March 14, 2008
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.
It is rare that a single article advances American press think. In fact, it is rare for American press think to advance at all, which is one of the reasons our press is so vexed these days. Take Clark Hoyt’s latest effort as New York Times public editor. It goes like this:
Many readers have complained to me that the Times is not “shooting down the middle” in its coverage of the 2008 campaign. But I’ve been monitoring and grading the coverage myself, and I have a surprise for some of you. “The Times has not been systematically biased in its news coverage, even if it has occasionally given ammunition to those who claim otherwise.”
Ta-da… An unbiased press! Now I do not doubt his word. Clark wouldn’t cook the books. But this is a conversation that’s savagely stuck, gamed not to go anywhere— for all sides. Professional journalists do not improve the situation when they double down on their neutrality and present objectivity as a truth claim about their own work. It is this kind of claim that compels people to furnish—furiously—more chapter and verse in the very bad and very long book of media bias. Which then causes Hoyt to speak lines like, “Bias is a tricky thing to measure, because we all bring our biases to the task.”
The only exit from this system is for people in the press to start recognizing: there is a politics to what they do. They have to get that part right. They have to be more transparent about it.
But this recognition is circuit-frying for the press we inherited from the Watergate era, and the long arc of professionalization before that. For it means that political argument isn’t really “separate” from news at all, even though the priesthood wants it to be, and still preaches that. There’s a reason Daniel Okrent considered his most important column as public editor this one. (Is the New York Times a liberal newspaper? “Of course it is,” on social issues at least. It reflects the city where it is made.)
The informed display of political conviction
Josh Marshall’s TPM Media operation is a new media newsroom that does political reporting in the same space as the big providers. Marshall believes in accountability journalism, sticking with stories, digging into public records for information, getting to the bottom of things, verifying what you think you know, correcting the record when you get it wrong.
TPM marries these traditional virtues to open expressions of outrage, incredulity marking certain political figures as ridiculous or beyond the pale, and the informed display of political conviction. These make it obvious to any reader of Talking Points Memo that Marshall is a liberal Democrat skeptical of the Bush agenda, though not a dogmatic one. His is the transparency route to trust and success in political journalism. A key crossing point came last month when Marshall and company won a George K. Polk Award for excellence in reporting on the legal system.
The way Marshall figures it, the important thing is to show integrity— not to be a neuter, politically. Having good facts that hold up is a bigger advantage than claiming to reflect all sides equally well. TPM’s homegrown mix combines political argument, dogged investigative work, news aggregation, a filtered community forum, some media criticism, and user-assisted reporting.
(Marshall discussed his approach, and I commented on it, on KCRW’s “politics of culture” show, hosted by Kevin Roderick of LA Observed, with Mark Glaser of Media Shift joining us. Listen here. Also, I will be joining in a forum at TPM Cafe’s Book Club next week that is not unrelated to points made here.)
Uncoupling fairness from neutrality
If the press has to get its own politics right to do news well and remain a force for public good, then future success in the production of news may hinge on the quality of political argument and ideological experiment within the pro tribe itself. That’s a conversation that isn’t happening yet, but there is action everywhere.
Marshall’s success is one example. Keith Olberman anchoring political coverage for MSNBC while also engaging in “special commentaries” that denounce Bush for world class denial and criticize Hillary Clinton for fratricide— that’s another. Now comes James Poniewozik of Time making the case for disclosure. Political journalists, tell us who you voted for! “The biggest reason to go open kimono is that the present system does what journalism should never do: it perpetuates a lie,” says Poniewozik.
Modern political journalism is based on the bogus concept of neutrality (that people can be steeped in campaigns yet not care who wins) and the legitimate ideal of fairness (that people can place intellectual integrity and rigor over their rooting interests). Voting and disclosing would expose the sham of neutrality—which few believe anyway—and compel opinion and news writers alike to prove, story by story, that fairness is possible anyway. Partisans, bloggers and media critics are toxically obsessed with ferreting out reporters’ preferences; treating them as shameful secrets only makes matters worse.
I agree. Uncoupling fairness (needed) from neutrality (not) is a critical and positive step. And I’m with Jeff Jarvis, writing for The Guardian: “The more journalists tell us about their sources, influences and perspectives, the better we can judge what they say.” But disclosing whom you voted for (Obama for Poniewozik, Clinton for Jarvis) is only a part of it. In many ways, the easiest part. Political press think needs a deeper overhaul. The really tricky question is not, “whom did you vote for?” but “what are you doing with your power?” And how are you generating power and authority in the first place, behind what claims?
