May 26, 2005
Three Questions for Kevin Drum
(Number One: Is the press, properly understood, a political animal?) "It's not clear to me what big news organizations would do if they took Drum's advice seriously and started 'fighting back.'" Plus: Matt Taibbi hits a triple.
My winner for best piece of criticism about Newsweek’s recent ordeal is Matt Taibbi in the New York Press this week (May 25-31). We, Anonymous it’s called. He’s cynical about the whole deal:
It was humorous to see how quickly Newsweek lost its cachet with Middle America. So long as it went about its usual revolting Neanderthal literary mission—wrapping 4000 words of inane speculations about the historical Jesus around breathless updates on the value of Martha Stewart stock (Pie Chart, p. 37!), and startling new insights about “the real George Washington”—no one had any problem with Newsweek.
An ethical magazine is one that uses up its news pages asking questions like Can smiling prevent cancer? and makes sure at least twice each calendar year to do a “What the fuck is wrong with our ungrateful, disobedient children?” story, so that angry suburban parents have something to read in the doctor’s office while they wait to have their bunions shaved. That—plus the occasional feature on Shrek 2 as the crowning achievement of the human creative impulse, and the odd investigation into why cell phones in restaurants are so darn annoying—is what good journalism is all about.
The real crime is not bias or secret sources. It’s fluff. It’s pseudo-sophistication. It’s a lost sense of what good journalism is all about. The real problem with investigative reporting is that it so rarely happens. The solvent for ethics in journalism is entertainment. These are Matt’s points. But his main point is that no one is troubled by confidential sources when they’re used to puff up.
Taibbi brings up a “slobbering cover profile” by Richard Wolffe in the New Republic, purporting to be about “the Bush you don’t know.” The public person you don’t (really) know is a news magazine genre piece. Whether it’s the Howard Dean or the Diane Sawyer you don’t know, the genre’s requirements are the same: two or three stereotypes are reversed in the course of the reporting, so that the author can claim to have discovered something new and surprising, which we didn’t get from all the prior profiles.
Of course the reason people said Bill Clinton was chronically late was that he was chronically late, and that is the situation with most public figures. It’s harder than you might think to pull off the “Bill Gates you don’t know” piece. But not if you have confidential sources! They make quick work of those old stereotypes. Taibbi gives this example from Wolffe:
When he wants to be, he’s a real stickler for details,” says one Republican senator. “When he calls you to talk about a bill, he knows the nitty-gritty. You don’t get the sense he’s been reading the Cliffs Notes guide to an issue.”
Think: Why does a Republican senator have to go off the record to praise his party’s president? Put yourself in the senator’s place. What kind of journalist grants you anonymity because you took the risk and said nice things about your boss?
Now here’s a corrupt and cynical practice, Matt Taibbi says. The illogic of it is not even concealed. But since the corrupt use of nameless sources for “he knows the nitty-gritty” does not involve criticism of people with power, the scandal machine is silent on it.
So you think Newsweek didn’t work hard enough to confirm the Quran-toilet story? How hard do you think Richard Wolffe worked to confirm that George Bush “knows the nitty-gritty”? I bet he burned up the phone lines working on that one.
They just throw this stuff out there week after week, and no one ever complains about it. That’s because kissing ass is not a crime in America, while questioning the government often is. At least, you better not screw it up if you try. God help you then.
Taibbi’s aims are satiric, so he doesn’t say what ought to be done about the situation. Kevin Drum, who is just as derisive, (“a small error in a 300-word blurb”) does say.
“Newsweek and the rest of the media need to get up off their knees and start fighting back,” he wrote at WashingtonMonthly.com on May 23. This was the day Newsweek’s Editor-in-Chief published a contrite note to readers. “They’ve done enough apologizing,” Drum said.
Taibbi and Drum are both angry. But where Matt turns to farce Kevin sees a nightmare. “This is like watching Darkness at Noon in real life.”
Start fighting back were the words that stopped me. It does seem like a time for that. But how is the fighting done? Surely one of the problems is that the press can be warred upon as the Liberal Media, but without a change in its professional code it cannot war back or declare itself “ready to fight.” And there’s the risk of being dragged further into the warring, which to many journalists means bye-bye journalism.
