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October 31, 2004

The Coming Apart of An Ordered World: Bloggers Notebook, Election Eve

"About the performance of journalists in 2004 it will be asked, post-election: How good a job did the press do? But Big Journalism was in a different situation in politics and the world during this campaign. The post-mortems should be about that. Also: will the press even have this job in 08?"

The election of 2004 will always stand out for me for the reasons people say it’s extra important. The campaign of 2004 will always stand out because I blogged it. That changed politics for me. I used to consume with a certain intensity the campaign narrative produced by others. Now I help make it— in the sense that PressThink is a little part of the big, roaring national dialogue about who would make a better choice for president, and why.

By doing this weblog, I crossed over to the participants’ side in campaigning for president, and journalizing about it. I’m one of millions who felt something similar happen in ‘04. They crossed over to participant status. Of course, this is always going on in politics— people getting involved, people dropping out. The question is whether, during the long Campaign of 2004, there were new kinds of participants in presidential politics, new entry points for their talents. And whether politics is vulnerable to their ideas.

The Note made the point Friday: compared to that force known as the voters, the press is a pop gun. “You’re just along for the ride, boys and girls,” said the tip sheet written by Mark Halperin and his elves at ABC News. The boys and girls are also called the Gang of 500— the reporters, editors, producers and pundits who have given us what they alone could have given us in political coverage this year.

And I wasn’t surprised at this from The Note on Friday morning: “number of must reads in Friday’s papers: sadly/happily, none.” No one in the Gang could think of anything vital to say. I think this is basically good. The closer we get to the voters taking over, the less meaning there is in any campaign news. We understand about as much as we’re going to understand of these two candidates, of “the race.” I can barely absorb the results of another poll. The numbers bounce off me. I believe none of them.

All year long, I have waited for one honest and detailed article from the press about the percentage of people who hang up the phone when a pollster calls. Zogby, Sir: how many? Gallup, what’s your number? New York Times/CBS poll: please disclose. (Do you know? E-mail me.) I’ve heard it’s the nightmare number in the industry. Joe Klein of Time and CNN hints around about it. I just want to know what the number is—a percentage—for the big polling operations.

Added to those who can’t be found because cell phones are all they use (which has been reported in the press) the hang-up number could really mean something. Correction: could have meant something. Too late now. The time for that journalism to be done is over. (Well, there’s this.) And it is very fortunate for CBS that Bill Keller of the New York Times decided that the missing explosives story couldn’t wait until Sunday’s Sixty Minutes. By Sunday night the voters have begun their roar. Unless you have emergency information, your pop gun should stay holstered.

And I have barely the will to point out that in Saturday’s paper, Adam Nagourney of the New York Times said, “At this point in a campaign, command of the political agenda is critical,” and in the same article said that at this point in the campaign, “the contest is less about swaying undecided voters than about getting supporters to the polls,” two statements that appear to mean opposite things.

I figured out what bothered me about Nagourney’s reporting this year. Some who admire the New York Times pay attention to the titles given to people there; and to us it means something, as surely the editors meant something, when Najourney is designated the lead correspondent in election coverage at the Times. Like.. this is your best guy! Your star player. Many others play crucial roles, it’s team coverage and all that, but still: in the world of correspondents, shouldn’t the “lead” ones be leaders?

It seems to me impossible for Nagourney to have set any kind of standard of excellence this year because the reporting he was assigned to do was horse race journalism— most of the time. He wrote the insider baseball news. The big poll-driven, consultant-quoting “analysis” pieces from inside the campaigns. What a waste.

Richard Berke, the Washington editor in charge, used that approach in 2000, when he was the lead correspondent. He then passed along the insider’s beat to Nagourney, who seems like a fine journalist and a good guy. But the beat is brain dead. Why give it to your top gun? Berke’s decision is one of the reasons the Washington Post moved far ahead of its rival in political coverage this year.

Then there are the calls I have been getting from journalists—including the editor of a sizable newspaper in a swing state—who want to talk about the war against journalists they feel is being conducted by the Bush side. I have been writing about it here and there. Last week I was quoted thusly in Jim Rutenberg’s account in the New York Times:

“The traditional players, including the press, have lost some of the control or exclusive control they used to have,” said Jay Rosen, chairman of the journalism department at New York University, who keeps his own Web log, or blog.

But, he added, “I think there’s a campaign under way to totally politicize journalism and totally politicize press criticism.”

“It’s really an attack not just on the liberal media or press bias, it’s an attack on professionalism itself, on the idea that there could be disinterested reporters,” he said.

I did say that. And I believe every word. Though nothing has occupied me more than figuring out this campaign to de-certify and discredit the press, I have not succeeded yet. I don’t fully understand it— yet. Voices from the other side of the political divide are eager to help me: “Journalists have discredited themselves,” they’ll say, “by being so biased.” It’s payback time. We don’t have to take it anymore. We can route around them. And I understand all that.

But every journalist who has called me has said the same thing: “this is something else.” They describe a step-up in attacks. They speak of a deluge of complaints that appear organized, not in a clumsy, but in a strategic way. They talk of hatred spewing at them and their staffs for being biased against Bush, for allegedly hating the President. They speak of callers who won’t relent, or allow you to speak a word. They scream about your blatant pro-Kerry tilt and then hang up without waiting for any answer.

