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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

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September 28, 2004

Every Four Years Journalism

"... The Every Four Years headset is like outdated software still running because it's an expensive decision and major disruption to replace a piece of press think so big, with so many parts. There is no agreement on a new 'think' system. And there is every incentive to keep the old program going for another election cycle, even though the world has moved on."

I covered eleven up until this one. Every one of them was the most important election of a lifetime, it was the generational election, it was the one that would decide things for the future. —AP reporter Walter Mears on CNN, Aug. 26

I keep thinking about what Richard Berke of the New York Times said in Washingtonian Magazine recently when he was asked about campaign coverage during 2004. It began when Harry Jaffe, the magazine’s national editor, made this wheezing point:

As always, there are reasons or rationalizations to explain the poor quality of coverage. Neither George Bush nor John Kerry has made himself very available in press conferences or interviews. But what’s new about distant candidates?

‘twas ever thus is the tone. Same-old, same-old. Jaffe then brings in Berke, who oversees election coverage for the Times Washington bureau:

“I don’t think anything’s changed that much,” says Rick Berke, who has covered politics for the New York Times since 1988. “Every four years we hear that this is the worst coverage and the candidates are not accessible. I don’t think this year it’s worse for us or anyone else.”

Got that? Things aren’t any worse for the press in 2004. They aren’t even different. I’ve heard Berke voice this on other occasions. Permit me to spell out, then, what I believe is an attitude in the political press, shared by him and an unknown number of highly experienced colleagues in the Gang of 500:

The professionally high-minded, the think tankers and op ed-writers, will bemoan what they are paid to bemoan. Worst ever! In reality, very little is different from cycle to cycle in the way campaigns are run.

New tools and tactics come along, voter interest waxes and wanes, but the basics of winning an election don’t change much. The coverage reflects the reality: Negative campaigning works. The candidates want to control their images, so they limit access. They try to communicate a single message no matter what the question is.

Critics see that and denounce us for how negative the news is. It’s always been negative, and it’s always been hard to get candidates to answer questions. Because that is how you win. You control the message and define the other guy unfavorably. It may offend the civic minded, but the reality is it works.

Now if you recognize this argument at all—or the tone in which it is given—then you may also be able to recall moments from panel shows like Washington Week when Gwen Ifill and Rick Berke and Gloria Borger, or others of similar mind, shared a soft chuckle of agreement because one of the group had said, “every four years we hear this is the most critical election of our lifetimes.” Chuckle, chuckle.

That is the attitude I draw to your attention. The same-old, same-old state of mind in journalism. Included in it, of course, is… We’ve heard these complaints before. Conclusions about campaign reporting also follow. There’s a standard model of how to do it, and Berke is so right: it hasn’t changed.

But the world has. So if “worst ever!” is the wrong way to criticize press performance, as Rick Berke the de-exciter suggests, then “hasn’t changed much” is, I think, far more to the point.

In the standard model you cover the dynamics of the race so you can explain who’s likely to win and why. You take people inside the process to de-mystify it. You focus on the major issues in the campaign, and where the candidates stand. You try to follow the money.

You profile the candidates, show where they come from, examine their records. You watch the ads by comparing them to the facts. And you pay attention to the polls because everyone in the game attends to the polls. The polls tell us where we are in the race.

Sprinkle with commentary and savvy analysis from experienced pros. Bake and serve every four years. Leave all the rest to the editorial pages and talk shows.

The standard model, which contains its own idea of virtue, wouldn’t be standard unless it worked. It lets you plan election coverage and crank out the content week-to-week. Perhaps its greatest virtue is not how well it works, or “thinks,” but the very fact that you don’t have to think about it. Attention can go to finding great stories and telling them well.

Put the argument about campaigns and the conclusions about reporting together and you have the genre, Every Four Years Journalism. Without saying so explicitly, it claims no need to innovate in the reporting of elections. But there is a need for virtue among reporters and editors. The Times has been virtuous while others were distracted, says Harry Jaffe of Washingtonian:

Perhaps Times coverage has been affected the least. It has paid glancing attention to the back and forth over where and how the candidates spent their Vietnam War years. It has published detailed reports and analyses of how President Bush has handled the environment, education, and Medicare; a report on Social Security is in the works.

There’s a simpler way for me to describe Every Four Years Journalism. Just point in the direction of Adam Nagourney, lead political reporter for the New York Times, who was given the horse race, strategy, and election dynamics piece of the pie. He’s been doing his beat in an “every four years we do it this way” style. (See, for example, his analysis on New Year’s Day.)

One small indication that Burke has succeeded in keeping the Times in tune with the premise, “not much has changed,” came last week from Columbia Journalism Review’s Campaign Desk. The Desk took note of the best performances so far among by-lined reporters on the campaign beat.

None on the election team at the Times made the top ten in a “short list of reporters who consistently rise above the superficial to do original and often insightful work.” (Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart made the list; Todd Purdum of the Times was honorable mention.) And this is from a jury at Columbia, not known as an institution hostile to the New York Times.

