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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

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November 2, 2004

People, Nation, Republic: Reflections for Election Night

As election night traffic heats up on the Net, and the hunt for the latest data begins, PressThink counter-programs. Three philosophical passages about The People, The Nation and The Republic. From books that inform this blog, and could inform your viewing tonight.

Seeking words of wisdom for election night, I went back to some of the books that have informed this weblog at a level deeper than content.

Edmund S. Morgan, Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America. This book taught me about political fictions, and why they matter. A fiction, in the sense Morgan means it, is not a lie, but a leap of imagination. “The sovereignty of the people” is one such a leap.

The people cannot really be sovereign in the sense of running the government, and pulling the levers of power. But the fiction itself has power. It expresses something that is very real, not fictive at all: the human urge to be free of domination. And by trying to realize the principle, “the people shall rule,” we begin to give it factual footing, as with the election being held tonight. So political fictions are not lies and they are not fairly tales. They are the sources of meaning in our national story. They shape people’s aspirations. We live inside them.

“The press” is one of those enabling fictions. It too expresses something deep and real: the urge to share knowledge and spread it widely so that others may know. Many have this urge; not just the people who are “in” the press and who claim it, professionally.

Here’s Morgan on the strange radiating power of our fiction about sovereignty:

From its inception in the England of the 1640s the sovereignty of the people has been filled with surprises for those who invoked it. It was a more dynamic fiction than the one it replaced, more capable of serving as a goal to be sought, never attainable, always receding, but approachable and worth approaching. It has continually challenged the governing few to reform the facts of political and social existence to fit the aspirations it fosters. The presumption that social rank should convey a title to political authority was only the first casualty in its reformations, and we have not seen the last. The fiction endures. The challenge persists.

Got that? Political fictions work by challenging “the governing few” to reform the facts of our existence to fit the aspirations the fiction had earlier fed. And in this way it becomes fact. Listen, then, for how our most potent political fictions fill the airwaves tonight.

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Benedict Anderson offers a similar idea. The nation, he says, is an imagined place even though it covers a real stretch of earth. You cannot have a modern nation without tools and rituals for calling it to mind, giving it life and motion. Tonight’s rituals—especially the electoral map on TV—are crucial for bringing alive the very idea of an American nation.

“An American will never meet, or even know the names of more than a handful of his 240,000-odd fellow-Americans,” writes Anderson, attempting insight on the obvious. “He has no idea of what they are up to at any one time. But he has complete confidence in their steady anonymous, simultaneous activity.” He goes on:

I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community— and imagined as both limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion… In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness but by the style in which they are imagined.

The particular style in which the American political community is imagined— this is what’s changing today The Net is changing it, for one. And when you watch election coverage tonight, tune into how television, a tool of national identity, gives us “complete confidence in the steady anonymous, simultaneous activity” of other Americans who are voting and watching.

James W. Carey, A Republic, if You Can Keep It. James Carey calls the public “the god-term of journalism, the be-all and end-all, the term without which the entire enterprise fails to to make sense.” So while journalists like to remind us that democracy is impossible without them, Carey likes to remind journalists that they and their kind are impossible without democracy. He says the proper subject matter of journalism is actually the conversation the public is having— or needs to have.

Carey thinks we should “value the press in the precise degree that it sustains public life, that it helps keep the conversation going among us.” We should “devalue the press” in the degree that it seeks only to inform us or, worse, “turn us into silent spectators.”

Republics require conversation, often cacaphonous conversation, for they should be noisy places. That conversation has to be informed, of course, and the press has a role in supplying that information. But the kind of information required can be generated only by public conversation; there is simply no substitute for it. We have virtually no idea what it is we need to know until we start talking to someone. Conversation focuses our attention, it engages us… From this view of the First Amendment, the task of the press is to encourage the conversation of the culture, not to preempt it or substitute for it or supply it with information as a seer from afar.

Not to be a seer from afar. The networks were supposed to have learned their lessons about that. I guess we’ll find out if that’s so.

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 2, 2004 8:29 PM   Print


Thanks, Jay, especially for the Carey. This idea of conversations marks a sea change, it's all over the discussions of marketing too.

That's the remarkable thing about, say, tearing wide open the CBS-Rather thing. Huge numbers of people--the plain old public--have information, insight, expertise, creative ideas, initiative, updates, that are additive to the conversation, and, at least en masse, of at least equal weight to the Anointed. I suppose it's the self-organizing wisdom of crowds.