It’s not clear to me what big news organizations would do if they took Drum’s advice seriously and started “fighting back.” He didn’t give any examples. Is it like this? Or more like that? Maybe this is what Drum had in mind. Or possibly that. Or even this. How about… And then there’s… Here’s one more.
The background to Drum’s exasperated call to journalists is this warning to his readers, May 18th: “Liberals should think very hard before joining the media bashing crusade too eagerly.”
Endless broad brush howling does nothing except enable the right wing’s agenda, regardless of what the howling is aimed at. If liberal bloggers were wiser, we’d spend a little more time praising our big national newspapers and a little less time shaking our fists over the fact that sometimes they aren’t on our side. Our real opposition is the right wing press destruction machine, not the press itself.
Because if big newspapers die, that’s pretty much the end of real daily reporting in this country. That would suit the right just fine, I think, but not so much the left. We shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves that constant carping — frequently over trivial transgressions — somehow makes the press stronger. It doesn’t.
I would love to know what Kevin Drum, an articulate and informed liberal—and of course a Political Animal—thinks about the identity questions at the big newspapers that he says do the daily reporting. Let’s call them “the press” for now so we can ask him these questions:
- Is the press, properly understood, a political animal?
- If so, what kind of politics should it have?
- How do we know if the press has got the politics part right?
I offer these puzzlers to Kevin Drum, but I am as interested in what Hugh Hewett and Glenn Reynolds and Atrios (“Now would be a good time for reporters to push back”) plus others on the left, right or just out in the savannah have to say. And Matt Taibbi too.
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…
“I don’t usually blog on request, but this is interesting.” Glenn Reynolds responds at Instapundit (and he clearly understands what I was asking):
I think that the press is unavoidably political. What has bothered people (and what gets Kevin heated up about “the right wing press destruction machine”) is that until recently the politics were pretty uniformly left-leaning, to the point that the press became a well-defined political player on its own. Not for nothing does Howard Feinman write about the “Media Party.” Now that’s changing (this is the part that has Kevin heated up) and things that used to go unchallenged and unremarked are now challenged and remarked upon.
What kind of politics should it have? Non-monolithic, and transparent. If, as First Amendment theory suggests, the marketplace of ideas is a check on the political power of an unelected press, then we need diversity of perspective and a willingness of press organs to criticize each others’ reporting.
How do we know when the press has it right? When we’ve got news organs representing a diversity of perspectives. We’re making progress in that direction, but we’re a long way from getting there.
Thanks, Glenn. Most informative.
Michelle Cottle, senior editor of The New Republic, May 20:
The broader problem here is that, on some level, many journalists lack the instinct to fight for themselves. By nature, we are a hypercritical bunch, eternally nitpicking and dwelling on the negative side of humanity. (Remember: No news is good news.) But despite our collective reputation for arrogance, journalists’ harsh nature absolutely extends to endless, obsessive dissection of our own industry and work, to a degree that risks becoming self-destructive….
My suspicion is that journalists somehow believe that our high-mindedness, our self-restraint, our willingness to take all this abuse—even to dish it out—somehow will win us credibility in the eyes of the public. Most journalists, after all, like to believe that all we want from the people we cover is honesty and openness and an eagerness to admit their every sin. Shouldn’t the public then love us for our willingness to do the same?
Maybe it should, but it doesn’t.
Meanwhile, Patrick Buchanan is thinking prosecute ‘em, there’s precedent over at the Human Events site. See More Nihilism at Newsweek. The likely charge: sedition.
If Newsweek’s editors sensed this was an explosive item and printed it anyway, they may fairly be charged with sabotaging U.S. war policy and compromising the cause for which American soldiers are fighting and dying in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Only a few have urged that Newsweek’s editors be brought up on sedition charges. But what Newsweek did is worse than the antiwar activity for which labor leader Eugene Debs was given 10 years in prison during World War I.
Previously at PressThink:
The questions I asked Kevin Drum and others (Have a blog? Write a column? Then I asked you…) grow out of these lines in Psst…. The Press is a Player (My essay at TomPaine.com, Jan. 22, 2003.)
