September 18, 2004
Rather's Satisfaction: Mystifying Troubles at CBS
Dan Rather and CBS took the risky course, impunging the motives of critics, rather than a more confident and honorable one: Let's look at our sources and methods. What can explain such a blind reaction? Here is my attempt.
After Mr. Rather posed a question to Nixon at a National Association of Broadcasters convention in 1974, Nixon asked pointedly, “Are you running for something?” Mr. Rather shot back, “No, Mr. President, are you?” Link.
Here I take a crack at explaining why Dan Rather and CBS News have disappointed their colleagues, enraged their critics, compounded their losses, endangered the CBS brand and mystified so many observers in the days since their troubles began, which was really only hours after 60 Minutes carried a report on President Bush’s record with the Texas Air National Guard.
That report, which Rather hosted, announced to the nation the sensational existence of documents CBS had failed to authenticate.
This is the crime of which the network stands accused in the theater of election year politics, and in a longer history of resentment that some see as coming to a fiery end in Rather’s acts of self-destruction. Whether that’s true or not, CBS has to understand that its news division has become protagonist (or villain) in a 60 Minutes-style scandal story, an investigative drama, not just an investigation.
The documents were “sensational” because of the revelations in them about the character and conduct of the President in a bitter election-year struggle. If they had forgeries inside them, then the charges CBS aired were very likely attempts at political sabotage. For the network to be involved in something like that goes beyond bounds of forgivable error.
Here’s author and journalist Susan Tifft, on the Newhour with Jim Lehrer, talking about it:
CBS and Dan Rather in particular are really sort of the poster children for all the charges of bias, left-wing bias in the media, so I think CBS in particular is very much, you know, not on the ropes exactly, but certainly the focus of a great deal of attention. And people inside CBS are very concerned about this.
So I think what their legacy is going to be from this and how we’re going to remember this incident in journalism I think is going to depend a great deal on how they handle it.
Legacy hour. That means we’re in the theatre of reputation, and Rather is himself the major character, although it was supposed to be not Dan Rather under trial but fellow Texan George W. Bush. Big Journalism is involved. Kid Internet. Military Service. Democratic Activists. The Liberal Media. The Bush Clan. Texas Power Circles. The DNC? To say “this is theatre” is not to diminish the story, but to suggest why it’s grown so big.
Bringing devastating memos into a campaign’s final sprint is like bringing pistols on stage. You better know what you are doing at that point in the script. It’s theatre when tensions in the “little” story match up with larger tensions in the political atmosphere, which the news audience can sense. The resolution of the mess at CBS could thus figure in the psychology of the election, or if not that then the fate of network news and Big Media from here on. We’ll have further investigation. We will also have further theatre:
And when he was caught out, mostly by a legion of bloggers who seemed to know more about the subject than he did, Mr. Rather responded like a politician caught in a scandal, attributing partisan motives to his critics while ignoring most of the charges against him.
That’s from Byron York’s effective overview in Opinion Journal. Ernest Miller’s annotated timeline is also a most valuable document. The authenticity of the memos came under doubt almost right away. And as Miller shows, almost right away Rather began behaving under a weirdly opposite premise: That there was no doubt the memos were authentic. And where the cry rang out… then prove it! he shouted back something else that was weird: I already proved it.
To which many people said: huh? This, then, is a moment to bear in on.
A clear sign that the weight of collegial opinion in the press establishment is now against Rather and in favor of “huh?” is this paragraph in Friday’s New York Times account:
“They have not convinced me they properly nailed it,” Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, said of CBS. “If they are going to make an assertion or allegation or use documents, they certainly better be sure of them, because the validity of the assertion is going to be questioned, the process by which you make your assertion or present your information has to be transparent and CBS hasn’t hit that target yet.”
The newsroom mind has a simple switch for judging stories like this. You nailed it. You didn’t. Nailing refers to the kind of sourcing and documentation required to authenticate what the story claims is true. If you publish a work of investigation, and it raises serious charges against important people, but you haven’t nailed it, then you are guilty of malpractice. You should pay a heavy price for that.
When Bill Kovach—former Washington bureau chief for the New York times, former editor of the Altanta Constitution, former head of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, former ombudman for Brill’s Content—says “they didn’t nail it,” that means 60 Minutes failed peer review.
In Rather’s mind—and it came through in his statements—60 Minutes had already passed peer review in its reporting on the Guard records. They had already been declared authentic by the toughest judges there are: himself, his producers and other CBS News people. This is from Saturday, September 11, three days after the original report aired. Rather to Howard Kurtz:
“Until someone shows me definitive proof that they are not, I don’t see any reason to carry on a conversation with the professional rumor mill,” the CBS anchor said. “My colleagues and I at ‘60 Minutes’ made great efforts to authenticate these documents and to corroborate the story as best we could… . I think the public is smart enough to see from whom some of this criticism is coming and draw judgments about what the motivations are.”
Document authentication couldn’t be taking place on the Internet. It had already taken place. It had happened behind the scenes when the story and the memos supporting it checked out to Dan Rather’s satisfaction. Which became a factor in events: Ladies and Gentlemen, Dan Rather’s satisfaction has been met. You can return to places now. It amazes him that anyone else’s system of doubt could establish the public standard for a checked out story.
For who has higher standards than Dan Rather, the people of 60 Minutes, the News Division of CBS? Who knows more about the art of corroboration? Mary Mapes, the CBS producer whose name is also on the Texas Guard story, had been working on it for some five years. (And bloggers render their verdicts over night!)
60 Minutes, the editorial franchise, had long ago established itself as the most successul news and investigation program ever, just as CBS had long ago established itself as the gold standard in broadcast news. And on all kinds of stories, all over the world, Dan Rather had long ago established his own reputation as fearless, hard working, incorruptible, tough on everyone, in the pocket of no one, a classic big story reporter.
