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March 21, 2005

From Meet the Press to Be the Press

The Economist just said it: the "the traditional notion that the media play a special role in informing people is breaking down." Rising up: government as a "purely neutral" news provider, credible where a sinking press corps is not.

I see (via that The Economist is now on the case I have been calling de-certification of the press. This, I think, is a significant development.

Video news releases are more of an issue today because government-provided news is more of a reality, the article says. (It’s subscribers only.) The Economist agrees, and so do I, that TV news directors are the ones primarily responsible if government-issue “news” gets through the filter and on the air. But it then goes on to describe what is happening to the press under Bush, and the new attitude the President has wrought:

So is the Bush administration in the clear? Not really. It is on record as saying that there is nothing special about the press: it is just another interest group. As Andy Card, the White House chief of staff, has put it, the administration does not think that the press has “a check-and-balance function”. This is a fundamental change of attitude compared with previous administrations and makes this one’s use of fake news different.

I agree: a fundamental change is afoot, and we have to try to understand it. The Economist zeroes in on why the “special interest” charge matters. Listen carefully— they’re catching on:

If there is nothing special about the press, then there is nothing special about what it does. News can be anything—including dressed-up government video footage. And anyone can provide it, including the White House, which, through local networks, can become a news distributor in its own right. Given the proliferation of media outlets and the eroding of boundaries between news, comment and punditry, someone will use government-provided information as news.

“In short,” says the magazine, “the traditional notion that the media play a special role in informing people is breaking down.” It’s true. And that is the development I am calling de-certification, because the traditional idea is not breaking down by itself. It has assistance and intervention from above. The Economist brings it home:

Behind all this lies a shift in the balance of power in the news business. Power is moving away from old-fashioned networks and newspapers; it is swinging towards, on the one hand, smaller news providers (in the case of blogs, towards individuals) and, on the other, to the institutions of government, which have got into the business of providing news more or less directly. Eventually, perhaps, the new world of blogs will provide as much public scrutiny as newspapers and broadcasters once did. But for the moment the shifting balance of power is helping the government behemoth.

And for the moment the government behemoth is helping itself to a status that is increasingly being denied to the press: that of a neutral, disinterested, just-the-facts style information provider. It is quite a switch.

De-certification, as I have called it, has these two faces. One is about putting journalists in a diminished place, as in: Don’t answer their questions, it only encourages the askers to think they’re legitimate interlocutors, proxies for the public. And they’re not, in the White House view. (That’s what the briefing room struggle is all about. Getting that “not” across.)

But there’s the other side of it: what the Bush Administration does to “inform the public” is described as purely factual, a noble service, while the traditional press is dismissed as inherently biased, unrepresentative, unable to serve the general interest Americans have in informing themselves. These rising and falling motions are deeply connected. Discrediting traditional journalism helps in accrediting government as a more reliable news provider.

Dana Milbank of the Washington Post explained part of it in a Sunday column (March 20). “In the past,” he wrote, “the key to winning in politics was to control the information. Now, when information has no controls, the key is making your information credible and casting doubt on other information — such as that found in the mainstream press.”

We can observe this happening in the recent action around video news releases. (For background and key documents see Media Citizen. Also see Salon’s Eric Boehlert.) In January, the Government Accounting Office (GAO), the accountability arm of Congress, issued another opinion declaring illegal the Administration’s use of video news releases “that failed to disclose to the viewing audience that they had been produced and distributed by a government agency.” It had been requested by Democrats in the House.

The GAO opinion grew out of the Karen Ryan case, in which a fake reporter, hired by the government, read from a script that made it seem like she was engaged in real news-gathering.

On March 11, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel issued a counter-memo advising government agencies to ignore the GAO opinion. Justice said the Comptroller General of the U.S. is wrong, and common sense is wrong too, for in fact “it is legal for federal agencies to feed TV stations prepackaged news stories that do not disclose the government’s role in producing them,” as the Washington Post story put it.

When I examined the Administration’s counter-memo explaining why it’s okay to distribute deliberately deceptive material, purporting to be the results of an independent inquiry by professional journalists, one thing jumped out at me: The memo is at its most aggressive when it refers to “purely informational VNRs.”

That phrase, “purely informational,” is used to describe the kind of video news releases the Bush Administration makes. These aren’t the selective highlighting of facts the client wants to play up (so the client pays up) which is what VNR’s are universally understood to be in the industry that makes them. Legitimate advocacy providing legitimate news.

