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November 8, 2004

Not Up to It

"Not mainstream journalism the practice, but the contraption it has for explaining, situating and defending itself has in 2004 finally broken down, given out after 40 years of heavy, reliable use." And an update: Matt Welch replies.

Los Angeles, Nov. 8: Tomorrow I give a presentation on a subject I wrote a long, speculative post about during the summer: how September 11th might have changed everything in journalism. My interlocutors will be ten tough, experienced, and decorated journalists who are grappling with “security and liberty in the post-9/11 era,” including the war on terror, how to cover it, but also how to think about it. (Here’s the list of journalists; here’s the presenters.) When the organizers asked me to participate, I said I would if I could use a title like, “Why 09/11 Challenges Everything You Know About Journalism.” So they gave me my wish.

It’s a How do I know what I think until I hear what I say? situation; and this is the difference between inviting an expert and inviting a writer. An expert is there to tell you what he knows. A writer is there to find out what she thinks. I’ m not an expert in counter-terrorism. But liberty after 9/11? We’re all experts in that, if we manage to discover what we think.

I was struggling with how to phrase one of my key points when an e-mail from Dan Froomkin arrived, alerting me to his new commentary at the Nieman Watchdog site. Froomkin, who writes the White House Briefing column for the Washington Post Online edition, was picking up on my post-election essay: “Are We Headed for an Opposition Press?” Here is what he wrote about shell shock in Big Journalism:

There’s also a wave of self-flagellation going on right now as some “blue-state” editors do public contrition for their alleged blindness to “red-state” values.

But many other media critics are coming to the conclusion that the most dramatic lesson of this campaign is that the impartial, unemotional postwar model of mainstream journalism simply may not be up to covering the current political climate.

Exactly right. But “may not be up to…” is a mild way of putting it. Froomkin quotes (as I did, here) Tim Rutten’s observation in the Los Angeles Times. “Whatever the electoral result of the current presidential campaign,” he wrote on Oct. 30th. “There’s a growing sense that this race may involve tectonic shifts in the landscape of political journalism.” Rutten said it was too early to see what the “lay of the land” would be after the stresses on journalism finally forced the ground to tremble. Jeff Jarvis says it’s not too early to see the shape of things. From Buzzmachine:

Jarvis’ First Law: Give the people control of media, they will use it.

The corollary: Don’t give the people control of media, and you will lose.

Jarvis’ Second Law: Lower cost of production and distribution in media inevitably leads to nichefication.

The corollary: Lower the cost of media enough, and there will be an unlimited supply of people making it.

Many others have held this view, of course. (Like this guy.) But they are generally outside Big Journalism. Jarvis, who works for Newhouse, welcomes the new regime. Tim Rutten, who works for the Tribune Company, is a traditionalist, alarmed by much of what he sees. Froomkin, Washington Post Company, is trying to keep what is valuable in the non-partisan tradition without pretending that the world is the same world it was when the tradition flourished and held sway in newsrooms. And so he asks if I am right about an opposition press:

Rosen wonders if a network like CNN needs to emerge as the “Democratic” alternative to the Republican-leaning Fox News, allowing it to more boldly voice a dissenting view. But there is nothing overtly partisan about questioning authority. Opposition to deception and distortion doesn’t make one a Democrat; it makes one a journalist.

Which is a good point. But I prefer the more sweeping implications in: “the impartial, unemotional postwar model of mainstream journalism simply may not be up to covering the current political climate.”

Not mainstream journalism the practice, but the contraption it has for explaining, situating and defending itself has in 2004 finally broken down, given out after 40 years of heavy, reliable use. And nothing did more damage to the taken-for-granted world of the American press than the shocks of September 11th. Part of the problem is philosophical, which almost guarantees a chronic lack of attention in newsland.

Consider the sentence: “I am a reporter, a non-combatant.” It appears to be a statement of identity: This is who I am. This is who I am not. But it very much resembles the statement: “Jewish by birth, but I am German!” In both cases, the truth of the statement I am… hinges on the actions of others. You are not a non-combatant if they shoot at you when they see PRESS on the car. You’re not a German if you’re born in Germany but Germans classify you a Jew. In those situations you have to be able to think politically to understand exactly who you are.

Something like this has happened to mainstream journalists in the domestic arena. They have had their professional identity changed for them by the actions of others, while simultaneously insisting this turn of events is impossible. “We are the Fourth Estate, a vital check on government” is one of those tricky sentences. It may be crucial to professional identity, but then these are the same professionals who must realize that George W. Bush has changed them into an interest group and undone their identity as the Fourth Estate.

