November 3, 2004
Are We Headed for an Opposition Press?
"Big Journalism cannot respond as it would in previous years: with bland vows to cover the Administration fairly and a firm intention to make no changes whatsoever in its basic approach to politics and news. The situation is too unstable, the world is changing too rapidly, and the press has been pretending for too long that its old operating system will last forever. It won't."
Back before the 2004 campaign began, before the emergence of Howard Dean, Democrats shocked at the weakness of their party in Congress would commonly say that the only one “taking on” Bush and putting up a real fight was Paul Krugman, the columnist for the New York Times.
John Kerry’s defeat is only hours old. One of the first questions to occur to me is: will we see the fuller emergence of an opposition press, given that George W. Bush and the Republicans are to remain in office another four years? Will we find instead that an intimidation factor, already apparent before the election, will intensify as a result of Bush’s victory?
I believe Big Journalism cannot respond as it would in previous years: with bland vows to cover the Adminstration fairly and a firm intention to make no changes whatsoever in its basic approach to politics and news. The situation is too unstable, the world is changing too rapidly, and political journalism has been pretending for too long that an old operating system will last forever. It won’t. It can’t. Particularly in the face of an innovative Bush team and its bold thesis about the fading powers of the press.
This election, says Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times, “sharpened the cultural divides that have increasingly defined American politics over the last generation.” With Bush’s majority-of-the-vote win, this dynamic is likely to intensify, but it’s only one thing causing an intellectual crack-up in the press. Here are some developments to watch for:
- At some point between now and 2008, either MSNBC or CNN may break off from the pack and decide to become the liberal alternative to Fox, thus freeing Fox to find a more frankly ideological formula, as well. During the conventions the logic of this move became evident. The single most shocking moment for television news people came in late summer when Fox won the ratings for the Republican convention, the first time a cable channel had defeated the broadcast networks in that competition. Everyone realized at once the power of GOP-TV and how much sense that system—the more partisan system—made. (Like a political party, FOX has a base and it reaches out for other viewers, knowing it cannot alienate the base.) If one of the other cable channels goes left, will the remaining networks that are “unaligned” stand pat, go left, or hook right? Big question.
- Which seems more plausible: the “cultural divides that have increasingly defined American politics,” as Brownstein put it, will also begin to define American media, or… Big Media will successfully hold itself back from politics, and the major news sources will remain non-aligned, officially neutral? The first prospect means a radical restructuring is due (or maybe it is already underway.) Certainly leaders in Big Journalism will try to remain non-aligned, but do they even have that power? As we know from politics, if you don’t watch out you can be defined by your opponents. Opponents want to define the national press as the liberal media, and they are well along in their cultural project, which does not require the participation—or consent—of journalists.
- The campaign year had many high points and subplots involving the media: confessions of failure on WMD’s, Michael Moore’s success with agitprop, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and their effect on Kerry, the disaster that Dan Rather and Sixty Minutes brought upon themselves at CBS, the he said she said, we said furor involving who lies more, the rise of the bloggers and the tensions this caused with Big Media (which also absorbed them), Jon Stewart’s showdown with Crossfire and his impact overall with “fake” news, the Sinclair Broadcast Group’s plans for Stolen Honor. Such episodes we still see as “distractions.” Some day we may realize that this is one way Americans “do” their politics today: they attack and defend the media, or start their own media, or use new media against old media, or mount a claim that the media is the opposition.
- So what remains after all that? The cultural right, in its struggle with the liberal media, feels that it is on the ascendant. Participants there are primed for more action. News and editorial decision-making are thrust into the political arena itself as potentially explosive “issues.” This expansion of the political into the realm of “news” and commentary coincides with greater transparency for the big news combines, which are more successfully scrutinized than they have ever been. Various layers of protection once kept journalists from the knowledge the public had of their mistakes. That layering seems gone now.
- The Bush White House has the national press in a box. (A “hammerlock,” says this account.) As with so many other situations, they have changed the world and allowed the language of the old world to keep running while exploring unchallenged the fact of the new. The old world was the Fourth Estate, and the watchdog role of the press, the magic of the White House press conference. It was a feeling that, though locked in struggle much of the time, journalists and presidents needed each other. Although it was never put this way, they glamourized Washington politics together, and this helped both.