That’s a key thing to know about Rather: yes, he’s anchored the news on CBS longer than anyone, even the great Cronkite. But self-definitionally, he’s still a reporter, the hustling correspondent who outworks everyone else. (This tells you he’s a romantic, as well.) The reporter in him authenticates the anchorman. “Rather has always taken pride in unchaining himself from the anchor desk to cover wars, political campaigns and various other crises,” wrote Howard Kurtz this week.
There was a political legacy connected to reporter Dan Rather. It included, in his mind, being hated for his toughness. He was conscious of it. And like anyone who is hated for public reasons he had to explain this reaction in a way that was not hateful or harmful to himself.
“I try to look people in the eye and tell them the truth,” Rather said. “I don’t back up. I don’t back down. I don’t cave when the pressure gets too great from these partisan political ideological forces,” he said to Howard Kurtz. (Note the triple adjective: partisan, political, ideological.)
“Anybody who knows me knows I’m an independent, I’m not politically inclined, except I love to report on politics,” he told Jim Rutenberg. “My job is to follow important stories wherever they may lead me.” This is his statement about professional character. It explains to Rather why he’s been hated. It’s also his way of tuning us out.
We’re politically inclined. He’s not.
He’s professionally independent. We’re not.
He has to go wherever the truth leads a man. We don’t have that burden.
We’re free to take sides, and we do. He’s not free, and he doesn’t.
Call it the self-image of the politically lonely truthteller, the maintenance of which became a big factor in what Rather said when he began to speak into the national microphone last week. It wasn’t the standard: we stand by our story. It was… We stand by our story, and look who we are. To those with questions about the documents (“are they authentic, journalists?”), Rather and company gave the argument of credentials (“we are authentic journalists.”) Now, if the Guard story crashes so do those credentials. But this is Rather’s instinct, bound up in his sense of personal honor. As the Los Angeles Times reported:
Although many others helped report and corroborate the story, Rather said, “I’m of the school, my name is on it, I’m responsible.”
I’m of the school. You have to tune into his sense of theatre. Rather is a secret incendiary. His pattern—escalate the drama—can be seen on the CBS Evening News when a natural disaster strikes; he’s always the most emotional, the closest to apocalypse. Rather is the only network anchorman to employ a “hot” style; all the others are emotionally cool, which is thought to be a requirement for longevity in television.
Escalation shows in his answer to one of the first questions thrown at him last week. Will you investigate the memos given the rising doubts? Instead of saying: we stand by our story, and, yes, we will continue to investigate all sides of it, Rather chose the “steadfast plus” option. We stand by our story and there is no need to investigate.
Again, this creates more theatre. If the memos are fake, then his confidence seems faked, and he becomes a more comic figure on stage, taking a big public fall. “Your pride gets in the way,” said Ken Aueletta on the Newshour Thursday night, trying to explain how it happened. “And your chest puffs up and you say, full speed ahead. And maybe you shouldn’t.”
But an excess of pride only goes so far in explanation. William Safire thought insufficient pride was shown:
To shut up sources and impugn the motives of serious critics - from opinionated bloggers to straight journalists - demeans the Murrow tradition. Nor is any angry demand that others prove them wrong acceptable, especially when no original documents are available to prove anything.
Safire’s right about that. And I still want to take my shot at explaining how it happened that Rather took this risky course, impunging the motives of serious critics (“from opinionated bloggers to straight journalists”) rather than the more confident and honorable one: let’s look again at our sources and methods, and investigate what happened to make us think we nailed it. Even better: an outside team gets to the bottom of it, and in a few days publishes a report. That’s what CBS should have done. It’s outrageous that sane options like these weren’t even considered.
Rather pre-empted all the cautious moves because his instinct was to escalate. His instinct was to escalate because he saw in critics only their motives: to discredit the reporter who raises tough questions about candidate Bush. Rather had anticipated this— but by way too much. “They will attack the messenger because they don’t like the message” fit too well the theatrical terms in which he saw himself. This is from the New York Observer’s Joe Hagan:
Mr. Rather said that the focus on questions over the veracity of the memos was a smoke screen perpetrated by right-wing allies of the Bush administration.
“I think the public, even decent people who may be well-disposed toward President Bush, understand that powerful and extremely well-financed forces are concentrating on questions about the documents because they can’t deny the fundamental truth of the story,” he said. “If you can’t deny the information, then attack and seek to destroy the credibility of the messenger, the bearer of the information. And in this case, it’s change the subject from the truth of the information to the truth of the documents.
“This is your basic fogging machine, which is set up to cloud the issue, to obscure the truth,” he said.
I think he fell into a crazy kind of professional love with the Mr. Smith-ness of it. A powerful and extremely well-financed fogging machine against the lone reporter and his team of light-shiners. He wanted that confrontation to come. It fit his sense of theatre. It authenticated everything about him.
The verification stage was over, he thought. It has been settled by CBS authority, inside CBS offices, in the counsel CBS kept with itself. Those who wanted to question it could consult the CBS legacy, or Rather’s accumulated rep. This was not about verification, he thought, it was a confrontation with the rich and powerful, with the Republicans and their fogging machine. He had planned for an investigative drama. He thought it was legacy time in the truthtelling biz.
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…
Howard Kurtz, Michael Dobbs and James V. Grimaldi investigate in the Washington Post (Sun. Sep. 19):
An examination of the process that led to the broadcast, based on interviews with the participants and more than 20 independent analysts, shows that CBS rushed the story onto the air while ignoring the advice of its own outside experts, and used as corroborating witnesses people who had no firsthand knowledge of the documents…
As the days begin to blur for [executive producer] Josh Howard, he embraces the same logic: “So much of this debate has focused on the documents, and no one has really challenged the story. It’s been frustrating to us to see all this reduced to a debate over little ‘th’s.”
Indeed, that is the big mystery. Jim Rutenberg in the New York Times (Sep. 19): “One mystery among CBS staff members is why network officials remained so confident for so long about the documents as so many questions arose.”