Ex op-ed columnist and Arts & Leisure critic Frank Rich made Campaign Desk’s top ten. But he doesn’t work for Berke. His essay-style reflections on the political season take an opposite approach: not Every Four Years, but “wake up to what time it is, journalists.” Here Rich tries to alert the press to what’s happening:

Between the White House and Fox’s smears of the mainstream press and the mainstream press’s own scandals and failings of will, the toll on the entire news media’s position in our culture has been enormous. A Pew Research Center survey published in June found that the credibility of all news sources is low, in some cases falling precipitously since the start of the Bush administration: major newspapers, the broadcast networks, the cable news networks and PBS alike.

They’re trying to drive up our negatives and it’s working. We’re cooperating in that. What do we do now, press people? Our position in the culture is getting weaker. Every Four Years Journalism is oblivious to the kind of puzzle Rich is describing.

I said the standard model of campaign coverage works. But it works in the sense that Net people say Mosaic—the early web browser from back in 1993—still works. The Every Four Years headset is like outdated software still running because it’s an expensive decision and major disruption to replace a piece of press think so big, with so many parts. There is no agreement on a new ‘think’ system. And there is every incentive to keep the old program going for another election cycle, even though the world has moved on.

The newswriting formula known as He said, she said is perhaps the clearest example of outdated software in the press, and it is curious to me how the formula became a widely-discussed issue in 2004. The weight of opinion began to change. Leaving disputes at the level of “he said, she said” used to be seen as fairness to both sides. It was tied up with a certain idea about virtue in reporting: that it comes down to balance. Now the same practice is increasingly seen as unfair to readers, viewers and listeners because it adds to their informational confusion. There’s a new virtue emerging.

In order to interrupt an Every Four Years practice, Campaign Desk suggested a “new” piece of software—a plug-in—for covering political dispute: He said, she said, we said. Susan Q. Stranahan back in May wrote:

With a variety of Internet research tools readily at hand, it has never been easier for reporters to draw an independent assessment on any given day of who is right, who is wrong, and in what way. The bottom line on this kind of reporting doesn’t have to be Spinmeisters, 1, Accuracy, 0.

It doesn’t have to be that way… Every Four Years has been a way for the political press to go on pretending. It pretends that “spin” is still a manageable thing, when in fact the practice of spin has outrun the capacity of journalists to do anything about it, until they change operating systems. This week the press will be telling us a lot about the post-debate spin war and what a key factor that is on Thursday night in Miami— and over the weekend. Journalists are enablers in this war, but it doesn’t have to be so.

A ‘twas ever thus outlook suggests a stable balance of power where the press is accepted as part of the governing system and has certain pushback rights; but in fact the system today is highly unstable and the White House, among other players, is seeking to roll back some of the roles and rights the press has had.

In April, I wrote about Bush’s innovative press doctrine: “You’re Assuming That You Represent the Public. I Don’t Accept That.” The Every Four Years approach cannot handle a president who, sensing weakness, simply changes the rules on the press— unilaterally, as it were.

It’s a pretense of Big Journalism that measures like banning the staff from benefit concerts help secure the regime of neutrality, when that regime is under aggressive attack from political opponents of “the liberal media.” It will continue to be attacked regardless of whether journalists observe newsroom rules prohibiting such things as yard signs and bumper stickers.

The Every Four Years approach further pretends that the professional ideal of a neutral, fact-finding, objective and purely informational press is still the standard brand and has no serious challengers, when in fact the serious challenge is here in the presence of Fox, blogging, a rising journalism of voice, and the general fragmentation of the media market, which has made a plurality of approaches the new “standard.”

Jon Stewart, who is in every sense a professional, is part of this plurality. He delivers a take on the news that is more truthful than the news for a good hunk of the audience. And so Stewart is cited by Campaign Desk for some of the most original work of the year. Often, he’s more believable than both the candidates or the press.

It’s possible to describe The Daily Show as just one more source of information about politics. But it’s really a competing system of trust for alert audiences in a Spin Age. (See this study of its citizen-viewers, a pdf file.) Stewart’s executive producer Ben Karlin: “Many people in this country have strong bullshit detectors. For some reason, most major media outlets have turned theirs off out of fear of being labeled partisan.” (Link.)

When the Gang of 500 (that’s what The Note calls the national press) sat down and planned its approach for 2004, it decided in its half-conscious way that “no innovation, just execution” would suffice. The shareware it was running in 1988 and 1992, and kept running through 1996 and 2000, could run again in ‘04. There were adjustments to make but no thoughts of re-tooling. So innovation this year is coming from outside the Gang.

We should be seeing top ten lists from major news organizations identifying the most dubious claims currently being made by or about the candidates. If one side in the struggle owns nine out of ten spots on the dirty list for the week— so be it. A lot of journalism would go into making such a list, and properly maintaining it. On the other hand, it’s a natural for promotion and a possible audience builder.

We should have seen invented by now unilateral action by the press to end collaboration in zones and rituals of excessive spin. This includes withdrawing from background briefings by the Administration and resigning from Spin Alley at the debates. We need guys and gals on the bus ready to walk out if they cannot question the candidate while traveling with the candidate. Virtues found in that kind of action might prove valuable to journalists in other settings.