Makes sense. It's just that the technology has only recently arisen to break the bottleneck in the information flow. There's an instructive book to be written on the shocking effect of the internet on the governance of the Episcopal Church since 2003; as one recalcitrant commenter observed, "we unwashed masses have access to the raw facts now." Thus people in the pews were able to get early warning of objectionable measures, ally themselves with others, and keep their ears to the ground as obfuscating pronouncements and strategies became internationally public almost as soon as they were uttered.

Whether marketers or the press, the cost of grasping and incorporating the breadth of the conversation can seem overwhelming. For instance consumer companies don't really [unless they're in a very new paradigm] want to hear even useful things from their constituency or customers. It takes too much management time, attention, nerve, and wisdom to enter a conversation with multiple peers in which they are not in total control.

Time, open-ended attention, surrender of control, including engaging in conversations that the public wants to have, not just what the press thinks they need to have. Are you folks up for that?

We in Reader-Land await the answer with much interest, and with things to say.

Posted by: Dilys C. at November 2, 2004 10:38 PM | Permalink

Professor Rosen,
Bravo. Spoken like a true media ecologist. "Who is this America we speak of today?," sings Antibalas. Tonight may cause, or confirm, some revisions to the pictures in our heads. But tonight, alas, our useful fictions contend with the intoxicating aroma of raw quantified data, also so contested.

Your words over the last few days will shine beacon-like over how I come to grips with the last few months, and I trust they will prove equally provocative to my journalism students. Thank you for so powerfully publicly intellecting.

Roger K. Smith
Ithaca, NY

Posted by: Roger K. Smith at November 2, 2004 11:48 PM | Permalink

Thank you, Jay, for writing so well and sharing it. Since I came across this recently, and it seems relevant to the rhetoric of the 2004 campaign, and the context of our conversation for the times, I would like to add here.

Commencement Address at Yale University
President John F. Kennedy
June 11, 1962

As every past generation has had to disenthrall itself from an inheritance of truisms and stereotypes, so in our own time we must move on from the reassuring repetition of stale phrases to a new, difficult, but essential confrontation with reality.

For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie--deliberate, contrived and dishonest--but the myth--persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.
I speak of these matters here at Yale because of the self-evident truth that a great university is always enlisted against the spread of illusion and on the side of reality. No one has said it more clearly than your President Griswold: "Liberal learning is both a safeguard against false ideas of freedom and a source of true ones." Your role as university men, whatever your calling, will be to increase each new generation's grasp of its duties.
Some conversations I have heard in our own country sound like old records, long-playing, left over from the middle thirties. The debate of the thirties had its great significance and produced great results, but it took place in a different world with different needs and different tasks. It is our responsibility today to live in our own world, and to identify the needs and discharge the tasks of the 1960's.

If there is any current trend toward meeting present problems with old cliches, this is the moment to stop it--before it lands us all in a bog of sterile acrimony.

Discussion is essential; and I am hopeful that the debate of recent weeks, though up to now somewhat barren, may represent the start of a serious dialog of the kind which has led in Europe to such fruitful collaboration among all the elements of economic society and to a decade of unrivaled economic progress. But let us not engage in the wrong argument at the wrong time between the wrong people in the wrong country--while the real problems of our own time grow and multiply, fertilized by our neglect.

Nearly 150 years ago Thomas Jefferson wrote, "The new circumstances under which we are placed call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects." New words, new phrases, the transfer of old words to new objects--that is truer today than it was in the time of Jefferson, because the role of this country is so vastly more significant. There is a show in England called "Stop the World, I Want to Get Off." You have not chosen to exercise that option. You are part of the world and you must participate in these days of our years in the solution of the problems that pour upon us, requiring the most sophisticated and technical judgment; and as we work in consonance to meet the authentic problems of our times, we will generate a vision and an energy which will demonstrate anew to the world the superior vitality and strength of the free society.

Posted by: Tim at November 3, 2004 12:40 AM | Permalink


Posted by: Jay Rosen at November 3, 2004 2:20 AM | Permalink

Well, an old media scold decided to wag a finger at bloggers as a last act in the election cycle.

Steve Outing, an editor at the Poynter Institute, is upset that blogs posted exit polls on their websites yesterday, while MSM executives decided not to.

"Bloggers, in particular, are loose cannons when it comes to information that established media seeks to control. Mostly independents with no corporate masters to abide -- and often no traditional journalistic training or standards --bloggers cannot be expected to play by old media rules."

