May 3, 2005
Stop Us Before We're Briefed Again
The headline at Romenesko caught my eye. "D.C. bureau chiefs: No more background-only WH briefings." Wow, I thought, they finally did it. They quit the racket. But no. They had not. They had sent an e-mail around, and asked Scott McClellan to change his ways...
1. The Just Quit Strategy. The headline at Romenesko caught my eye. “D.C. bureau chiefs: No more background-only WH briefings.” Wow, I thought, they finally did it. They quit the racket. But no. They had not. They had sent an e-mail around, and asked Scott McClellan to change his ways. They had vowed to object some more, later. Joe Strupp’s account in Editor and Publisher tells of it:
In an e-mail to several dozen bureau chiefs Monday, a group of top D.C. bureau bosses urged their colleagues to push more for on-the-record briefings when government officials deem them to be on background only.
“We’d like to make a more concerted effort among the media during the month of May to raise objections as soon as background briefings are scheduled by any government official, whether at the White House, other executive agencies or the Hill,” the e-mail said, in part.
Conspicuous for going unmentioned was one of the most effective ways the press can “raise objections” to background briefings: don’t go to them. Just quit. So here is my Letter to Romenesko on it, published May 3rd. It’s a good way to reach the professional community, which checks in at Romenesko’s place throughout the day.
I read it twice but I still don’t understand Joe Strupp’s story, particularly the part about the meeting between the big bureau chiefs and the White House press secretary. “Those in attendance said they asked McClellan to end the background-only briefings, citing a need to have more openness in their reporting.”
Odd. Why does the press have to ask McClellan to end these stealth briefings, when it could end its own participation at any time? The method for doing so isn’t complicated:
PODIUM: Don’t forget, background briefing at 11 am, previewing the President’s remarks with a nameless deputy press officer…
REPORTER 1: Great, that will give me time to answer e-mail.
REPORTER 2: Scott, when does the working part of the day resume?
Strupp reports his piece in a state of make believe, as if the bureau chiefs are pressing for changes that others ultimately have to make. But the chiefs and their reporters are co-producers of the “background” ritual. It takes two sides— briefers, briefees.
Joe Strupp’s passive tenses disguise the situation: “The bureau chiefs said the background briefings often occur once or twice a week at the White House, sometimes via conference calls. In most cases, they are done to give reporters a leg up before a major speech, presidential trip, or specific legislation being introduced or debated in Congress.”
So background briefings occur, and they are done, but correspondents don’t cooperate or show up when told. The stealth goes down ‘“via conference calls,” we are told, but of course there is no conference call without reporters on the line who dial the number and join the call. “Stopping” that is simple: hang up the phone. Don’t call in the first place. Do something else with your reporting time.
But active verbs like “join” and “attend” or “hang up” are left out because Strupp is letting the White House press see itself as helpless. “We tried to make the point that readers are sick to death of unnamed sources,” said Ron Hutcheson, a White House correspondent for Knight Ridder. “Scott listened and he said he would chew on it for a few weeks, but everybody felt like he would give it consideration.” Hear the news? He’s going to consider it! He going’s to consider it!
E & P’s headline: D.C. Bureau Chiefs Launch Push to End On-Background Briefings. Mine would be: Stop Us Before We’re Briefed Again.
How did this make believe happen? The key to it, I believe, is the word boycott. Joe Strupp and the bureau chiefs want us to think that such artless methods as “hang up the phone” and “answer e-mail instead of attending” are some high stakes confrontation. “None of those involved were ready to boycott such background briefings,” Strupp tells us. Boycott? No. The point would be to stop.
2. Strupp’s Letter Back. It’s a double shot of “I’m not an advocate, just a reporter” with a “please try to remember that” chaser. Off-the-shelf stuff, as newspaper columnist Mike Thomas might put it.
I appreciate Jay Rosen’s interest in my article on D.C. bureau chiefs seeking an end to background briefings. But I think he somehow wrongly lumps me in with this group. Saying “Strupp is letting the White House press see itself as helpless” makes it appear that I am advocating for them. That is not true. I am simply reporting what they are doing in reaction to a concern that has been building for months, if not years, about these background events.
I see Rosen’s point that the reporters could simply not attend these briefings, thus ending them. And I mention that in the story, adding that none of those I spoke with were willing to do so. It is obvious that, while they oppose these off-the-record events, they do not want to back off and let a competitor who is not willing to boycott, get the information.
It is also obvious that a boycott would send a stronger message, even if it risks losing out to a competitor. In addition, I think it is important to note that they do not want the briefings to end, but to be on the record.
But the point of my story was not to judge what they are doing, only to report it. Sometimes people with strong views on either side fail to remember that when reading news stories.
As for his pickiness on my use of active or passive phrases, well, I am sorry that he finds some conspiracy in my grammar. I assure you, none exists.
Nah, no conspiracy, Joe. You employed the passive tense and I said it helped you present the press as passive recipient of what the White House chose to do. That is a criticism of your writing, not a conspiracy in your grammar.