It’s an open secret in political journalism that has been recognized for at least 20 years… 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 clear instructions in what the press could or should be playing for. So while the press likes being a player, it does not like being asked: what are you for?
In fact, the instructions are not to think about it too much, because to know what you are playing for would be to have a kind of agenda. And by all mainstream definition the political reporter must have no kind of agenda. The Washington Post, National Public Radio, CNN, Newsweek, the Des Moines Register, and all similar competitors, are officially (and rhetorically) committed to “no agenda” journalism, also known as the view from nowhere. So while it might be recognized that the press is a player, journalists also see an unsolvable problem if they take one more intellectual step. So they dare not.
Blogger John Cole of Balloon Juice (ex-military and a supporter of the war in Iraq) writes Doing More Damage Than Good, a warning to his own side, picking up on this post from Hugh Hewitt:
Everyone repeat after me:
Reporting on abuses that have been committed by our troops, in our name, is not anti-military. While I am not arrogant enough to attempt to divine the motives of every journalist who reports on such abuses, Hugh appears to be up to the challenge. I find his attack on the reporting of the outrageous abuses detailed at length in the NY Times to be both disturbing and disingenuous.
Apparently in the myopic worldview of Mr. Hewitt, reading and reporting the just-released documents the Army itself created is both ‘anti-military’ and ‘re-hashing’ an old story. Let’s not focus on the fact that few, if any, have been punished for these transgressions. Let’s not focus on credible reports that these incidents continue to occur. Instead, if Hewitt is to have his way, we should all focus on the ‘anti-military’ stance of the media.
What is particularly disturbing is how he and others have artificially conflated the Newsweek error and the NY Times story. This is no accident, but an act of intentional and outright propaganda.
And see Dean Esmay’s reply, which occasioned this from Cole: “I am really beginning to think many of you guys out there don’t want an independent media- you want a damned public relations firm.” Bingo.
More on the backlash… See this accusing Cole of defecting from the conservative side, and Cole’s answer: A Response to Rick.
Ernest Miller at Corante answers my questions:
- Is journalism a political animal? “Of course it is. How could it not be? That is sort of one of the main points of the First Amendment, is it not? When one reports on political issues, it is inevitable that the reporting will become part of the political cycle.”
- If so, what kind of politics should it have? “Almost any damn kind it pleases. Journalism isn’t a single monolithic institution. It is a cacophony of voices.”
- How do we know if journalism has got the politics part right? “We can’t.”
Military and media blogger Tim Schmoyer (Sisyphus) also has replies:
- Is the press a political animal? Yes, but it is not a party animal.
- If so, what kind of politics should it have? “Transparent ones. We do not want a monolithic press.”
- How do we know if the press has got the politics part right? “Press politics currently is the commodification of eyeballs and ears. When press politics becomes the commodification of thought and speech by the public, then they’ll have their politics right.”
Read his post.
“Write on, Brother Jay! Write on!” That’s Bob Somerby at the Daily Howler. He didn’t care at all for my appreciation of Daniel Okrent, and he wants specifically to know why I thought his public editor column calling the New York Times a “liberal newspaper” was a good thing. (I said it would prove liberating.) “We think this is no ‘liberation’ at all—and we hope that Jay will splain different,” says Somerby.
I’ll work on it.
Posted by Jay Rosen at May 26, 2005 1:13 AM
I'm sympathetic to the "let a thousand schools of thought contend" argument, but it's not that simple.
First, the playing field is not even. Bloggers will never have the same degree of access to good sources that the Washington press corps has. Investigative reporting will become more haphazard, less reliable than it already is, and increasingly focused on spreading FUD (fear uncertainty and doubt) about one's real or imagined enemies, be they bloggers or politicians.
Second, to follow on Tim W's point about he inevitability of a partisan, UK-style press, there will never again be anything remotely like an authoritative "paper of record." Journalists will become not so much partisans as product managers pitching a distinct, branded offering consisting of equal parts worldview and attitude. More James Wolcott, less James Reston. More snark. Coverage will be driven be the same kind of elaborate research done by any other product marketing organization, and media companies will strive to brand and differentiate themselves the way car manufacturers do. Fox will be positioned like the opinion-biz version of Hummer/Cadillac, NYTimes as Subaru/Audi, NBC as VW, etc.