See also In the Rush for a Scoop, CBS Found Trouble Fast by Josh Getlin, Elizabeth Jensen and Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times (Sep. 18).
Read Jeff Jarvis, blogger and “Big Media Guy” (as he sometimes calls himself), in the New York Post on what CBS should have done (Sep. 19): Dan’s Mistake: “They should have said to the bloggers, ‘Thank you — and welcome to journalism; we can use your help.’”
Dawning of The Pajama Press. Michael S. Malone, writing in his Silicon Insider column at ABC News (Sep.16).
The heroes of this story are, of course, the denizens of the blogosphere. The Pajama Press has won. They have been the welcome counterweight to the increasingly unbalanced message being purveyed by the MSM this political season. I’ve written a lot about these folks in the last few months, mostly with admiration, but mixed with a little fear. Their power and influence has been building now for several years.
Few people noticed that the Web readers of many major publications, like The New York Times, were now greater than the print readers; or that Web-based movements were creating swings in everything from the stock market to Nielsen ratings. All the pieces were in place for a radical discontinuity — and now it has come.
And take note of this disclaimer ABC News runs: “This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.” But also see Tom Watson, Don’t Praise the Bloggers, which argues a different case.
The Chicago Tribune’s Howard Witt (Sep. 18): “…Welcome to the “blogosphere,” the chaotic new media world where questionable truths joust with plausible fictions, agendas are often hidden, and motives are frequently mixed, and millions of ordinary citizens clamber to offer their own rumors, opinions and jeremiads. All of which is either very bad or very good for the republic and the future of the American free press, depending on your point of view.”
Jay Currie’s useful round-up has links from when the story was first emerging: Blogs vs. 60 minutes.
Ben Wasserstein, op-ed in the Los Angeles Times (Sep. 19): “The blogs picked up the story, but they couldn’t carry it to the finish line alone. They were complemented by traditional media but never came close to supplanting it. The bloggers who first cast doubt on the CBS memos deserve congratulations, gratitude and, of course, their time in the sun. This has been another moment of triumph for this dynamic and emerging field, and it will surely not be the last. But it has been a moment, not a revolution.”
Howard Kurtz: After Blogs Got Hits, CBS Got a Black Eye (Sep. 20)
Cathey Young, column in the Boston Globe (Sep. 20): Memo stirs old vs. new media war.
Edward Wasserman in the Miami Herald (Sep. 20): The transparency trap. “To me, the cry for transparency isn’t about holding media accountable; it’s a way to make certain media discountable. It creates a rationale for ignoring content you dislike by dismissing it as the deliberate product of unshakable prejudice.”
Flunking peer review: “The fact is CBS used those documents as the smoking gun,” said Alex Jones, head of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. “I don’t believe Dan set out to mislead anybody, but he’s got to stand up and take a bullet. His credibility and that of CBS are very much on the line.”
Roger Simon on the Rather reporting by Michael Dobbs of the Washington Post: “The blogs may have broken the story open, but Dobbs is now doing the heavy lifting.”
Jonathan V. Last, What Blogs Have Wrought, in the Weekly Standard: “Bloggers are fantastically more transparent than major news organizations, which in their inner workings are among the most inscrutable institutions in America. Most blogs have an ‘About Us’ link near the top of their page. Had Seglin clicked this link on Power Line, for instance, he would have found that bloggers John Hinderaker, Scott Johnson, and Paul Mirengoff were lawyers with prestigious firms such as Minneapolis’s Faegre & Benson and Washington’s Akin, Gump. On Flounder.com, Newcomer had posted his entire résumé, his home address, his email, and his telephone number. Besides Dan Rather and his lead producer Mary Mapes, Seglin would have been hard pressed to get even the name of a CBS employee who worked on the memo story.”
Dan Rather interviewed by Howard Kurtz Sep. 16:
“If the documents are not what we were led to believe, I’d like to break that story,” Rather said in an interview last night. “Any time I’m wrong, I want to be right out front and say, ‘Folks, this is what went wrong and how it went wrong.’ “…
“This is not about me,” Rather said before anchoring last night’s newscast. “I recognize that those who didn’t want the information out and tried to discredit the story are trying to make it about me, and I accept that.”
CBS News: official statement on the matter from Sep. 15 (pdf form)
“Journalism in the Age of Blogs.” Kelly McBride at Poynter Ethics Journal (Sep. 16):
It’s a sure bet that bloggers will continue to challenge and undermine the work of journalists. In response, journalists will get better and tougher. Anticipating the constant scrutiny, reporters will tell readers and editors where they got their information, why they think it’s sound, what they did to check out their sources.
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.
Posted by Jay Rosen at September 18, 2004 2:42 AM
Seth F: But *why* had they been declared authentic?
RattlerGator: I'm interested in knowing whether he was conned at all.
I agree with this. CBS had been given the same six documents that USA Today had, but went to air with, and only posted, four. Why? Their "experts" did not authenticate the documents. Mapes and Rather may have felt that there was enough corroboration with what the documents said with Strong, Moore, Burkett (assuming he's the confidential source) and Hodges (assuming CBS misunderstood him or he validated the content before he said CBS misled him). I think this defense of "Fake But True" and "answer the question" tells us much about their thought process in airing the program.
Now that Staudt has decided to break his silence and speak out against this story, making it "Fake and False" and Knox was interviewed postmortem telling.
I find the preponderance of the evidence at this time points to CBS knowingly using documents that had been given to them from a discredited and partisan source - not "unimpeachable" by any stretch of the imagination. That CBS used four documents from a batch where serious questions had been raised about at least two if not all six documents (and these memos are obvious frauds).
I find it much more believable that this was a story either "too good to check" or one that they went with knowing that it contained questionable documents, two of which were not used because their experts raised doubts. They used the documents to get the interview with Barnes, who lacked serious credibility without the memos.
