March 10, 2005
To Liberate From the White House the White House Press
Dan Weintraub, who covers politics at the Sacramento Bee, wants "an aggressive, curious and analytical press corps, based anywhere (including cyberspace), fact-checking the snot out of the White House and writing critically about the president's statements, proposals and actions."
Watching it on television doesn’t quite do justice to the uselessness of many of the exchanges back and forth, nor the intensity of Scott McClellan’s withering gaze nor the frustration boiling up in the reporters’ voices as they butt their heads up against a rhetoric wall. — Garrett Graff, first blogger at the White House briefing.
Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post responded to me Tuesday in his Media Notes column, following my criticisms of him in De-Certifying the Press, posted March 4. This was his best moment:
Why do we need the administration to be nice to us, or to somehow validate our existence? Journalists need to do their jobs regardless of the roadblocks and land mines placed by the White House. And the real reporting doesn’t take place in the briefing room, regardless of who’s accredited, or in the televised news conferences, which have become theater. It takes place behind the scenes, where journalists cultivate sources not just in the administration but on the Hill and among interest groups, to break news the White House doesn’t want broken. (Watergate, you may recall, was not broken by White House beat reporters.) And it takes place when reporters have the courage to say that what the president said yesterday is at odds with reality or with his own record.
Amen. I think he’s right about all of that. Kurtz to PressThink: “I don’t think we disagree on very much.” For example:
- “By and large, the Bush administration has taken not just an adversarial but often hostile approach toward the media.” Agreed: There is hostile intent that goes beyond the normal tensions and struggles as reporters try to make news from what officials say.
- “Not since the Nixon administration, with its wiretapping and enemies lists, has a president tried to marginalize the press in such aggressive fashion.” Agreed about the effort to marginalize.
- “Administration officials have decided that journalists are just another special-interest group and should be treated accordingly.” Agreed. That the press represents the shared interest Americans have in knowing about their government is an idea the White House purposefully rejects.
Okay, so he’s not at de-certify yet. Kurtz thinks real reporting on the White House doesn’t come from reporters on the surreal White House beat. The journalism part—as against the “theatre” of it—is in the cultivation of sources beyond the press operation entirely. That is the only way to “break news the White House doesn’t want broken.”
Notice this means that the White House press corps is kind of superfulous, doing what it’s currently doing. Hold that thought until later.
Steve Lovelady, managing editor of CJR Daily, had a similar view in a recent comment thread at PressThink. Lovelady—formerly an editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer and Wall Street Journal—said that in 40 years in the business he couldn’t recall a single instance where the White House press corps (“defined as the guys ‘n dolls who show up for the daily kabuki theater staged by McClellan or any of his predecessors”) broke a major story. The whole thing has become absurd, he feels.
The assignment is a sure road to four years of mind-numbing stenography, which is not a role any of those present ever had in mind when they went into the craft in the first place. The whole elaborate and pointless minuet ceased to be useful decades ago; what no one has come up with is a satisfactory replacement that might actually produce …… news !
Instead, we get frustrated reporters full of bluster and trying to appear macho by asking “questions” more appropriate for a prosecutor grilling a defendant on the witness stand — knowing full well the query will be danced around, or answered with a robot-like reiteration of a talking point. (Link.)
“I wish there were a point to it,” said Lovelady. “But for a long time there hasn’t been.” I asked him if had given up on the concept: White House correspondent. He said no, but he had given up on the current arrangement, the ceremony of no information. “Don’t expect me to be ahead of you on puzzling out this conundrum, because I’m not,” he added.
Just how staggeringly empty the beat has been during the Bush era came through in an online chat with Dan Froomkin, White House Briefing columnist for the Washintgton Post. A Post reader said: “I’m interested in the current administration’s diversionary phrases, in talking with the press,” as in, “our views…are very well known.”
Dan Froomkin: Those aren’t diversionary phrases. Those are the meaningless words padding the diversionary phrases that punctuate the hoary soundbytes from the approved phrasebook that obfuscate the lack of any substantial response to our questions.
For an example, click here and scroll down to See What You’ve Been Missing. Froomkin agrees with Lovelady on the pointlessness of sticking around for endless repetition of a “line.”
What the press corps needs to do — and I am wracking my brain on some way to usefully add to the current raging discourse on this very issue — is dramatically change the current paradigm, which they have tacitly accepted, and which is that they don’t get answers — from Scott, or anyone else in the White House.
One possible solution, which I have repeatedly suggested, is that when they don’t get answers, they should report that they didn’t get answers.
Good idea. And now we see the significance of this episode during the election campaign, and also what was made of it in the ongoing campaign to discredit the press. Call it a marker, showing what to expect if Froomkin’s “possible solution” (a pretty modest step) were ever followed.
He says he is thinking (“wracking” his mind) about what would bring a more dramatic change to the situation. Suggestion for Dan: A simple first step in changing the world is to re-describe it. A columnist (or blogger) is well suited for that.
Dan Weintraub, the political columnist (and blogger) who writes California Insider for the Sacramento Bee, has one way of changing the dynamic. He explained it in the same comment thread a few days ago.
I think the alternative would be an aggressive, curious and analytical press corps, based anywhere (including cyberspace), fact-checking the snot out of the White House and writing critically about the president’s statements, proposals and actions, and those of his administration, in both daily coverage and investigative reporting.