Note that in this brave new world, bias is more than a desirable feature; it's the very definition of the product. The key metric of success will be not overall readership or viewership but reader/viewer loyalty, and the most ferociously loyal consumers are of course the ones on the far left and far right. Niche marketing will supplant any effort to be a broad-based "paper of record," and news selection and presentation will be shadowed by efforts to win readers over not by intelligence or fairmindedness but by preaching religion to the faithful.
See Bill Keller's amazingly candid admission in BusinessWeek a couple years back about how he and Pinch and the suits decided to focus on catering to their hardcore, most loyal readers instead of appealing to a broad audience. Hence the new Times' emphasis on "flooding the zone", Krugman and Dowd's screeds, more coverage of gays and much less coverage on complex matters - esp but only overseas reporting of countries like Russia or South Africa - that do not afflict the hated redstaters and give comfort to the blue state metrosexual secular core.
In short, the MSM are morphing into blogs with marketing staffs. At some point the political center may rise up and take its revenge, but in the realm of thought and opinion, there's no question that in the near term this will give much greater influence to voices on the far right and the far left.
Hunter, you make some good points, esp about spin, but I've yet to see bloggers break big stories rather than merely debunk news accounts. My responses to each point:
HM: "First, the "good sources" you talk about only talk to the press as a means to promote their spin which more often than not is exactly the FUD you are complaining about."
True, but sources are essential to good journalism, whoever's doing the reporting. I'll agree that FUD seems to be on the increase, esp coming from master FUDmeisters like the arabists and Bush-haters within State and CIA, but this doesn't let journos off the hook. They still have plenty of good anti-FUD devices. Namely, the requirement to seek corroboration from multiple sources and certain traits one expects from adult professionals such as common sense, maturity, good judgment etc. Not every journo is such an easy mark as Sy Hersh.
HM: "Second, these "good sources" are not going away; if the MSM become less useful to them they will quickly adapt and provide their "scoops" to bloggers."
This is a good thing. More reporting, more reporters, more choice => a better approximation of truth. Again, sources are essential
HM: "Third, these sources are mainly of use to help understand the inside-baseball aspects of politics; this part of the news gets coverage way out of proportion to itsw importance."
Agree with you there. One great benefit of the 24x7 cycle and ubiquity of the internet is that it reduces the market value of the scoop. If I can read it anywhere within seconds, there's little economic value to be gained from getting to press first.
HM: "Fourth, if you want to get good information on the issues themselves, there are lots of open sources which will provide more information than any journalist can digest - just go to AEI for one perspective, Brookings for another; these folks are screaming information to anyone who will listen"
Agree totally. It's a huge waste of time to read semi-literate journalists on, eg, social security when you can go directly to the websites of their quoted sources. Brad DeLong's website is better written and far more insightful and informative on Soc Sec'y than any of the MSM's SocSec'y articles that he skewers so hilariously each day.
But if the internet disintermediates journalists, allowing us to tap the experts directly, then really the only beats left to journalism are opinion and investigative reporting.
If you're right that investigative journalism will never be any better than it is now, it may still be worth saving. But if not, then what do you envisage as journalism's unique contribution? (Not a snarky question - just trying to explore the implications of your argument).
* Is the press, properly understood, a political animal?
* If so, what kind of politics should it have?
* How do we know if the press has got the politics part right?
The model that serves us all best, is an adversarial, skeptical press. Verify. Skip the trust. Jay's examples of possibles instances of the press "fighting back" seem to mostly involve the press bringing to light 'admissions against interest' made by the government itself. It is indicative of the timidity and passivity of the press in general, that it can only steel itself to get up on its hind legs and bark back critically at the government, when the press has some supporting documentation, produced by the government itself!
Tim Golden's article was based on an Army Report on its own investigation. It passes today as an act of courage for a reporter to report on a document of this sort, rather than to spike it in obsequious observance of the Army's desire that it remain undisclosed. I don't know how the Times obtained the confidential report, but I'd wager the word "received" could be substituted for "obtained". Still, I'll take what I can get, and I'm mildly encouraged by this sign of life, although the press is still in the posture of someone processing through the information the government spews out, albeit a little more critically. We are still a long way from a press that can generate and stand by its own investigative reporting based on truly independent sources, including sources hostile to the government.
