This is an archive, please visit for current posts.
PressThink: Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine
Recent Entries
Like PressThink? More from the same pen:

Read about Jay Rosen's book, What Are Journalists For?

Excerpt from Chapter One of What Are Journalists For? "As Democracy Goes, So Goes the Press."

Essay in Columbia Journalism Review on the changing terms of authority in the press, brought on in part by the blog's individual--and interactive--style of journalism. It argues that, after Jayson Blair, authority is not the same at the New York Times, either.

"Web Users Open the Gates." My take on ten years of Internet journalism, at

Read: Q & As

Jay Rosen, interviewed about his work and ideas by journalist Richard Poynder

Achtung! Interview in German with a leading German newspaper about the future of newspapers and the Net.

Audio: Have a Listen

Listen to an audio interview with Jay Rosen conducted by journalist Christopher Lydon, October 2003. It's about the transformation of the journalism world by the Web.

Five years later, Chris Lydon interviews Jay Rosen again on "the transformation." (March 2008, 71 minutes.)

Interview with host Brooke Gladstone on NPR's "On the Media." (Dec. 2003) Listen here.

Presentation to the Berkman Center at Harvard University on open source journalism and NewAssignment.Net. Downloadable mp3, 70 minutes, with Q and A. Nov. 2006.

Video: Have A Look

Half hour video interview with Robert Mills of the American Microphone series. On blogging, journalism, NewAssignment.Net and distributed reporting.

Jay Rosen explains the Web's "ethic of the link" in this four-minute YouTube clip.

"The Web is people." Jay Rosen speaking on the origins of the World Wide Web. (2:38)

One hour video Q & A on why the press is "between business models" (June 2008)

Recommended by PressThink:

Town square for press critics, industry observers, and participants in the news machine: Romenesko, published by the Poynter Institute.

Town square for weblogs: InstaPundit from Glenn Reynolds, who is an original. Very busy. Very good. To the Right, but not in all things. A good place to find voices in diaolgue with each other and the news.

Town square for the online Left. The Daily Kos. Huge traffic. The comments section can be highly informative. One of the most successful communities on the Net.

Rants, links, blog news, and breaking wisdom from Jeff Jarvis, former editor, magazine launcher, TV critic, now a J-professor at CUNY. Always on top of new media things. Prolific, fast, frequently dead on, and a pal of mine.

Eschaton by Atrios (pen name of Duncan B;ack) is one of the most well established political weblogs, with big traffic and very active comment threads. Left-liberal.

Terry Teachout is a cultural critic coming from the Right at his weblog, About Last Night. Elegantly written and designed. Plus he has lots to say about art and culture today.

Dave Winer is the software wiz who wrote the program that created the modern weblog. He's also one of the best practicioners of the form. Scripting News is said to be the oldest living weblog. Read it over time and find out why it's one of the best.

If someone were to ask me, "what's the right way to do a weblog?" I would point them to Doc Searls, a tech writer and sage who has been doing it right for a long time.

Ed Cone writes one of the most useful weblogs by a journalist. He keeps track of the Internet's influence on politics, as well developments in his native North Carolina. Always on top of things.

Rebecca's Pocket by Rebecca Blood is a weblog by an exemplary practitioner of the form, who has also written some critically important essays on its history and development, and a handbook on how to blog.

Dan Gillmor used to be the tech columnist and blogger for the San Jose Mercury News. He now heads a center for citizen media. This is his blog about it.

A former senior editor at Pantheon, Tom Englehardt solicits and edits commentary pieces that he publishes in blog form at TomDispatches. High-quality political writing and cultural analysis.

Chris Nolan's Spot On is political writing at a high level from Nolan and her band of left-to-right contributors. Her notion of blogger as a "stand alone journalist" is a key concept; and Nolan is an exemplar of it.

Barista of Bloomfield Avenue is journalist Debbie Galant's nifty experiment in hyper-local blogging in several New Jersey towns. Hers is one to watch if there's to be a future for the weblog as news medium.

The Editor's Log, by John Robinson, is the only real life honest-to-goodness weblog by a newspaper's top editor. Robinson is the blogging boss of the Greensboro News-Record and he knows what he's doing.