No, a Federal VNR, though produced by the same pros who work in the industry, is a “purer” product, a lot more like what we once thought was straight news. The Office of Legal Counsel boasts of the “purely informational nature” of the government’s PR message, different from “undisclosed advocacy,” even though the undisclosed part may be true. It includes this remarkable passage:

OLC does not agree with GAO that the “covert propaganda” prohibition applies simply because an agency’s role in producing and disseminating information is undisclosed or “covert,” regardless of whether the content of the message is “propaganda.” Our view is that the prohibition does not apply where there is no advocacy of a particular viewpoint, and therefore it does not apply to the legitimate provision of information concerning the programs administered by an agency.

Read carefully, that says it’s okay for the government’s hidden hand to operate in the television news Americans see because the Bush Adminstration, through its Office of Legal Counsel, has determined that the Bush Administration, when it undertakes to provide the public with news, has motives and methods that do not, in any way, include advocacy. There is no “particular viewpoint” in the fake news spots, no message like: Bush Administration on the case.

According to the government, the government’s aims are purely informational— like the reporting in mainstream journalism was ideally supposed to be, back when it was supposed to inform the public, and offer an independent check on government’s tendency to tell tales. Back when “meet the press” was part of governing the country. Before “be the press” occurred to anyone in the Executive Branch.

The Administration says that it is easily capable of the kind of strict separation of advocacy and information that the press, renamed the Liberal Media, is mostly incapable of today, according to some in the Administration, according to many who are allies, according to all who are involved on that front in the Culture War where the “MSM” is seen as a discredited force (yet still in need of toppling.)

Journalists have an agenda. Government information officers just deal in facts. The same argument was heard during Attorney General John Ashcroft’s early bird de-certification special in 2003. Ashcroft, as you’ll recall, banned print reporters from questioning him during his speaking tour on behalf of the Patriot Act. (Todd Gitlin and I wrote about it.)

Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock says her boss, with few exceptions, is only granting short interviews to local TV stations as a way of “explaining key facts directly to the American people and not having as much of a filter from people who are already invested in having a different view of it.”

The journalists have a slanted view of it. The Attorney General is just trying to explain key facts. His purposes are informational. Who’s the better journalist, Ashcroft or the press?

While today ninety-nine percent of the clients who pay for the production of a video news release about their work want it to highlight the great work being done, in Bushland there is, we’re told, none of that stuff. No spin allowed, guys and gals. Just the facts, Uncle Sam.

Now according to the Public Relations Society of America, voice of the industry that makes VNR’s (and that created the need for Karen Ryan) members should not impersonate journalists. “PRSA recommends that organizations that prepare VNRs should not use the word ‘reporting’ if the narrator is not a reporter.”

Thus the Justice Department recommends a lower standard of transparency for the government than the PR industry recommends for itself. The message to government departments is “keep impersonating the press on camera, it’s legal and it’s fine.” In the public relations industry, the standard is now mention in the script who produced this “news.” The Bush Administration says: not needed.

Why is this happening?

The Economist glimpsed it: the “the traditional notion that the media play a special role in informing people is breaking down.” Getting built up are the credentials of the Federal government as a credible and substitute news provider. Informing the public is what the government does quite well on its own, without interference from Congress and from special interests like the press.

“Purely informational.” To me it has a menacing sound. I suppose it applies also to the doubling of the PR budget under George W. Bush. (According to this House report.) Twice as much neutral information was needed, apparently.

As Frank Rich wrote in his column for this week, “The brakes are off, and before long, the government could have a larger budget for fake news than actual television news divisions have for real news.” (For more, see this report from the activist group freepress.)

In its front-page investigation of video news releases—a very welcome sight, published March 13—the New York Times noted that Federal agencies are careful to tell distributors of its news releases that the government is the producer of the simulated news therein. (Which is the entire legitimation method making it “okay” to make believe you’re a journalist.) The production itself is then free to “hide” the Federal hand, because under the rules of the game it’s disclosed— once.

The reports themselves, though, are designed to fit seamlessly into the typical local news broadcast. In most cases, the “reporters” are careful not to state in the segment that they work for the government. Their reports generally avoid overt ideological appeals. Instead, the government’s news-making apparatus has produced a quiet drumbeat of broadcasts describing a vigilant and compassionate administration.

The Times resists the Bush Adminstration’s description of its methods as “purely informational.” By such means a resistance movement may yet emerge. I would call this moment in the press room another sign of resistance. (Bush is asked: “Does it raise ethical questions about the use of government money to produce stories about the government that wind up being aired with no disclosure that they were produced by the government?”)