In place of a White House presence, Weintraub recommends a simple procedure to ensure fairness, and a voice for the Administration if it chooses that option. “For each story, reporters might place one call to the press office if they chose, explaining what they were inquiring about, and then move on,” he said. If the White House does not comment, “so be it.”
I like this idea. It has simplicity on its side. When being inside gets you nowhere, you have nothing to lose by developing a more “outside” approach to the beat. If the White House is thinking post-press, (a description I believe accurate) then the press room becomes a space the Administration has already vacated. And that is the sound you hear when Scott McClellan steps to the podium. Instead of venting about the awfulness of the briefing, recognize that the decision to empty it out was made a while ago. Bush already left the marriage.
In an outside beat, you still try to find out what’s going on with the Bush Administration; you stay with the story. The title, White House Correspondent, does not change. But you abandon hope of getting there the inside way. Instead, you interview “around” the White House, which means investing primarily in other sources who have parts of the puzzle. Most especially this means sources in Congress. Sometimes the agencies. Sometimes the opposition. Sometimes it is the American people who are the outside source because they always have parts of the puzzle.
Done well, this approach can change the balance of power, Weintraub believes. The result would be Scott McClellan and aides “begging reporters back in to converse with them so that their side of the story could be told more fully.”
Far fetched? Well, it’s the same method Bob Woodward of the Washington Post uses when he writes those blockbuster books giving us the inside account of an Administration under the gun of real events. (And he’s done it with the current group.) People tend to cooperate with Woodward, the most famous reporter of his generation, because they don’t want to be left out of his best-selling version. Thus he has both vanity and fear working for him, in addition to a publishing formula that sells books.
Although he doesn’t put it this way, Weintraub knows the Woodward method is founded on an insight: threaten to write the definitive account and the people who know will talk to you, hoping to define your account. A press corps superfulous inside the White House could become vital again by developing an outside game: assemble the definitive account and then work your way “in.” It is a method well known in investigative reporting.
It would be fascinating to be in the room when the press tribe votes to remain inside the White House, or try an outside approach. Who would come down for stasis? Who would stand up for change?
Bill Keller, top editor at the New York Times, told Nick Lemann of the New Yorker that methods well known have not been entirely absent under George W. Bush:
“During the campaign, and particularly when things looked close, political strategists for the Republican Party and all of the various allied constituencies did not bypass the ‘establishment’ press,” Keller said. “They sought us out to defend their own causes and often to attempt to plant dirt on the opposition.” The phrase, particularly when things looked close, reminds us that an effective opposition makes the press more effective in covering politics. Weak opposition makes it easier to subvert the press.
Craig Crawford, columnist for Congressional Quarterly, goes a little further than Howard Kurtz did: “The Bush White House has virtually no respect for the media’s traditional role.”
Agreed. And yet there is liberation possible if correspondents stay on the beat but vacate the White House press room. (See Inside the Veal Pen.) From the Bush side, who really cares if some greedy special interest no longer comes ‘round for a twice-daily game of gotcha? I should think both sides quite happy with a new arrangement.
They really ought to start discussing trial separation.
Only one thing stands in the way, and it’s material for another post. And that is the “theatre” of the present arrangement. It serves many interests who do not want to see it disappear overnight. Fishbowl DC’s Garrett Graff caught some of this after he finally got his credentials and attended the briefing as a blogger. “The walk up the drive to the West Wing takes one right up by where the networks and cable channels do their stand-ups many times a day.”
After Matter: Notes, reactions and links.
David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times takes on the de-certification argument and my defense of it. Is Bush really implementing a full-court press on media? His answer is no. But the argument is “one of the most interesting and provocative (and paranoid) of those espoused in recent weeks.”
In a long investigative piece, the New York Times reports on video propaganda produced by the Bush Administration making it into the news (March 13). I wrote about this a year ago. See PressThink, Why Karen Ryan Deserved What She Got.
If you’re interested in this story, which I call de-certifying the press, a must read (for Friday March 10) is Dan Froomkin, Hughes’s Return Is a Blow for Rove. It may be that the “hostile” formation in the press room is a result of Rove Hegemony, and Hughes, a “communication” specialist, will change that. Froomkin’s backgrounder explains all of it.
For the full exchange see Rosen (Feb. 25), then Kurtz (March 3), then Rosen(March 4), then Kurtz (March 8), then today’s post (Rosen, March 10).
Do read the Wall Street Journal on “pool reports,” which used to circulate only among the White House correspondents, now becoming widely-distributed by e-mail and changing tenor. A transparency story. Alas, the “club” of correspondents is not a club if it can’t control some information.
Froomkin in his Briefing (March 9):
Here and there, you can hear a new melody emerging in the press coverage of President Bush, and it goes something like this: Bush is a historic figure, the Ronald Reagan of the Middle East, whose heroic invasion of Iraq is a historic turning point for worldwide democracy tantamount to the fall of Berlin Wall.
In comments, learn how a PressThink reader solves the “empty briefing” problem using Blackberry pagers, the Web, and color-coded pie charts. Clever!
Forget “who is a journalist,” Dave Pell wants to know: Who is a Blogger? Is Rosen a blogger? “Yeah, he has a blog, but his site is hosted by his employers at NYU. Is that the same as if he had his own separate brand?” No, it isn’t.