Fishbowl DC is about the world of Washington journalism. Gossip, controversies, rituals, personalities-- and criticism. Good way to keep track of the press tribe in DC

PJ Net Today is written by Leonard Witt and colleagues. It's the weblog of the Public Journalisn Network (I am a founding member of that group) and it follows developments in citizen-centered journalism.

Here's Simon Waldman's blog. He's the Director of Digital Publishing for The Guardian in the UK, the world's most Web-savvy newspaper. What he says counts.

Novelist, columnist, NPR commentator, Iraq War vet, Colonel in the Army Reserve, with a PhD in literature. How many bloggers are there like that? One: Austin Bay.

Betsy Newmark's weblog she describes as "comments and Links from a history and civics teacher in Raleigh, NC." An intelligent and newsy guide to blogs on the Right side of the sphere. I go there to get links and comment, like the teacher said.

Rhetoric is language working to persuade. Professor Andrew Cline's Rhetorica shows what a good lens this is on politics and the press.

Davos Newbies is a "year-round Davos of the mind," written from London by Lance Knobel. He has a cosmopolitan sensibility and a sharp eye for things on the Web that are just... interesting. This is the hardest kind of weblog to do well. Knobel does it well.

Susan Crawford, a law professor, writes about democracy, technology, intellectual property and the law. She has an elegant weblog about those themes.

Kevin Roderick's LA Observed is everything a weblog about the local scene should be. And there's a lot to observe in Los Angeles.

Joe Gandelman's The Moderate Voice is by a political independent with an irrevant style and great journalistic instincts. A link-filled and consistently interesting group blog.

Ryan Sholin's Invisible Inkling is about the future of newspapers, online news and journalism education. He's the founder of and a self-taught Web developer and designer.

H20town by Lisa Williams is about the life and times of Watertown, Massachusetts, and it covers that town better than any local newspaper. Williams is funny, she has style, and she loves her town.

Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing at is a daily review of the best reporting and commentary on the presidency. Read it daily and you'll be extremely well informed.

Rebecca MacKinnon, former correspondent for CNN, has immersed herself in the world of new media and she's seen the light (great linker too.)

Micro Persuasion is Steve Rubel's weblog. It's about how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the business of persuasion. Rubel always has the latest study or article.

Susan Mernit's blog is "writing and news about digital media, ecommerce, social networks, blogs, search, online classifieds, publishing and pop culture from a consultant, writer, and sometime entrepeneur." Connected.

Group Blogs

CJR Daily is Columbia Journalism Review's weblog about the press and its problems, edited by Steve Lovelady, formerly of the Philadelpia Inquirer.

Lost Remote is a very newsy weblog about television and its future, founded by Cory Bergman, executive producer at KING-TV in Seattle. Truly on top of things, with many short posts a day that take an inside look at the industry.

Editors Weblog is from the World Editors Fourm, an international group of newspaper editors. It's about trends and challenges facing editors worldwide. keeps track of developments from the British side of the Atlantic. Very strong on online journalism.

Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

Syndicate this site:

XML Summaries

XML Full Posts

September 22, 2004

Philip Gourevitch: Campaign Reporting as Foreign Beat

Gourevitch, covering the presidential campaign for the New Yorker, came to NYU last week and shared his impressions. He's known for reporting on the aftermath of genocide. Now he's on the campaign trail with Kerry, Bush and a captive press. "There's a lot of fear in the press," he said to us.

Philip Gourevitch is best known for his 1998 book on the Rwandan genocide, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, a work of political reportage but a very different kind than he’s doing now. In 2001 he published A Cold Case about an unsolved murder in New York.

Gourevitch said his normal method as a nonfiction writer was to look for stories that weren’t being covered— that had fallen off the map. One example is his interest in the Vietnamese boat people long after the fall of Saigon. In the case of Rwanda, he said, “news coverage had just disappeared” after the reports of horrific killing there. Nobody had really explained those reports, and the violence didn’t make sense to him. He went to Rwanda in 1995 because the news media had abandoned the place, where the year before some 800,000 people were slaughtered.

Bosnia during the 1990s was horrific, and newsworthy, but there were always correspondents there. Gourevitch said he had no interest in going to Bosnia. “I like it when when it’s you and the thing, rather than you, the press, and the thing,” he said.