3. Strupp Interviews McClellan— Whoops. In a follow-up article, Strupp gets McClellan to reveal his tit-for-tat reasoning:
Scott McClellan, President Bush’s press secretary, said Tuesday evening that he would be glad to end the use of background-only briefings—if White House reporters would stop using anonymous sources in their reporting.
“I told them upfront that I would be the first to sign on if we could get an end to the use of anonymous sources in the media,” McClellan told E&P, referring to a meeting he had with a half-dozen Washington bureau chiefs last week… The bureau chiefs contend that the background-only briefings force them to use sourcing that is, essentially, anonymous, reducing their credibility.
Uh oh. Later in the day E & P ran a new story where McCllellan says Strupp, who quoted him, misunderstood; and by the end we get the ritual disclaimer: “E & P stands by its original report.” Right out of the script!
Meanwhile, I contend that the words “force them to use sourcing…” are, esssentially, false. (In that White House reporting remains a wholly voluntary practice.) Strupp—who has been captured by his sources on this story—is still participating in that falsehood. He does it by accepting the bureau chiefs’ fiction that unless everyone quits the “background” farce no one can. Therefore the only issue is whether a general boycott will be called. That too is false, but Strupp believes it. Thus:
None of the current Washington bureau chiefs who spoke with E&P were willing to hint at any boycott, citing the competitive atmosphere that would keep some from participating.
“I have never seen them succeed,” said Clark Hoyt, Knight Ridder newspapers Washington editor, explaining he has seen other failed attempts since he first began covering Washington 25 years ago. “We operate in a highly-competitive atmosphere. The better way is to build pressure.”
I understand that the trade magazine mentality is hard to overcome, but this is absurd. I have a lot of respect for Clark Hoyt and Knight-Ridder’s Washington bureau, too, but from the outside that “highly-competitive atmosphere” seems more like a club. All members agree that principled action is meaningless unless joined by other members. All sign on to the fiction that “essential” news is communicated in background briefings.
That’s not spirited competition; it’s conformity to a Beltway mindset.
4. The New York Times Account. The New York Times story, by Nat Ives, is a better work of journalism, containing more coherent explanations, not just “we tried boycotts, it doesn’t work.”
There is new imagery in it too: a causal chain from readers fed up with anyonymous sourcing generally, to editors getting the message, and top editors pressing the bureaus, and bureau chiefs pressing reporters, who are supposed to plead with McClellan, and, now, finally, the bureau chiefs themselves meeting with the press secretary.
The new discussions over background briefings are being driven largely by pressure from readers and news editors to reduce the use of anonymous sources.
“All of us have bosses who are increasingly disturbed by the use of anonymous sources,” said Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief for USA Today, who attended the meeting on Friday and attached her name to the e-mail message on Monday. “It’s one reason people say they don’t believe what they read in the newspapers.”
Sandy Johnson, the Washington bureau chief for The Associated Press, said the government’s message was undermined by background briefings. Allowing attribution would increase the credibility of the news media and the White House, she said.
Ron Hutcheson, a White House correspondent for Knight Ridder and president at the White House Correspondents Association, said he once walked out of a background briefing in protest.
But Friday’s meeting at the White House, which Mr. Hutcheson attended, seemed likely to produce better results, he said.
As the issue has drawn more attention, Mr. Hutcheson said, the administration has relented several times at reporters’ requests and converted background briefings into on-the-record sessions.
In Nat Ives’s story, the arguments are better framed. The bureau chiefs say pressure exerted over a long period of time is working, and this is one more step.
Mr. McClellan, who called Friday’s discussion constructive, said he had raised the bureau chiefs’ concerns within the White House. “I’m looking at ways to move forward on the issues raised,” he said.
Thus the “objection” to Strupp’s tit-for-tat quote.
5. Clark, Susan, Sandy, Ron and others in the room with McClellan: I understand your campaign of pressure, and why it asks Scott McClellan to end a practice you yourselves could end, for yourselves, at any time. I understand why you would scorn the “symbolic” walk out as theatrical (and appealing to certain bloggers) but ineffective. Mounting a boycott is high risk and heavy-handed, I have to agree.
But realize that another course of action is available. (Maybe you do and are not talking about it.) Withdraw from the background game entirely by changing your policy unilaterally, and as part of a move to raise transparency overall. Explain it that way to your readers. Tell them that while it may mean some stories and insights go missing, the benefits of ending your participation in a stealth practice far outweigh these losses. Something like…
This is a change others have tried to make. But they always went back to the background because competitors failed to follow them out the door. We are determined to leave that era behind because we know you discount a lot of reporting based on nameless sources. Our new policy is not an attempt to influence the “pack.” It is taken independently of what others in the profession may decide to do.
Backgrounders by officials of a major news making operation are no longer fair game for our reporters, period. We hope you like the change. We’re feeling good about it. But just to make sure we’re not kidding ourselves, we will track every story we missed by not being there.
And so on. That’s what I meant by: don’t join a boycott, just stop. It’s easily explained and more likely to build trust with users than it is to “cost” the operation in blown stories or missing nuance. So there is a choice apart from what the herd will do, and apart from what McClellan can be coaxed into. Strupp, our correspondent on the scene, never asked about that.