Outing notes that editor Jacob Weisberg told the New York Times that he intended to publish the results because he didn't want to put his website "in the paternalistic position of deciding that our readers aren't mature enough to react in the proper way to truthful information we possess."

And here's what is most hilarious about Outing's scold. The exit polls were wrong. Way wrong. Like totally wrong. Outing doesn't tell us exactly who conducted the exit polls, or what the MSM intended to do with the information it was withholding.

Anyway, I think Weisberg is right; members of the media and the press labor under the paternalistic notion that they can and should decide what regular people can handle in terms of information.

I share all the warm feelings about democracy and turnout, and all that. I just don't like that media views us citizens as half-wits who can't process and interpret information without them.

Posted by: dr. cookie at November 3, 2004 8:30 AM | Permalink

Benedict Anderson's, Imagined Communities is one of my wife's required books for her Masters she needs to continue her teaching of English and journalism. She liked the book and was as pleased to read your column about it as I was pleased to show her.

Yesterday morning as we were getting ready for work I said to her, "You have your work cut out for you this year. You have to recast the High School English curriculum into 'Tools for Thought' because changes in communication giving direct access to people oblige them to defend themselves against the demogoguery that marred this campaign. Students also have to learn that what they previously thought was the news might just be that outlet's impression of what the news ought to be.

"At the same time, your journalist students have to learn to pierce the fog unleashed by campaign soldiers fighting the last war with fear and misrepresentation. They can become an indispensible tool to understand sensible approaches to society's needs and resist those who believe they have a right to take your lunch simply because they have the legislative power to do so."

Reflecting on the near 50-50 split election this morning, people can view the country two ways:

  • Voters gathered around the poles at the left and right extremes, or
  • Voters gathered near the center.

In other words -- deeply divided, or remarkably unified. I prefer to believe that zealots on both extremes were discounted -- that the dogmatic right and the rabid left can, if you pardon the expression, move on.

Benedict Anderson imagines what America can be. So, too, do most American voters. Every four years we just have a civil discussion on how best to get there.

Posted by: sbw at November 3, 2004 8:48 AM | Permalink

My overwhelming thought this morning is that yesterday's events require a re-assessment of everything I know about American politics, American culture, American media, the American press. Some of what I know may survive intact, some won't. Fortunately, I did this already after September 11th, so I am not as intimidated (by the task) as I was in 2001. I'll also be making some changes in PressThink. More to come.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at November 3, 2004 9:40 AM | Permalink

For the record, at this time (see timestamp), no media station has declared Bush the winner, Kerry has not conceded and Bush has not declared victory. Why not? Bias? He Said/She Said (no We Said)? Fact checking?


Generic Confusion notes: "All close Kerry states are listed as Kerry pickups. All close Bush states are listed as undecided."
Bush Expected to Declare Victory Today: President Won't Wait for Kerry [or the MSM] to Concede
Rove and White House communications director Dan Bartlett angrily pushed television networks to declare Bush the winner. Some networks had called Ohio for him and others said he had won Nevada.

Posted by: Tim at November 3, 2004 10:18 AM | Permalink

Who really gives a sh*t? The end is here. Bush and the Republicans have won. The networks are doing what they always do: correcting for the old errors (2000) in a new situation. Hard to blame it on Big Network bias since Fox doesn't have the balls to declare for Bush, either. They're all waiting for Kerry to relieve them of their burden by conceding he lost.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at November 3, 2004 10:37 AM | Permalink

Jay: I'll also be making some changes in PressThink. More to come.

Jay, whatever you do, please save an archive of your essays and the comments. You have a treasure trove of concentrated interest directed toward understanding journalism, society, and their mutual embrace.

Posted by: sbw at November 3, 2004 11:06 AM | Permalink

So for the sake of argument why did the liberal hacks Brokaw and Russert call Ohio first? Wouldn't Tim's imaginary thesis dictate otherwise? How dare some networks ignore the facts of untabulated votes! What hypocrisy.

Posted by: John Adams at November 3, 2004 11:06 AM | Permalink

Who really gives a sh*t?

You do, Jay, or at least you will when the funk of another MAJOR loss by the Democrats has washed over you.

The networks are doing what they always do: correcting for the old errors (2000) in a new situation. Hard to blame it on Big Network bias since Fox doesn't have the balls to declare for Bush, either. They're all waiting for Kerry to relieve them of their burden by conceding he lost.