This made Philip Gourevitch a poor candidate to cover a presidential campaign. Hanging out with a pack of reporters, where everyone is chasing the same story (but there really is no story)— that’s alien to his experience, not the sort of thing he does at all. On the campaign trail it’s always you, and the press, and the thing: nonstop. And your arrival is always anticipated. You are never coming into a situation as first witness for the public, which had been a Gourevitch method.

On contract at the New Yorker, he needed a new assignment, something fresh to do. Maybe another foreign beat? he thought. Bingo. Approached that way, politics had possibilities. The presidential campaign as a foreign country visited for the first time by our correspondent.

The idea began to grow on him. It picked up a theme the writer Joan Didion developed when she took the same assignment Gourevitch did, hers for the New York Review of Books in 1988. Meeting up with the campaign, Didion was struck most by its “remoteness from the actual life of the country,” which she found true of the press, as well— and of the language they talk inside the game.

Gourevitch described this remoteness—and the isolation of the campaign press in 2004— precisely and vividly during his talk with us. I believe that was the thing he found most alive: a remoteness that was in motion. He described a campaign machinery you get caught up in. But also: you sign up for it. No one can say you are forced to come along.

“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. The bubble is a physical thing: a threshold your body crosses. If you are part of the traveling press corps, sticking with the candidate through the swing states, then you have to be swept—screened for weapons and explosives—or you cannot be on the bus. If you go outside the bubble for any reason, you become a security risk until you are screened again by hand.

But just as real, and interacting with the security bubble, is another kind, more akin to a thought bubble above a cartoon character’s head.

“The press moving as a pack confirms its own take on things,” Gourevitch said. (That’s as well as I have heard anyone put it.) There are many names for this take. It’s called pack journalism. Conventional wisdom. The herd mentality. The script. The frame. Master narrative. It’s the story you agree to accept because it tells you and everybody else what you (and everybody else) are doing on the bus.

Cheesy package tour. That was Gourevitch’s first impression about traveling with the campaigns. You sign up. You get on the bus. It hits all the major sights. Crowds of people get off at each one. Then they get back on. The campaigns tell you what the schedule is. The campaigns tell you where the pick up will be. The campaigns feed you, get you to the airport, take you from the airport.

“Right there they have you,” Gourevitch told our crowd of about 50 journalism students and faculty. “Outside the bubble you cannot go because then you’re dirty again and have to be checked by the Secret Service.” Under these conditions, he said, “no spontaneous reporting is possible.”

You cannot jump into the crowd with an audio recorder and find out why those people were chanting what they were chanting before they were shown away by security guards. Accepting this limitation—a big one—becomes part of the bubble.

It must have struck Gourevitch at a certain point that he had seen these conditions before: in the captive press of other countries he had reported from. For if the people on it do not have freedom of movement, in what sense is the campaign bus the carrier of a free press? The reporters who travel with the candidates come close to being captives in a “campaign machine,” as Gourevitch several times called it.

“There’s a lot of fear in the press,” he said. Fear of editors, of audiences, of losing access, feeling isolated, being out of step. “Part of the problem for the campaign press is, this is your social world”— which is a different kind of bubble. Journalists hang out with journalists and politicos. They marry each other, and many are also wedded to the game, to politics. These are just factors, he said. Atmospherics that favor outcomes but cause nothing to happen.

The Note calls them the Gang of 500. I say tribe. Gourevitch tended to say pack. The pack way is not a form of journalism, really. It’s a state of mind that competes with journalism. Sometimes what people in their occupation most want is not to look like a jerk in front of peers. Not to be the one who gets caught out. Bigger factor than you think, he said. Especially around George W. Bush, but not only then.

Gourevitch said the President was a master of school yard bullying disguised as amusing banter (to which no one can object without sounding like a prig.) “Which means we laugh at his cruelty,” he said. A lot of reporters, including many liberal journalists, “have a weird fatalism about the election— that Bush and the Republicans just know how to do all this.”