Fishbowl DC was there, In the Press Room of the White House that is Post Press: “We certainly heard Rosen’s point in the frustration in the voices of reporters at the gaggle and briefing this week. They’re tired of the obsfucation game, but until a better alternative can be created, they’re stuck with it.”
Jeff Gannon doesn’t read well, but he is funny. It’s not an act; the humor is part of the man. Here’s what he wrote at his site about this post: “Jay Rosen at PressThink criticizes the White House press corps for not asking more evocative questions.” (I didn’t.) “Perhaps the treatment I got for doing just that is the reason they don’t.” (See what I mean? Funny.)
More from Dan Froomkin’s lively chat with Post readers, March 9:
Gaithersburg, Md.: Has anyone ever tried to ask McLellan as obtuse, obfuscatory and non-substantive a question as the resposes he provides? (Feed him his own dog food, no offense to dog food mfrs.)
Something like, “Scott, to follow up on your previous answer, the president’s views being well known, and understanding that we are working together with our allies on a number of these fronts, can we say that it is finally time to put aside partisan differences, take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and, in conclusion, would that be the administrations stance on this and some other issues, tangential nonetheless, as a matter of policy or in practical terms?”
How about a whole briefing of such questions?
Dan Froomkin: Get a daypass, pal.
I was on CNN’s Newsnight with Aaron Brown to discuss Dan Rather’s final night in the anchor’s chair (March 9). Transcript here.
Reading A1 (March 2): “The professionalization of journalism, the elevation of the press into an independent actor outside-but-not-outside the state, a Fourth Estate, is a defining feature of the post-World War II American governing consensus.”
Correct. And so the clarifying question to ask about George W. Bush right now is whether he’s in inside or outside that consensus. You know my view. He and his White House are well outside it, and therefore they are making history. They are innovators. They deserve credit for demonstrating a different way exists. De-certify and replace. Eliminate the independent interlocutor’s role as a standard part of the Presidency.
They’re three-quarters of the way there, in my opinion.
Mark Jurkowitz of the Boston Globe did an overview of the de-certification story. He got the official line from the White House on discrediting and marginalizing the press. (Good work, Mark.) An email from press secretary Scott McClellan to the Globe says:
”The President’s every move and every decision is closely monitored and constantly covered by the national media,” he wrote. ”The idea that you can ‘circumvent’ the national media is somewhat absurd. He recognizes the important role the national media plays in keeping the American people informed about the decisions being made in Washington, and it is a way for us to get our message out about the President’s agenda.”
In other words, there’s no story.
It needed to be said and Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate, said it: Journalists, if you’re uncomfortable with the clamor on the Net, you’re uncomfortable with democracy. Go, Jake… Who Is a Journalist? Anybody who wants to be.
Insitutionalized journalists argue that bloggers don’t do conventional reporting, aren’t accurate, aren’t responsible, or aren’t paid—and hence are not genuine reporters. They fret that the current influx of amateurs will undermine professional standards or that seasoned professionals will be unfairly brought down by an electronic lynch mob, as some posit that Dan Rather of CBS and Eason Jordan of CNN were.
Disregard all such self-interested whining. The breakdown of what once were formidable barriers to entry in the field of journalism is good news for democracy as a whole and for the press itself. The great cacophony of voices in the blogosphere means that more views are being represented, that more subjects are being examined in detail, and that more sunlight shines into institutions of all kinds. Thousands of bloggers ranting from their soapboxes mean that our political culture encompasses bracing debate about everything people disagree about. If you don’t like this raucous clamor emanating from cyberspace, you’re not really comfortable with democracy.
American Prospect presents Blogged Down. “Pseudo-journalistic Web sites are another way conservatives get around ‘the filter’ of mainstream media.”
Not only are most bloggers not journalists; increasingly they are also partisan operatives whose agendas are as ideological as they come. Using the cover of anonymity (many bloggers use pseudonyms), the cacophony of the relatively new medium, and the easily inflamed passions of the Web, these partisan political operatives are becoming experts at stirring up hornets’ nests of angry e-mails to editors, mounting campaigns to force advertisers to pull out of news shows, and, most disturbingly, spreading outright false information. The irony is that, at the same time this is happening, many in the mainstream media have decided it’s finally time to take bloggers seriously.
Jon Carroll in the San Francisco Chronicle:
The stand-alone journalists are here, and they are digging out facts and leading crusades. They are also printing gossip and distorting facts — but hey, so are we. It is about time that all the media folks began working together for the common good, defending reporters and bloggers in trouble and, by the way, outing our own when they mess up.
Stuffiest column yet about blogs by a traditional journalist. Simon Jenkins in the Times of London. The Daily Ablution (from the pen of Scott Burgess in London) takes Jenkins apart.
These Old Media Guy dumps on bloggers, value added zero columns are basically comedy writing now. Why shouldn’t the Brits pick up the form? Welcome, Times of London. The Jenkins entry we rate a 3.5, which is not bad for a beginner. See Harry if you’re curious about a Brit blogger.
Posted by Jay Rosen at March 10, 2005 12:39 AM
I think this is refreshing to focus on the White House press, rather than the Administration, in an examination of why the White House press (as an example of the dominant media generally) has de-legitimized itself in the eyes of conservatives and an increasing number of moderates.