I think the one-sided nature of the report and highhanded defensiveness afterwards was a decision on the part of 60 Minutes, and later CBS News, to bolster a house of cards.
But without an investigation, it's just my opinion, isn't it?
I am also bothered by the fact that the creator of these fraudulent memos forged them with the signature of deceased Air Force Lt Col Killian, and that doesn't seem to be an important factor in the reasoning to "out" the source.
I think USA Today could break this by admitting their documents are frauds and naming their source.
HOW THE BLOGS CAN BEAT RATHER
Jay, I've come to a somewhat different take on this CBS News/Rather fiasco. I know that probably doesn't surprise you, and I want to be sensitive not to appear to be engaged in one-upmanship instead of an exchange of views - a conversation.
What can explain such a blind reaction?
A month ago, I wrote some harsh words about journalism from a point of view of authority. Peter Parks wrote in part:
... It's certainly true that after hours, days or weeks of reporting, journalists as human beings come to a story with a certain point of view that might not reflect every reader's point of view. But it's a viewpoint of authority based on research, a questioning of assumptions, and fair play for all points of view.
To which I responded
Journalists are not authorities on other professions. Journalists get more wrong about a story then they get right, more often than not. They develop Master Narratives to more efficiently communicate using automatic thinking.
Research? Journalists are at best symbiotic and at worst parasitic. They are not researchers.
It seems to me that this case with CBS News/Rather/Mapes is a hypermedia example of a common everyday occurance
where reporters supplant their own authority for whom to believe or what constitutes evidence/fact and when substantiation has been achieved ("nailed down") on any and every topic.
[Journalism's] credibility has never been better than every good journalist's commitment to do the best they can, under the circumstances (which usually involve constrained time and resources). Which is to say compromised, though understandably so. (Searls)
The press are SELDOM authorities on anything other than the business and art of their trade - seldom the subjects or "objects" of their coverage. But prior to the information age, the feudalistic nature of "establishment" - and especially broadcast - media allowed a faux authoritarianism ("gatekeepers") of what constituted "unimpeachable" information.
What's changed is the involuntary outsourcing of fact-gathering and -checking to a growing assortment of amateurs and professionals who are largely external to the profession. What we need isn't competition between blogs and mainstream news outlets, but a working symbiosis between the two. (Searls again)
What I think we're seeing in the blogosphere is not just an outsourcing of fact-gathering/checking - but pushback. Perhaps fact-gathering/checking motivated by pushback. Pushback motivated by dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction born out of misrepresentation, from being misquoted, from being villified and meeting combatitive and highhanded defensiveness when asking for corrections. Until we stop calling with corrections
and start publishing them independantly; growing in numbers, multiplying, self-organinizing into a blogosphere.
[Sulzberger] said that what upset him after the Blair scandal is that The Times received relatively few calls from people mentioned in Blair's stories.
"They just generally assumed that newspapers operated that way," he said.
Perhaps a great visual example of the result of symbiosis is this graphic
from WaPo which brings together in a compelling way the distinct and distributed (content, style, typographical) concerns raised (and connected via links) across the blogosphere.
What can explain such a blind reaction?
1. Understanding the process and culture that precedes such a reaction. Where, in the war zone of Gotcha! journalism, a "deafening silence" is an admission of guilt, corroboration means tricking sources by withholding information, and such a leap in judgement can be made to the assumption of document authentication because Bartlett didn't scream fraud when presented with documents alleged to be from a dead man's personal files either upon receipt or within hours before broadcast.
2. Understanding the culture that creates the "view from authority" within pressthink and "its refusal to accept the constraints of the reality principle" in favor of the theater, the legacy, the Pulitzer Prize winning combativeness until PROVEN DEFINITIVELY wrong.
(This comment is cross-posted at BOP)
Untangling the threads here is extremely difficult, because the partisan right and the partisan left are making contradictory claims about power and journalistic integrity.
The partisan right is saying that Rather and CBS represent a system of power that is unchecked and responsible to no one but itself, and this episode illustrates just how corrupting this kind of system can be. This seems rather beyond dispute, as Rather and CBS are not acting as an agency which feels responsibility to explain itself to the public who it generically holds to high standards. CBS says so, so it's so. In most cases, CBS gets the story precisely right, but on a deeper level it is the editorial choices about what it chooses to cover that are the subject of dispute, even if the lens is through the lack of precision in this particular story. Michelle Malkin illustrates this point perfectly. Despite the heaps of factual inaccuracies and misleading rhetorical turns of phrase in her book massacring the historical memory of the internment camps, she will bray about a populist/blogger revolution against old media. Glenn Reynolds, who held anti-war activists as objectively pro-Saddam, dislikes the old guard media, as does Michey Kaus, who has a terrifically irresponsible legacy of factual inaccuracies and editorial biases. In their claims that old media is losing power because it is unaccountable they are accurate, but where is the system to hold them accountable for what they say or advocate?
Some may hold that the blogosphere itself holds them accountable, but it does not. Despite Ed Cone's claim that Malkin's book has been discredited before it even came out, it seems pretty clear that her book is now being inserted into the narrative about WWII, that Japanese-Americans were interned because of some need for national security. This is a wholesale massacre of history, done using the same methods that are taking down CBS. So this is about populism, but it's also about a sort of top-down populism where the insertion of ideas can be purchased.
In other word, the right-wing blogosphere (as a much smaller adjunct of the right-wing press and radio empires), claiming the mantle of populist fury worthy of Spiro Agney, fanned the flames of a story about factual precision and unaccountability at CBS into a power grab for a strong political agenda. And that's why I suspect CBS has such a hard time with this story. It's obvious that the right has no interest in telling a true story here, but in telling the truth CBS would be ceding power to them anyway. And with the Swift Boats having such currency despite its clear falsehood, CBS was making a counterclaim that no, you, the right-wing, don't get a clear pass to buy your version of truth.
