, we will continue to be defeated by those we try to demonize. Until we hold ourselves and each other to the same, or higher, standards that we demand from the objects of our stories - and those standards may be unrealistic all around - we can never win the trust of our readers born of our own credibility.
CBS anchor Dan Rather on Wednesday conceded there were questions about the authenticity of the documents, but challenged Bush to answer questions about his Guard service. White House spokesman Scott McClellan responded by saying, "It is always best for journalists to stick to reporting the facts and not try to dispense campaign advice."Tell me what our campaign coverage agenda should be. And tell me why our cause is just.
how about a bias toward accuracy, facts, truth, fairnesss, and the sweet light of reason?
ok then, I wonder if "approach" == "bias" (because bias _is_ how you approach your study of the outside world) - in which case -
In their writing, reporters should apply the Clinton test for fairness.
In cases where a little bit of research will clarify who's telling the truth, they should do it (e.g. SF Chronicle crowd estimates). In other words, inject more science (Richard Feynman: "Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself.") into reporting, and be willing to report results you didn't expect.
The paper should make clear - online, at least, where space is cheap - what its structural biases are, by what standards it measures its reporting, and what its management & reporters believe are the most important things to inform their readers about. (if we don't agree with their approach, we can go read or make something else; if we do agree, we have standards to hold them to. But at least we'll know.)
Even if not in the article itself, there should be an Analysis section where the reporter (or another otherwise-impartial observer, i.e. not someone with financial, political or personal ties) can clarify what seems to be going on. (or, if ties exist, at least clarify what they are.)
In short, the desired bias is an explicitly acknowledged bias, coupled with a willingness to subject one's preconceptions and prejudices to test (thus ensuring accuracy, facts, truth, fairnesss, and the sweet light of reason)
To which I would add, let the politicians set the agenda of public service topics and report them to the republic's citizens. Then analyze the benefits, risks and losses of the issues being debated and those not being discussed. Don't panic or prognosticate the end of the republic, as so many are wont to do (think AWB expiration).
Counsel long-term thinking and planning over short term emotional highs and lows. Write with your beginning paragraphs grounded in historical context and transition that backward pointing arrow through the present triumphalism or defeatism to the longer term view of the goal and competing trends. sbw wrote:
Reiterating my point, our society and thus our press are inexperienced dealing with concepts beyond today and the short memory surrounding it. Sighting down the past, through the present, to the future is a very important skill. It's like looking down a strip of motion picture film.
Can we, as political journalists measure failures against successes within a context that critically recognizes our own inability to know
what is happening, what the outcome will be, and then be fully prepared to admit the error of human endeavor on our own part and likewise others? Can we embrace capitalism and republicanism in such a way that recognizes its imperfections and reminds, if necessary admonishes, candidates and readers for becoming too selfish or too communistic.
And, can we maintain our own perspective during the beguiling and disorienting campaign season without becoming detached, above, nowhere, no longer indivisible from those we write for?
The very concept of 'we' in the press is the long-term structural problem.
The press and the general media have a function, actually several functions. Nowhere in these functions is there a 'we.'
The conveying of voices, which would not otherwise be heard. The expression of the multiplicity of voices of our society. The conducting of public dialog. The celebration of our differences. The audit of the outrageous. The revelation of things new. The mourning of things lost.
Each of the various voices, opinions, and viewpoints require no 'we.'
When there is ‘we,’ there is a stifling of views, a repression of voices, and a groupthink instead of an audit.
The 'we' should remain at the level of standards in integrity, not in viewpoint, nor in unanimity of desired social 'victories."
If it requires that a new rank (blogs, Fox, talk radio) of media emerge, so be it. If it instead requires that ABC, CBS, NBC, NYT, LAT, B GLB, etc. begin to diverge in their advocated meta-narrative positions, so be it.
In the world of small business (which may individually get lucky and be successful,) the multiplicity adds up to more than the sum of the parts. So to it should be in the collective media. The cacophony of voices allows no one party to 'set the agenda,' to 'determine coverage,' or to unduly 'influence the election.'
The win of the media is that the collective allowed, facilitated, conducted, and stayed out of the way of public discourse.
If the media, as a collective (or substantial part thereof,) take a position, then they are not providing what the public trust excuses their flaws in order for them to provide.
The fact that CBS is incompetent doesn't mean the gaps in Bush's record go away.
Discovering fake memos doesn't mean real ones don't or didn't exist.
I agree with that also. Just as I disagreed with writing off 250+ Swift Boat Vietnam veterans as all liars and discounting EVERYTHING they said, I disagree with using this dishonest, partisan, political attack and CBS' complicity as a way to hide or disguise the distinction between Bush's first 4 years and last 2 years in the TexANG. As I said elsewhere, I think the press should either have full access to both men's military records, or neither. I support the press using the FOIA and their resources to develop an accurate and realistic narrative of each man's service.
There are about five different official reports on Bush's failures to report that are required by regulationi and are missing from his file.
Actually, the AP named five categories:
Bush's National Guard file missing records
Lawsuit Uncovers New Bush Guard Records
We're missing records from Kerry's file as well. And yes, the Guard was notoriously poorer record keepers than the active duty units. Personally, I think the Democrats are being very foolish spending time, resources and media access on this issue. The difference in the campaign is that from January to July Kerry has been running on his service, running away from his anti-war activities (while still a Naval Reserve LT), and attacking Bush's service. Then in August, he's outraged when the other band of brothers made up of decorated veterans, from enlisted to admirals, his subordinate(s), peers and superiors, question his own characterization of his service over the years.
See my reply to Matt Stoller on CBS, The Left and Bush's National Guard service
I'm impressed with the testimony of Killian's secretary. Doesn't she have to be a very important source for any conclusion about Killian, memos, and Bush?
I think her recollections, and partisanship, needs to be considered alongside Staudt's, Hodges', Killian's son and widow, Martin's, Udell's and Strong's. Of those, I think Strong's is the least informative or compelling.