- In Bushworld, all is different. There is no fourth estate; an invalid theory, says Team Bush. The press is not a watchdog for the public, but another interest group that wants something. (Or, they say, it’s an arm of our opponents’ operation.) But the press is weak, and almost passe, in the Administration’s view. There is no need to deal with it most of the time. It can be denied access with impunity. It can be attacked for bias relentlessly, which charges up Bush supporters. It can be fed gruel and will come back the next day. The Bush crowd has completely changed the game on journalists, knowing that journalists are unlikely to respond with action nearly as bold. For example, would the press ever pull out of Iraq as a signal to the Bush White House? Never, and this is why it is seen as weak.
- Washington journalism likes to imagine itself the Administration’s great adversary, but most of the time it relies on access journalism— not the adversarial kind. “Sources make news” is the first tenet in that system, and that gives sources power. But access journalism makes less and less sense when there is no access, and sources rarely deviate from the party line. The White House press corps has always been based on access, so much so that the alternatives to it have almost been forgotten. I think there will be pressure to abandon the whole dream of press access under Bush, and re-position some forces accordingly.
- Interesting, then, what Daniel Weintraub of the Sacramento Bee said at PressThink this week: “When my colleagues complain about a lack of access to Schwarzenegger at his media events, I ask, is that kind of access really critical to our doing our jobs? Is it our job to get close enough to describe the color of his tie, or his interaction with a voter, or is it our job to deconstruct the governor’s (or president’s) policies and proposals, their effect or potential effect on the public, their cost and consequences? Sure it’s great to have an interview with the man, or fire away questions at a press conference, but I think good journalists are capable of informing the public without the benefit of these tools.” He’s thinking of alternatives to access because he’s already realized it: Arnold is post-press in his political style.
- I expect some news organizations to begin dealing with these pressures by essentially giving in on several counts— for example, that newsrooms are populated by liberals and conservative voices are too few. Coming to terms with “liberal bias” could be seen as a way of recognizing the reality of the election and responding to continued anger at the press. The most likely place for those efforts to begin is with the supposed finding that “moral values” (read religion) were the top concern of voters, yet this is not a strength of the liberal, secular press; therefore we need to change— or something like that. After the Republican sweep, I expect some major initiatives on the bias front.
- Keep your eye on Sinclair Broadcasting, in my view a new kind of media company— a political empire with television stations. It was built to prosper in the conditions I have described. It already has a self-conscious political identity. It is already steeped in culture war. And it admires and imitates the Bush method of changing the world, but keeping the same language for the new situation.
- The years 2004 to 2008 will be an intense and creative period for left wing journalism, which is oppositional, and for opinion journalism generally.
Journalists who have been paying attention know that something big in their world changed in 2004. (See my list of stuff happening.) But will they go through the kind of agonizing re-appraisal the Democrats will soon be undertaking? (It’s already been called a “battle for the soul of the Democratic Party.”) Or will they let that old weary operating system grind on?
PressThink believes the re-appraisal starts now.
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links
David Shaw, the longtime media critic of the Los Angeles Times, took issue with this post in a column eleven days later: “Would a left-leaning cable network make things right?” He says no.
USA Today, in the person of media writer Peter Johnson, took a similar view: Will Fox News’ success force competitors to take sides?
Similar response in Business Week, in a commentary Nov. 29:
The anxious new mood was captured, the day after the election, by an article New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen wrote on his Web log, PressThink. It was titled “Are We Headed for an Opposition Press?” and examined whether America is moving toward a European model, wherein many leading papers have well-known party affiliations. This once-radical idea has suddenly gained highbrow intellectual currency based on the theory that reporters should show their true colors rather than pretend to be above ordinary human bias. Staffers at Web site Slate, for instance, disclose their party affiliations — a big taboo in the Establishment media. “The press has been pretending for too long that its old operating system will last forever,” argues NYU’s Rosen. “It won’t.”
Ideological transparency is the type of apple-pie virtue that seems impossible to oppose. But while it may be appropriate for the world of opinion media, it has the potential to be quite destructive to the fact-seeking media.
