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November 17, 2004

Two Replies to David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times

"Both the American in me and the journalist in me hope Rosen is dead wrong." Shaw argues against having a liberal news network that would compete with Fox. He says my suggestions to that effect would be terrible for journalism and democracy. MSNBC and CNN agree: terrible! I reply to that, plus: Reason columnist Matt Welch on David Shaw.

On November 3rd, a few hours after John Kerry gave it up, I posted my reaction piece: Are We Headed for an Opposition Press? I used a question mark because that was how I felt. My attitude then was: Who can say there’s no argument for it?

Now we know who. This week David Shaw, longtime media critic of the Los Angeles Times, published a column in reaction to my post. So this is a post in reaction to his column, which ran online without a link to the essay he was talking about. That’s unkind, L.A. Times. (On the other hand, putting “one of the nation’s more thoughtful agents provocateurs” in the first paragraph was very kind, so thanks!)

Shaw, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, argues against MSNBC or CNN coming out as the more liberal network, and competing with Fox that way. He thinks my suggestions to that effect (they were really provocations) would be terrible for journalism and democracy. We also hear in his column from MSNBC and CNN, who are quick to agree: terrible idea, Rosen.

When I asked the folks at CNN what they thought of the idea, Jim Walton, president of the CNN News Group, shot back, “Under no circumstances would we do that. We’ve established that we’re a trusted network. We’ve done that by trying to provide balance … to be independent in our thinking.”

Notice how Walton thinks an avowedly liberal network could never be a trusted network. Nor could a liberal network be independent in its thinking. No, the only way to maintain trust and claim authority is professional even-handedness, “objectivity,” balance, the view from nowhere. And that is what CNN will contine to be about. Sound like a strategy for catching up to Fox and its momentum?

“At MSNBC, the top brass demurred when I asked for a comment,” Shaw reports. Huh. Kind of interesting. Could mean nothing, of course.

But Jeremy Gaines, the network’s vice president of communications, said the concept of MSNBC as a self-described liberal network “makes no sense. It is flawed, shallow reasoning and is totally without merit.”

Shaw’s own view of Opposition Press is strongly negative. It was based in part on the interview we did— a good interview, I felt. His questions were challenging because they were aimed at getting me to take a position: was I actually for one of the networks coming out as the liberal network?

Fair question. But I was less for it than I was interested in it. I don’t only speak as an advocate for things, I also like to notice them. For example, in raising the question: Opposition Press? the day after the election you notice how many people think it implausible, outrageous, non-sensical, (redundant)… in fact, “totally without merit.” Whereas hiring the telegenic runner-up from last year’s Apprentice—Donald Trump’s reality show—and giving him his own interview program on CNN, though he has zero experience… that’s a strategy with obvious merit, at least to someone at the network. As I told Shaw:

If Fox continues to surge, how do others compete — CNN, MSNBC or some new cable channel? Will the … 48% of Americans who voted [for John Kerry] in the last election be open to a different kind of news?

Show of hands: Who’s open to a different kind of news? To me that is the question journalists should be asking each other these days. A Blue State News Network, with some Red State programs and hosts—and some Purple shows too—could be great. Or it could be an embarrassment and a disaster. I don’t actually know. (Why, am I supposed to?)

Maybe there is a way to create a more openly liberal news operation that starts to make sense—professionally, financially, politically, culturally, but most of all, generationally—once you take a serious look at it. Fox News Channel was at one time an idea, until someone took a serious look at it. But do I recommend it? Shaw picks up the story:

Interestingly, when I pressed Rosen on this, he didn’t want to come right out and say he was certain it would be a good idea. Asked point-blank, he repeated that he thought it “likely” and “logical” and “practical” and perhaps even inevitable. But good — beneficial to journalism and society at large? His not very convincing response was, “It’s not my job to tell television networks how to do their jobs.”

“It’s not my job, either,” wrote Shaw. “But I’d like to offer my opinion anyway. DON‘T DO IT.

Shaw puts into one concise statement the propositions that I have called, collectively, The Contraption. (See Not Up to It.) This refers to the standard routines in mainstream journalism and their rationales, to newsroom practices and the principles that bind all this together into a code of behavior. The contraption includes a “code” for talking about press matters, and David Shaw is fluent in it.

Some Americans, he admitted, “do want their news prepackaged and predigested — slanted, biased — so they don’t have to think about it.” In Shaw’s mind, if you don’t want The Contraption as your operating and ethical system, then you must want the alternative, which is Pravda, “slanted, biased” news that suppresses all those inconvenient truths that Shaw—a real journalist—is duty bound to tell.