My callers want me to know about this. Maybe they want me to keep writing about it. I’m not sure. But that sentence they spoke in common, “this is something else…” had emotion in it. A good novelist could describe fully what it was. There was a measure of fear. Some pain. Some awe, too.

Seeking for explanations, one could say these calls from alarmed journalists were just describing the standard details of dirty politics—a known instrument—now pointed at the press, which is treated like any other opponent. And I think that is part of the story. But there is more.

Only one piece of campaign journalism stood wholly apart from all others for me, as the author of PressThink and an interpreter of politics. It’s Without a Doubt by Ron Suskind in the Oct. 17 New York Times, my choice for the high point in political journalism this year. I contributed my bit to the narrative line he develops: “Bush’s intolerance of doubters.” It was this post, (April 25) attempting to explain what’s different about the Bush White House’s approach to the press.

There is still a reporters gallery, and it is still speaking the language of a Fourth Estate. But perhaps its weakness is in speaking a language Americans recognize as theirs. Bush is challenging the press: you don’t speak to the nation, or for it, or with it.

He cannot sustain this challenge all the time—thus, the April 13 press conference, thus the embeds—but it is a serious argument. Intellectually, it’s almost a de-certification move against the press corps. There’s a constituency for this, and it picks up on long-term trends that have weakened the national press, including a disconnect between Big Journalism and many Americans, and the rise of alternative media systems.

My choice for “press piece” of the year is Michelle Cottle’s analysis in the Nov. 8th issue of The New Republic, one of the few works by a journalist that offers any fresh insight into the bias wars. (The link is subscribers only.) Cottle takes a psychological approach, showing how the relationship between Democrats and the press differs from the relationship Republicans have established. The connection with the Democrats is essentially neurotic; with the Republicans things are cooler and more rational:

Democrats say (with some exasperation) that their party still accepts the idea of the media as an unofficial Fourth Estate of government, shaping debate and serving as watchdog for the public interest. As campaign consultant Kenneth Baer put it, “Democrats buy into this high and mighty role that the press has of itself.” Because of this, say Dems, their team is too “susceptible to guilt” over denying access.

By contrast, the Bush administration does not regard the media as having a special role but rather as just “one of several constituencies to deal with,” says former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. “It doesn’t set them apart as more important.” This more dispassionate view gives Team Bush greater freedom to play hardball, refusing access and info that it feels aren’t in its best interest to provide

She includes a couple of interesting quotes from Democratic operative and former Gore aide Carter Eskew. “In a way, that’s healthier,” says Eskew about the Republican attitude. “If you know what the boundaries are, you can have a professional relationship and just say, ‘Let’s not pretend to be friends.’” And: “When Democrats don’t do well, I think the media’s contempt factor really goes up,” says Eskew. “They think, ‘God, your campaign is so lame. How could you be losing to this guy?’”

This is what the Right wing does not get: the contempt factor for Democrats among political journalists, which involves the need to separate from those you feel closest to. Neuroses, a hidden factor in the bias wars, is not so hidden after Cottle’s outstanding piece.

About the performance of journalists in 2004 it will be asked, post-election: How good a job did the press do? But Big Journalism was in a different situation in politics and the world during this campaign. The post-mortems should be about that. Also: will the press even have this job in 08?

About the situation the journalism profession finds itself in, I still feel there is too much to say— too many changes and disruptions. We understand very little of it. Much more will be mapped out after the election drama is over, and there’s a chance to step back. Maybe now, in the final days of our ignorance about who the next President will be, there are a few things that will never be clearer.

Go ahead, add to my list. I invite you. (I dare you.) What, to you, are the clearest lessons for the press in political year 2004? What’s murky beyond measure? Tell us now, before we know too much.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

If the source had gone on the record, this would be PressThink’s passage of the year in political journalism. Ron Suskind (New York Times Magazine Oct. 17, 2004):

…then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

See Jeff Shalet on the Suskind article and the “magical realism” of George W. Bush.

Jeff Jarvis takes to task Todd Purdum of the New York Times for his “incredibly condescending, insulting, snotty analysis of the dirty, rancorous campaign we’ve had: He says that all the vile bile must be OK because voter registration is high.”

In short: Mud amuses the masses. Well, Mr. High-fallutin’ Journalist, could it be instead that voter registration is high because citizens actually care about what is happening in our country and there are crucial issues to care about — even if big media concentrated instead on the mud? Apparently not.

Do not miss Doug McGill’s groundbreaking essay at PressThink: The Fading Mystique of an Objective Press. It’s about the coming apart of an ordered world.

The Wall Street Journal’s Greg Hitt: (Oct. 28, 2004)

Republicans, who have long argued that they are treated unfairly by the mainstream media, are airing complaints — and using them to galvanize their base — as Election Day draws near….

Among other things, such attacks are intended to energize the conservative activists who form the base of the Republican Party, and whose efforts on Nov. 2 are pivotal to Mr. Bush’s chances at winning re-election.

“Taking on the liberal media … is a huge motivator,” says Republican Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign.

Broadcasting and Cable—a trade magazine—produces a rare hard-hitting editorial: News in the Spin Cycle.

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 31, 2004 1:22 AM