That sounds like HSSS. And yes, it aflicts all of MSM regardless of perceived ideological bias by leftist media critics or journalists. And no, it is not a good enough answer that the media is fighting this war with the lessons of the last war : or at least it wouldn't be good enough for the media if it was Bush and the military doing it.

Posted by: Tim at November 3, 2004 11:21 AM | Permalink

Tim has a point. It is fairly clear that Kerry has lost the election campaign and, in particular, that Kerry has lost the electoral votes in Ohio.

Is it bias? I doubt it. However, it is more than correcting for past mistakes. It is a reaction, I think, to the possibilities of claims of bias. If one of the big networks were to call the election for Bush, there would be many upset Democrats out there complaining about bias (just as the same would be true of Republicans if Bush's and Kerry's positions were exchanged). Waiting for Kerry to concede is, as Jay notes, a cover-your-ass position. They can hardly be blamed for calling the election if Kerry concedes.

I think that sort of reticence by big media organizations is something that we should give a sh*t about. Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps there is a better explanation than CYA. But if it is CYA, that is important too.

Posted by: Ernest Miller at November 3, 2004 11:21 AM | Permalink

But then, maybe this is just the liberal populated MSM's way of helping Kerry?

Posted by: Tim at November 3, 2004 11:23 AM | Permalink

[Off-Topic? Maybe.] 2004 Election Aftermath.

Posted by: sbw at November 3, 2004 12:05 PM | Permalink

For those accusing the MSM of paternalism, I seem to remember all sorts of criticism for calling states too soon and for releasing results while polls were still open. A specific example that angered Republicans was in 2000, calling Florida for Gore is known to have suppressed votes in the panhandle which is more Republican than much of the state.

So I think they are damned if they do, and damned if they don't.

Posted by: John Moore at November 3, 2004 12:49 PM | Permalink

A call for the networks to wait for Kerry to concede?: "The odds are what, 30 to 1? Them's great odds. I would fight if they were 1000 to 1. I vote with the thought that there's a million to one chance it will matter. And every one of those voters deserves more than a dismissive network night call."

Posted by: Tim at November 3, 2004 12:51 PM | Permalink


I'm not so sure about that. Certainly, you don't want to call states before their polls close, and you should take reasonable precautions in tight races. However, I haven't heard any expert who claimed this morning that there was any liklihood that Sen. Kerry would triumph in Ohio.

Posted by: Ernest Miller at November 3, 2004 12:53 PM | Permalink

What a hoot if the networks would have called the states based on their exit polling! They would have been terribly wrong.

So maybe the problem is the networks feeling like they need to get exit polls so they can play little games with results and beating each other to the call. How about we skip the exit polls altogether, and the news guys report the results as they come in? Without exit poll results to rely on.

Then no problem with paternalism, no problem with overzealous network calls on state outcomes. We let the voters do it--decide who wins, that is, without the help of news execs.

Posted by: dr. cookie at November 3, 2004 12:57 PM | Permalink

Ernest, WRT Ohio, some networks did wait too long. I was watching Fox, and Michael Barone did an outstanding job of explaining how Ohio simply could not be reversed, so of course Fox called Ohio.

But in general, the networks had to be careful if they didn't want to be attacked. I think it is a very different issue dependending on whether some polls are open. In 2000, the polls were open in the Florida panhandle when some outlet or outlets declared Florida a Bush winner. I don't think any polls were open when the situation in Ohio became clear.

Posted by: John Moore at November 3, 2004 2:30 PM | Permalink

Today and the next few days are for taking stock. The road ahead stretches ahead, and the MSM have to decide if they will merely describe the scenery as it passes by, or attempt a course correction. The air will be full of "The People Have Spokens", and they have in typically resounding fashion. But the awesome, sometimes awful, majesty of our political system, which somehow converts the heat and blinding light of campaign rhetoric into a softer, hushed glow, at least for a few days, does not absolve or restore the institution of Press.

It's reasonable to interpret the results as being beyond the MSM's ability to influence the outcome directly. Even if Kerry had won, the reality of a tacking ever rightward would remain. That analysis is for the operatives of the political parties. But that hardly leads to a conclusion that the MSM is irrelevant, or harmless to the process. There are numerous examples of ill-health in the MSM. In the ideal, the MSM would be a curative or a corrective for maladies that inflict the body politic, but the current pathology of MSM is such that it is now a corrosive agent, liberally applied by political operatives.