“So Rosen’s probably right; the liberals among these intellectually lazy folks would probably welcome a genuinely liberal news network.” (Some market he’s left me— the lazy liberals!) “But both the American in me and the journalist in me hope Rosen is dead wrong.” Because the Contraption, according to David Shaw, is dead right; indeed it’s the source of all right in journalism. Its truth keeps marching on. Here is what I wrote on Day One of Bush’s second term.

Are We Headed for an Opposition Press?

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.

And to that observation David Shaw said:

Would a left-leaning cable network make things right?

In our increasingly polarized society, the last thing we need is a partisan press. Yes, I know that many conservatives think we already have a partisan press — a liberal press. And yes, I know that far more big-city journalists are liberal than conservative. I’m a liberal. But I’m a columnist, paid to express my opinions. When I was a reporter, I worked hard — and, I think, successfully — to keep my opinions from unfairly influencing what I wrote. When the facts led to a conclusion that was different from my opinion, I printed the facts, not my opinion. As a result, I sometimes wrote stories that gave aid and comfort to the “enemy.” I continue to think, as I’ve written before, that on most stories, most reporters and editors and news directors — people charged with keeping their opinions out of their work — are able to do that as well, to set aside their personal views and cover the news fairly and evenhandedly.

In other words, he answered with The Contraption. I’m sure you recognize it. It includes Shaw’s adamant view that “disclosing bias” would be a disaster for journalists. Plus: “When they complain about bias, they’re really complaining that the news isn’t biased in favor of their particular viewpoint, be it conservative or liberal.” Recognize that?

Bottom line for Shaw: “I’m opposed to Rosen’s suggestion about a liberal television network.” Fair enough. But it was really a provocation. Let me mention a few things I oppose by way of continuing the dialogue. Maybe down the road it will lead to another David Shaw column. I hope so.

I oppose those who, holding to a particular professional religion in journalism, continue to claim that it is the religion— the one way to practice a commitment to truth-in-reportage. It simply isn’t true that truthelling in journalism ends when you leave the neutral zone and abandon the view from nowhere. If that were the case, then—which, Scott Rosenberg told me, “self-identifies as opposition press”—would not be capable of truthtelling.

Neither would the Weekly Standard, or, or the National Catholic Reporter, or Reason magazine. But they are capable of truthtelling, so Shaw is leaving something out. What’s he’s leaving out is the possibility that other religions are spreading the good word about journalism— and maybe even better ones will emerge for the times in which we live.

I oppose, then, the simple-minded and far-fetched claim that The Contraption has only one truly thinkable alternative, which is bias— news-as-propaganda, Pravda-style, for people who don’t think. This is Shaw’s “suggestion” in the sense that he examines no alternatives but those two: believe in objectivity or abandon yourself to bias.

Some day a clever historian is going to explain how fear of being politicized (legitimate) convinced American journalists that the press could have—and should have—no politics at all. (Not legitimate.) It has been one devastating illusion.

Doug McGill is a former reporter for the New York Times, now a Stand Alone Journalist, which is Chris Nolan’s clever name for an independent news blogger. Clever, and also correct. McGill (of The McGill Report) became dissatisfied with The Contraption. But unlike many others who grumbled about it, he took a hard look at his career and asked: where did objectivity begin to go wrong? Those who never bought into the “mystique” of it find themselves with a clearer sense of purpose today, McGill said recently at PressThink.

“But we journalists, we are at sea because our Grand Old Professional Code is falling to pieces.” McGill does not oppose objectivity with a call for bias. He says to the craft: the code we have doesn’t speak to our problems. Thus he’s opposing objectivity to a shifted reality.

David Shaw: please read Doug McGill, The Fading Mystique of an Objective Press, but not because he has the answers. Rather, he was once a believer in your newsroom religion. Then he lost that faith. Now he opposes its simple-mindedness. He’s one of your generation, too; and I think you could profit by his example.

And I commend to you Tim Porter, a former newspaper editor reflecting on newsroom culture: “I practiced journalism, but I knew almost nothing about it— although I thought I did.” Maybe because I’m an educator, I find this a profound remark. Porter went from deflecting everything (The Contraption’s great strength) to reflecting on the most important things in journalism; that’s the human story inside the ideas at his weblog, First Draft. (Porter’s greatest hits.)

The Contraption can help prevent truthtelling, according to this from Liz Cox Barrett at Campaign Desk. (Now called CJR Daily, see below.) It’s about journalists as players who cannot admit that they’re players because The Contraption has no language for discussing it. “Whenever political reporters sit down to write a what-went-wrong piece, or to perform the autopsy of a failed campaign, they suddenly become invisible to themselves.” That’s it exactly. The Contraption has this odd feature: it can make the press invisible to itself. (My CJR essay from February ‘04, Players.)