6. Trust and Interactivity. Notice, however, that long arc from the diffuse sentiment among disaffected readers to the meeting with McClellan seeking concrete results. In that series of relays and switches, a message is sent about what we trust and why we don’t.
As the word is passed we see public opinion trying to register itself in press behavior at the level of rules observed by the DC bureaus, and meetings held with White House officials. Other factors are present too, but there’s a clear arc of influence there— using “pressure” to communicate itself.
The new discussions over background briefings are being driven largely by pressure from readers and news editors to reduce the use of anonymous sources.
If instead of interference we saw this as a kind of instruction, from the public to the press, we might ask how a relay system like that is improved, tightened up, made flexible, and brought up to modern standards. We might see that a weblog, a far more flexible platform, has this kind of instruction system built into it.
That is what “interactive” means. Instead of a long arc you have a quick comment thread, or some other lightweight blip. There is constant interaction and adjustment to users. That constancy makes online journalism a different animal, and the demand for it is vexing “traditional” providers, who are organized to withstand public pressure, not to interact with intelligent users.
Down through the history of reportage, people who valued their correspondents (and paid for accurate reports) also had a way of instructing their correspondents. Maybe there is more room for this idea today.
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…
Suburban Guerrilla, she’s had enough: “Absolutely, they should boycott this nonsense, and their bosses should back them. When are they going to figure it out? The real stories aren’t in the White House briefing room. They’re in the paperwork - and they’re out in the departments, where people are willing to talk.”
Dan Froomkin (he does the White House Briefing column in the Washington Post) says “background” events are as empty as all the other briefings by the Bush team.
The anonymity does not typically translate to frankness. The anonymous briefings tend to be as full of spin and empty of straight answers as the ones that are on the record. (Judge for yourself; the White House doesn’t post a lot of the background briefing transcripts, but some of them can be found here.)
Practically speaking, all that the cloak of anonymity does is hinder accountability and undermine journalistic credibility.
Precisely. Froomkin knows this one inside and out. And he has a lot of smart things to say about online journalism, blogging and editors.
“Wankers.” Atrios says my “don’t show up” solution is ideal.
But let me add a couple of other suggestions. First, if anonymous background briefings are here to stay, then the press can legitimize them to some degree by adopting one new standard of behavior — if the background briefer later contradicts publicly something said at the briefing, the anonymity is gone.
And, second, back to Jack Shafer’s longstanding suggestion — just leak the damn names to pesky bloggers like me. Most newspaper readers will lack the relevant information, but those who care to know can find out.
As ridiculous as they are, the anonymous background briefings aren’t the real problem - it’s the Judith Miller pressjob, in which reporters dutifully report administration official pronouncements as newsworthy, whether or not they contain any truth, believing their job is “not to collect information and analyze it independently.”
Chad the Elder has a humorous response at Fraters Libertas called Scott McClellan: Enabler.
Matt Welch says in comments: “To think that these White House reporters, operating in one of the freest press traditions in the world, are begging the guvmint to please save them from themselves, would be infuriating if it wasn’t so funny.” His suggestion:
Sometimes I wonder what would happen if large news organization engaged in a sort of Shock Therapy, whereby their entire Washington bureaus were sent on a one- or six-month vacation or job rotation, replaced by a gang of rank outsiders who would have to reinvent the local traditions from scratch. It’s hard to imagine the results being anything worse.
Earlier PressThink: To Liberate From the White House the White House Press.
Weldon Berger of BTC News has a reply to my post:
I’d go Jay one further and suggest that reporters report attempted anonymous backgrounders by describing the prospective subject and briefer.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan today asked reporters to attend an anonymous background briefing on the president’s upcoming trip from the White House residential wing to the Oval Office. The anonymous briefer was to have been McClellan himself. The newly reanimated White House press corpse declined to attend the briefing or preserve the anonymity of the briefer.
I’d also recommend that White House reporters enroll in the Helen Thomas seminar on How To Ask Annoying Questions That Need Answering But Are Marginalized Because No One Else (Except Eric Brewer) Is Asking Them Or Even Wants To. The press on the whole have lately been a little more feisty about asking important questions but are still not reporting, for the most part, that they aren’t getting answers.
There’s more to his post, “Please, sir, may I have another?”
Good question from FishbowlDC: “If reporters are really as (rightly) outraged about the practice as they say they are, shouldn’t they perhaps use their own soapboxes?”
“Go after the Iron Triangles.” Mark Tapscott of the Heritage Foundation, a blogger with his own copy desk, has a view. He e-mails PressThink:
Those kinds of background briefings are commonplace throughout the federal government and became so a long time ago. The problem is everybody fears missing a big story and thus is afraid to say no when they know a rival will say yes. My suggestion is to restore a workable agency beat structure and day after day after go after stories on the government’s own Enron accounting scandals, subject every federal program to a rigorous, data-driven analysis of results or lack thereof and exposing the hypocrisy of the Iron Triangles (bureaucrats, special interests, politicans) that run this town.