So the right-wing deserves credit for keeping this story alive and braying, even if the initial discrediting came from a political operative, as seems fairly likely (the discrediting came within a few hours of the story). But any credit given to them for unmasking the truth behind the lack of precision in Rather's claims would be quickly frittered away to perpetuate a larger right-wing lie about the direction of the country.
By contrast, the left partisans have a different problem, and that is they have no serious agenda to get behind. All they have is an angst that their interests are threatened by a group of dangerous dishonest people, and a ruinous rage at the same types of power arrangements that the right dislikes (such as 'the media', which if it has an address might as well be located at CBS headquarters). As a result, any claim to power by the right must be illegitimate, by definition, because all those claims to power are dishonest.
The lack of WMDs, the Swifties, the tax 'cuts', viciousness of this administration, the horrors of Abu Ghraib, all of these are enough to make one bet that the right's claims to anything are basically self-serving and irresponsible. Thus, when CBS, a weird combination of a powerful media group which the left dislikes airing a story that the left needs about Bush's irresponsible and dishonest past, is under attack, the responsible is a knee-jerk repudiation of the claims of the right-wing. The journalistic establishment is perhaps the most irrelevant group here. They have no credibility among either the right or the left, for they have failed to stake out any reason why either side should believe their judgment on any but the smallest of stories.
John Kerry cannot at this point credibly claim that he will do much differently in Iraq, or on the economy, or as a leader in general. His surrogates can make that claim, I can make that claim, and third parties can make it, but he cannot, because while he will criticize the President on the matters that seem most serious - lying to the American people - what is really going on sits three levels below that discourse. It is what Dean was talking about, the lack of participation in governance, the lack of a place for citizens in American politics or media. Neither Bush nor Kerry is saying that this election is about 'us', the people, in the sense that we must take responsibility for our country and its actions. And Rather's claim and the right-wing reaction and populist revolt were a continuation of this superficial struggle over who owns truth. Rather wants CBS to own it, the right wants Fox and the grassroots right to own it - both are corporate autocracies which the left finds scary, but the former at least gives the left a bit more relevance while the latter allows for genuine participation, as long as that participation is rooted in the right ideological framework. CBS will give you no path to participate - the right gives you Free Republic, or any number of blogs or talk radio shows.
Until the left-wing can develop the ideological foundation for its newfound populist structure - the blogosphere, Air America, Democracy Radio, the left book empire, etc - it will be overmatched in such a struggle. And until establishment journalists can figure out their own response to the demand to participate, it will be left to the most powerful and vibrant political force in American society, the right-wing.
Couple of corrections, if I may:
Jay: Your description of Rather as a "professional punching bag" for the Right is quite apt.
That was not Liza's description. She was actually describing Phil Parlock as a "professional punching bag". The Left considers Mr. Parlock an actor whose theater is opportunistically showing up at Democratic events and holding up Republican signs in order to provoke a confrontation for news coverage. You know, free speech means you're not allowed to dissent at my rally.
Now that we know who Buckhead is (politically-active Republican lawyer and member of The Federalist Society) his possible connection to events deserves careful scrutiny.
Don't forget TankerKC's role. I'll bet he has ominous conservative leanings and ties as well. Of course, this is a distraction by the Left still chasing down the VRWC, and part of the problem with the Left that Matt recognizes.
Matt: It's obvious that the right has no interest in telling a true story here, ...
The Right accepts that Bush's National Guard service was characterized appropriately by George Magazine (that bastion of conservatism) as Not Heroic, Not AWOL.
It's time to set the record straight . . . . Bush may have received favorable treatment to get into the Guard, served irregularly after the spring of 1972 and got an expedited discharge, but he did accumulate the days of service required of him for his ultimate honorable discharge.
But that's not enough, is it? The Democrats need the "full smear". That was the point of the memos. This was a dumb story in February this year and continues to be, but has found new fire in order to extract revenge for the SBVT. In fact, it was probably the partisan anger and frustration on the Left at watching their "chest full of medals war hero" candidate effectively being questioned that motivated this fraud/forgery. So now the "truth" of Bush's service, which wasn't a compelling story, has become a story about CBS' complicity in a dishonest political attack. And despite all attempts to cast it as a Rovean trick, it has implicated the DNC and Kerry (see Burkett, Cleland, and Kinkos).
So the right-wing deserves credit for keeping this story alive and braying, even if the initial discrediting came from a political operative, as seems fairly likely (the discrediting came within a few hours of the story).
This is true but misleading. The discrediting was down by the political operative on the Left that created fraudulent documents, forged Killian's signature and the passed them on to Kerry's campaign and Mapes/CBS News.
All they [the Left] have is an angst that their interests are threatened by a group of dangerous dishonest people, ...
An angst that BOPNews feeds, fans and perpetuates from what I can tell by villifying and demonizing conservatives through stereotypes and memes, thank you very much.
They have no credibility among either the right or the left, for they have failed to stake out any reason why either side should believe their judgment on any but the smallest of stories.
That's true, but my impression is that ideology is filling a vacuum for determining crediblity. That vacuum has developed over the decades as people came to distrust and disbelieve the press. I'm skeptical that ideological agreement is a good determiner of credibility - whether at Fox News or CBS News or BOP News.
CBS will give you no path to participate - the right gives you Free Republic, or any number of blogs or talk radio shows.
The left gives you Democratic Underground, Eshaton, DailyKos, .... The Left still struggles to catch up on talk radio, but then there is an absence of broadcast TV shows for the Right. Not sure how that balances out, but I do think talk radio has an immediacy for motivating grassroots reaction that the Left does not have except for the Internet.
Until the left-wing can develop the ideological foundation for its newfound populist structure - the blogosphere, Air America, Democracy Radio, the left book empire, etc - it will be overmatched in such a struggle.
I don't think the Left is ideologically bankrupt. It is captive to competing extremes without a rallying point of its own. As a result, the Left went looking for an external rallying point - ABB, Bush-hate, Right-angst.