And for the remainder of my reply, I turn the floor over to Matt Welch, journalist, blogger and struggling truthteller, a neighbor of Shaw’s in L.A., and a close reader of the Los Angeles Times. He’s a little more annoyed with the man. But then he’s a different generation. So take it away, Matt…

Because I Said So Journalism

by Matt Welch

Shaw’s response, typically for him, embodies five classic pathologies of the monopoly-newspaper media critic: Disdain for the audience, exaggerated self-regard, hostility toward competition, distrust of the audience, and a fundamentally conservative outlook toward change.

1) Disdain for the audience. “I think that some Americans, for all their protestations about ‘media bias,’ do want their news prepackaged and predigested—slanted, biased—so they don’t have to think about it.” America the sheeple!

2) Exaggerated self-regard. “When I was a reporter, I worked hard and, I think, successfully to keep my opinions from unfairly influencing what I wrote.” When Shaw was a reporter toiling the news pages, he constantly professed (and demonstrated) his opinionated preference for long-gestated multi-part series over spot coverage; infamously dismissed or ignored the work of the lower journalistic form known as Business Journals; expressed routine hostility toward the new-fangled Internet; and composed lengthy love-letters to himself.

3) Hostility toward competition. A partisan press is a competitive press. Put another way, every city in the country has a “straight” daily newspaper that attempts to pursue Shaw’s ideals. In order to compete, new papers have to differentiate themselves in some way, or get slaughtered. In the history of American newspapering there have been three reliable ways to differentiate from the dominate daily: Go more local, target a different economic niche, or cover a different part of the political spectrum. Alternative weeklies (another form Shaw famously looks down his nose upon) are largely a political creation, and they’ve contributed wonders to American journalism. Fox built itself from nowhere to a legitimate Fourth Network; then used politics to succeed in cable news (which still pales in comparison to network news broadcasts). We have a more diverse and competitive media landscape as a result. It’s striking, but typical, that Shaw and his ilk rebel against political diversity.

4) Distrust of the audience. Shaw writes: “But more important, I think any such accounting would automatically undermine the credibility of many, if not most stories. I’d rather have readers judge stories on their merits, on what the stories say, on the language used to convey the information, on what may be omitted, than on any political caveat that, as I’ve already said, I believe would almost invariably be as irrelevant as it would be distracting.”

Note especially the omniscient scare-phrase “automatically undermine.” This assumes, paternalistically, that the reader, given more information, will make worse choices. And would it indeed be “irrelevant” if we knew that, say, 95% of L.A. Times employees, including most its senior editors, voted for Kerry? We’ve seen from the Pew surveys that journalists describing themselves as “conservatives” have a far different interpretation of the same set of facts as journalists describing themselves as “liberals.” Politics and beliefs, like education and class, certainly affect coverage; a newspaper that was truly confident in its own work would embrace political and other types of disclosure, as an opportunity to demonstrate how they rise above certain biasing factors.

5) A fundamentally conservative outlook toward change. “In our increasingly polarized society, the last thing we need is a partisan press.” Shaw’s reasons? Because more transparency would somehow “undermine” credibility, because disclosure would take up too much space (a straw-man I will address below), and because, well, society is “increasingly polarized.” It barely even sounds like he’s convinced by these weak arguments; the more obvious undercurrent here is “because we haven’t been doing it that way for the last 40 years, darn it!” There are many reasons to champion the never-quite-attainable goal of objectivity and fairness, I think we’d all agree. Yet that approach—and the above-the-fray pathologies it engenders, to say nothing of the dominant passive political beliefs in newsrooms—clearly leaves a majority of potential news consumers unsatisfied. A partisan press can and should be a nice complement and competitor to the non-partisan press.

As to this from Shaw: “How—and where—are you going to disclose the ideology of the editor who conceived the story, the editor who assigned it, the editor who actually edited it, the editor who decided where (and if and when) it would appear in the paper? (And, in the case of television, the cameraman who filmed it.)”

The answer is - on the news organization’s website somewhere, where those interested can check, and those who aren’t don’t have to wade through it. If the Times had enough guts, it would have mini-biographies of every staff member, copy editors and interns and star columnists alike, complete with age, education, political party affiliation (if any), work experience (including extra-curricular stuff, like Shaw’s bio of Wilt Chamberlain), and links to every article written for the paper. If the Times is as professional and non-partisan as Shaw maintains, then this information could be used to demonstrate precisely that. At any rate, it would give the reader much more raw information about the messenger.

I know Shaw’s tendencies because I’ve been reading him closely for years and years. Other customers should be able to do likewise by clicking on a single link at the Times’ website. Newspaper employees have long been one of society’s main advocates for transparency, and rightly so. It’s long since past time that they allow the light to be shined just as brightly on themselves, while coming up with more convincing rejections of reform than “because I said so.”