The Comptroller General, David Walker, is fighting back. Even if it’s legal to hide the government’s hand in news reporting, he says, is that the ethical standard Americans want from their government?

Walker represents opposition from Congress, which might be expected to resist an expansion of Executive power by acquisition of assets surrendered by the Fourth Estate when it ceased credibly to exist, according to the White House. Ultimately that’s what the clash of opinions—GAO vs. Justice—is about: not the Adminstration’s right to “manage” the news (old think), but to substitute itself for the increasingly discredited news media (new).

With the press being ground down, we don’t know who is the presidency’s legitimate interlocutor. The role seems to have gone missing. Within the Bush Bubble—and the “town meetings” on Social Security are a sad, infuriating example of this—it is understood that only safely screened supporters may rise to request a public explanation from the President. (Learn how extreme this is from the Post’s Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker.)

Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Briefing column for the Washington Post, says “the White House would appear to have established these bubble trips as standard operating procedure whenever the president wants to make his case to the American people.” Wow.

And that’s the standard that may replace “meet the press.” When Be the Press is fully established the new interlocutor of the Executive Branch will be the Executive Branch itself.

It was nice of The Economist to hope that individual actors in “the new world of blogs will provide as much public scrutiny as newspapers and broadcasters once did.” I don’t think that’s realistic right now, do you? Yet neither is the current course on which the White House press is set. There’s a routine, but there is no realism in that routine.

I see the Bush Team and Bush himself, acting through his counselor Karl Rove, as political innovators, first and last. (Not conservatives.) They are big picture people. They attempt what previous regimes would not. What all experience hath shewn does not impress or depress them. They have new wisdom to offer the world. They will gamble and go for the long gainer. They tend to change the game on you.

And, as journalists have told us, they’re disciplined, loyal, relentlessly on the same page— a true cadre. The Bush press policy, dumping the Fourth Estate and “news management” imagery, is a political innovation and shows the acumen of this Administration.

The innovation is in the coherence and totality of the approach, from the special interest argument, and the grinding newslessness of the briefings, to the fake news forms encouraged at the Department level, and how it all fits with the Bush Bubble, plus other simulations of the very things being lost— or being destroyed.

Here’s how I tried to describe it on the day after the ‘04 election:

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.

We’re in the twilight of that world. During its days of influence the citizens of the United States were represented twice when the President met the press for questions and answers. The President represented the people, the press represented the public.

Why two reps, why these two words? Because the same Americans who believe in popular sovereignty (election to office) believe too in public opinion (government by discussion.) The people elect the President. It’s the public’s job to continue the disscussion, and keep the light of public scrutiny on. The press does not represent the people— at all. It can represent the public’s stake in reliable information and vigorous debate.

During Bush’s first term he took a memorable swipe at reporters: “You’re assuming that you represent the public. I don’t accept that.” He might have been simply reminding journalists: you were not elected, and I was. Or he might have been saying something bolder and new: The American people don’t need to be twice represented anymore. Once is enough, and we are going to show you that.

Maybe it’s all coincidence, maybe not, but according to a report in the Washington Times, plans are underway to renovate the White House briefing room and press area, which would temporarily displace reporters to the Old Executive Office Building.

“It’s going to be like a house renovation,” said White House Correspondents Association President Ron Hutcheson. “The bottom line is this is necessary and could be a real benefit to the press corps. But my main concern is I want to make sure it’s not part of an effort to reduce our space or push us out of the West Wing.”

My main concern is a little different. This summer, the White House correspondents—in dialogue with colleagues, bosses, the public, and with history itself—need to renovate their ideas while the official press quarters are re-built. For them I have a hard question: why go back there at all? There may be good answers to that, but they can’t be the same answers, given what The Economist called a “fundamental change of attitude compared with previous administrations.”

The show is still running, but we’re no longer in the world of Meet the Press. Beat the press is more accurate. And be the press is an idea on the way.

After Matter: Notes, reaction & links…

Dan Froomkin at White House Briefing on how the emptiness of Bush’s Social Security road show is coming through in the local press coverage:

Ever since his State of the Union address, Bush has been riding Air Force One to and fro, holding campaign-style “conversations” on Social Security during which he typically says nothing new and provides no details of his proposal.

Up until now, not just local reporters but even the national ones as well have typically bent over backward to treat what Bush says at these events like news.