After the Swift Boat Debacle, casual voters might be forgiven if they ducked behind the curtain with the vague impression that Kerry piloted Swift Boats on assault missions against American POW's. The failings to vet the SBV's are obvious enough, but the secondary burn in all of this was that as soon as the "story" broke, a lot of precious air-time, which should have gone to debunking, was devoted instead to the typical kind of flip analysis as to how the ploy would play. In reducing scurrilous lies to a political tactic, and then assessing it on those terms, the MSM neutralized the essential egregiousness of the effort in the first place, and allowed a self-fulfilling effect to embed itself into the election milieu. Most of this handicapping was delivered in value-neutral terms, banter between seasoned pros. To the extent there was some qualitative commentary, it was the typical awestruck appreciation of the audacity of Rove. Wow! Look how effectively he uses us! Look at how devious! Speculating on the effectiveness of the affront lent legitimacy to the underlying premise that people should be uneasy about Kerry's service in Viet Nam.

Every campaign packages, every campaign codes, every campaign burnishes. Where is it written that the MSM has to play along? Instead of ignoring the window-dressing and excising it from their coverage, the MSM dutifully re-stages and parrots it endlessly. To keep up some semblance of independence, we get the handicapping of the horse-race, as if their cool, clever and detached guesswork was a substitute for hard reporting and critical thinking about what needs to be told. It can't be propaganda if the MSM knows its being used, can it? Well why not? What we did not get, was any sense of proportionality, of what was important and what was fill. We did not get any meaningful differentiation. It was mostly grey goo, except for the colorful or inflammatory.

Kerry was tarred with Botox, skin-bronzer, and then branded as a wind-surfer. All this while, pundits and reporters yammered on about message and imagery, while gravely important stories went essentially unreported or critically under-reported. How many deserved skins would have been on the wall already, in the prison-torture scandal, in an earlier day of a functioning press? Off-budget billions gone missing in the maelstrom of Iraq -- war profiteering -- civilian interference in military matters -- the gutting of the foundations of the barriers between church and state -- the abject politicization of intelligence and science -- for flip's sake, even the cloak of secrecy descending over information (the very stuff of news), all of it, all of what should have mattered most, was crowded to the sidelines by the mush churned out by the handicappers and parrots.

Having demonstrated no backbone and no ability to keep up during the campaign, what real hope is there for the MSM to reassert itself, to hold the Administration's feet to the fire in the future? There is already too much moaning and groaning about the relentless pace of the "news cycle", as if that conceit weren't a finely-tuned mechanism for spinning the Daily Dollop. There is already way, way too much chumminess between the covered and those covering.

There will be further media consolidation ahead, and a deepening of conflict of economic interests with objective reporting. The MSM also has to acknowledge that a growing part of itself is dedicated to the right, and will spin everything in that direction. MSM as a whole has to let that market segment go, rather than to chase after it and cater to it. The correction for the imbalance isn't to prop up mirrors to show an opposite left-take on every story. The MSM is so far out of line that in order to restore some semblance of balance, they need to be something other than objective, they need to be skeptical and adversarial, and an advocate for the truth, not for a political group. I wonder who has the belly for it? You'd have to give up the steady diet of phony "scoops" that has made you fat and soft, your privileged place in the jackal pack, your first-name familiarity with political celebrities. You will be vilified and attacked, but you will have found the job you thought lost.

Posted by: Mark J. McPherson at November 3, 2004 3:18 PM | Permalink

My misreading: "If there is any current trend toward meeting present problems with old cliches, this is the moment to stop it--before it lands us all in a blog of sterile acrimony."

JFK sure was prescient - how did he know?

A couple of tentative topic suggestions for (separate but equal) PressThink posts:

1. For those who were surprised by the outcome, what former assumptions and 'understandings' (about role and performance of the press) are you questioning and rethinking?

2. For those of you who were _not_ surprised, what assumptions and 'understandings' (about role and performance of the press) were confirmed?

and, on this -
"From this view of the First Amendment, the task of the press is to encourage the conversation of the culture..."

What are effective ways for the press to accomplish this, which produce conversation with a high signal:noise ratio yet still allow all members to participate? (And that produce a real conversation, not just a bunch of people wearing earplugs and shouting)

Posted by: Anna at November 3, 2004 4:00 PM | Permalink

Prof. Rosen-
Spectacular post! I haven't read anything that engaging and refreshing in quite a while. The problem is our current media doesn't "encourage the conversation", they are dumbing us down into silent spectators with seemingly no escape. It is also only worse now with the re-election of the dumbest man in America...

The internet is our only last hope I think, may they never take it away.