Why has the press de-legitimized itself? I'm afraid it has become all too clear: Because the dominant media's reporting, by and large, is not fair and balanced, but tilted left. We know this not by deduction or suspicion, but by admission against interest from within the dominant media (epirical evidence, as some define it), to wit:
"Like every other institution, the Washington and political press corps operate with a good number of biases and predilections. They include, but are not limited to, a near-universal shared sense that liberal political positions on social issues like gun control, homosexuality, abortion, and religion are the default, while more conservative positions are "conservative positions" ... The worldview of the dominant media can be seen in every frame of video and every print word choice that is currently being produced about the presidential race." - ABC News The Note, Mark Halperin, et. al, February 10, 2004.
"Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper? Of course it is...These are the social issues: gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation, among others. And if you think The Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you’ve been reading the paper with your eyes closed." - Dan Okrent, New York Times Ombudsman, July 25, 2004
"The old argument that the networks and other "media elites" have a liberal bias is so blatantly true that it's hardly worth discussing anymore. No, we don't sit around in dark corners and plan strategies on how we're going to slant the news. We don't have to. It comes naturally to most reporters." - Bernard Goldberg, CBS News, in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, February 13, 1996.
I understand that many in the press on the left would prefer to ignore the foregoing, for reasons of pride, passion, political advantage, or lack of curiosity about their own culpability in their de-legitimization. But our liberal friends in the dominant media must focus on their own role and failures, and the consequent remediation that will naturally arise from such a broadminded exploration, if they are to regain their former luster.
The WH press corps can use collective action to reflect McLellan's "withering gaze" back at him:
Give each member of the corps a Blackberry, through which they can log into a proprietary website that is setup exclusively for press corps reporters. During the press conference, as McLellan responds to questions, reporters judge each response as ANSWER or NON-ANSWER on their Blackberries. The results are aggregated anonymously in a pie chart. TV news presents this pie chart in in a box in the corner of their broadcasts for the viewers at home to see in real-time.
When McLellan dodges a question or goes off track, the viewers at home will see a mostly red circle. When he answers a question, the viewers see a mostly green circle. (In print, individual statements from McLellan can be annotated with a % of "answerness" in parenthesis.)
With this green/red feedback staring him in the face, McLellan has 2 choices: start giving answers or keep giving non-answers.
If he starts giving answers, then all is well.
If he continues to give non-answers, the public will clearly see that the press isn't buying the non-answers. So, the public will spend its attention on competing sources of info on what the administration is doing. Then, as Jay points out, the adminstiration will either start giving answers, or stop giving press conferences. Since the administration won't want to stop giving press conferences, it will start giving answers.
This system doesn't measure whether the reporters think a response is true or false--just whether the response is an answer. The wonks are still the ones who judge the quality of an answer.
If the factory threatens to fire workers who refuse to work under abusive conditions, workers can resist through collective action. When the white house threatens to deny access to reporters who refuse to accept non-answers, they can resist through collective action. By working together and keeping it anonymous, the reporters in the WH press corps can avoid individual reprecussions. At the same time, reporters can't game this to give individual reporters individual benefits. Either they're all working together and getting answers, or they're getting the same old run around.
Reporters of the world, unite!
MSM Didn't hear too much opposition to Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy (both times) from the 'liberal' press.
This is ridiculous. There was huge and constant and continuing opposition to Bush's tax cuts (for the rich!).
And it was lies.
Definitional Fact: a "tax cut for the rich" would mean that, after the tax cut, the top 10% of tax payers (or top 20% or top 5%) would pay a SMALLER percentage of the tax collected.
But after Bush's tax cuts, for all tax payers, the top 10% payers paid a HIGHER percentage of the tax collected.
Complaining about tax cuts for the wealthy is an implicit LIE -- one the Left has been repeating for years.
The fact is, the Dems say "tax the rich to help the poor", but really mean "tax the super-rich to help the rich", and enact "tax everybody as much as they can," especially small business owners (the ones who usually create the most jobs).
It's prolly true that the amoral business of making money in a newspaper means the money grubbing owners are willing to accept plenty of social Leftist clap-trap, as long as they can keep making money. Usually meaning at least an implicit pro-advertiser economic environment.
Now I wonder if "socially liberal" phrases and causes aren't the deliberately pushed opiates of the intelligentsia.
Since the WH press corps is not going to break stories -- it should be getting more real facts, and background facts, on the political issues. Who favors what changes, and what they think the outcomes will be from those changes [future].
And who voted for previous changes that seem to be the cause of current problems -- as compared to realistic alternatives. Blame for prior mistakes seems to be what the Bush haters do about Iraq, but they fail to compare Bush's results to obvious, likely alternatives (more Saddam). It's no surprise that if the press is just going to do the lazy, easy half: blame Bush for everything bad, each death, kidnapping, friendly fire mistake ... but never compare to the alternative, there's no good reason Bush's administration should support such "nattering nabobs of negativity".
Man, I don't think you guys get it... I like Howard Kurtz & generaly agree with much of what he says.
From my perspective though, I can not for the life of me figure out why the press is just now waking up to some of the facts of the way the administration does buisness.
First of all, does anyone not think that Fox, for whatever motivation, is anything other than their propaganda machine?