In much of the press hand-wringing over the Newsweek/Koran theater piece, you can detect a real strain of preemptive excuse-making on the part of the press. In bemoaning that terrible lapse, and in pledging to hold itself to higher and higher standards of verification, the press is absolving itself preemptively for its failure to report what it knows, or what it should know. A press, already living in risk-adverse fear of harmful market impacts brought about by Administration attacks, preoccupied with meeting every charge of bias, will not be able to reconcile its newly Olympian ethical standards and its belt-and-suspenders approach to inaccuracy or alleged bias, with its primary mission to timely, comprehensively, critically report the news.
This was just the latest episode of the Administration's use of a place-holding untruth. They ran out the attention-span clock on the story with their attacks on Newsweek and the news-media in general, despite the Administration's knowledge that Newsweek didn't have it so much wrong, as it had the wrong agency. The lie doesn't have to hold for long, in order for it to be meritorious for the Administration. The automatic amplification of Administration falsehoods by segments of the news-media itself accelerates the clock even faster, as it becomes hard to hear the truth amidst the cacophony.
I think you might agree, Neo, that if the press were doing what you suggest, then in cases were it made a "good" judgment by your lights, and decided against printing a true story because it was not worth the possible damage to U.S. interests, or added danger to US troops, then you and I would, by definition, never know about any of these cases-- or the decision that was made.
Based on what I know of how newsmaking works at the top firms, the kind of judgment you describe happens a lot. But that's beside the point because my knowledge is so unreliable. We don't know how often the press holds stories because the stories don't come out.
Steve: I think your critique of the "there is no objective reality" people misses the mark by miles and miles. There may be some who under the spell of one academic conceit or another think there is no objective reality out there, but James Carey is not one, I am not one, and most of the people you would laugh at for holding these views actually hold views that are nothing at all like the proposition you are laughing at.
"There is no objective reality, only symbols seeking to frame that reality" isn't even close to what Carey says or means. He knows there's a world out there prior and indifferent to our perceptions of it. It doesn't care what we say about it.
Yet he also says, and I agree, there is no way for human beings to apprehend that world except through symbols and our tools of representation. That is a very different proposition. Intellectually it leads to very different places than your parody sketch.
In journalism this often comes down to seeing news as what is found vs. news as what is made. Carey and I (and Andrew Cline, I bet) think "news" must be a thing made, more than a thing found, even though we recognize that finding things out and finding the truth, the facts, "what happened" are essential, and basic acts in journalism.
We believe the news is mostly made (from what journalists find in their reporting and observation) but that doesn't mean we think it's made up. We don't.
So next time you gear up for your knock on post-mod deniers of reality (or of objective truth) remember what Rosen said: that you are getting it almost totally wrong. And you, Lovelady, are the author of most of the claims you are rejecting.
Is the press, properly understood, a political animal?
Yes, but its role in the political ecology is equivalent to the role played by the Egyptian plover to Nile Crocodiles (the political system). Without the plovers removing leeches (i.e. corruption) from the gums of the crocs, the crocodiles would soon loose their teeth and die. When the crocs enter water in which leeches are thriving, the plovers need to work especially hard.
If so, what kind of politics should it have?
it depends upon the situation. In a "divided" government, the ecosystem ensures that the environment is not overly friendly to leeches, and the plovers can go about their business in a normal (impartial) fashion. But when one party controls both Houses of Congress and the White House, the leeches have an ecosystem highly favorable to them -- and the plovers have to get very aggressive if the crocodiles are to survive.
How do we know if the press has got the politics part right?
when the leeches are being removed effectively, and the crocodiles stay healthy.
In other words, the press should not be "partisan" --- it should not take a particular political point of view and advance it consistently. It should take an "oppositional" role only when one is necessary --- when one party wields all power in Washington, and is doing so without regard to the long-term health of the nation.