Here’s Gourevitch in the New Yorker Sep. 6:

Bush campaigns with the eager self-delight of a natural ham. There’s an appealing physicality about him. When he says he wants your vote, he does not just mouth the words but follows them through with his entire body, rising to his toes, tilting toward you yearningly. When he works his way along the edge of the stage, waving, shaking hands, he has the concentration of an athlete in the thrall of his game. He seems to hold nothing back. He reaches for the hands around him, tipping so far forward that it appears, in the frozen fraction of a second captured in photographs, that he has lost his balance.

Political reporters become expert in the management of the campaign, the horse race (“which is interesting,” he said) because the big issues today are “genuinely confusing.” They feel the answers to most policy questions require a language and knowledge base “that are essentially the property of elites.” That is why there is limited interest in issues that connect to our troubles.

Gourevitch believes that nobody involved in the system wants included in presidential campaigning—at this stage—the kind of engaged and informed debate that would tax the viewer, cause the readers eyes to glaze over, repel the listener, push buttons in the wrong voters, screw up the schedule. The candidates, the staffs, and the press all have their reasons—stated and never stated—for maintaining a “pretend” discussion.

“It’s not a conspiracy but there is complicity in saying: this is really too complicated,” meaning: too much for a public paying fickle attention to politics. Spin absorbs what the audience’s circuits allegedly cannot. And while spontaneous reporting cannot thrive inside the bubble, spin can. It is portable, light weight, adaptable, ready in an instant.

The way John Kerry became the Democatic Party’s nominee, according to Gourevitch, is by suddenly distinguishing himself as “electable,” which is a kind of conventional wisdom. People start to say it: Kerry seems electable. Then the polls ask about it. Reporters repeat the poll results. Pundits repeat the reporters. Electability, a strangely circular category, became the argument for Kerry because in comparison to the rest of a weak field he was more electable. But that is no argument for his election.

Gourevitch took on the voice of a New York deli clerk dispensing advice over the slicer when he was asked what the GOP operatives thought of facing Kerry when they didn’t get Howard Dean, their first choice. “Kerry? Who is Kerry? Cloud of smoke. Does anyone know who he is? Do you know? Oh, you don’t? Well, there you go. That’s Kerry.” Next!

His advice to the press: People on the bus are afraid of lost access but access isn’t worth anything when candidates won’t answer questions. Freedom doesn’t lie in access. It means having an adversarial press, an independent press, a political press that can challenge power. “These guys want to control the story, we should contest that.”

Contest it? There is certainly opportunity for that. Right now, the campaign press is still putting up with No Access to Candidates and No Questions Allowed. (See this.) Right now, it is continuing to move with the campaigns, which means inside the bubble. Gourevitch was effective in reminding us that it was always possible to break away. The bubble is contractual.

During NPR’s On the Media this week, correspondent Paul Farhi of the Washington Post was interviewed on seething frustrations in the press over limited access. Which really means over the contract they signed. (See also his earlier report on it in the Post.)

BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s often been noted that Al Gore actually alienated his press corps, and suffered thereby. Is the lack of accessibility in the Kerry campaign breeding resentment?

PAUL FARHI: Yes, I was in Cincinnati with him last week, and we were all fired up, because they passed the word that he was going to come out and make a statement, which suggested to us that he was also going to take questions. We were all arranged on the tarmac at the airport. He read a statement for about 26 seconds or so, and he turned his back and walked away, and— it’s moments like that that make you feel like a campaign stenographer rather than a campaign reporter — we are being fed what the campaign wants us to have and not, obviously, what we’d like to know about. And— you could hear, literally, people fuming about - and [LAUGHTER] see people fuming about the way we were treated at that moment.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think this media strategy is working or working against him?

PAUL FARHI: In their own narrow way, it is working. (Hat tip Romenesko.)

And you have to wonder: can a candidate lose his traveling press corps by stiffing them too often, too well, too openly? Or will any degree of stiffing remain possible within the bubble as it floats around?

Last week, Gourevitch’s questions were these. Why not set more of the agenda? Why not say, “Sir, you haven’t answered the question?” Why don’t they gang up? Stick with one question until they get a reply. Rebel against the bubble’s rules. This was something about the natives Gourevitch hadn’t fully figured out. The best answer he had was a “kind of overload.”