Secondly, let's not pretend that being branded a Liberal is anything other than one of the worst labels these people foist upon anyone they don't like. Oh, you could be a gay liberal, but the latter pretty much makes them wonder if you don't have the former going on too. In any case, at that point the obvious question is if you're Islamic, or from someplace they don't approve much of. Like uh, Canada, or Mexico, unless you're the janitor.
The problem is that if you don't agree with them, you really don't matter much do you? This includes the press, not just all of us shlubs out here wondering if the plant's going to reopen, or if we're going to get replaced by some guy who's not from here.
The rule of thumb seems to be if you are not us then you do not matter. Agree, die, go to prison, or lose your rights.
The economy is going to be a total shambles, the -spreading- communist meance of China just continues to grow, fueled by the screwing of average Americans everywhere, and mostly no one cares.
People don't recognise oligarchical control when it's staring them in the face at all either. Well, sometimes they sort of know, but they sure don't do much about it. Wal-mart being a great example. Take your basic communist party store, fill it chock full of craptastic junk made using anything from forced prison labor, to indentured servituded (common), to just the outright basic explotation of the populace, & paint it red white and blue, and well, you've got a winner.
But every dollar that goes there really costs what??? Somewhere between the $1.00 x N at the cash register at Wal-Mart, and the pesant woman just into the city from out in the boondocks someplace who is not allowed to move out of her rathole apartment, or get a new job, there's a spread. And that spread is built on treating her like pure crap, and playing with the value of their money. The US pays petty lip service to doing anything about it, but is happy to offshore anything that buisness wants to send.
There is some obvious structuring for disaster here, but the press acts blind.
Perhaps it's cause the press is just as lacking in control as anyone who doesn't agree with the Administraation is.
At the end of 4 years, buisness, all buisness in America, will have more rights than individuals. And there won't be much done about it. The "press" won't do anything, as they're all owned by large buisnesses.
As for trade, well, no one's going to get real about it anytime soon. The fact of the matter is the US ought to go to great lengths to cut the trade deficit, it'd be the best thing to do for the rest of the world too. But we never will... See, if we did, all that crap would have to start to go to people who can't afford the stuff as well as people in the US... Impovrishing US citizens isn't the way to do it though, however that's mostly what's going on...
This thing isn't truely anonymous, and it may bounce me, but we'll see... if it was, see there'd be no logs. Where is it written that there must be logs? Hah find that law, cause ya can't.
Jay, I have to say I'm a bit miffed by your suggestion that the press corpse rise from the grave and walk out right at this particular moment since, if the president is in town next week, that'll be my first opportunity to send someone into one of the briefings.
Dan Weintraub's suggestion that high-quality coverage of the White House can take place anywhere is, I think, accurate. Which means that among the places high-quality White House coverage can take place is in the White House. The problem isn't locale, although I'm sure the ambience and historic surroundings contribute to an overly genteel press corps; it's what's happening. And if one can fact-check the snot out of the White House at home in one's pajamas, which can be and is done all the time, there's no reason at all one can't do it at the White House in a suit.
One of my goals for my White House correspondent (and I'm still having trouble saying "correspondent" without stuttering) is to get cogent questions on record, whether they're answered or not, and, in part per a suggestion from Matt Stoller, to present questions sent into the blog by readers, print the response and then check the response against reality.
Maybe Dana Milbank (who hasn't responded to my email) could do that by email or on the phone with the press office, but I sure can't.
Another of my goals is to canvass the press corps to get some ideas from them on what's wrong with the system and what their ideals for it would be. If they're scattered around the cyber universe, they won't be very accessible (see Dana Milbank above).
I got a little taste today of the contempt in which bloggers in general are held by much of the institutional press when I called in to NPR's Talk of the Nation and got seriously, if perhaps inadvertently, condescended to by both Neal Conan and his guest, Donald Ritchie, who has a new book out about the Washington press corps. Ritchie suggested that the press are wary of bloggers because of accuracy and responsibility issues. I wanted to respond by pointing him to Steve Lovelady's snowed-under press screwups blog and Bob Novak or Ann Coulter, but was cut off before I had the opportunity.
One lesson I took from the incident is that it's foolish to call a talk show while sitting on a sea wall in Waikiki because one can get so distracted as to forget to mention one's blog address. The other is that some among the institutional press are operating on a level of unconscious irony so elevated that it's probably described in the DSM-IV somewhere.
So: my suggestion for curing the malaise is to do what everyone says, ask tough questions and report it if they're not answered, and risk losing access to the high-level sources who provide the top-echelon press with the misinformation the latter require for their daily deadlines.
The last thing I want to mention is that I am beginning to see the reaction of institutional journalists to bloggers as not so much one of contempt but of fear. Bloggers have one thing reporters lack, or think they lack, which is time, and they lack one thing reporters have, or think they have, which is the risk of alienating sources by being hard on them. What that means to me is that bloggers are rapidly becoming reportorial competition, and soon, I think, economic competition as well.
Ok my previous screed aside, I got here by being somewhat incensed by the behavior of Apple. I rather foolishly wanted to go see what the "press" thought, & somehow ended up here.
What no one seems to want to realize is that anyone who says anything at all on the internet in either a recorded or unrecorded manner is "the press" anyplace, anytime. What matters is what you say, and who you say it to, and how you say it. Not where you say it.