After Matter: Notes, Reactions and Links

At Altercation, Eric Alterman of The Nation and When Presidents Lie has a lengthy and interesting reply to this post. He disagrees with Shaw:

Objectivity, moreover, is an ideology that, in its most pristine form, has no clear preference for fact over fiction. It is notoriously easy to manipulate by unscrupulous sources who place a higher value on their own personal advancement than on the value of the public knowledge. Because politicians tend to fall into this category, the rules of journalistic objectivity are regularly drafted into service on behalf of the most shameless kinds of demagoguery, lies, and outright thievery.

Andrew Cline at Rhetorica on a couple of sentences in my post: “But I was less for it than I was interested in it. I don’t only speak as an advocate for things, I also like to notice them.”

To notice something is a powerful intellectual and creative act. By noticing—and naming—we bring things into existence from something like non-existence. That’s the romance of it, anyway. Noticing plays an important intellectual and civic role: It gets people talking. Any good teacher is familiar with this role. We listen to students in class and try to notice things in their discourse. Once noticed, we comment. And if we have done a good job of noticing, then the conversation really gets rolling. Noticing is the grit around which crystals are born.

Amen, Andrew. And it’s fascinating how confused some people become when noticing is a writer’s primary “agenda.”

Just released online (Nov. 22): Press critic Michael Massing, who helped establish the holes in WMD reporting at the New York Times and Washington Post, has a new analysis in an upcoming New York Review of Books. Tomgram: Michael Massing on Iraq coverage and the election.

News Flash… Campaign Desk has been re-born as CJR Daily. Smart move. See the announcement from Steve Lovelady. These words are apt: “Many journalists to whom we talk, day in and day out, have the vague sense that calcified old forms and formats are failing them; the trick will be to find new frameworks up to the task at hand.” (And sometimes the trick is turning a vague sense of “calcified forms failing” into a more specific one.)

Earlier Shaw, A Polarized Society Leads to Polarized Journalism. (Oct. 24, 2004)

Linda Seebach, editorial writer for the Rocky Mountain News, e-mails with this observation:

One of the oddest things in Shaw’s comments is this:

“When I was a reporter, I worked hard - and, I think, successfully - to keep my opinions from unfairly influencing what I wrote. When the facts led to a conclusion that was different from my opinion, I printed the facts, not my opinion.”

I don’t know about him, but when I have observed that the facts lead to a conclusion that is different from my opinion, I CHANGE MY OPINION! Isn’t that why facts and opinions are different?

Another by-product of The Contraption is the whole bias discourse. See Matt Welch in Reason, Biased about Bias. How “the hunt for ideology becomes an ideology.”

Related: PressThink, Journalism Is Itself a Religion (Special Essay on Launch of The Revealer.)

Jeff Sharlet, editor of The Revealer: Killing Religion Journalism.

Not the official story, not the perfunctory justifications: The fabric of belief.

That’s what religion writing has to offer every other aspect of journalism: The focus on belief. That’s missing even from most religion writing. The “faith pages” languish while news stories revolving around real, actual belief, causing events in the world, occupy the front page.

An activity, but not a profession?… Glenn Reynolds writes at MSNBC: “Ed Driscoll thinks that the Internet is well on the way to becoming the most important source of news for most Americans. I think he’s right — but I also think that many, many more Americans are going to be involved in the reporting of news. Journalism isn’t a profession, but an activity. And it’s an activity that technology is putting within the reach of many more Americans. That’s bad news if you’re Dan Rather, but it’s good news for the rest of us.”

Blogger Patterico, a frequent critic of liberal bias at the LA Times, responds to this post:

I admit that it is not entirely clear to me what Jay is proposing. Is he saying that the existing networks should become more liberal, to compete with Fox’s conservatism? If so, I question the premise. There already exist several liberal news networks competing with Fox. Their coverage is just as far to the left as Fox’s is to the right. They just don’t admit their leftist bias. But then, neither does Fox admit its conservative bias.

Watching Scott McLellan brief the press at the White House, blogger Dano writes: what if they gave a press briefing and nobody came?

Rosen wrote something in one of his PressThink posts… about, if one wants a more effective political media, the representatives of the media should take a stand in response to how the White House shuts them out. Like refusing to even participate in these little travesties of transparency. I think the example he used was the press corps, en masse, pulling out of Iraq. I thought he was maybe exaggerating for effect, but now I see it a little bit differently. What little the White House is willing to dole out to the press is worse than nothing, and covering such content-free “briefings” as this one lends the administration a thin veneer of transparency.

I like that paradoxical image: a “veneer” of transparency. What I wrote was: “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.”

Advisory to Users: A number of people told me they print out PressThink and read it on paper. I added a special “print” feature. Just click on LINK or on this title in the RECENT ENTRIES column. The “print” button will appear in the upper right, near the headline. Check for it.

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 17, 2004 4:48 PM