Too many issues to raise, too many scandalous facts to present, too much history to absorb and ask about, too many questions that really do need to be faced, and aren’t going to be faced. The press is overwhelmed every minute of its day. But how can it say that?

Gourevitch noted that Americans have not always had or desired a “neutral omniscent press that takes no stance and has no partisanship.” But one of the consequences of that kind of journalism “is to support the notion that the truth is just a matter of opinion.”

I will leave you with two stories he told us.

Gourevitch joins the bus, and trudges through the morning’s events. Nothing but photo ops and words heard a hundred times that week. There’s a break and he pulls out his notebook. Then he realizes not a single thing happened that is worth writing down. But the other reporters have opened their laptops and they are springing into action. They found nothing to write down either. They’re checking emails, pagers, and the Net because they “receive” the campaign that way. The bubble is made of data too.

A trail of meaninglessly scripted events is taken for granted, the emptiness at each stop is tolerated, in part because things crackle and hop so much in the information sphere. And with today’s gear you are always reachable by information.

The minders are hitting them with messages round the clock. The spin from the campaigns not only never stops, it never stops looking for more crevices through which it can fit.

Second story. I didn’t catch all the details but the gist is in the title: the Last Man in Vietnam. This was the reporter who decided to stay after all the correspondents in Saigon were pulling out because the Americans had pulled out and the Communists were going to win. His notion was to wait out the revolution—he was tough and knew the city, knew his odds—and when the smoke cleared he would be the only Western correspondent in a position to tell the story of the new Vietnam. A monopoly provider! He would get to name his price.

Everything happened according to plan. The Western reporters left. The Communists came. The new era of a unified Vietnam began. The Last Man made some calls offering his services. But no one would employ him. There couldn’t be a story anymore in Vietnam because the press had left.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links:

New PressThink: Does CBS News Have a Political Future in This State?
“The affiliates are hearing it. There’s a campaign to get Bob Schieffer dumped from the debates. William Safire is asking about criminal charges. And some of the worst ever numbers for media trust were just released. From the CBS truth commission we need something… dramatic.”

Philip Gourevitch, Bushspeak: The President’s vernacular style. The New Yorker (Posted Sep. 6, 2004)

Philip Gourevitch, Damage Control: Voters need to believe that John Kerry can put the country back on track. The New Yorker (Posted July 19, 2004)

“Reporting the Story of a Genocide.” Interview with Philip Gourevitch, 2000, Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley.

Brian Montopoli, A Day in The Bubble, Campaign Desk (Sep. 21): Montopoli says he

asked the Los Angeles Times’ Matea Gold if she worries that all the chatter among political reporters thrown together in small spaces all day long ultimately impacts their coverage.

“I personally try to limit my discussion with other reporters just for that reason,” she said. “I can’t say it shapes reporters’ thinking, but it’s definitely a risk. We’re held captive in this little bubble for so long. We so rarely have time to go into a crowd and actually talk to people.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 22, 2004 12:55 PM   Print


It may suggest why the campaigns seem to have become stultifying to those who like to think about the issues. In many cases it seems to have come down to whose name calling you have more faith in. Not a good way to elect the person who may be the most powerful in the world. And yet the minute a member of the press starts to say something meaningful, it becomes a matter of being biased. Sometimes I can't believe what supposedly educated people say on this post about Bush or Kerry. Or about the mainstream press.

Posted by: Chuck Rightmire at September 22, 2004 2:11 PM | Permalink

Look to the past... (Rhetorica)

Posted by: Tim at September 22, 2004 3:22 PM | Permalink

Thought this was an interesting nuance explaining the perception of why some get interviews and some don't:

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, as you said in your article in the Washington Post, which is why we called you up, he makes himself available to regional reporters, especially in swing states; he'll go on Don Imus. He just tends to shirk his responsibilities to the boys and girls at the back of the bus.

PAUL FARHI: When you sit down with a publication or a news outlet, you probably have prepared certain points you want to make. It is only the illusion of spontaneity, really, that you're giving in those sessions. Whereas on the campaign trail, you open yourself up to considerable risk if you step in front of the microphones and take it from all sides.

