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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 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:

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, 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:

Military and media blogger Tim Schmoyer (Sisyphus) also has replies:

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