It’s a myth that people don’t read government scandal stories. What they don’t read is agenda-driven pablum that never challenges the politicians and bureuacrats to justify their existence. Put another way, a non-ideologically anchored muckracking has the irresistible virtue of giving the hacks and hypocrits at all levels of government so much to worry about that they no longer have time to manipulate.
Terry Heaton, former TV news director, now a consultant, blogger and troublemaker, says starting a blog with PR intentions is a way of hiding:
In my view, when we shelter ourselves from the people in our communities — regardless of how we attempt to position it — we’re still participating in news as a lecture. We’re still playing our “big media” games with people. When we do so and call it a blog, I’m going to say we’re fooling ourselves.
So the question isn’t really “What are the rules?” but more “What’s the best way for me to participate?”
“What’s the best way for me to participate?” is exactly what does not get asked; he’s right about that. And he’s even more on in An open letter to TV news people, which is about the fantasy world local TV news professionals are living in.
Sydney Schanberg, the new PressClips columnist, wrote of this issue in the Village Voice:
Take Ron Hutcheson, the White House correspondent for the Knight-Ridder papers. He has been fighting the battle—and at times has found himself alone. When the White House billed a press briefing about a Bush foreign trip last year as on the record and then changed it on the spot to off the record, a couple of other journalists complained briefly. Hutcheson kept arguing for a return to the original ground rules or at least an explanation. It was futile. The anonymous official told him: “This is the way we do it. If you don’t like it, you can leave.” “I just got pissed off and I walked out,” recalls Hutcheson. None of the others followed him.
What would have happened if the rest of the newspeople at the briefing had also walked out? Well, not a great deal all at once, but a message would have been sent.
“It could turn into an embarrassment for the Bush stonewallers,” Schanberg wrote, adding a crucial qualifier. “Especially if reporters and editors were able to effectively explain to the American people why the press’s role is still so important to them.”
That is a mighty significant “if” today.
Posted by Jay Rosen at May 3, 2005 5:25 PM
Mark Tapscott: My apologies, I misunderstood your point. I thought you were saying the institutional press should reconstitute their national beats. Thanks for enlightening me, and vive la révolution.
Daniel Conover: Two different beasties? In the one instance, the government is foisting off anonymous briefings for, often, no good reason (in all the discussion, no one on the administration side has made any attempt to justify the practice). In the other, there's news to be had that can't be had directly from the source without damaging him or her. And the instruction on how to verify the information used to be the kind of thing reporters were required to get from anonymous sources; you couldn't go with a story unless it was confirmed by at least one independent sources, which is where your hypothetical guy is pointing the reporter.
Kilgore Trout: The backgrounders in question are by and large pointlessly anonymous; they represent the official administration line on whatever the subject is. Today is a case in point: were it not for yesterday's kerfluffle, this briefing by National Security Advisor Scott Hadley would likely have been attributed to a senior administration official. It's not as though reporters will suddenly develop an allergy to providing anonymity to sources, but people such as Hadley aren't sources: they're administration spokespersons holding a press conference in front of thirty or forty reporters. So I think you can count on reporters continuing with their over-liberal granting of anonymity to individual sources, and I think you can count on the administration insisting on anonymity when there's the slightest concern that attribution could create problems.
Jay, doesn't it seem more as though the papers are using irate readers as a cover than as an educational inspiration? "Hey, Scott, don't get mad at us: we're getting hate mail."
Not to say that the learning curve you describe isn't real, but I recall reporters and press critics bitching about the unattributed briefings for years, during most of which reporters and editors regarded readers as news-consuming lumps, and it hardly seems likely that AP, who have taken the organizational lead on the problem, have been objecting to the backgrounders for two years because of pressure from readers. I sort of doubt that Knight Ridder's Hutcheson was motivated by readers either. So the learning curve seems to me to be more one of the various organizations figuring out a way to do this without getting screwed by one another.
I'm wondering if you're seeing the instructional arc with respect to any other journalistic issues. I know both the NY Times and Washington Post had taken solemn oaths to reduce their reliance on and credulity with respect to anonymous sources, but the omsbudsmen at both institutions seem to think it didn't take.
And where's Len "We don't do mass actions" Downie at in all this? I don't remember seeing the Post mentioned anywhere.
What other interpretations? One would be: this is the normal give-and-take between White House and the press, the normal complaints about access to the President, news management, evasive spokesmen, and nothing new. Another would be: yes, the Bush White House is taking extraordinary steps because it faces extraordinary bias and hostility from a "liberal" press. Another would be: you're just saying that because you're anti-Bush and pissed he won the election (which isn't really an interpretation but a noise you hear at lot. I wish I had a word for that...)
But I would remind Sisyphus that this post was almost exclusively critical of the press, not the White House. I assume the White House is acting in its own best interests with its background rituals, and I am arguing that the press should do the same.
You lost me on this part:
It seems to me that you point is the performance of the press as trustworthy by attending and reporting empty, meaningless briefings, including anonymous ones. Yet, you don't seem to question the culture war motivations of the press in doing so.
Sorry, I don't understand what you are saying. I pointed out the logic of culture war. I didn't say it was exclusive to one "side," as it were.