Posted by: Tim at September 22, 2004 3:31 PM | Permalink

What good does it really do the journalists to sign the contract and jump on the bus? It doesn't sound like they get anything more than inside baseball thanks to all the "access" provided. Let them play that game if they want.

We should have a peoples' media press pool. Put all that video from speeches, meet and greets, etc. out on the net. Let people play with it from home, putting together their own reports. They don't need to be on the bus, but if they had access to the info, they might do more interesting stuff with it than the journalists who signed the contracts.

Posted by: Ernest Miller at September 22, 2004 11:38 PM | Permalink

Fallout? - Gallup sourced new poll - 9/22 - on traditional media.

Posted by: John Lynch at September 22, 2004 11:48 PM | Permalink

> Political reporters become expert in the management of the campaign, the horse race ("which is interesting," he said) because the big issues today are "genuinely confusing." They feel the answers to most policy questions require a language and knowledge base "that are essentially the property of elites.

Immediately, this vision came to mind...

[Scene: At the podium, in front of a sea of clicking cameras and flashing strobes. Neck veins popping, jabbing a finger in accusation.]

Speaker: Truth! You can't handle the truth!

Posted by: sbw at September 23, 2004 8:09 AM | Permalink

> the big issues are "genuinely confusing."

That's why God invented hyperlinks... or at least why Doug Engelbart did at Palo Alto in 1968.

With hyperlinks speakers can simplify complexity yet allow people to drill down to substantiating and explanatory detail.

The benefit of the hyperlink is that it undermines the unsubstantiated overgeneralization cliché whose real agenda is to stop conscious thought. [e.g. "George Bush lied about WMD!" or "Kerry flip-flops!" are designed not to further discussion, but to end it.]

See. We'll put the internet to good use yet..

Posted by: sbw at September 23, 2004 8:36 AM | Permalink

I'm going to try to cross-pollinate an idea:

... The formats of televised debates, however, do not allow for much depth of presentation. Instead, these debates are a platform to demonstrate message and image control.

Such debates, then, give voters a "feel" for the candidates' abilities to perform under pressure--to look and sound presidential....
I tend to think that's what we're seeing now. A semblance of a faux debate based on video outtakes, soundbites and political ads in the media. It is mostly a competition between abstractions. It is style. It is skin deep and intuitive, influencing impressions, rather than argumentation based on a depth of fact and analytical thought. It is hyperbole and image/message control.

It is the furthest thing from the Lincoln/Douglas debate except the mano a mano style of competing stump speech outtakes.

Now, who's to say that's not what voters want? That this is the format and style they find useful in their lives today? Don't glaze my eyes over with wonky policy talk and depressing, confusing, competing "facts". Give me a "feel" for the candidates. They never actually do what they say, or promise, they will in the campaigns anyway. And there's all those legislators in Congress that churn up good ideas into legislative sausage. And let's not get started on the federal bureaucracy.

Besides, if you're working 60-80 hours a week, raise a family and live the high life, who has time for more than just a "feel"?

So, what extra value do the reporters on the bus, or at a scripted political convention add to making sure I have the right impression of the candidate? To see if there is a kink in the candidate's image/message?

The most talented, hardest working candidate gets elected just like they do on The Apprentice or The Benefactor. Right?

Posted by: Tim at September 23, 2004 11:02 AM | Permalink

Gourevitch says, "You cannot jump into the crowd with an audio recorder and find out why those people were chanting what they were chanting before they were shown away by security guards. Accepting this limitation--a big one--becomes part of the bubble."

Wouldn't it make sense, if the media were doing its job, to at least spotcheck the crowds now and again, here and there, with another reporter who isn't obliged to live with the security?

Posted by: Ronni at September 23, 2004 11:46 AM | Permalink

The big issues today are "genuinely confusing"? The answers to most policy questions require a language and knowledge base "that are essentially the property of elites"? I worked for a while at an environmental news service that really acted as an intermediary. We researched the stories, then translated the science into layman's terms and worked with a print and/or broadcast reporter to write and publish the story. Any good journalist should be able to translate the technical. That is part of the job. If you can't translate it and make it interesting enough for your readers, you aren't doing your job.