The press should be breaking ground in the setting-it-straight business, with new and powerful means for correcting the candidates, the record, and itself. It should be learning how to report the idea race, as well as it does the horse race. It has to catch up with the transparency revolution and become a force for good. Having put good journalism on the Internet, it has to create a political journalism of the Internet, which is more difficult.

The Every Four Years outlook is the mark of a professional’s experience within the game. It’s a natural attitude among those who plan to see each other in New Hampshire in 2007, where the game will resume. But when I step into the voting booth and make a choice for president, I don’t think: wow, another turn in the cycle. Back where we were four years ago. Do you?

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Entertainment critic Lloyd Sachs in the Chicago Sun Times gets it right:

Oddly enough, if there is any news anchor to whom viewers turn for assurance these days, it is Jon Stewart, whose nightly ripostes on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” tell us that being skeptical, frustrated, angry, weary, stunned and bleakly amused in response to what our leaders are saying and doing in the world are appropriate responses. Ted Koppel may scoff over the number of young TV viewers who ostensibly now turn to Stewart as their primary source of news — and any self-respecting journalist would discourage that trend — but you can’t fault comedy for telling the truths that “objective” reporting shies away from.

Debate preparation and the Spin War: (New York Times, Sep. 27)

As Mr. Bush prepared in Texas, Mr. Kerry studied up at a resort in Spring Green, Wis., where aides were focused not only on Mr. Kerry’s debate performance, but in managing the perceptions afterward. They were keenly aware of how perceptions of Al Gore steadily worsened in the aftermath of the first debate as Bush advisers highlighted what they said were examples of exaggeration by Mr. Gore.

“What everybody learned out of 2000 was that the Bush people went in with a theory of that debate, and no matter what happened they stuck to that theory and they won the spin war,” said Stephanie Cutter, Mr. Kerry’s press secretary.

Ms. Cutter said Mr. Kerry had his own theory on the coming debate. She would not disclose it.

If I read this correctly, it’s saying that for both sides in 2004 the “spin” after does not even pretend to depend on the debate any more. You have your theory of what’s going to happen and it’s X. Then X happens. Then you say X happened, and you repeat that X happened— no matter what went on in the hall.

David Broder, commentary in the Washington Post (Aug. 26): The Media, Losing Their Way.

After almost a half-century in this business, I certainly feel a sense of shame and embarrassment at our performance. The feeling is not relieved by the awareness that others in journalism not only did fine work on other stories but took the lead in exposing these instances of gross malpractice.

…We need to be asking why this collapse has taken place.

My suspicion is that it stems from a widespread loss of confidence in both the values of journalism and the economic viability of the news business.

Jack Shafer in Slate on David Broder’s, “The Media, Losing Their Way.”

David Broder’s complaint is less about journalism’s bad year than it is about David Broder’s bad decade. Once upon a time, The Dean and other surviving members of the old guard—to which I’d add Jack Germond and Johnny Apple—enjoyed a level of prestige and influence that nobody can claim today. But technology, competition rising from every corner, and the cruelty of age have diminished all of them. Instead of accepting the new—improved—era, Broder would prefer to channel Norma Desmond, the washed-up silent star in Sunset Boulevard played by Gloria Swanson, who is blind to the passing of her day.

“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small,” Desmond says.

Credentials, please… Columnist Nick Coleman of the Star-Tribune decides to be as insulting as possible:

I have been a reporter longer than most bloggers have been alive, which makes me, at 54, ready for the ash heap. But here’s what really makes bloggers mad: I know stuff.

I covered Minneapolis City Hall, back when Republicans controlled the City Council. I have reported from almost every county in the state, I have covered murders, floods, tornadoes, World Series and six governors.

In other words, I didn’t just blog this stuff up at midnight.

And as for being a political stooge, unlike the bloggies, I don’t give money to politicians, I don’t put campaign signs on my lawn, I don’t attend political events as anything other than a reporter, I don’t drink with pols and I have an ear trained to detect baloney.

Do bloggers have the credentials of real journalists? No. Bloggers are hobby hacks, the Internet version of the sad loners who used to listen to police radios in their bachelor apartments and think they were involved in the world.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 28, 2004 12:11 PM   Print


If the press is still thinking in terms of "every four years journalism" they've probably already missed the boat. You don't up and change processes every four years, you basically change the intensity of coverage, not how you do coverage.

If the presidential election reveals weaknesses in the way journalism operates, it is only because the focus on the press tends to be more intense during an election. However, the failures of election coverage are the same failures that take place in non-election years.

Posted by: Ernest Miller at September 28, 2004 1:54 PM | Permalink

In some of this article, I heard the voice of "Comic Book Guy" from The Simpsons

"Worst. Press Coverage. Ever."


I'm intrigued by the swerve from "He Said/She Said" to "He Said/She Said/POPULAR QUOTE" - *not* "He Said/She Said/the truth is ...".

(leaving aside all the deep philosophy of what-is-truth)

Almost all the time, you don't need "Internet research tools" to say something is a lie. This is why the "comedy" shows are such good journalism. Because they're considered not-serious, they're actually allowed to do meaningful analysis, to say something is ridiculous, a ploy, an outright lie. etc.