Hardly anyone is voting for Kerry and too few are voting against Bush. Lots of folks are voting for Bush and a few are voting against Kerry. And as Kevin Drum points out, it's on an issue as well as character.
Its the difference between the Right winning the House in 1994 and losing the White House in 1996. In 1994, the Right had something to vote for AND vote against. In 1996, there were only reasons to vote against - and that wasn't enough.
I do think there is room for the Left to give voters a For and Against argument on Iraq, the top issue. But it is not FOR: Domestic spending, AGAINST: Iraq spending; FOR: Staying in Iraq, AGAINST: Staying in Iraq; etc.
You're making a lucid point here but, at the risk of sounding obsessive, bad journalism by the mainstream press is what makes Matt Drudge, Fox News and Mickey Kaus viable, not to mention the Swifties.
Seth's point that the mainstream press have, collectively, a much louder and more authoritative voice than any collection of bloggers is valid too, but they're squandering it. If the press had not voluntarily abrogated, as Rather said in his BBC news interview two years ago, its responsibility to act as the counterweight to the enormous voice of the government and popular panic, at least some of the issues you describe would simply not be in play now.
I happen to think the press surrendered its identity as the Fourth Estate a decade or so before Rather noticed, but I don't see as arguable the notion that since 911, the press have functioned as a gross parody of themselves. The New York Review of Books and Campaign Desk have, on a monthly and daily basis respectively, devoted almost their entire energies to quantifying the failures of the press, and they've barely scratched the surface.
So, yes, the left don't yet have the institutional and communications infrastructures that the right have devoted the past three decades to building, with their various think tanks and media presences, but that distorting of the debate, or at least that weighting of it, would be limited by an actual functioning mainstream press. The left are certainly victims of themselves, but they're also victims of a misplaced trust in the integrity of the press.
And I'm not sure that you're right in describing the right machine as allowing genuinely populist participation; I think it's more a matter of having created a convincing illusion of it.
The point of all this is that, Kerry's inability to speak in sound bites aside, the most powerful issues available to the left have been so poorly covered by the press that they sound absurdly radical when they're articulated.
I also think that a populist movement profoundly influenced the Democratic primaries this year, through the medium of Howard Dean. Dean's fundraising success brought home to the press the idea that opposition to the invasion of Iraq was not low and outside, but a fairly widespread sentiment. The polls reflected that prior to the invasion, although press coverage certainly didn't. So what Dean did, and the medium through which he did it, was as close to a genuine populist expression from either party as we've seen in some time. It significantly altered the framework within which the invasion was discussed; not nearly enough, but enough to make a difference.
And finally, I think all the mainstream press tributes to the blogosphere are so much wanking. It's just another avenue for failing to accurately assess themselves.
Thanks for your thoughts.
PressThink: An Introduction
We need to keep the press from being absorbed into The Media. This means keeping the word press, which is antiquated. But included under its modern umbrella should be all who do the serious work in journalism, regardless of the technology used. The people who will invent the next press in America--and who are doing it now online--continue an experiment at least 250 years old. It has a powerful social history and political legend attached...
The People Formerly Known as the Audience:
"You don't own the eyeballs. You don't own the press, which is now divided into pro and amateur zones. You don't control production on the new platform, which isn't one-way. There's a new balance of power between you and us." More...
Migration Point for the Press Tribe: "Like reluctant migrants everywhere, the people in the news tribe have to decide what to take with them. When to leave. Where to land. They have to figure out what is essential to their way of life. They have to ask if what they know is portable." More...
Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over: "Here is one advantage bloggers have in the struggle for reputation-- for the user's trust. They are closer to the transaction where trust gets built up on the Web. There's a big difference between tapping a built-up asset, like the St. Pete Times 'brand,' and creating it from scratch." More...
"Where's the Business Model for News, People?" "It’s remarkable to me how many accomplished producers of those goods the future production of which is in doubt are still at the stage of asking other people, “How are we going to pay our reporters if you guys don’t want to pay for our news?'" More...
National Explainer: A Job for Journalists on the Demand Side of News
This American Life's great mortgage crisis explainer, The Giant Pool of Money, suggests that "information" and "explanation" ought to be reversed in our order of thought. Especially as we contemplate new news systems. More...
The Beast Without a Brain: Why Horse Race Journalism Works for Journalists and Fails Us. "Just so you know, 'the media' has no mind. It cannot make decisions. Which means it does not 'get behind' candidates. It does not decide to oppose your guy… or gal. It is a beast without a brain. Most of the time, it doesn’t know what it’s doing.." More...
They're Not in Your Club but They Are in Your League: Firedoglake at the Libby Trial: "I’m just advising Newsroom Joe and Jill: make room for FDL in your own ideas about what’s coming on, news-wise. Don’t let your own formula (blog=opinion) fake you out. A conspiracy of the like minded to find out what happened when the national news media isn’t inclined to tell us might be way more practical than you think." More...
Twilight of the Curmudgeon Class: "We’re at the twilight of the curmudgeon class in newsrooms and J-schools. (Though they can still do a lot of damage.) You know they’re giving up when they no longer bother to inform themselves about what they themselves say is happening." More...
Getting the Politics of the Press Right: Walter Pincus Rips into Newsroom Neutrality "The important thing is to show integrity-- not to be a neuter, politically. And having good facts that hold up is a bigger advantage than claiming to reflect all sides equally well." More...
A Most Useful Definition of Citizen Journalism "It's mine, but it should be yours. Can we take the quote marks off now? Can we remove the 'so-called' from in front? With video!." More...
The Master Narrative in Journalism: "Were 'winning' to somehow be removed or retired as the operating system for news, campaign reporting would immediately become harder to do, not because there would be no news, but rather no common, repeatable instructions for deciding what is a key development in the story, a turning point, a surprise, a trend. Master narratives are thus harder to alter than they are to apprehend. For how do you keep the story running while a switch is made?" More...