Call for Writers: This is a call to professional journalists (people employed in the press) who have something to say to their colleagues in the wake of the 2004 election and in light of bigger developments around us. Over the next few weeks, I would like to invite some guest writers to continue the examination of old think in the press, begun by ex-New York Timesman Doug McGill (The Fading Mystique of an Objective Press) and Sacramento Bee columnist Daniel Weintraub (No Longer Do the Newsies Decide.) Background to those pieces was my post, Too Much Reality, which featured a list of twenty puzzles and problems, such as:
- Political attacks seeking to discredit the press and why they’re intensifying
- Scandals in the news business and the damage they are sowing
- The era of greater transparency and what it’s doing to modern journalism
- Why the culture war keeps going, this year reaching the mainstream press
- Why argument journalism is more involving than the informational kind
What has to change in journalism? What was learned in 2004? Send me your press think—in the form of a personal essay with examples and ideas, stories and insights—and if it’s good, I will run it. Or e-mail me with an idea. Other guest writers: Ernest Sotomayor of Unity, Juan Gonzalez of the Daily News.
Harry Jaffe in Washingtonian magazine: Among the Election Losers: White House Press Corps?
“Even within the White House information was very closely held,” says a reporter who covered Bush’s first term. Covering this White House was “nigh on impossible,” she says.
Can it get harder?
A president who already holds the record for calling the fewest solo news conferences might convene even fewer.
Some reporters wonder if the Bush team will attempt to kill off the daily briefing.
There are rumors that Bush wants to carry out Hillary Rodham Clinton’s threat to move the press room out of the West Wing.
Public Opinion, an Australian Blogger rephrases this post: “Will we see the fuller emergence of an opposition press, given that John Howard and the conservative Coalition are to remain in office another three years? Will we find instead that an intimidation factor, already apparent before the election, will intensify as a result of Howard’s victory?”
Earlier speculations at PressThink (Sep. 2) “Turn to Fox News for Exclusive Coverage of the Republican National Convention.” By 2008 we may see something different emerge: The Republican and Democratic parties negotiate deals with a single network to carry exclusive coverage of the event— like the Academy Awards, or the Olympics.
At Corante, Ernest Miller responds to this post: Whither the Press?
In politics we have opposition parties. Those in each party express one position when it is their party in charge, and castigate the same position when it is championed by the other party in charge. How expected. And how sad. Is this the future we want the press to adopt?
Why not a press that is the permanent party of skepticism and contingent thinking? How about a press, not without bias, certainly, but with a commitment to exposing the facts and a humble recognition of the possibility for error? Why not a press firmly on the side of transparency? Such a position is hardly apolitical. In fact, it is radically engaged with and opposed to “politics” as well as the “view from nowhere.”
Read the rest. It is all forward looking.
Peggy Noonan in her morning-after column for Wall Street Journal (Nov. 4, 2004):
Who was the biggest loser of the 2004 election? It is easy to say Mr. Kerry: he was a poor candidate with a poor campaign. But I do think the biggest loser was the mainstream media, the famous MSM, the initials that became popular in this election cycle. Every time the big networks and big broadsheet national newspapers tried to pull off a bit of pro-liberal mischief—CBS and the fabricated Bush National Guard documents, the New York Times and bombgate, CBS’s “60 Minutes” attempting to coordinate the breaking of bombgate on the Sunday before the election—the yeomen of the blogosphere and AM radio and the Internet took them down. It was to me a great historical development in the history of politics in America… God bless the pajama-clad yeomen of America. Some day, when America is hit again, and lines go down, and media are hard to get, these bloggers and site runners and independent Internetters of all sorts will find a way to file, and get their word out, and it will be part of the saving of our country.
Former Newsweek reporter Robert Parry: Too Little, Too Late.
Yet, even as conservative foundations were pouring tens of millions of dollars into building hard-edged conservative media outlets, liberal foundations kept repeating the refrain: “We don’t do media.” One key liberal foundation explicitly forbade even submitting funding requests that related to media projects.
What I saw on the Left during this pivotal period was an ostrich-like avoidance of the growing threat from the Right’s rapidly developing news media infrastructure.