It's a profound statement if the only place meaningful analysis can be done is as comedy.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at September 28, 2004 2:01 PM | Permalink

Mozilla--the first web browser from back in 1993--still works.

Ah. That's where your analogy is wrong, pixel-breath. Mozilla in its current incarnation is state of the art, cross-platform, secure, and a plausible substitute for Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

... but I appreciate your point and we can let the reference slide.

Posted by: sbw at September 28, 2004 2:15 PM | Permalink

Every four years happens because during the other three years the press has yet to engage the community in win-win problem-solving participation. And, begging your civic journalism pardon, I distinguish this mightily from that misguided attempt to insert the press into the scene.

Fortunately, I see blogs as a welcome partner to provide positive feedback over the next three years.

The second partner is the outline -- which ought to be taught in middle school -- and which allows issues to be parsed into manageable concerns for reasonable discussion. (Comment sections should allow similar threading.)

By the fourth year, we should have corralled many issues into a somewhat less slippery form. Who knows, we might enjoy a round of candidates rushing toward the middle.

Posted by: sbw at September 28, 2004 2:26 PM | Permalink

Is it purely a matter of press innovation, or is it also a problem of cost? Sending ten reporters out to cover ten press conferences and write ten he said she said stories fills much more paper than employing these same ten reporters on a lengthy investigation that will result in one story.

In South Korea OhmyNews has one potential response to the economic problems of good investigative election coverage: open source journalism. Instead of relying only on staff reporters, open up the investigative process to include citizen-journalists. Many have credited them with influencing the presidential election.

I agree that the press is currently captive to the PR efforts of each campaign, which has usen the internet -- and in some cases, more friendly networks -- in order to make an end-run around the press and talk more directly to voters. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing. The problem is when the press doesn't then rededicate its journalistic resources to more substantive reporting.

Posted by: Brian Hamman at September 28, 2004 2:27 PM | Permalink

eeks... it was supposed to be Mosaic. Fixed.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at September 28, 2004 2:34 PM | Permalink

On cable news, the increasingly blurry line between he and we will have to be cleared up before the he/she/we storyline will be intelligible.

Media Matters as a superb open letter to MSNBC inquiring as to why they employed openly partisan Republican activist and pollster Frank Luntz as unmarked professional pollster analyst in 2000 and asking if they could at least identify him as a campaign participant if they plan to employ him again this year. This is another type of structural advantage that has overwhelmingly favored Republicans on cable news. Unmarked Republicans as "expert" analysts. Is the concept of ethics policy foreign to cable news? Much of the Republican basically invited Ralph Reed and the opposition in to comment on their opponents as the only analysts. What's the logic behind that?

Posted by: Ben Franklin at September 28, 2004 2:44 PM | Permalink

Sorry about the typo. The link to the letter is:

Posted by: Ben Franlin at September 28, 2004 2:52 PM | Permalink

I was trying to talk about the coverage of the Democratic convention that seemed to end up being a forum for talking over speeches to present Republican talking points from the perspective of many Democrats. We seem to need another rubric to indicate that frame. Democrats talk/ Republicans analyze/ We abdicate everything but booking Republicans onto the show. Something like that.

Atrios has a nice comment today on how CNN and Wolf Blitzer self-consciously present the administration world view and how for him this is an entirely alternate reality, not simply policy specific spin. Is the "he said/she said/we say" model up to taking on entirely alternate universes as well as policy specific spin?

Posted by: Ben Franklin at September 28, 2004 3:02 PM | Permalink

Don't you think there is something strange about reporters informing us that the post-debate spin wars are critical?

This is the sort of passage I mean:

As Mr. Bush prepared in Texas, Mr. Kerry studied up at a resort in Spring Green, Wis., where aides were focused not only on Mr. Kerry's debate performance, but in managing the perceptions afterward. They were keenly aware of how perceptions of Al Gore steadily worsened in the aftermath of the first debate as Bush advisers highlighted what they said were examples of exaggeration by Mr. Gore.

"What everybody learned out of 2000 was that the Bush people went in with a theory of that debate, and no matter what happened they stuck to that theory and they won the spin war," said Stephanie Cutter, Mr. Kerry's press secretary.

Ms. Cutter said Mr. Kerry had his own theory on the coming debate. She would not disclose it.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at September 28, 2004 4:02 PM | Permalink

And the point of this "debate" is ... ?

We're not having a debate, we're having dueling press conferences. The spin will be the focus, because there isn't much else in the way of content.

Seriously. How will this "debate" be significantly different than intersplicing two campaign speeches (with a few questions from the press)?

People realize that these aren't real debates, but the press can be sophisticated and "meta" about judging how the parties stage manage the spin.

Posted by: Ernest Miller at September 28, 2004 4:14 PM | Permalink

Seth: "He Said/She Said/the truth is ...".

He Said/She Said/the conventional wisdom is ...?

He Said/She Said/We [at CBS News] say ...?

Is there a difference?