Posted by: Cindy at September 23, 2004 1:08 PM | Permalink

And there you have the two poles of the most famous debate in media and press studies, with Gourevitch playing the part of Walter Lippmann and Cindy filling in for John Dewey.

How does the public inform itself in a complex world?

Lippmann: with a parade of stereotypes and symbols, with political theatre.

Dewey: well, that's one find attitude! we can do way better than that.

Lippman: we can, but we won't.

Dewey: we haven't, but we could.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at September 23, 2004 3:57 PM | Permalink

Gourevitch's comments confirmed for me what I had read in his campaign writings -- that he is is reporting on and reflecting the coverage rather than the campaign. Take, for example, his piece on Bushspeak, where he lays out all these marvelous, everyman qualities of the Bush stump style, as if Gourevitch had just stumbled onto a great discovery. The reality is that Bush and Rove have been jamming that same aw-shucks folksiness down our throats from the outset. The media is the jam. We have to take Bush's fumblings, his mangled speech and abortive thinking, as winning because it is familiar.

This sort of press fixation on surfaces and style is its own built-in excuse for the infantilizing of the campaign. The coverage gushes over stagecraft, symbolism and gut-sense, and it projects these preoccupations onto the electorate. That the press is an eager participant in this Rovian process is exemplified by its willingness to do Bush’s spinning for him. As Gourevitch notes, “for all his notorious malapropisms, abuses of syntax, and manglings or reinventions of vocabulary . . . . it is pretty plain what he means.”

There is, however, a different conclusion than the one so often so helpfully (to the Bush campaign) provided by the press, through its favorable ‘translations’ of Bush’s butchery of speech. When a man uses idiotic language to describe idiotic policies that he doggedly pursues with disastrous results, a certain word suggests itself to describe that man.

Gourevitch may recognize he is now a boy in a bubble, but that doesn't help him to see and feel the world outside the bubble. His New Yorker colleague, George Packer, has a fairly solid indictment of Bush's handling of the war in Iraq in the latest issue


Its a rational exercise in cutting through the fog of misinformation generated by the Bush Administration. But when Packer ends with a comment on the Presidential campaign in this country, he is back inside the bubble and his vision is blurred, as he maintains that "Kerry seems unable to point any of this out, let alone explain it". Kerry has been pointing exactly the same things out for more than six months on the stump. Part of his stock stump speech was a tough, though measured criticism of the conduct of the war, and a less-measured analysis of the Bush manipulation of intelligence. Kerry was careful to be respectful and supportive of the people serving under fire in Iraq, and mindful of the balancing a candidate must do when criticizing the war policy of a sitting President running for office. Such thoughtful speech received no press coverage at all because it didn't lend itself to screaming headlines. Kerry's manner of connecting with his live audience was that the war was a sober topic and deserved an intelligent response. This tack presupposes that the media still functions in an intelligent fashion, which it does not. Kerry's speeches were virtually ignored. At least until the Bush campaign began to be openly contemptuous of thought, and began to characterize Kerry as "nuanced" and "sensitive". A mature, respectful and reasoned criticism of a war only warranted media attention when it was a segway into the usual mindless blather about Kerry's 'aloofness' or 'Frenchness'.

As the campaign ran on, conditions in Iraq continued to deteriorate and the quality of the campaign coverage continued to follow in that direction, so Kerry sharpened his attacks in tone and in toughness. It was easy for the Bush campaign to spoon-feed that development into a new round of media circle-blather about whether or not Kerry was being disloyal to the armed services. In all events, Kerry's criticisms of the war are seen through this weird prism produced by the media's peering out from inside the bubble, and its an incestuous space wherein Rove controls the air supply.

At times it seems as if more press space is devoted to Kerry's handling of the war as a campaign issue than there is devoted to the disastorous debacle of the war itself. The fact that the Bush Adminstration is the author of the real-life travisty is lost amidst the glow of press-appreciation for the brilliant way in which the Bush machine spins dreck into campaign gold. Meanwhile Kerry is treated to a damned-if-he's-measuerd, damned-if-he's-tough treatment, and then cuffed about because of the polling numbers. When faced with the disconnect between a bloody mess in Iraq and a rosey re-election campaign, the media blames Kerry, rather than acknowledging its own essential role in producing the irrational results.