The press uses triangulation methods to boost its credibility all the time. That's what he said/she said is all about. It's not really intended to portray a dispute accurately; its intended to locate the press safely between disputants. That's a method of generating authority. Doesn't work very well any more, if it ever did, but when it's all you know...
I think for those members of the Republican coalition who are having a hard time realizing that they and their allies are in power, part of the reason for gagging before the reality of new alignments is a certain addiction to the logic of culture war, which is a method of generating political momentum that requires your enemies to be the powerful, depraved ones.
You "rise" by fighting the corrupt power, and driving its negatives up. This is what people like David Brock and David Horowitz intimately understand. The warriors are always down deep innocent and they are oppressed; these are the emotions powering the whole thing. They simply do not fit with being in power, owning the big guns, and having responsibility for things.
As it gets harder and harder to maintain the culture war narrative, because bigger and bigger facts have to be held off (Republicans in charge of the White House, Congress, Supreme Court, and the electoral map trending their way...) the last theatre left for some of the grumbling, fuming, enemy-starved culture warriors on the Right is The Liberal Media-- Hollywood and newsroom divisions. (With college professors waiting off stage for their turn on the fence.)
I think some journalists are starting to figure out that a rope-a-dope strategy works well in situations like this. Chris Satullo's Liberal Media Re-Education Camp piece is a fine example of what I mean. You "give in" and let the warriors win because that befuddles them, whereas if you argue back, resist, that fuels their machine.
These are my speculations, of course. An interpretation you are invited to consider, and if warranted reject. I don't totally understand the logic of culture war myself. Try not to be a part of it, though.
Thank you for offering those other interpretations. I agree with you that those interpretations are "out there". They are being spoken loudly by some. But I consider those interpretations the low hanging fruit, and not particulary useful. If your competing interpretations consists only of those, then are you critically examining your own?
I like this part:
I assume the White House is acting in its own best interests with its background rituals, and I am arguing that the press should do the same.
I think that identifies two of three or more attributes of (what Dan calls) this "Kabuki theater".
One you mention directly: ritual. Briefings occur because ritual requires it. If briefings do not occur, or occur less frequently than previously, then there are accusations associated with that. It's perhaps a time-driven event rather than an event-driven one.
Previously you mentioned the 100 year history of such briefings, starting with Roosevelt. That there is an established ritual, but it also has been dynamic across Presidents.
Another you allude to: (domestic) political economics and the associated ethics ("acting in its own best interests"). Here is a question of rational and irrational behavior. As I am trying to understand your interpretation, I am trying to delineate between what you see as rational and irrational behavior by the Bush administration in it's relationship with the press - and vice versa.
So, where I "lost" you, is in that attempt to delineate rational and irrational press behavior.
Do I understand correctly that you interpret empty, meaningless briefings as rational behavior by the Bush administration "in which one actor "makes" trust for itself by lowering the credibility of an adversary, rather than by trustworthy performance of its own."? You see this as rational behavior where the Bush administration is "acting in its own best interests", correct?
You advocate that the press act in its own best interests by not attending these briefings. That it is an irrational act by the press to attend and report these briefings. There is not a rational interpretation for what the press is doing.
You make the distinction that it might have been rational behavior by the press in the past, but no longer, because the briefings are today substantially different then they were previously. They are different because the Bush administration is treating them differently, whereas the press has remained constant in their behavior.
Besides ritual and (domestic) political economics, if those are correct terms, are there other attributes to White House briefings/Q&A?
Besides journalists, who are the other auditors of these briefings? I wonder if there is an attribute that accounts for the 'internationalization' of the "Kabuki theater".
But I would remind Sisyphus that this post was almost exclusively critical of the press, not the White House.
Uh, OK, thanks.
Trout: There is no question that liberals and Democrats, too, are having trouble engaging with the new alignment, and with the reality of their years in the wilderness.
About comments vs. posts, I explained some of this in my Q and A about PressThink. I feel it takes one author (or speaking voice) for the titles and headlines, another for the post itself, a different voice in the After section, and another in the comments.
Tim (Sisyphus): I think the Bush Administration has made a decision that "empty" press relations are the best course of action for this White House and this President. That is what I meant by self-interest. They think it best basically to say nothing all the time, answer as few questions as possible, give as little information as possible, and confirm for journalists the pointlessness of what they are doing-- over and over and over.
I have said before that this is only part of a larger policy that includes the Bush Bubble, the principle of "friendlies only" at public events--even those, like the social security town halls, that are supposed to win over skeptical Americans--and the attempt to become a substitute news provider, to "be the press," as I have put it, or to buy favorable press as with Armstrong Williams and the like.
So if we mean by "rational" plans that cohere with each other and parts that fit into a whole, yeah, 'tis rational. If we mean "done with conscious intent," well, the bubble, the empty briefings, the blank spokesmen, the discrediting of the interlocutor, the rejection of Fourth Estate thinking, wasting journalists time so they are as unproductive as possible-- all conscious, all done with intent.
However, people do many things that are rational in isolation and do not add up to a rational course of action. Take the bubble for example. If you talk to pros in Republican politics and ask them if there was any moment when they were worried about Bush in 2004, and even thought they could go down, they will all say when he lost the first debate and it felt like he was unprepared. (I would say he was offended that he had to explain himself to anyone skeptical.)