Therein lies an American right too. The press, in the vision and definition of the founders, was not confined to those who owned newspapers. It applied to anyone who wanted to write something up and nail it to a tree. By hand at that. This in a time when by far not everyone could even read. Much less write.
Let me ask you this, no matter how illmannered, or badly scribed, if I make some mark of my own, and it exists to be archived and printed long after my death, is not that mark as good as any published on paper? Who published the Federalist Papers, or Towards Utopia for all that matter? Did those peoples mark stand the test of time? My words will be archived long beyond my death, here and elsewhere. They can and do stand by themselves.
The problem the "press" faces, is that the net gives the machinery of the press to everyone. The only people who want to repress this are the scared and the ignorant too. The fact is the words are out there, and the harder people try to erase things, the more life they take on.
It should come as no surprise that Apples buisness side is at total odds with it's creative side. On one hand they pimp `individual creativity' to the masses, but on the other they eat their young. This diecotomy is also true in the buisness of news, & politics too.
What's news is a we thing though, and if there's no voice given to any question, or any answer, by anyone, the communication model starts breaking down. Then what you get is not news based on any shared morality or sustained interest, but rather entertainment that's cravenly supplied to produce profit, or produce a result, without resort to reason or facts.
As for what matters, well, you can't tell me that there arn't congressmen & senators, or many state govenors who wouldn't like to have -extended- press coverage about things like fiscal conservatisim, which you folks treat like is some DoA thing? Why? Or yet another attempt to drill oil where we really don't need to be drilling oil. Why not leave Alaska alone in fact? Why not study the crap out of it's "potential" and talk about potential methods of extraction ad-nauseum, & use efficency figures and the rest of actual science to help curb fuel use & and pressure the price of oil directly? But does anyone even try? Not really, no not when there's the people's property to steal and loot.
I used to think there were things my country wouldn't do, like torture people after all the crap that happened in Viet-Nam. But no, instead, now there's "extrodinary rendition", and keeping citizens without any rights or trial, torture, murder, & legal justification coming from DoJ for all of it.
Can you travel anyplace in the USA anymore without your papers comrade? I do not think so. I hear rumor that the secret police want to tap everyone's phones too. Hah, who would be so dumb as to think they wouldn't eh?
When I grew up, I was rather precocious, and would read "Readers Digest" because it was all I could lay my hands on that wasn't "see spot run". I read it religiously even though I didn't agree with some of it as I got to be a teenager. Back then, the cold war was still "on". And stories of escape from repression and imprisonment under harrowing circumstances from communist strongholds were a prominent political theme. Today, I can if I chose, read stories of similar sounding escapes from my own country. Wny is there no news of rights in any but the most utterly banal of terms?
I knew something was wrong in 2000 when Dennis Hastert sent his staff down to disrupt the vote count in Florida, and no one cared becasue it was "privately financed" by some rich donor. It was obvious the whole thing would be a wash no matter what from that point on, but no one cared what he did, and few reported on it for more than a few moments. Those who did know who you are, and I certainly remember which organizations who crowd these affairs knew and mostly ignored this...
Ask yourself though, how many "associations" are there in the DC Metro area? And all the other lobbying flavors? How many of them represent the common interests of normal people outside of a buisness context?
What you don't realize is that everyone is starting slowly to have the conversation they want to, without being told so much what to do. Power hates this somehow. I won't claim to understand it that much but it's quite observable.
500 years from now, I will be dead and gone, but there are at this point odds that what I've written tonite will be someplace that long. If I was born 200 years ago, this would not be true. But I could still be "the press" all by myself. I could write up anonymous waybills, & nail them to trees. I could stand on a box and say my news & ring a bell when I did it, and I would be press.
To try to pretend that anyone can not do this is sort of foolish. Apple is silly for not seeing this, and history will take a hard look at what's gone on in Amercia in the past decade before too long. I doubt it's going to be half as pretty as we'd all wish.
There is no bar to scandal anymore really, and that's half your problem. One party government is a great evil, and it's starting to show. That's your other problem, in that there's nothing you can do about any of the wrong when it comes to those who lead.
MSM, just especially for you, more admission against interest from the dominant media on the press' liberal bias on fiscal issues (and on credulity about WMD "lies" as a bonus):
"Like every other institution, the Washington and political press corps operate with a good number of biases and predilections...
They include a belief that government is a mechanism to solve the nation's problems; that more taxes on corporations and the wealthy are good ways to cut the deficit and raise money for social spending and don't have a negative affect on economic growth; and that emotional examples of suffering (provided by unions or consumer groups) are good ways to illustrate economic statistic stories...
It does not accept the proposition that the Bush tax cuts helped the economy by stimulating summer spending...
The press, by and large, does not accept President Bush's justifications for the Iraq war -- in any of its WMD, imminent threat, or evil-doer formulations. It does not understand how educated, sensible people could possibly be wary of multilateral institutions or friendly, sophisticated European allies...
The worldview of the dominant media can be seen in every frame of video and every print word choice that is currently being produced about the presidential race." - Mark Halperin, et. al., ABC News The Note, February 10, 2004.
Pretty clearly, the left's counter-claim of rightward media bias, hinged on fiscal issues, is a canard that some on the left find useful in providing cover for the dominant media's claim of objectivity. You recall that maintaining a facade of objectivity is helpful in promulgating (chiefly liberal) ideas via news reporting, since a presumed impartial referee has more credibility to most than an ideologue.