Ben: Is the "he said/she said/we say" model up to taking on entirely alternate universes as well as policy specific spin?

Not unless you're prepared as an organization for frequent reality checks, ala Judith Miller and Dan Rather.


We should be seeing top ten lists from major news organizations with the most misleading claims being made by, on behalf of, and about the candidates.

The press as campaign truth critics, pundit truth critics, and press truth critics?

Guardians of truth based on facts? Rapid response to the campaigns' rapid response teams? The press as the truth candidate every four years, coming out with a win?

Adding editorial plug-ins to the objective news process in order to compete with the old model based exclusively on the horse race, strategy, election dynamics ... he said/she said model?

Sounds good, at least to see if it's a competitive and profitable model. My bet is on the prevailing CW of the wealthy and politically powerful prevailing as truth, just more transparently.

Something the press should also consider if taking on a counterspin role while under siege by partisan bias hunters is not to attack spinners for spinning ('twas ever thus), but to explain the spin so it is less useful. The politicians are concentrating on message marketing. What you are advocating sounds like a Fight Back!™ With David Horowitz press feature for political campaigns.

Posted by: Tim at September 28, 2004 4:49 PM | Permalink

As Mr. Bush prepared in Texas, Mr. Kerry studied up at a resort in Spring Green, Wis., where aides were focused not only on Mr. Kerry's debate performance, but in managing the perceptions afterward. They were keenly aware of how perceptions of Al Gore steadily worsened in the aftermath of the first debate as Bush advisers highlighted what they said were examples of exaggeration by Mr. Gore.
"What everybody learned out of 2000 was that the Bush people went in with a theory of that debate, and no matter what happened they stuck to that theory and they won the spin war," said Stephanie Cutter, Mr. Kerry's press secretary.

Ms. Cutter said Mr. Kerry had his own theory on the coming debate. She would not disclose it.

What is the point of this coy little quoted passage?

That presidential campaigns engage in "spin" regarding how the debates went?

In which case, dude, like, how profound.

Or is it that the eeevillll eeeeevillll Bushies do it worse and are big meanies about it?

Posted by: Eric Deamer at September 28, 2004 4:55 PM | Permalink

Reporting the spin from the campaign trail is an economic decision as well as a journalistic one. Once an organization invests that much in having its best reporters at the scenes of the crimes it becomes imperative to report even jaywalking – or even the differences of opinion over what is jaywalking.

Without such coverage, think of how many holes there would be in the newspapers and dead air on the cable shows. Of course, when we’re not in campaign mode these media still find something to report on.

So the question is, What are we missing to report eyewitness accounts of alleged jaywalking?

It seems to me that putting a junior reporter on the campaign trial just to collect the few real stories of alleged crimes and leaving seasoned reporters back at the shop to report the news behind the crimes makes sense.

Also think of what that does the campaigns who have their top strategists traveling with the campaign. With veteran reporters looking for truly independent voices and policy experts to report real news, the spin meisters are useless appendages to an unnecessary organ – the campaign bus.

So we don’t have the daily he said, she said of campaign coverage, we might get something better.

Posted by: Bob Griendling at September 28, 2004 5:33 PM | Permalink

May I make the cynical suggestion that covering the spin gives reporters an excuse to actually be physically present at the debates? By meeting with the campaign spinmeisters immediately after the event they justify their presence, otherwise, why not watch from the comfort of home and report?

How about something as simple as reporting the "debate" verbatim in the paper, but annotated? Why not dissect every claim, every soundbite and explain why it is there and what it may or may not mean?

Posted by: Ernest Miller at September 28, 2004 5:55 PM | Permalink

Steve Soto The Left Coaster
Gallup Is At It Again -
Yesterday's National Poll Had 12% GOP Bias

Gallup has done it again. After supplying CNN and USA Today with a poll two weeks ago that showed a double-digit Bush lead amongst likely voters that turned out to have a significant bias in its sample favoring the GOP, Gallup did it again yesterday.

Except that yesterday, they not only did it again, they apparently felt that a 7% GOP bias wasn't good enough. So they perpetrated the same fraud upon the media (including their partners CNN and USAT) and voters and this time used a 12% GOP bias in their likely voter screen. I kid you not.

Kos says USA Today is working on a story tracking how liberal bloggers have been central to breaking this story of structural sampling bias in the "premier" polling firm's model.

Posted by: Ben Franklin at September 28, 2004 6:22 PM | Permalink

Party Affiliation: What it is and What it Isn't

Weighting by Party

Just three months ago a poll by the Los Angeles Times showed a similarly abrubt “tilt” in party ID (to a 13 point, 38% to 25% Democratic advantage) that helped give Kerry a seven point lead. Matthew Dowd, Bush’s pollster argued that the LA Times Poll was “a mess” because it had not been weighted by Party ID.

And what was Texiera’s take? He defended the LA Times Poll. Money quote:
There are ample grounds for thinking there is, in fact, a surge toward the Democrats and their positions and away from the Republicans and their positions among the broad electorate. A growing Democratic party ID advantage is a logical consequence of that surge, since party ID does not remain stable as political conditions change....Conclusion: there is no good reason to ignore the results of this poll (unless you're Matthew Dowd, of course, who has his own reasons for doing so).
Apparently Party ID isn't the only thing that can change in a few month's time.
I can't wait to see USA Today's reaction to their left-wing blogger scoop. Can we let party id go as an issue now, Ben?