President Bush’s press conference after victory, from Dan Froomkim’s White House Briefing.
After Associated Press reporter Terence Hunt opened the questioning with a three-parter, Bush said: “Now that I’ve got the will of the people at my back, I’m going to start enforcing the one-question rule. That was three.”
For mourners only: The election hangover of a lifetime.
Latest installment in Big Journalists bravely debunking bloggers: Frank Barnako, CBS Marketwatch, Bloggers blew it: Much posting, little impact. Here’s Jarvis on it. (Who expected big things from bloggers on election night? I didn’t.)
Howard Kurtz on the explanations game in the press, post-election: Let the Explaining Begin!
Here is Ron Suskind’s New York Times Magazine article from before the election, Without a Doubt. In PressThink’s view, the most heroic work of journalism during campaign 2004.
Posted by Jay Rosen at November 3, 2004 4:27 PM
What are moral values? Here's one view: religion, traditional families, pro-life. Here's another: I almost voted for Nader. Why? Certainly not because I agree with his positions on many policies. Nope, I almost voted for him because he was the only candidate with integrity. He absolutely stuck to his positions, he didn't blow in the political wind. I admire that, even when I don't agree. That's moral values too.
Unfortunately, the myopic media can't see anything beyond the pickup truck driving, bible-thumping values of the midwest and south as being moral values. That's one reason why the press if out of touch. I think everyone on the coasts needs to spend a year living in a red state, and talking to regular people who live there. They'd learn a lot.
What happened in this election is that the media lost control of the narrative. The he said, she said, reporting on attack ads, etc. gave way to a richer dialogue on the web, a conversation that involved tens of thousands of people and unearthed countless views and opinions and ideas. It was much deeper than anything offered by the traditional press, and people with access to it flocked to it.
If I had to redesign the fourth estate, I'd do it like this: The AP would cover the White House, Statehouse and write daily web reports about what the leadership did. Print journalists would turn away from the tennis game of legislating and politicking and instead work much harder to expose the inner working of how our government works, and how it will affect us.
By that I mean that print journalists would look damn hard at how interest groups have unusual access to power, particularly business groups. And instead of playing gotcha journalism with politicians, reporters would expose the way things really work. In a kind of Bartlett and Steele form, except there would be daily reports rather than B&S's biannual tome.
Our lives are shaped by commercial forces and how these work in concert with government. But the coverage of this election didn't really show this. Swift boats, mysteriously missing weapons, yeah, they're important. But the truth is both candidates were bought and paid for by corporate profits, interest group dues (AMA, ABA, NEA), and other rich folks. The idea that either candidate is somehow "pure" or "better" is simply nonsense. Print reporters ought to be spending more time figuring out who the candidates owe, and how they will pay them back, rather than enthusing about today's pep rally or photo-op.
I don't know what to do about broadcast. I have to think about that some more.
All Media Consumption Is Local, So Too the Problems With Public Opinion
The national media critics on the press, like the national media on politics, tend to focus mostly on the problems of big national media.
Yes the New York Times was AWOL in this election cycle, neutered thanks to Jayson Blair and easily dismissed and denied access on the vice president's plane and made fun of by the Bush administration. How did they respond? By going out of their way to support the war effort and bending over backwards to make Bush's election, in the fair and balanced tradition, of looking just great.
A more informed and academic exercise might focus on examining the views of the slim majority who elected Bush alongside where they get their information. Most of the people in the red states who voted for Bush have never read the New York Times – and never will.
If they read at all, they read conservative chain papers like the one's owned by Newhouse all over the South. Mostly, they watch local TV news. About 70 percent rely almost totally on local TV news for information about the world, according to academic research.
The Washington debate about the FCC's role in allowing corporations to own even more newspapers, radio and TV stations in the same market is interesting, and captured the public's imagination in unexpected ways. Perhaps there is a lesson in that.
But if there was anything left of a watchdog press in America, the New York Times and others would take a hard look at the information getting to the red state folks. From here at southernet/net/blog, it's not hard to make the connection to why people vote the way they do. Of course some academic research training also helps.