He Said, She Said Journalism: Lame Formula in the Land of the Active User "Any good blogger, competing journalist or alert press critic can spot and publicize false balance and the lame acceptance of fact-free spin. Do users really want to be left helpless in sorting out who's faking it more? The he said, she said form says they do, but I say decline has set in." More...
Users-Know-More-than-We-Do Journalism: "It's a "put up or shut up" moment for open source methods in public interest reporting. Can we take good ideas like... distributed knowledge, social networks, collaborative editing, the wisdom of crowds, citizen journalism, pro-am reporting... and put them to work to break news?" More...
Introducing NewAssignment.Net: "Enterprise reporting goes pro-am. Assignments are open sourced. They begin online. Reporters working with smart users and blogging editors get the story the pack wouldn't, couldn't or didn't." More...
What I Learned from Assignment Zero "Here are my coordinates for the territory we need to be searching. I got them from doing a distributed trend story with Wired.com and thinking through the results." More...
If Bloggers Had No Ethics Blogging Would Have Failed, But it Didn't. So Let's Get a Clue: "Those in journalism who want to bring ethics to blogging ought to start with why people trust (some) bloggers, not with an ethics template made for a prior platform operating as a closed system in a one-to-many world." More...
The View From Nowhere: "Occupy the reasonable middle between two markers for 'vocal critic,' and critics look ridiculous charging you with bias. Their symmetrical existence feels like proof of an underlying hysteria. Their mutually incompatible charges seem to cancel each other out. The minute evidence they marshall even shows a touch of fanaticism." More...
Rollback: "This White House doesn't settle for managing the news--what used to be called 'feeding the beast'--because there is a larger aim: to roll back the press as a player within the executive branch, to make it less important in running the White House and governing the country." More...
Retreat from Empiricism: On Ron Suskind's Scoop: ""Realist, a classic term in foreign policy debates, and reality-based, which is not a classic term but more of an instant classic, are different ideas. We shouldn't fuzz them up. The press is capable of doing that because it never came to terms with what Suskind reported in 2004." More...
Karl Rove and the Religion of the Washington Press: "Savviness--that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, 'with it,' and unsentimental in all things political--is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it. And it was this cult that Karl Rove understood and exploited for political gain." More...
Journalism Is Itself a Religion: "We're headed, I think, for schism, tumult and divide as the religion of the American press meets the upheavals in global politics and public media that are well underway. Changing around us are the terms on which authority can be established by journalists. The Net is opening things up, shifting the power to publish around. Consumers are becoming producers, readers can be writers." More...
News Turns from a Lecture to a Conversation: "Some of the pressure the blogs are putting on journalists shows up, then, in the demand for "news as conversation," more of a back-and-forth, less of a pronouncement. This is an idea with long roots in academic journalism that suddenly (as in this year) jumped the track to become part of the news industry's internal dialogue." More...
Two Washington Posts May Be Better Than One: "They're not equals, but Washington and Arlington have their own spheres. Over the newspaper and reporting beats Len Downie is king. Over the website Jim Brady is sovereign. Over the userï¿½s experience no one has total control. There's tension because there's supposed to be tension." More...
Laying the Newspaper Gently Down to Die: "An industry that won't move until it is certain of days as good as its golden past is effectively dead, from a strategic point of view. Besides, there is an alternative if you don't have the faith or will or courage needed to accept reality and deal. The alternative is to drive the property to a profitable demise." More...
Grokking Woodward: "Woodward and Bernstein of 1972-74 didn't have such access, and this probably influenced--for the better--their view of what Nixon and his men were capable of. Watergate wasn't broken by reporters who had entree to the inner corridors of power. It was two guys on the Metro Desk." More...
Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate: "This here is a post for practically everyone in the game of seizing on media bias and denouncing it, which is part of our popular culture, and of course a loud part of our politics. And this is especially for the 'we're fair and balanced, you're not' crowd, wherever I may have located you." More...
Bill O'Reilly and the Paranoid Style in News: "O'Reilly feeds off his own resentments--the establishment sneering at Inside Edition--and like Howard Beale, the 'mad prophet of the airwaves,' his resentments are enlarged by the medium into public grievances among a mass of Americans unfairly denied voice." More...
Thoughts on the Killing of a Young Correspondent: "Among foreign correspondents, there is a phrase: 'parachuting in.' That's when a reporter drops into foreign territory during an emergency, without much preparation, staying only as long as the story remains big. The high profile people who might parachute in are called Bigfoots in the jargon of network news. The problem with being a Bigfoot, of course, is that it's hard to walk in other people's shoes." More...
The News From Iraq is Not Too Negative. But it is Too Narrow: "The bias charges are getting more serious lately as the stakes rise in Iraq and the election. But there is something lacking in press coverage, and it may be time for wise journalists to assess it. The re-building story has gone missing. And without it, how can we judge the job Bush is doing?." More...
The Abyss of Observation Alone. "There are hidden moral hazards in the ethic of neutral observation and the belief in a professional 'role' that transcends other loyalties. I think there is an abyss to observation alone. And I feel it has something to do with why more people don't trust journalists. They don't trust that abyss." More...
"Find Some New Information and Put it Into Your Post." Standards for Pro-Am Journalism at OffTheBus: "Opinion based on information 'everyone' has is less valuable than opinion journalism based on information that you dug up, originated, or pieced together. So it’s not important to us that contributors keep opinion out. What’s important is that they put new information in. More...
Out in the Great Wide Open: Maybe you heard about the implosion of Wide Open, a political blog started by the Cleveland Plain Dealer with four "outside" voices brought in from the ranks of Ohio bloggers: two left, two right. Twelve points you may not have seen elsewhere." More...
Some Bloggers Meet the Bosses From Big Media: "What capacity for product development do news organizations show? Zip. How are they on nurturing innovation? Terrible. Is there an entreprenurial spirit in newsrooms? No. Do smart young people ever come in and overturn everything? Never." More...