It almost cost 'em big time on '04, but the bubble is still here.
PressThink: An Introduction
We need to keep the press from being absorbed into The Media. This means keeping the word press, which is antiquated. But included under its modern umbrella should be all who do the serious work in journalism, regardless of the technology used. The people who will invent the next press in America--and who are doing it now online--continue an experiment at least 250 years old. It has a powerful social history and political legend attached...
The People Formerly Known as the Audience:
"You don't own the eyeballs. You don't own the press, which is now divided into pro and amateur zones. You don't control production on the new platform, which isn't one-way. There's a new balance of power between you and us." More...
Migration Point for the Press Tribe: "Like reluctant migrants everywhere, the people in the news tribe have to decide what to take with them. When to leave. Where to land. They have to figure out what is essential to their way of life. They have to ask if what they know is portable." More...
Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over: "Here is one advantage bloggers have in the struggle for reputation-- for the user's trust. They are closer to the transaction where trust gets built up on the Web. There's a big difference between tapping a built-up asset, like the St. Pete Times 'brand,' and creating it from scratch." More...
"Where's the Business Model for News, People?" "It’s remarkable to me how many accomplished producers of those goods the future production of which is in doubt are still at the stage of asking other people, “How are we going to pay our reporters if you guys don’t want to pay for our news?'" More...
National Explainer: A Job for Journalists on the Demand Side of News
This American Life's great mortgage crisis explainer, The Giant Pool of Money, suggests that "information" and "explanation" ought to be reversed in our order of thought. Especially as we contemplate new news systems. More...
The Beast Without a Brain: Why Horse Race Journalism Works for Journalists and Fails Us. "Just so you know, 'the media' has no mind. It cannot make decisions. Which means it does not 'get behind' candidates. It does not decide to oppose your guy… or gal. It is a beast without a brain. Most of the time, it doesn’t know what it’s doing.." More...
They're Not in Your Club but They Are in Your League: Firedoglake at the Libby Trial: "I’m just advising Newsroom Joe and Jill: make room for FDL in your own ideas about what’s coming on, news-wise. Don’t let your own formula (blog=opinion) fake you out. A conspiracy of the like minded to find out what happened when the national news media isn’t inclined to tell us might be way more practical than you think." More...
Twilight of the Curmudgeon Class: "We’re at the twilight of the curmudgeon class in newsrooms and J-schools. (Though they can still do a lot of damage.) You know they’re giving up when they no longer bother to inform themselves about what they themselves say is happening." More...
Getting the Politics of the Press Right: Walter Pincus Rips into Newsroom Neutrality "The important thing is to show integrity-- not to be a neuter, politically. And having good facts that hold up is a bigger advantage than claiming to reflect all sides equally well." More...
A Most Useful Definition of Citizen Journalism "It's mine, but it should be yours. Can we take the quote marks off now? Can we remove the 'so-called' from in front? With video!." More...
The Master Narrative in Journalism: "Were 'winning' to somehow be removed or retired as the operating system for news, campaign reporting would immediately become harder to do, not because there would be no news, but rather no common, repeatable instructions for deciding what is a key development in the story, a turning point, a surprise, a trend. Master narratives are thus harder to alter than they are to apprehend. For how do you keep the story running while a switch is made?" More...
He Said, She Said Journalism: Lame Formula in the Land of the Active User "Any good blogger, competing journalist or alert press critic can spot and publicize false balance and the lame acceptance of fact-free spin. Do users really want to be left helpless in sorting out who's faking it more? The he said, she said form says they do, but I say decline has set in." More...
Users-Know-More-than-We-Do Journalism: "It's a "put up or shut up" moment for open source methods in public interest reporting. Can we take good ideas like... distributed knowledge, social networks, collaborative editing, the wisdom of crowds, citizen journalism, pro-am reporting... and put them to work to break news?" More...
Introducing NewAssignment.Net: "Enterprise reporting goes pro-am. Assignments are open sourced. They begin online. Reporters working with smart users and blogging editors get the story the pack wouldn't, couldn't or didn't." More...
What I Learned from Assignment Zero "Here are my coordinates for the territory we need to be searching. I got them from doing a distributed trend story with Wired.com and thinking through the results." More...
If Bloggers Had No Ethics Blogging Would Have Failed, But it Didn't. So Let's Get a Clue: "Those in journalism who want to bring ethics to blogging ought to start with why people trust (some) bloggers, not with an ethics template made for a prior platform operating as a closed system in a one-to-many world." More...
The View From Nowhere: "Occupy the reasonable middle between two markers for 'vocal critic,' and critics look ridiculous charging you with bias. Their symmetrical existence feels like proof of an underlying hysteria. Their mutually incompatible charges seem to cancel each other out. The minute evidence they marshall even shows a touch of fanaticism." More...
Rollback: "This White House doesn't settle for managing the news--what used to be called 'feeding the beast'--because there is a larger aim: to roll back the press as a player within the executive branch, to make it less important in running the White House and governing the country." More...