Apparently, the "reality-based community" doesn't get this. Much like Paris Hilton who had no clue what they sold at Wal-mart, the media establishment doesn't have a clue how bad the information is on "Happy Talk" TV news, invented for commercial purposes during the Ronald Reagan "morning in America" era.
We suggest the watchdog press go after the FCC to try changing this situation. Of course that is going to be difficult under Bush's "mandate."
As my mentor from the University Alabama says, the bloggers are the modern-day Tom Paines. The way we see, it is going to take an army of bloggers to turn this situation around, along with a big, hard dose of reality. Chances are, Osama bin Laden and his horde of new followers in the Middle East will provide that in the not too distant future.
Are we ready?
Southerner Daily News
Jay Rosen said:
There's too much happening. The public world is changing faster than we can invent terms for describing it. Here are some of the things the BBC reporter and I were trying to discuss:
* Political attacks seeking to discredit the press and why they're intensifying
Here's one observation from experience you may not notice in New York. I e-mailed a similar observation to Jim Rutenberg at the New York Times after his story on a related subject, one one side of it at least.
The News Media: Web Offers Hefty Voice to Critics of Mainstream Journalists
There is a feeling out here in the country, in this important election, that the right has moved the media to the right for the past quarter century, especially the Rush Limbaugh charge of "liberal media" along with his friends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Mainly people are thinking of local TV news and chain papers like the Newhouse papers around the South, other than the New York Times, since the don't read "that liberal newspaper." The thinking is, maybe it's time to attack from the left and move things back toward the middle. Is it working?
* Scandals in the news business and the damage they are sowing
As far as I'm concerned, Jayson Blair ruined a lot of things. No one's calling today's New York Times "the Bill Keller New York Times" as they did with Howell Raines. But imagine "flooding the zone" during the Bush-Kerry campaign. That's a newspaper I would have liked reading, a world I would have liked living in.
* The era of greater transparency and what it's doing to modern journalism
From the inside, I imagine it's taking too much time, having to respond to e-mails, if that's what you mean. My first reaction to it when it was new said it will make journalism more honest overall. It has worked in some cases, although we don't have the final word on the authenticity of the CBS memos. What if it turns out they are authentic?
False charges can slow things down and mire the participants, part of the strategy of the right, much like the left in some environmental fights. Stall and waste resources, much like some of the culture war fights over issues the government has little business getting involved in, in the first place, like trying to change the Constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage.
* Trust in the mainstream media and what's happening to it
Clearly they are losing the trust of the masses, but it's not all their fault. Perhaps they should spend more time investigating those who perpetuate the false charges against them, like Rush Limbaugh's drug addiction. It didn't get him off the radio, though. A decade ago, the media dealt a blow to televangelists, although Tammy Fae Baker and Jimmy Swaggart are still in business and on TV. But severely weakened.
* Bloggers, their role in politics, their effect on the press: their significance
Most likely overrated by the terms of the current debate, but certainly a growing trend.
* How the Net explosion is changing the relationship between people and news
Interesting area with lots of portents, the most important of which in my view is the possibility of individuals to reach an audience and make a living with their own printing press online. If it grabs the interest of 1 percent of the couch potato TV junkies it could swing the next election : )
* The collapse of traditional authority in journalism and what replaces it
Traditional authority is overrated. The news corporations still have it. The Web is the way around it. Under the First Amendment, to be a journalist of any kind in America does not require a license. It never will, in spite of the so-called "new professional class" of journalists, purportedly called that to elevate themselves above the so-called "craftsmen" of old. The only thing of value in this drive toward professionalism is that it moves journalists closer to the category of "public relations professionals" in more ways than one. We need to reexamine that role in our society at large and start asking questions instead of rewriting press releases, or should I say some should.
* Amateurs vs. professionals; distributed knowledge vs. credentialed expertise
What about the purest form of professionalism of them all, the free-lance journalist?
In the academic literature, autonomy over time and assignments and approach to stories is as important in professionalism as a good haircut and a bow tie. And if you look at the educational requirements, a journalism degree would be considered more valuable than an English degree from the Ivy League. Look at the high end of the journalism scale and see how many journalists have "professional" training, verses "liberal arts."
How professional is it, really, and who is to say what has value, other than the reader?