The left's largely disingenuous claim of conservative media bias is their attempt to fight fire with fire: "You say left, I'll say right and cancel you out." This smoke screen is hinged on fiscal issues because, well, the support machinery for dominant media outlets operates on business principles in a capitalist system, which by golly is to the right of Communism - - so from that perspective (alone) the left can plausibly say that media is to the right of their position.
Of course, upon examination, your average moderate can typically see the left's counter-claim of conservative media bias for the out-of-touch silliness that it is.
Jay, I've been mulling over the issue of press credibility for some time. 'Decertification' implies a certified press - and that is certainly how professional journalists have seen themselves for some time - with very mixed results.
About the time of Watergate, Vietnam (and perhaps the Civil Rights Movement as well - certainly around the time when public demonstrations by baby boomers were all the rage) a new tone crept into reporting, it seems to me. That tone included overt self-congratulation on the part of journalists for the moral and intellectual superiority of the press vs. (especially) politicians and the military, plus those who supported them.
That stance ultimately eroded the credibility and support for the press among all who didn't automatically share the same political and social stance that has been documented as dominant among professional journalists at influential news organizations.
Here's my dilemma. I'm not a knee-jerk supporter of the Bush administration. I'm not a registered (or unregistered) Republican. But neither can I stomach much of the empty posturing that my own generation has indulged for several decades now.
The role of Fourth Estate isn't a God-given or Constitutional right. Perhaps we need to go back to the first major use of the phrase to remind ourselves of its genesis:
Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact, .... Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, I say often, is equivalent to Democracy: invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable. ..... Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures: the requisite thing is that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite. – Carlyle, On Heroes and Hero Worship
The Internet is the new printing press, of course - especially now that streaming video is so easy to generate and share.
I don't have any easy answers. The Press *function* is an important one for our democracy.
The current Press *corps* OTOH has eroded its own market hearing to the point where the White House can in fact challenge it openly. Given the arrogance and performance of many journalists and their corporate employers during the last 3 decades, I'm not sure that challenge is unwarranted.
At the same time, I haven't forgotten that those on the right, especially the hard right, have made it a political aim to undermine what they see as a hostile press corps. I have no desire to have one unaccountable press corps replaced by another that just leans the other way.
Weldon: I can understand the miff. Here I am downgrading the importance of something you just conned your way into-- legitmately conned, I mean. Through the official channels that should exist for bloggers to cover the White House.
The only way to establish that they do exist, the channels, is to try to use them. That is why I urged you and others on. Let's establish that right. This is totally an act of bloggery that advances the form, and so you should stick with it, and get a local blogger to be your DC correspondent. I think it's cool.
If we're going to have a press corps based there, and it will not, in a practical sense, have the right to question the powers in residence on Pennsylvania Avenue, then I am probably against it being there, since it cannot do the thing we most need it to do, and that is to question what's going on and offer explanations independent of White House wisdom.
The press has legitimate business in the White House if it can be an effective interlocutor, and if it can't, there's no violation of any law and no crisis in governance, but there is a crisis in that form of journalism because being spun and stonewalled and o-pacified twice a day isn't journalism.
Therefore I am also invetigating alternatives, like quit the thing. Take the outside route. My weblog is called Press-Think. So that is what we do-- think of alternatives is part of it.
If there's going to be a White House press corps, I want you and bloggers like Garrett Graff and many others in on it, for sure. Maybe you can breathe life into a dying opportunity. And as you can see I gave quite a bit of attention to what Graff wrote, as against celebrating some abstract blog "first."
The best thing he did was come with fresh eyes and ears. He re-described it. That's why we found it so absorbing, I feel.
Jay: Some readers don't seem to realize that the political press could deserve repudiation--as in, you failed! you're responsible big time for this low point!--and Bush could be doing something very dangerous, at the same time.
Obviously you aren't referring to me:
4/29/2004: This is not to suggest that there aren't absolute reasons to shine the cold harsh light of the dawn on poorly thought-out ideas in the Bush administration. For instance, the willingness of John Ashcroft to trash the Constitution to protect the flag comes easily to mind. But the problem with the "Bush Thesis" is that it gallops off irrelevantly across the countryside on peripheral issues when it is the simple issues that need to be addressed.
10/29/2004: [McGill is] reminding us that, as wise as it is to guard against others, it is wise to guard against ourselves, too.
11/11/2004: Rosen suggests that "George W. Bush has changed them into an interest group and undone their identity as the Fourth Estate." That sentence is either true or a mistake -- or worse, true AND a mistake. Suppose that George W. Bush didn't change the press into an interest group. Suppose the press brought it on themselves and George W. Bush, the unwelcomed messenger, simply recognized it.
11/21/2004: But I will not sit by and have "faith" hurled at this administration like an accusation of witchcraft in Salem 300 years ago. Accuse the administration of many things -- stupidity, conviction, ignorance, politics, venality, bad management -- but such a shoddy piece of conjecture as Suskind's doesn't make Bush a Falwell, a Bennett, or a Jim Jones. ... Meanwhile, Jay, you and other journalism professionals have better work to do. For decades the concept of news has been at risk. Now it is under concerted attack. and needs your defense.