Retreat from Empiricism: On Ron Suskind's Scoop: ""Realist, a classic term in foreign policy debates, and reality-based, which is not a classic term but more of an instant classic, are different ideas. We shouldn't fuzz them up. The press is capable of doing that because it never came to terms with what Suskind reported in 2004." More...
Karl Rove and the Religion of the Washington Press: "Savviness--that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, 'with it,' and unsentimental in all things political--is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it. And it was this cult that Karl Rove understood and exploited for political gain." More...
Journalism Is Itself a Religion: "We're headed, I think, for schism, tumult and divide as the religion of the American press meets the upheavals in global politics and public media that are well underway. Changing around us are the terms on which authority can be established by journalists. The Net is opening things up, shifting the power to publish around. Consumers are becoming producers, readers can be writers." More...
News Turns from a Lecture to a Conversation: "Some of the pressure the blogs are putting on journalists shows up, then, in the demand for "news as conversation," more of a back-and-forth, less of a pronouncement. This is an idea with long roots in academic journalism that suddenly (as in this year) jumped the track to become part of the news industry's internal dialogue." More...
Two Washington Posts May Be Better Than One: "They're not equals, but Washington and Arlington have their own spheres. Over the newspaper and reporting beats Len Downie is king. Over the website Jim Brady is sovereign. Over the userï¿½s experience no one has total control. There's tension because there's supposed to be tension." More...
Laying the Newspaper Gently Down to Die: "An industry that won't move until it is certain of days as good as its golden past is effectively dead, from a strategic point of view. Besides, there is an alternative if you don't have the faith or will or courage needed to accept reality and deal. The alternative is to drive the property to a profitable demise." More...
Grokking Woodward: "Woodward and Bernstein of 1972-74 didn't have such access, and this probably influenced--for the better--their view of what Nixon and his men were capable of. Watergate wasn't broken by reporters who had entree to the inner corridors of power. It was two guys on the Metro Desk." More...
Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate: "This here is a post for practically everyone in the game of seizing on media bias and denouncing it, which is part of our popular culture, and of course a loud part of our politics. And this is especially for the 'we're fair and balanced, you're not' crowd, wherever I may have located you." More...
Bill O'Reilly and the Paranoid Style in News: "O'Reilly feeds off his own resentments--the establishment sneering at Inside Edition--and like Howard Beale, the 'mad prophet of the airwaves,' his resentments are enlarged by the medium into public grievances among a mass of Americans unfairly denied voice." More...
Thoughts on the Killing of a Young Correspondent: "Among foreign correspondents, there is a phrase: 'parachuting in.' That's when a reporter drops into foreign territory during an emergency, without much preparation, staying only as long as the story remains big. The high profile people who might parachute in are called Bigfoots in the jargon of network news. The problem with being a Bigfoot, of course, is that it's hard to walk in other people's shoes." More...
The News From Iraq is Not Too Negative. But it is Too Narrow: "The bias charges are getting more serious lately as the stakes rise in Iraq and the election. But there is something lacking in press coverage, and it may be time for wise journalists to assess it. The re-building story has gone missing. And without it, how can we judge the job Bush is doing?." More...
The Abyss of Observation Alone. "There are hidden moral hazards in the ethic of neutral observation and the belief in a professional 'role' that transcends other loyalties. I think there is an abyss to observation alone. And I feel it has something to do with why more people don't trust journalists. They don't trust that abyss." More...
"Find Some New Information and Put it Into Your Post." Standards for Pro-Am Journalism at OffTheBus: "Opinion based on information 'everyone' has is less valuable than opinion journalism based on information that you dug up, originated, or pieced together. So it’s not important to us that contributors keep opinion out. What’s important is that they put new information in. More...
Out in the Great Wide Open: Maybe you heard about the implosion of Wide Open, a political blog started by the Cleveland Plain Dealer with four "outside" voices brought in from the ranks of Ohio bloggers: two left, two right. Twelve points you may not have seen elsewhere." More...
Some Bloggers Meet the Bosses From Big Media: "What capacity for product development do news organizations show? Zip. How are they on nurturing innovation? Terrible. Is there an entreprenurial spirit in newsrooms? No. Do smart young people ever come in and overturn everything? Never." More...
Notes and Comment on BlogHer 2005 "I think the happiest conference goers at BlogHer were probably the newbies, people who want to start blogging or just did. They got a lot of good information and advice. Some of the best information was actually dispensed in response to the fears provoked by blogging, which shouldnï¿½t be avoided, the sages said, but examined, turned around, defused, and creatively shrunk.." More...
Top Ten List: What's Radical About the Weblog Form in Journalism? "The weblog comes out of the gift economy, whereas most of today's journalism comes out of the market economy." More...
A Second Top Ten List: What's Conservative About the Weblog Form in Journalism? "The quality of any weblog in journalism depends greatly on its fidelity to age old newsroom commandments like check facts, check links, spell things correctly, be accurate, be timely, quote fairly." More...
Blogging is About Making and Changing Minds: "Sure, weblogs are good for making statements, big and small. But they also force re-statement. Yes, they're opinion forming. But they are equally good at unforming opinion, breaking it down, stretching it out." More...