The press needs to be much more aggressive right now; it needs to take the approach it took toward Clinton and "Monicagate", reminding its audience at every opportunity why there is a problem....
1) every time the "war on terror" comes up, it should point out that Bush ignored warnings of the 9-11 attacks, and then tried to cover it up.
2) every time Iraq comes up, the press should point out that Bush lied about WMDs and his decision to go to war, and then tried to cover it up.
3) every time Social Security comes up, the press should remind its readers that Bush has lied, and continues to lie, about Social Security going bankrupt, etc...
What strikes me about it, each time I watch, is how the speakers from the military were intellectually way ahead of the media people, in the sense of going down roads they had traveled many times in their minds, connected to a sense of honor and a grasp of fateful consequence. They had struggled more, and so knew the problem inside-out.
you call the military's desire to save its own skin "way ahead intellectually?" I'd call it intellectual justification for naked self-interest.
A press that makes its decisions based on chavanism winds up being little more than Pravda --- as we saw in the wind up to the Iraq war, where Bush regime officials were permitted to lie, distort, and exaggerate without practically no challenge by the media. There were lots and lots of people --- especially those who read the foreign press, or were paying enough attention to find the truth buried on page A18 of the New York Times --- that were well aware of the Bush regime's lies and manipulations. But the mass media felt it was "disloyal" to call the honesty and integrity of the President into question, and as a result we've spent over $300,000,000,000, thousands upon thousands of Americans are dead or permanantly disabled, and tens upon tens of thousands of Iraqis have died. And all we have to show for it is pictures of Iraqis waving blue fingers.
I want a press corps that reports what is happening, not acting as an agent of the United States Government. And if that means that some Americans will be killed during a war, so be it --- that is what war is about. If the reporter in question hadn't been told about the ambush, the American soldiers would have been just as dead.
The real question that should have been asked is what a French reporter should do in that situation ... and in a reverse situation where the French reporter has information that could save the lives of Kosanese soldiers whom the Americans are planning on killing. When we take the chauvinism out of the equation, suddenly the answer becomes much clearer....
and there is no intellectual gymnastics needed to justify violating journalistic neutrality.
I'll take Glenn Reynolds seriously when he reams the press for not pursuing reliable, undisputed (to this point, anyway) and now quite publicly sourced allegations that the Bush administration lied unendingly about the evidence for the Iraq invasion and falsely described the invasion as a potential "last resort" for months, perhaps years, after they'd made up their minds to go to war. I'd say that was considerably more deadly, and more damaging to our national credibility, than the Newsweek fiasco, to which Reynolds devoted at least a dozen posts.
(I'd like to see him go after Terry Moran's completely unsourced allegations about an anti-military bias among the press, too, but that's a minor quibble.)
This is a bit of a sidetrack and I've written about it ad nauseum, but when two of the most senior officials of our closest ally say that the invasion of Iraq was based upon multiple lies, and not one goddamned soul in the White House briefing room other than my unpaid, part-time correspondent even bothers to ask about it, you cannot ascribe a liberal bias to the press.
The press have always been conservative in the sense of not wanting to swim against the prevailing tide. That tide was mostly liberal from Roosevelt through Reagan — and no, I'm not forgetting Nixon, but he was an aberration and got treated like one; would have been worse absent Kissinger — but as liberals were replaced by conservatives and reporters started drinking more with the conservatives than the liberals, the tide turned. Now the conservative impulse is toward conservative politics, and anyone who has lived through the past 15 years or so and doesn't see that is, frankly, either a moron or so blinded by ideology as to be functionally so.
That's the sense in which the press are political: it's social politics. If liberals ever again take control of government for an extended period, you'll start to see a politically liberal press, assuming there still is a press — and I'm speaking here of the national press — about ten years in because that's how long it'll take for liberals to replace conservatives as the best drinking buddies and the people whose names go on the second batch of party invitations.
The press'll take up a crusade now and again, and they'll go after a seriously wounded politician no matter what his affiliation, but they won't buck the tide.
So, yes, properly understood the press are political animals, both in the social sense and in having a self-aware influence on the political process.