But today’s stories capture not so much what Bush says but what is most remarkable about these events: the stagecraft that goes into them and the exclusion of the general public in favor of screened supporters.

Hey, political reporters: How long before there is unrest in the Republican coalition over the Bush Bubble? Jacob Weisberg of Slate explains why the President’s supporters should be alarmed. The bubble, which appears to be the safe way, actually increases the risks to Bush:

The self-enclosed world of conservative spin increases the risk to the president by insulating him from the truth about how his plan is going over. Meeting only with handpicked audiences in rehearsed “town hall” meetings, Bush not only encounters little substantive challenge to his views but also avoids getting any realistic sense of how little traction his plan has gotten. In this way, the propaganda president risks becoming the real victim of his administration’s own fake news.

Special thanks and blogger’s hat tip to Ron Brynaert for information he kindly dug up and sent me. And also to Jeff Jarvis and several people who helped me with the Economist article.

Blogger, newspaper publisher and PressThink reader Stephen Waters has an idea: the White House should turn the briefing into a blog:

Looking back, the gaggle wasn’t our idea, it came from the major media. It gave you a daily feed to highlight network news and serve as a springboard for you to launch your own message, anyway. You’ll still be able to do that. Nothing much will change. On our website we will release video clips chosen to represent the news we feel the public needs to know. You can work those clips into your stand-ups. Bullet points of what we want to communicate are also on the website, not that you have to use them. Absence of news clips hasn’t stopped you in the past from filling up dead air with projection and conjecture from your stable of talking heads.

“Create our own discourse.” Digby suggests a fateful choice:

There is no partisan left wing media that can pound away at the stories that are damaging to Republicans thereby keeping the mainstream media focused and aware of the drumbeat. Indeed that is why many of us are advocating that we create such a thing. It’s been clear for more than a decade that the mainstream media responds almost unthinkingly to the deafening sounds of the right wing noise machine and now seems paralyzed by the power the Republican establishment exerts over it. They simply are incapable of speaking truth to power and employing the kind of skepticism that is required if this body politic is to be healthy.

…It’s a risky and frightening thing to do and I honestly don’t know where it will lead. But I think we have no choice but to enter this fray and just hope that we can keep things straight in our own minds.

I missed this the first time. Command Post on Fishbowl DC’s Garrett Graff being called the “first blogger” to be credentialed to the White House (via the day press he obtained.) Fishbowl DC is part of the Media Bistro empire.

Calling this Graff person a blogger is like calling the pimply kid who brings Brit Hume doughnuts a broadcaster.

A blogger pays his own bills. A blogger has comments, if at all possible. A blogger does his own writing or chooses a few friends to help. A blogger has trackbacks. A blogger links to other REAL bloggers, not the mainstream dorks Graff links to.

A blogger is not an “editor.” A blogger does not receive a salary, unless it’s from a corporation he himself formed as a result of making money from a genuine blog. A blogger does not have interns. A blogger—most importantly—has NO ONE to answer to.

Let’s see what happens to little Garrett if he ever goes against the people who pay his bills. Same thing that would happen to Wankette. A quick elevator ride to the sidewalk, and a hastily-chosen successor; probably a receptionist or a janitor with an English degree. New “blogger,” same “blog.” If you’re not essential to your blog’s identity, you are not a blogger. You are what is known in the trade as “a copywriter.”

By Command Post’s standards, BTC News (brainchild of PressThink reader and contributor Weldon Berger) was the “first” blogger in the White House press room.

Here’s an interesting advance in citizens journalism and the personal media revolution. Here’s another with great potential.

Favorite Filters: You should, in these times, be reading Cursor, even if it’s just to keep up with what the other guy is snorting and steaming about. It’s one of the best media & politics filters out there. Also check in with the more idiosyncratic Metafilter, another fine net, letting good stuff through. Real Clear Politics is also indispensible, if you don’t use it now. And I am getting more and more impressed with the Daou Report for sampling blogdom.

John Podhoretz in the Weekly Standard, October 2004, during the Dan Rather, Air National Guard mess:

This is a moment that’s been a very long time coming. For four decades now, conservatives have been convinced, with supreme justification, that the institutional, ideological, and cultural biases of the mainstream media represented a danger to the causes in which they believe and the ideas they hold dear. What has happened over the past weeks isn’t the beginning of a transformation. It’s the culmination of a 40-year-long indictment that has, at long last, led to a slam-dunk conviction.

Posted by Jay Rosen at March 21, 2005 8:05 PM