Posted by: Mark J. McPherson at September 23, 2004 4:29 PM | Permalink

Ahhh. The arrogance, the arrogance. (Say with Doors music in the background, in a Marlin Brando whisper)

The public? Who are they? The few who rely on a single source? The few who cruise the blogs? The few who pick up news from multiple sources? The few who ignore all? There is not a monolithic "public."

As such, discussions of controlling information flow, hammering the same point of view, and advocating a position have lost traction.

The slices of public that care to, get themselves informed by means outside of the control of the points of view of the media.

The media that believe they can insist on a POV such as

The fact that the Bush Adminstration is the author of the real-life travisty is lost amidst the glow of press-appreciation for the brilliant way in which the Bush machine spins dreck into campaign gold.
have an arrogant air in that it will only work for those that will accept that POV, and won't for those that have other POVs.

Posted by: John Lynch at September 23, 2004 7:34 PM | Permalink

When a man uses idiotic language to describe idiotic policies that he doggedly pursues with disastrous results, a certain word suggests itself to describe that man.

Lincoln? Wilson? FDR?

Well, unlike Bush, they also jailed, and in some cases hung, their critics (Oh, that's right [ominous music here] - Ashcroft). But it is still fun to go back and read how their critics mocked and belittled them.

Kerry has been pointing exactly the same things out for more than six months on the stump. Part of his stock stump speech was a tough, though measured criticism of the conduct of the war, and a less-measured analysis of the Bush manipulation of intelligence.

It was fun to think back to the Democrat's primary season and remember the platitudes and empty rhetorical attacks full of spit and vinegar against Bush. Who, by the way, wasn't a candidate for the Democrat's nomination.

Then there was the Vietnamization of the campaign season in February and March by the Kerry campaign and DNC.

So by June, Kerry was deep into "tough, though measured criticism of the conduct of the war, and a less-measured analysis of the Bush manipulation of intelligence", right?

No, "more jobs lost since Hoover" was the message and who he would pick for his VP was the big issue, along with the political-cultural debate about Fahrenheit 9/11. You can tell, for example, by the absence of discussion of substantive Kerry policies that month by Kevin Drum.

Is Kerry Bush Lite?
DOES THE PRESS CORPS HAVE ADHD? (It's Self-Parody, Just Not Intentional Self-Parody)

By July and the convention, the Kerry campaign policy wonks had posted policy whitepapers on his website and had their Plan for America published by August.

Posted by: Tim at September 23, 2004 8:57 PM | Permalink

Gourevitch says, "You cannot jump into the crowd with an audio recorder and find out why those people were chanting what they were chanting before they were shown away by security guards. Accepting this limitation--a big one--becomes part of the bubble."

Doing just that is one of the Press' current problems. Where there is more and louder noise there is not always a story (unless, or so it so often seems, the noise is coming from the left.) Was that group of people suppose to "represent" what the REAL people out here are thinking? Would the reporters have gotten a "real insight" into the feelings of Americans by finding out what that group was chanting about? I don't think so.

Gourevitch noted that Americans have not always had or desired a "neutral omniscent press that takes no stance and has no partisanship." But one of the consequences of that kind of journalism "is to support the notion that the truth is just a matter of opinion."

On complex issues it almost always is. In the shipping news the time the Queen Mary sails is a fact. The truth of the matter is easy to discern but how about: "are things better or worse in Irag now then before" This is an issue at the heart of almost all the reporting coming from the war zone, especially in light of the convention. Are reporters looking for the loud noise and smoke for a story (man bites dog) or are they comparing the magnitude of the chaos in some places to the magnitude of whatever normalcy has returned to the Iraqi people in other places(dog bites man)? In all this what is the TRUTH?
In the end the truth is objective and can be found but that requires reporting both sides of a complex issue and using some kind of objective metric to compare them and thus answer the question: "is it better or worse." This would soon become sterile and unintereting and wouldn't sell papers. But if you're going to feed me opinons about the truth then please oh great Grey Lady, Tom, Peter and especially Dan tell us from which side your "truth" is coming.

Posted by: Schoenmann at September 24, 2004 11:54 AM | Permalink

From the Intro