* The entrance of new players of all kinds in presidential campaigning:
Great, the more the merrier. What are you worried about? The New York elite can't control everything. It certainly can't control the country in this case to convince a majority not to vote for George W. Bush. Too bad, but you can't.
SDN: All Media Consumption Is Local
* The producer revolution underway among former consumers of media:
Produce away. You mean Michael Moore? Let the buyer beware.
* Jon Stewart and why he seems to be more credible to so many
Not so, just funnier. People would rather laugh than cry when watching TV. (See comments about "Happy Talk TV".
* "He said, she said, we said" and why it's such a bitter issue in politics
Because it doesn't tell the reader anything. Watching a program on C-SPAN as I type this. Some good answers from Elisebeth Blumiller and others on how a lot of papers had reporters act as fact checkers and plug that into stories this time around. Great stuff. Do more of it.
* The "reality-based community" thesis and the Bush Administration
Great theoretical argument, totally lost on those who are not in the "reality-based community." : )
* The political divide and the passions it has unleashed this year
Terrible and wonderful at the same time. Maybe in a second term the intelligentsia in this country (woops, that sounds Soviet, how about Brights, or just smart people) will finally wake up and realize they have to engage to save the world. That would be something to see, and write about.
* Why the culture war keeps going, this year reaching the mainstream press
Its keeps going because it is not over and there is no way one side or the other will ever win it. It's not like a football game, although that's how a lot of my southern brethren see it. That's how Bush sees it, or at least that's how he presents the war on terrorism. Maybe that's part of his secret? A Karl Rove flash of brilliance?
* Why periods of intense partisanship coincide with high involvement
There's a real need to be involved. This time the issues hit home for people, in terms of life and their pocketbook. Why engage if everything's a-oh-K? The roaring 20s? The raging '90s?
* The problem of propaganda and the intensity of its practice in 2004
When I suggest to some of my journalism friends that the Bush propaganda is subtle, they scoff. To them it's blatant. But look at Bush when he's up there. He's not pounding his fist on the podium too much, openly brandishing a gun or a sword and screaming phrases about the superiority of the white race or the German race. He just looks like a regular cowboy, frat boy from Texas having trouble with his phrases. How can this guy be dangerous? He's "the man" down the street at Bubba's Pub.
* Why argument journalism is more involving than the informational kind
Only for news and political junkies. Mom hates it. She likes Pam Huff on Ch. 13 News, the NBC affiliate, and Tom Brokow. So do 70 percent of the American people, they just don't live in New York or LA or Washington or Boston.
* Assaults on the very idea of a neutral observer, a disinterested account
Whoever is doing that would probably fall into the "post-modern" camp, although they probably don't know that, and could care less. They are not part of the "reality-based community," really.
* And then there's this: the separate realities of Bush and Kerry supporters
Science v. religion. Not so hard to grasp, although it's not quite that simple. A lot of post-modernists supported Kerry : )
Every one of these things is related to all the others . . . There's too much reality rushing over us every day just now. And it's pushing me to the limits of my own vocabulary. Can anyone help? . . .. Hit the comment button and tell us: what connects the items on my list?
The connections I see are these. You are grappling with the relationships between the media and the public and the media and government. These relationships are clearly changing, and as some of us see it, breaking down in some areas and breaking out in others.
Who's up? Who's down? Will the world look better or worse?
We have a short time to figure it out, unless Bush really turns out to be a "uniter" and "not a divider." Now there's a great piece of propaganda.
Many idealist, optimists in the national media are still holding out to see if it's true or not. See Thomas Freedman's recent column in the Times:
Some bloggers have it figured out, and may provide cover for mainstream journalists who see it too and want to publish the truth themselves. But there's always that nagging tendency on the part of the mainstream press to try and hold on to its monopolies for economic reasons, just like the corporations who tell our government what to do now with their former employees running every department of this federal government.
We need a fundamental debate about the nearly complete capitalization of information bringing us to the technological revolution, which is working in the opposite direction. The implications are not less and probably much more important than understanding what happened in the former Soviet Union.
The main problem is, can the American media really conduct that kind of analysis, with the capitalist stake at the heart of it? Somehow I doubt it.