The Weblog: An Extremely Democratic Form in Journalism "It's pirate radio, legalized; it's public access coming closer to life. Inside the borders of Blogistan (a real place with all the problems of a real place) we're closer to a vision of 'producer democracy' than we are to any of the consumerist views that long ago took hold in the mass media, including much of the journalism presented on that platform." More...
No One Owns Journalism: "And Big Media doesn't entirely own the press, because if it did then the First Amendment, which mentions the press, would belong to Big Media. And it doesn't. These things were always true. The weblog doesn't change them. It just opens up an outlet to the sea. Which in turn extends 'the press' to the desk in the bedroom of the suburban mom, where she blogs at night." More...
Brain Food for BloggerCon: Journalism and Weblogging in Their Corrected Fullness "Blogging is one universe. Its standard unit is the post, its strengths are the link and the low costs of entry, which means lots of voices. Jounalism is another universe. Its standard unit is "the story." Its strengths are in reporting, verification and access-- as in getting your calls returned." More...
Dispatches From the Un-Journalists: "Journalists think good information leads to opinion and argument. It's a logical sequence. Bloggers think that good argument and strong opinion cause people to seek information, an equally logical sequence. What do the bloggers bring to this? My short answer to the press is: everything you have removed."More...
Political Jihad and the American Blog: Chris Satullo Raises the Stakes "Journalists, you can stop worrying about bloggers 'replacing' the traditional news media. We're grist for their mill, says Satullo, a mill that doesn't run without us. Bloggers consume and extend the shelf life of our reporting, and they scrutinize it at a new level of intensity.."More...
Raze Spin Alley, That Strange Creation of the Press: "Spin Alley, an invention of the American press and politicos, shows that the system we have is in certain ways a partnership between the press and insiders in politics. They come together to mount the ritual. An intelligent nation is entitled to ask if the partners are engaged in public service when they bring to life their invention... Alternative thesis: they are in a pact of mutual convenience that serves no intelligible public good." More...
Horse Race Now! Horse Race Tomorrow! Horse Race Forever!: "How is it you know you're the press? Because you have a pass that says PRESS, and people open the gate. The locker room doors admit you. The story must be inside that gate; that's why they give us credentials. We get closer. We tell the fans what's going on. And if this was your logic, Bill James tried to bust it. Fellahs, said he to the baseball press, you have to realize that you are the gate." More...
Psst.... The Press is a Player: "The answer, I think, involves an open secret in political journalism that has been recognized for at least 20 years. But it is never dealt with, probably because the costs of facing it head on seem larger than the light tax on honesty any open secret demands. The secret is this: pssst... the press is a player in the campaign. And even though it knows this, as everyone knows it, the professional code of the journalist contains no instructions in what the press could or should be playing for?" More...
Die, Strategy News: "I think it's a bankrupt form. It serves no clear purpose, has no sensible rationale. The journalists who offer us strategy news do not know what public service they are providing, why they are providing it, for whom it is intended, or how we are supposed to use this strange variety of news."More...
He Said, She Said, We Said: "When journalists avoid drawing open conclusions, they are more vulnerable to charges of covert bias, of having a concealed agenda, of not being up front about their perspective, of unfairly building a case (for, against) while pretending only to report 'what happened.'" More...
If Religion Writers Rode the Campaign Bus: "Maybe irony, backstage peaking and "de-mystify the process" only get you so far, and past that point they explain nothing. Puzzling through the convention story, because I'm heading right into it myself, made me to realize that journalism's contempt for ritual was deeply involved here. Ritual is newsless; therefore it must be meaningless. But is that really true?."More...
Convention Coverage is a Failed Regime and Bloggers Have Their Credentials: "No one knows what a political convention actually is, anymore, or why it takes 15,000 people to report on it. Two successive regimes for making sense of the event have collapsed; a third has not emerged. That's a good starting point for the webloggers credentialed in Boston. No investment in the old regime and its ironizing." More...
Philip Gourevitch: Campaign Reporting as Foreign Beat: "'A presidential election is a like a gigantic moving television show,' he said. It is the extreme opposite of an overlooked event. The show takes place inside a bubble, which is a security perimeter overseen by the Secret Service. If you go outside the bubble for any reason, you become a security risk until you are screened again by hand."More...
What Time is it in Political Journalism? "Adam Gopnik argued ten years ago that the press did not know who it was within politics, or what it stood for. There was a vacuum in journalism where political argument and imagination should be. Now there are signs that this absence of thought is ending." More...
Off the Grid Journalism: “The assignment was straightforward enough,” writes Marjie Lundstrom of the Sacramento Bee, “talk to people.” When a writer dissents from it or departs from it, the master narrative is a very real thing. Here are two examples: one from politics, one from music. More...
Questions and Answers About PressThink "The Web is good for many opposite things. For quick hitting information. For clicking across a field. For talk and interaction. It's also a depth finder, a memory device, a library, an editor. Not to use a weblog for extended analysis (because most users won't pick that option) is Web dumb but media smart. What's strange is that I try to write short, snappy things, but they turn into long ones." More...