Notes and Comment on BlogHer 2005 "I think the happiest conference goers at BlogHer were probably the newbies, people who want to start blogging or just did. They got a lot of good information and advice. Some of the best information was actually dispensed in response to the fears provoked by blogging, which shouldnï¿½t be avoided, the sages said, but examined, turned around, defused, and creatively shrunk.." More...
Top Ten List: What's Radical About the Weblog Form in Journalism? "The weblog comes out of the gift economy, whereas most of today's journalism comes out of the market economy." More...
A Second Top Ten List: What's Conservative About the Weblog Form in Journalism? "The quality of any weblog in journalism depends greatly on its fidelity to age old newsroom commandments like check facts, check links, spell things correctly, be accurate, be timely, quote fairly." More...
Blogging is About Making and Changing Minds: "Sure, weblogs are good for making statements, big and small. But they also force re-statement. Yes, they're opinion forming. But they are equally good at unforming opinion, breaking it down, stretching it out." More...
The Weblog: An Extremely Democratic Form in Journalism "It's pirate radio, legalized; it's public access coming closer to life. Inside the borders of Blogistan (a real place with all the problems of a real place) we're closer to a vision of 'producer democracy' than we are to any of the consumerist views that long ago took hold in the mass media, including much of the journalism presented on that platform." More...
No One Owns Journalism: "And Big Media doesn't entirely own the press, because if it did then the First Amendment, which mentions the press, would belong to Big Media. And it doesn't. These things were always true. The weblog doesn't change them. It just opens up an outlet to the sea. Which in turn extends 'the press' to the desk in the bedroom of the suburban mom, where she blogs at night." More...
Brain Food for BloggerCon: Journalism and Weblogging in Their Corrected Fullness "Blogging is one universe. Its standard unit is the post, its strengths are the link and the low costs of entry, which means lots of voices. Jounalism is another universe. Its standard unit is "the story." Its strengths are in reporting, verification and access-- as in getting your calls returned." More...
Dispatches From the Un-Journalists: "Journalists think good information leads to opinion and argument. It's a logical sequence. Bloggers think that good argument and strong opinion cause people to seek information, an equally logical sequence. What do the bloggers bring to this? My short answer to the press is: everything you have removed."More...
Political Jihad and the American Blog: Chris Satullo Raises the Stakes "Journalists, you can stop worrying about bloggers 'replacing' the traditional news media. We're grist for their mill, says Satullo, a mill that doesn't run without us. Bloggers consume and extend the shelf life of our reporting, and they scrutinize it at a new level of intensity.."More...
Raze Spin Alley, That Strange Creation of the Press: "Spin Alley, an invention of the American press and politicos, shows that the system we have is in certain ways a partnership between the press and insiders in politics. They come together to mount the ritual. An intelligent nation is entitled to ask if the partners are engaged in public service when they bring to life their invention... Alternative thesis: they are in a pact of mutual convenience that serves no intelligible public good." More...
Horse Race Now! Horse Race Tomorrow! Horse Race Forever!: "How is it you know you're the press? Because you have a pass that says PRESS, and people open the gate. The locker room doors admit you. The story must be inside that gate; that's why they give us credentials. We get closer. We tell the fans what's going on. And if this was your logic, Bill James tried to bust it. Fellahs, said he to the baseball press, you have to realize that you are the gate." More...
Psst.... The Press is a Player: "The answer, I think, involves an open secret in political journalism that has been recognized for at least 20 years. But it is never dealt with, probably because the costs of facing it head on seem larger than the light tax on honesty any open secret demands. The secret is this: pssst... the press is a player in the campaign. And even though it knows this, as everyone knows it, the professional code of the journalist contains no instructions in what the press could or should be playing for?" More...
Die, Strategy News: "I think it's a bankrupt form. It serves no clear purpose, has no sensible rationale. The journalists who offer us strategy news do not know what public service they are providing, why they are providing it, for whom it is intended, or how we are supposed to use this strange variety of news."More...
He Said, She Said, We Said: "When journalists avoid drawing open conclusions, they are more vulnerable to charges of covert bias, of having a concealed agenda, of not being up front about their perspective, of unfairly building a case (for, against) while pretending only to report 'what happened.'" More...
If Religion Writers Rode the Campaign Bus: "Maybe irony, backstage peaking and "de-mystify the process" only get you so far, and past that point they explain nothing. Puzzling through the convention story, because I'm heading right into it myself, made me to realize that journalism's contempt for ritual was deeply involved here. Ritual is newsless; therefore it must be meaningless. But is that really true?."More...
Convention Coverage is a Failed Regime and Bloggers Have Their Credentials: "No one knows what a political convention actually is, anymore, or why it takes 15,000 people to report on it. Two successive regimes for making sense of the event have collapsed; a third has not emerged. That's a good starting point for the webloggers credentialed in Boston. No investment in the old regime and its ironizing." More...
Philip Gourevitch: Campaign Reporting as Foreign Beat: "'A presidential election is a like a gigantic moving television show,' he said. It is the extreme opposite of an overlooked event. The show takes place inside a bubble, which is a security perimeter overseen by the Secret Service. If you go outside the bubble for any reason, you become a security risk until you are screened again by hand."More...
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." More...
Off the Grid Journalism: “The assignment was straightforward enough,” writes Marjie Lundstrom of the Sacramento Bee, “talk to people.” When a writer dissents from it or departs from it, the master narrative is a very real thing. Here are two examples: one from politics, one from music. More...
Questions and Answers About PressThink "The Web is good for many opposite things. For quick hitting information. For clicking across a field. For talk and interaction. It's also a depth finder, a memory device, a library, an editor. Not to use a weblog for extended analysis (because most users won't pick that option) is Web dumb but media smart. What's strange is that I try to write short, snappy things, but they turn into long ones." More...