Posted by: Tim at September 28, 2004 6:31 PM | Permalink

I still don't know what a reasonable formula looks like. I was impressed with the argument that all year long Gallup has up six Republican and down five Democrat. That matters. The LA Times poll you cite here is up one Democrat down nine Republican by the same standard so Teixeira is clearly contradicting himself.
My first thought is that Gallup is considered the gold standard. If they are consistently off all year that matters. The LA Times poll doesn't have a fraction of the play or influence. Since I don't know what a legitimate standard is, I don't have a final judgment, but so far it looks like Gallup has been distorted all year and by your account the LA Times was distorted at least this one time. I think they both appear distorted and would like to see which way the sampling bias has trended in the polls that matter.

Let's see what the systematic bias is and be annoyed where ever it falls. We should know what's happening there, one way or the other.

Posted by: Ben Franklin at September 28, 2004 8:19 PM | Permalink

Not only is Jon Stewart a "professional," but he may be doing a better job than his more conventional journalistic colleagues (or at least attracting a more sophisticated clientele):

Viewers of late-night comedy programs, especially The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central, are more likely to know the issue positions and backgrounds of presidential candidates than people who do not watch late-night comedy, the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey shows.

Polling conducted between July 15 and September 19 among 19,013 adults showed that on a six-item political knowledge test people who did not watch any late-night comedy programs in the past week answered 2.62 items correctly, while viewers of Letterman answered 2.91, viewers of Leno answered 2.95, and viewers of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart answered 3.59 items correctly. That meant there was a difference of 16 percentage points between Daily Show viewers and people who did not watch any latenight programming.

The pdf of the full press release is here:

Posted by: Peter Levine at September 28, 2004 8:53 PM | Permalink

I still don't know what a reasonable formula looks like.

Re: Oversampling the GOP

You might email (put POLLKATZ in the subject line) Dr. Thiel and ask if he can put a trend chart together like the one Pew did but across polls. Something like he does for the Approval chart, but track the pollsters for GOP representation over time rather than just a window/snapshot (like Which Pollsters Like Bush the Best?).

You are likely to find pollsters are not biasing their results.

Posted by: Tim at September 28, 2004 8:56 PM | Permalink

Re: The debate conjectures.

Why wait for the debate to happen? Why not just see what Lewis Lapham wrote about it. ;-)

Posted by: sbw at September 28, 2004 10:15 PM | Permalink

The press simply cannot resist its lower impulses. Every sane person knows that the debates are dueling theatrical exercises with partisan robots spitting out approved spin afterwards, but the media seems to really enjoy it. It's a nice show for journalists with plenty of superficial point-scoring to track. It has the same relationship to real news coverage as American Gladiators has to the Olympics. Perhaps what they like about it is the hope for a gotcha moment, which is what alot of campaign coverage amounts to.

The media doesn't want to change. They are dealing with their own issues by converting to edutainment and punditry formats. That is why their non-involvement is not a very big deal. Bush and Kerry can effectively shut out the press because they weren't bringing much to the table anyway. What are they supposed to be doing anyway, rather than tag along on the campaign bus? Interview some slob in a diner and pull the quotes that fit their prewritten narrative?

What would stop the top ten list idea from degenerating into Newsweek's CW who's up, who's down blather? Great, another McPaper sidebar with short, tendentious blurbs announcing what the approved way of framing the issues is.

As for Jon Stewart, if you think there's not quite enough glibness in press think he's your guy.

Posted by: Brian at September 28, 2004 10:43 PM | Permalink

The press corps is, pardon the expression, burned out.

I'm burned out, too, from articles about the campaign and about the coverage of the campaign that read as if they came from journalism software with boilerplate language that required reporters only to fill in the blanks, and then file the copy with today's date.

Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe kicked some life back into the form some years ago. Where are their heirs?

Maybe new blood would help. How about replacing all the reporters every four years, too?

Posted by: Jon Koppenhoefer at September 29, 2004 1:48 AM | Permalink

Media Notes: The Ultimate Expectation

"Viewers, without the aid of snarky commentators, noticed shall we say Al Gore's breathing problems during his sighs in the debate," says USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro. But, he says, "once you've seen the debate, the commentary brings it home to you: This is what was really important."


Slate political writer William Saletan calls the post-debate analysis "huge," noting that the average person probably doesn't watch the whole hour and a half, or raids the fridge in the middle, and goes to bed without a fixed view of the outcome.

"What are you going to remember? You remember what's repeated to you on TV or in the papers. It decides everything."

Posted by: Tim at September 29, 2004 2:00 PM | Permalink

Make no mistakes...