2/13/2004: At some time in journalism the subject became "investigative journalism" instead of how to report thoroughly and well. When "Gotcha!" became the guideline, it was unfair to readers and viewers, newsmakers, and true, hardworking journalists. When "Gotcha!" became the guideline, it provided the rationalization "handlers" needed to justify their misbehavior.
2/26/05: And if, in the end, Rove is a villain, and Bush is what is said of him, that still gives the press that covers them no excuse for practicing poor journalism.
2/28/2005: A sturdy scrutiny of the administration press corps is in order. PressThink is absolutely the right place to consider how to encourage excellence in their journalism that will make "Stiff-ya" not only unnecessary, but show it to be the bad form we all know it to be.
Lets get real here...
The press isn't liberal, and the problems that the press is having has nothing to do with the press being liberal.
Newspapers aren't loosing readership because the press has lost credibility. They are losing readership because people don't read anymore. Reading requires effort, and people can't be bothered making that effort, especially when they can sit in front of a screen and think that they are finding out everything they need to know.
Network news isn't losing viewership because it has lost credibility. They are losing viewership because most people now have about 100 other ways to spend the half hour between 6:30 and 7:00 PM (on the East Coast) in front of a screen, and they can get their "news" elsewhere anytime they want.
The fact is that credibility is not even an issue for most people. If people thought that telling the truth was important, if people held accountable those who distorted the facts or flat out lied to them, Bush would not be in the White House---hell, he would have been impeached two years ago.
The press is out of touch with the American people because its the job of the press to care about the truth, and what is happening in the world, and the nation, and in local communities. And the American people don't care about any of that. What they care about is being told that they are good people, and that they should never be inconvenienced by having to understand the world in which they live.
When something happens that upsets their cocooned existence, they turn to the press to find out what the hell happened. Once they are reassured again, they go back to their cocoon.
Now, "the press" is at least partially to blame for this, because in pursuit of ratings and circulation they have trivialized "the news" to the point where most of what passes for news is trivia. It really doesn't matter if we have an effective White House press corps or not, because the question of whether or not Michael Jackson diddled young boys is more important than whether or not the US is disappearing people to be tortured in secret CIA bases, or exporting people to countries where they will be subject to unspeakable treatment in the name of "the war on terror."
People would rather hear about Michael Jackson because they can feel superior to him, and feeling superior is always a nice way to feel. People certainly don't want to hear about how their government is involved in torture because it feels bad when they realize that they are responsible for empowering those who are responsible for torture, and they don't want to feel bad.
Jay's discussion of how Bush is self-consciously "de-certifying the press" resonates strongly with Hunter's (at dKos) superb diary on "fencing,"
the Republican practice of discrediting candidates and media sources so a debate on issues can't even take place. Frames on issues don't even matter when opponents have their minds made up and aren't even interested in debating the issues (The treatment of Farenheit 9/11 is a good example. Rather than refuting it, perhaps a majority of Repubs simply refused to see it on principle.)
It's easy to say "read the bills, dig into the background, and tell us what they're not saying." Many bloggers already do this daily. The response from the other side is that they are "creating news." The response is the "fencing" maneuver that these unreliably Republican sources must be excluded from the acceptable stream of discussion (this is the Hugh Hewitt, Powerline, Thune-blog job description in a nutshell as a more media target-specific second layer beyond Rush Limbaugh).
In other words, for a large swathe of any readership, "simply reporting" as Jay and Scott call for is the definition of hostile liberal press activism. For this group, anything beyond Bush administration propaganda is defined as "making" rather than "reporting" news. The constant inability to communicate on the comments section to this great blog is a testament to how deeply held these mutually exclusive world views are.
Anyone have a clue about how to actually get broad public exposure to facts discovered from "read[ing] bills, dig[ging] into the background, and tel[ling] us what they're not saying"?
It happens routinely already (at dKos, Informed Comment, Talking Points Memo, Atrios, Indy-weblogs, and many other sites) and is just as routinely dismissed as partisan hackery, misrepresentation, or hatred. How do we get past the filter in the reading public for whom one reader's "reality-based community" is another reader's "fence" of decertification? At this point, the ideological aspect of decertification and legitimizing the social function of reporting cannot be separated from one another.
What would rebuilding trust in the press look like? Hugh Hewitt and Amy Goodman's views on how to reestablish trust would't agree on much. What would reestablish trust for Hewitt would even further degrade it in my eyes. Moving in the direction of Goodman would degrade it for all who are closer to Hewitt. For this very reason, we are in the process of instituting competing media universes. Is that the only solution?
Jay is trying to ask what might make the current system work better. He observes that Bush has made a move here toward decertification. Understanding this strategy does involve the realization that White House reporting has effectively stopped, but it also involves realizing that it has been effectively delegitimized in the eyes of many. Reviving the practice of actually reporting on the White House would add something we don't have under the current system, but it doesn't begin to address the consequences of a strategy that seeks to delegitimize the very act of posing questions to the Commander in Chief that stray from the party line. That defines reality with the party line.
How is it that the Bush Republicans on this thread continue to SIMULTANEOUSLY believe that Bush is not doing anything new AND that the press is getting what they deserve because they decertified themselves years ago? Does this refusal to think mean that rational discussion is simply impossible from here on out? What are the alternatives?