Should they be political? Not in the social sense, but with respect to their influence on our political discourse, the press would be absolutely meaningless absent it. As it is, they're moving about in the aimless, depressed phase that comes just before absolute meaninglessness. Their politics should be the politics of the rhinocerous in the china shop. He's not biased, he just happens to break shit when he pokes around.
You'll know if the press has got its politics right when bodies start piling up, when policies are reported on for what they mean and do rather than on what two or three opposing factions say about them, when the press realize that writing to a fifth-grade level, or whatever the standard is now, doesn't mean the paper is being read by fifth graders, when the press don't cower before any bunch of wackos who happen to attract enough followers to make noise — ooh, diversity, we don't have enough frickin' Young Earth Creationists in the newsroom; how can we cover them fairly? — and when they remember that events don't happen in a vacuum. Hey! Yo! Over here! Context! History!
And when they quit using phrases like "without fear or favor" unless they mean it.
And I'm not even going to address the successful, forty-year effort, by what started out as Goldwater Republicans, to undo the forty years of influence social liberals had had more or less uninterrupted.
My question to Kevin Drum: Fight back? With what? Their record of competence?
If you want to blame Richard Jewel on someone, KT, you might start with the FBI. They're the ones who put his name out front as a suspect, and they did it knowing it would be reported. If you want an example of why the press should start from the assumption that governments lie, that's a fine one.
Jessica Lynch, Pat Tillman, aluminum tubes, yellowcake, killer drones, mobile biowarfare labs, all our troubles will be over when dead enders/Saddam/al-Sadr/Uday & Qusay/Saddam again/al-Sadr again/Fallujah/Zarqawi/Fallujah again/Zarqawi again are caught and killed or destroyed. This war will pay for itself. Eric Shinseki's estimate of the troops required to keep peace is "wildly off the mark." The troops will be coming home three months/six months/one year/15 months/18 months/24 months after the invasion. Maybe 30 months. Maybe four years. Or five.
There are 120,000 Iraqi security personnel fully trained, and equipped and rarin' to go. There are 5,000 Iraqi security personnel fully trained and equipped and rarin' to go. No, 80,000. No, 150,000. No, 20,000.
Reconstruction is going well; the reason people don't have regular telephone, electricity, clean water and sewage services is that we're taking all those facilities down, the better to repair them. War is a last resort. The Baghdad museum wasn't looted. Every spike in violence is the death throes of the insurgency.
The press dutifully report all that crap, and the leeeebrul, biased, spinful New York Times is among the worst offenders. We're committing war crimes, Bubba Trout, and you want it sanitized, and you have no idea how well sanitized it already is.
You want information without bias or spin? Well, let's show the war: let's show mangled corpses, our own and Iraqi ones; let's show the coffins coming into Dover and the multiple amputees wheeling around Walter Reed; let's show what's left of Fallujah, along with the refugee camps surrounding it; let's show the nose-cam footage of Iraqis getting blown off their rooftops, where they've gone to sleep because there's no power for AC; let's show the unexploded cluster bombs waiting for kids to come along and play with them; let's go back into Abu Ghraib and see how things are going; let's go into Gitmo. Let's go over to Uzbekistan and see how the guys we've "rendered" are holding up. Maybe we can grab some footage of one of them getting boiled.
Let's run through all the Geneva Conventions, see which ones we've violated. We can start with the one where an occupying power is responsible for providing security in the occupied country, and move along to the one where the safety of non-combatants is an imperative in military operations. There's footage relative to all that, too.
That would be information, unspun and unbiased: Let's print it. Oooh, but we can't, because there's not one frickin' newspaper or other news outlet willing to utter the words, "war crimes," or to show the pictures and tape that actually document the war, because reality is just too fucking biased.
No, Brian, I'm not saying "run with it regardless whom it damages." I'm saying that if you want to blame the press for Jewel, you have to start with the law enforcement agency that provided the bogus information. I'm saying the press were stupid for taking anything the administration said about Iraq prior to the invasion, and most of what they've said since, seriously. And I'm saying that with a very few exceptions, the press abandoned in favor of cheerleading any pretense of objectivity about US behavior with respect to Iraq long before the invasion — you would've had a better chance of finding Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank in Siberia than on the front page of the Post when they were writing critical stories before the invasion (or now, for that matter), and the way the press swooned over Powell's melodramatic UN presentation should be in every J-school textbook 'til the sun goes out — and they're still reluctant to challenge the administration's spin, and they for damned sure won't show what the war is actually like.