The debates will not be won during the event. The debates will be won or lost in the pre- and post-debate commentary and the spin that drives it. A real debate can be judged by any number of criteria. A platform for the joint dissemination of spin points can hardly be called a competition at all except against one's self--sort of like those two pushers simply trying not to make a mistake while waiting out the opponent.
It's interesting that Al Gore is reminding Times readers of Bush's broken campaign promises. That's an approach that plasters over the discontinuity of 9/11, denying the "everything changed" hypothesis as CW. It's well timed in the pre-debate expectations struggle, makes a well placed jab at stylistic spin, and builds the spin nicely as a follow-up to Carter's odd Op-Ed.

How to Debate George Bush


The biggest single difference between the debates this year and four years ago is that President Bush cannot simply make promises. He has a record. And I hope that voters will recall the last time Mr. Bush stood on stage for a presidential debate. If elected, he said, he would support allowing Americans to buy prescription drugs from Canada. He promised that his tax cuts would create millions of new jobs. He vowed to end partisan bickering in Washington. Above all, he pledged that if he put American troops into combat: "The force must be strong enough so that the mission can be accomplished. And the exit strategy needs to be well defined."

Comparing these grandiose promises to his failed record, it's enough to make anyone want to, well, sigh.

Posted by: Tim at September 29, 2004 2:38 PM | Permalink

Spot on! Calcified coverage! "Every Four Years" may have been tolerable during the Age of Normalcy, but 2004 is not an "every fourth year", so dragging out the old playbook won't keep the press in the game this time. I hate to sound sympathetic to the news-media, but I'll acknowledge how difficult it is. Apart from the cost and disruption of having to reinvent itself, the news-media is faced with this challenge at a time when it is under siege as rarely before. When you are under attack, you have to fight back, but you first have to recognize you are under attack, and then you have to work past your unease about maintaining the appearance of objectivity, a concept which today seems to mean passivity. There is no need to be objective over the question of what is true and what is false.

The Republicans have been banging away at the foundational support for the news-media in direct mailings since the early '80's. It is not something that gets a lot of attention, but it has nonetheless eaten away at the authority and independence of the the news-media. Several generations of partisans have been fed a steady stream of newsletters and mailings that frequently attack the integrity of the news-media, and, as it goes on beyond the control or even monitoring of the news-media, there has been no response or even recognition of this front. Often, its nasty stuff, not fit even for the blogsphere. And because much of it is unseen, the news-media itself is often disconnected and disconcerted by the hostility with which it is sometimes greeted, and is thus rendered further unsure of itself, a condition which compels the clinging to of old, obsolete, comfortable methods of covering campaigns. If the world has changed, if the ground beneath your feet is eroding, at least there is the familiarity of life in the bubble on the bus.

At some point in the last few years, handlers determined that we had all passed the tipping point and the news-media was sufficiently compromised that it could be ignored, manipulated, or lied to without serious consequence. The concept is as simple as no one will believe the truth when they hear it, if it comes from such a compromised source. Negative press response has lost its sting, and its deterrent and truth-inducing force. "Black is white" passes, so long as enough pundits and talking heads repeat it often enough. The news-media's response of "But white is white and black is black" is dismissed and tuned out as partisan bias. On the rare occasions that the news-media digs its heels in, the resulting caterwauling sounds pretty much like all of the rest of the caterwauling that goes on over "legitimate" issues. And the news cycle spins on, and the news-media and audience attention moves on, even if it sometimes as to be prodded along.

Another post-tipping point phenomenon, is the open, frontal attack on the news-media, either from political operatives or through internecine warfare from within the news-media itself, although this is made possible only through the inclusion of fringe characters (think Coulter) within the definition of news-media. The presence of that type alone is a standing argument that news-media is weak, shot-through and diluted. These open attacks work synergistically with the more low-level, low- anxiety direct mailings.

So to chart a new path in coverage while under heavy fire would require real nerve and courage. The second half of JR's note, beginning with "It doesn't have to be this way. . ." is the most encouraging, sensible thing I have read in years and should be the road map back to relevancy.

Posted by: Mark J. McPherson at September 29, 2004 4:37 PM | Permalink


I don't know how you can discuss the news media's implosion without mentioning its complacency, its cumulative scandals (Janet Cooke on up to Dan Rather), and the transformation of communications. L. Brent Bozell hammered about press bias for years to more or less the same audience of die-hard conservatives, and what was the response from journalists? Self-satisfied clucking about how they couldn't possibly be biased because both Republicans *and* Communists complained. (So, you see, if everyone complains about you that means you're doing your job perfectly--it's the perverse flipside of he said/she said.) The hubris was unbelievable. This stuff wasn't under their radar, Mark, they knew about it and smugly refused to address the substance of the complaints.

I am amused by the notion that Rush Limbaugh or Brent Bozell are responsible for the decline in respect for the media. The tipping point is more like a retching point; finally enough people were disgusted with what they saw from the press that they started tuning it out or treating it as just another interested voice (whereas the press would like to think of itself as authoritative). Which it was, and is.

Posted by: Brian at September 29, 2004 5:13 PM | Permalink

Saletan is always good for a laugh. For all that the media think that what passes through them defines the race and that talking head spin programs the public's thought patterns, I suspect it's the other way around. The public always has the option of ignoring the talking heads, and seem increasingly comfortable doing so.