Posted by: Danny Angel at November 3, 2004 4:14 PM | Permalink

Mark J. McPherson: There will be further media consolidation ahead

Do you know why media consolidation occurred in the first place? Because neither political party values a family-owned business as the seed corn for the economic development of a community. For estate tax purposes a business is valued at the highest amount for which it can be sold. That estate tax has to be paid, even if, as an ongoing business there isn't an extra dollar in the till. So newspapers were sold simply to pay the tax.

I have advocated "working off" the tax owed if the business is locally owned and operated by a family member at 10 percent per year. Move or sell the business and the owner owes the remaining tax.

Both parties express interest in the idea, but too much is at stake. Democrats want it all taxed. Republicans want nothing taxed. Locally-owned and operated family businesses are a bargaining chip. They are caught in a political tug of war.

We may "own" the local media, but we consider we hold it in stewardship for the community. Consolidation hurts communities.

Yes, there will be further media consolidation ahead. And it is a mistake. Local business ownership is good for a community. Local news ownership is more than good, it is important.

Posted by: sbw at November 3, 2004 4:24 PM | Permalink

We're going to need some big time media reform after all this election and war coverage. That's my shorter thought after this election.
I don't think it'll happen though. Media consolidation is too powerful, but it's still worth trying.
Journalism is in a stage of enormous change now as I see it. They seem to be willing to take fewer risks than in the past, and they also need to account for the wedge issues of this election better.
I personally think the liberal/conservative bias is largely unintentional when it comes out in the news, but structurally, it does favor a liberal slant because of how bad news sells papers.
As for the conservative side, they don't really try as hard to be PC because they know it's effective to get wedge voters to listen to their network. Gays/Guns/Abortion minus the guns.

Posted by: Steve at November 3, 2004 5:28 PM | Permalink

Mark J. McPherson

I try to avoid any more Swift Boat controversies on here, but you force my hand.

My side may have won the election, but I am really sick of people calling the Swift Boat people liars. It says something about a person that he would call 60 combat veterans of Vietnam liars. They are not liars. I have seen the MSM's debunking arguments and they are pathetic.

Vietnam Vets were called all sorts of horrible things by Kerry in 1971, and it hurt all of us. Now you are doing it again, going after people who are eyewitnesses and calling them liars because they have said things you don't like.

Shame on you. We sacrificed for America. What the hell did you ever do? I am disgusted with you and everyone else who has slandered these fine Americans.

Finally, if you think I am just grumbling, I know a number of these people. They are ordinary middle aged Americans who came forward when someone they knew about became a central figure. They were angry about what he said, and they were angry at his lies. For these 60 men to have all lied about this is beyond credibility. As I told Jay, I am in a better position than you or he or the MSM to evaluate this issue.

Go find someone else to slander.

The Swiftees did what they were compelled to do - helping save us from a liar and self promoter and helper of the enemy. Now they wlil fade into history, where they will continue to be maligned by left wing historians. But we will know, and they will know, that once against the answered the call to serve their country, and they took insults and slander and personal threats and kept on going.

They were heroes in 'Nam and they were heroes this year.

Posted by: John Moore at November 3, 2004 7:30 PM | Permalink

Public Sees Media Favoring Kerry, CNN Watchers Prefer Kerry

Two polls released last week found that more people perceive the media tilting coverage in favor of Democrat John Kerry than in favor of Republican President George W. Bush. Gallup determined that 35 percent think coverage has tilted toward Kerry compared to just 16 percent who said it favored Bush. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press discovered that "half of voters (50 percent) say most newspaper and TV reporters would prefer to see John Kerry win the election, compared with just 22 percent who think that most journalists are pulling for George Bush." While 27 percent described Kerry coverage as "unfair," 37 percent considered Bush coverage to be "unfair."
Election Post-Mortem and Manifesto for Change
Mainstream media bragged of being able to boost the Dems by 15 percent (do you remember Newsweek saying that?). The "blogosphere" has been crowing that MSM failed to do so (for which the blogs also claim responsibility), but I don't agree. I think the MSM actually succeeded in bringing the Dems a 10 to 15 point boost in the election (and maybe more). Before the media spin machine started systematically slamming Bush 18 months ago, he was favored at around 66% in the polls. 66% minus 15% is...well...the 51% margin Bush was re-elected by. Thing is, even the thinly veiled support of most major media outlets wasn't enough to put Kerry in the White House.
Is this why comments are closed?

Posted by: Tim at November 6, 2004 1:05 AM | Permalink

From the Intro