That's an example of running with something someone said no matter whom it damages; it has damaged a whole lot of people and will damage a whole lot more to come.
You wouldn't know about the 14-year-old centrifuge part if you hadn't gotten it from the news, would you? (Of course, you would've known about it a week earlier if CNN hadn't obediently held the story until the administration gave them permission to publish it. ) And it would've stayed in the news, just as the discovery of some fifty pre-Gulf War chemical artillery rounds would have, had the administration not realized how pathetic those looked as a justification for a war.
(I spoke with a Pentagon press officer about the artillery rounds after Congressman Chris Cox said in February that "We continue to discover biological and chemical weapons and facilities to make them inside Iraq." The officer, an Army Lt. Colonel, told me it didn't amount to much and pointed me to the Duelfer report. The conversation was so anti-climactic I didn't even bother mentioning it in the post I wrote about Cox. The perfume bottles, though ... wow.)
As for pre-invasion pessimism, I'd remind you that 1) the press covered the administration's post-invasion triumphalism ad nauseum, even beyond the point when it was clearly unwarranted, and 2) pessimistic predictions didn't kill anyone, and 3) they weren't the government. There's a distinct difference between someone outside government making bad predictions — although you may have noticed that we're stuck in Iraq with no end in sight, that we've lost more troops during eight of the 24 months since "major combat" ended, including May, than we did in the heat of the invasion in March and in April of 2003, that the war has not exactly paid for itself, that Eric Shinseki's estimate of how many troops would be required to secure the country seems to have been much closer to the mark than Paul Woflowitz's or Rumsfeld's and that the administration probably shouldn't have ignored the State Department's advice — and the government themselves making crooked ones.
As for the pre-invasion intelligence, every one of the things I mentioned was hotly contested by our own intelligence agencies; all but one, the "mobile weapons lab," had been debunked before the invasion, and that one was the subject of major doubts which have since proved entirely warranted. Even if one assumes, despite the assessment to the contrary of the key officials in our closest ally's government, that the administration were simply mind-bendingly stupid about the intelligence rather than lying, they still knew before the invasion began that almost everything they'd touted as evidence of a threat was wrong, and the inspectors were putting a period to it before they were pulled out. (Remember the inspectors? and how they were maligned for not finding anything?)
If the Pentagon has footage of soldiers painting schools or digging wells or doing anything else productive, by all means, let's show it. I have no doubt Fox would be happy to do so even if the Maoists at CNN wouldn't. And if print reporters can get to the scene without getting killed on the way, then by all means they should write about it.
Except in very rare instances, it isn't the job of the press to do preemptive damage control for anyone. None of the stuff I've mentioned is speculative: we did drop cluster bombs and we haven't made any organized attempts to clear them, we have tortured people and exported them for others to torture, we have blown up innumerable Iraqi civilians, we have suffered many thousands of maimed soldiers, we did seal off Fallujah and flatten it, once with most of the civilian population trapped inside and once forcing them out while we blew up the town to such an extent that two thirds of the population are still homeless, we have failed to restore electricity and water services to pre-war levels, we have failed to secure the country even to the extent that it's safe to drive six miles from Baghdad to the airport, or for the national government to leave the Green Zone, and we have failed to get oil production back up to pre-war levels.
And that's just the stuff we know about,and even that isn't fully documented because newspapers and television news are afraid to run the pictures to go with the stories. The responsibility of the press is to go after news wherever it takes them, and to report it fully without worrying about whose feelings it'll hurt.
Aside from rectifying their criminally poor war coverage (again, with a few institutional exceptions and some stunning individual reporting), among the many things I'd like my newspapers to do is, when they're reporting a politician's stance on an issue, report as well how much money he has received from groups who benefit from his stance, and when he received it. That's information people could use, and it's useless out of context. Print it and see what the public make of it.
The press haven't ever done what I want them to do, and they certainly aren't getting closer to it now.
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...