Posted by: Brian at September 29, 2004 5:20 PM | Permalink

In the wake of Rathergate, the pressthink CW is that "the press" needs in-house contrarians to test the CW narrative and "nail down" details of each story ... or at least adopt (co-opt?) the outsourced contrarians in some way.

At the same time, "the press" questions (or attacks) the bona fides and standards of contrarians.

Software updates must be made, plug-ins included, but not the wrong updates. Plug-ins must be selected carefully by the gatekeepers of "the press" tribe of truth tellers.

In fact, in classic paranoid-style, some contrarians are card carrying members of the not-so-secret conspiracy composed of brain-washed, unwashed, masses that have been influenced by a decades long right-wing campaign using the paranoid-style.

Beware the VRWC plot to undermine the tribe of truth tellers that have bravely stood up against the likes of McCarthy, Nixon, Agnew and Atwater. Thank Man the tribe of truth tellers have the tribe of left-wing partisans to defend them and Truth.

Posted by: Tim at September 29, 2004 5:52 PM | Permalink

Read the Nick Coleman piece that Jay linked to:

Wow. Dude seems to have blown a gasket.

Posted by: Ernest Miller at September 29, 2004 7:16 PM | Permalink

Jay says, re: Frank Rich screed:
"They [the White House and Fox News] [are] trying to drive up our negatives and it's working. We're cooperating in that. What do we do now, press people? Our position in the culture is getting weaker."

'They', Jay? The truth you so fluently communicate here is that most in the "news" biz view the GOP establishment and all its supporters with disdain, dislike -- even hatred. If this fact was ever under wraps, the last few election cycles have cast them off.

Of course the press's position in the culture is getting weaker. New information technologies have made it possible for a lot of very smart people to call "bullshit" when they see it, and to be heard. Get used to it.

Of course journalists could be dispassionate and play it straight, but playing a straight game isn't what people go into journalism to do, is it?

Posted by: Mike at September 29, 2004 7:48 PM | Permalink

Jay, I'm curious whether you think the Clinton administration also tried to drive up press negatives during the 90s segment of the decades long downward spiral of press credibility?

Did the rate of (unearned?) negativity increase with the Gingrich takeover of the House? With the debut of Fox News Channel in 1996?

Do those data points correlate with an increased rate of decline in press reliability? What about the media scandals?

Or is this an example of uncorrelated spin?

Posted by: Tim at September 29, 2004 8:40 PM | Permalink

Hrmmm. I read all of Frank Rich's article, not just the linked quote. I'm not so sure I'd agree that Rich is trying "to alert the press to what's happening". Considering how much of the rest of his article centers around a screed on the "Right Wing Press", I'd say he's more warning that the opposition isn't providing an effective enough counter to Fox's percieved partisanship - in spite of his occassionally throwing out the "What's needed isn't a partisan counter to Fox" caveat. Implication I glean is he thinks what's needed is an effective partisan counter to Fox, rather than an address of media's deeper problems.


"They're trying to drive up our negatives and it's working. We're cooperating in that. What do we do now, press people? Our position in the culture is getting weaker. Every Four Years Journalism is oblivious to the kind of puzzle Rich is describing." - Jay Rosen

No one is trying to drive up ya'll's negatives, Jay - with or without your cooperation. The administrations not having to drive them up... No one is having to try. The negatives are becoming sadly apparent to even the most casual of media observers. 30 years ago, or 20, the problems with media coverage and slanting were a lot more subtle. Now, the subtlety is gone.

When Bush states that he's not convinced you guys represent the public opinion, don't listen to the gasps of shock and horror from the Press Corps. Listen to the appreciative chuckles from the media consumers. He's merely stating what we've been thinking for a long time, and saying it openly.

I'm not a journalist as you are, former or otherwise. I'm a media consumer. If you're losing me and people like me, it's because your product is flawed, and we're no longer buying it.

Fox ain't the problem. A lot of us aren't buying Fox either. If Fox is taking the larger share of the ratings, it's more an indication that the product of the other media conglomerates is so phenomenally bad, not that Fox's is great. Fox is still taking a "larger share" of an increasingly small pie.

It's not "every four years" either: the remaining three years, the product is still subpar. It's just that the quadrennial US gladitorial contest brings the product's deficiencies into sharper focus. After the elections, the rot's still going to be there. And the product still won't smell rosy.

It may not be possible for major media to fix itself. The rot may run too deeply. All of the "how do we fix this?" examination in te press may just be so much mental masturbation. The fix, if any, will probably have to come from outside.

Oh, and in answer to your final question: No. When I pull the lever this fall, my main thought is going to be "Out of all of the hundreds of millions of people in the US, these idjits are the best we can come up with?" ;)

Posted by: Ironbear at October 2, 2004 5:08 AM | Permalink

I see Mike caught the same things in the Frank Rich screed that I did. ;)

Posted by: Ironbear at October 2, 2004 5:17 AM | Permalink

Frank Rich has found his own nattering nabobs of negativity! Can you hear the echo of Raymond Donovan's voice?

Shorter Frank Rich: "Where does the press go to get their reputation back?"

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