If for 40 percent of the country, you’re the liberal media, what that means is that four in ten Americans have changed you into that. This is CNN’s identity problem; and there is no simple solution. If for 15 percent of Americans, you’re on television talking about the news, but you’re a joke, they have changed you into their entertainment. Do you disagree? Well, go ahead, disagree. You’ve still been changed.

It is in this sense, I think, that Al Queda changes the press. Terror today relies on the news media to complete the act. It knows the news media will, most of the time, cooperate, on the principle of reporting “what happened.” Even more challenging is that the threat of further strikes weakens popular support for truthtelling by expanding people’s willingness not to know, if it might hurt the war on terror, and by increasing many times over the portion of state activity hidden from public view: truth untellable.

All these things are happening to the press today— to “old media” as so many have taken to calling it. It is being defined by others because its self-definitions have fallen out-of-date. It is being pressed hard by its opponents because it is unable to say, “we have opponents.”

And then there’s the question I asked in my last post, which I still don’t have an answer to, least of all from journalists: are journalists part of the war on terror? Are they fighting in it? Or is it enough to say they’re covering it? Or do they oppose it?

The way I would put it is this: There is a war being conducted against the open society. Journalists are combatants in that one. They cannot afford to lose it, and they cannot afford to prosecute it with broken equipment. Maybe tomorrow I will find out what I think they should do.

For now, please go read Dan Froomkin: Tougher political coverage needed but does it mean an end to impartiality? and think…

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Blogger, free lance journalist and Reason writer Matt Welch replies. Jay, here’s my advice for your rap tomorrow (or more precisely, for the dreaded MSM going forward)…

Blogger Alex Whalen responds to this post:

It’s interesting to me that this discussion is taking on some of the same characteristics as the nascent ‘who are we and what do we stand for’ discussion in the Democratic Party. Is it a coincidence the the last time both groups had a major revolution of thought was in the late 60’s/early 70’s? I suspect it is not.

Blogger, philosopher and newspaper publisher Stephen Waters responds with Journalism is up to it:

“Are journalists part of the war on terror? Are they fighting in it? Or is it enough to say they’re covering it?” The answer is Yes, Yes, and Yes. Journalists fight uncivil behavior wherever they find it — at home or abroad. Individuals, journalists, and society operate by the same methods, towards the same end. Lay one on top of the other like concentric circles and they would share the same curiosity, thirst for understanding, and sense of the future. We’re all in this together, trying to understand the full picture, using the same processes, planning for our better future.

How do you know when a column about blogs from a traditional journalist isn’t serious or worth your time? When it debunks the claim that bloggers will “replace” journalists. Eric Enberg of CBS boldly goes where hundreds have gone before: “One of the verdicts rendered by election night 2004 is that, given their lack of expertise, standards and, yes, humility, the chances of the bloggers replacing mainstream journalism are about as good as the parasite replacing the dog it fastens on.”

“Big media must learn that news isn’t over when it’s printed and fishwrap…” Jeff Jarvis was interviewed by Ernie Miller of Corante. An excerpt:

Media, always a one-way pipe, now becomes an open pool. And, most important, the centralization of media — the marketplace, the network, the monopoly — is replaced by a decentralized universe. This changes everything. It changes the relationships. It changes the economics. It changes the power.

There’s more of Jeff’s pithy statements about “the shift,” so read it. I left the following comment there.

The problem with Big Media is that it learned how to “store” trust—in brand, reputation and ritual—and so forgot what it was. But the blogger has to make trust, from scratch as it were. So the blogger winds up knowing more about the current conditions for trust capture.

See Chris Satullo on the Liberal Media Re-Education Camp. Amusing.

Diana West at Town Hall on The Liberal Media and Culture War:

There is something close to poetic justice in the creaky monolith of Old Media showing its advanced age and crotchety bias in a campaign that now ends in the defeat of John Kerry. That is, in important ways, the mainstream and John Kerry are kindred creatures of the far-away 1960s, both setting their anti-establishment ways during both the Vietnam War and, stateside, the anti-Vietnam War. You might even say that together they helped create and perpetuate the poisonous myth of the Vietnam veteran as enemy of humanity — touchstone of the self-hating American.

‘And now,” she writes,”with the re-election of George W. Bush, they have been defeated.”

See On The Media’s review of its own segments on the Bush Administration and the press: “This has been a presidency conducted in the dark,” says Brooke Gladstone. “So the press must use even higher wattage in the effort to peer in.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 8, 2004 11:31 PM