The courage to admit you’re a participant
Walter Pincus has been at the Washington Post for some 35 years as a reporter, most of it specializing in the intelligence world and the national security state. (He was also executive editor of the New Republic during Watergate, and worked for a brief time on a Senate committee.) Pincus, I think, is one of the best reporters in Washington; and he has his own ideas about journalism.
He proved that when he was asked to write an essay for a new magazine called Frank: Academics for the Real World, which is published by the Clinton School of Public Service in Arkansas. It is this piece that moves the ball down the field. “Power of the Pen: A Call for Journalistic Courage” is the title. Thing is, it’s not online, so barely anyone has seen it.
Pincus does something rare for any mainstream journalist: he openly argues for a more political press. He even uses the word “activist,” which is forbidden in the mainstream newsroom code. And he says that courage in political reporting sometimes means the courage to admit you’re a participant—a player, a power in your own right—within the struggle for self-government, the battle for public opinion and the politics of the day.
Jim Lehrer of PBS would turn on his heel and walk away from Walter Pincus on some of these points. Leonard Downie, executive editor of the Post, would probably blanch. Of course those are the most interesting parts.
For instance, Pincus describes the rise of neutrality as a loss of rights and a conversion downward for the political press.
Owners, editors and reporters today rarely push issues they believe government should take up. If a vote were taken among editors of the major daily newspapers, the vice presidents of network news editions, television and radio anchors, and, I hate to say, probably even most younger print and electronic reporters, the result would be that few to none want or believe they have the right to shape government actions. They don’t want to play activist roles in government—either personally or professionally—unless, of course, it could affect the bottom line.
If Lou Dobbs and his “apocalyptic centrism” are a ratings hit for CNN, he can stay. But for the deciders in the news business, the fiction of floating above politics is the better way to prosper. To Pincus that’s positively lame.
I believe this failure is a threat to our democracy and a poor example for the rest of the world. This is my romantic and unfashionable view of journalism, but it is the one that caused many of us to take up the profession in the first place.
Undoing what Deaver did
“The Power of the Pen” builds on a short essay Pincus wrote in 2006 for Nieman Watchdog, which is online. There he described a very concrete way in which the presidency had brought the news media under greater control. Michael Deaver started it during the Reagan Years. By giving early guidance to the networks about where the President would be speaking and what he plans to say to whom, Deaver began to edit the news himself:
He turned that meeting, which began in prior administrations to help network news television producers plan use of their camera crews each day, into an initial shaping of the news story for that evening.
Independent judgment in the press was eroded, which Pincus counts as a power shift. When you commit cameras and extend coverage based on what the White House says it plans to say, you cede power over the news to the President. There’s mission creep:
The Washington Post, which prior to that time did not have a standing White House story scheduled each day (running one only when the President did something new and thus newsworthy), began to have similar daily coverage.
This turns precious news space into a messaging system for political controllers. Pincus marvels at how being able to “stay on message” is considered a crucial skill by Washington reporters, when this is the very method that reduces them to stenographers.
Of course, the “message” is the public relations spin that the White House wants to present and not what the President actually did that day or what was really going on inside the White House.
The press was getting boxed in by its own routines, including its fascination with the inside story.
This system reached its apex [in 2006] when the White House started to give “exclusives” — stories that found their way to Page One, in which readers learn that during the next week President Bush will do a series of four speeches supporting his Iraq policy because his polls are down. Such stories are often attributed to unnamed “senior administration officials.” Lo and behold, the next week those same news outlets, and almost everyone else, carries each of the four speeches in which Bush essentially repeats what he’s been saying for two years.
When what’s going on is public relations — not governing, the press still feels it must extend coverage because to refuse it would seem… too political. Pincus knows this. Still, he says journalists should refuse to publish “in a newspaper or carry on a TV or radio news show any statements made by the President or any other government official that are designed solely as a public relations tool, offering no new or valuable information to the public.”
Quit your part in the propaganda system. Stop enabling message control. No “standing” or automatic coverage should be granted. No spin room, either. We have to undo what Deaver did and re-gain some of that lost territory.
Looking to the past for better press think
Pincus, I think, is well aware that he is no longer hugging the shore of mainstream press think, but drifting out to sea. And so he turns to the past to get his bearings. To William Allen White of Kansas, who helped explain and promote Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive ideas, speaking to the nation from the Emporia Gazette. And to Lincoln Steffens, the great muckraker (and progressive) of the early 1900s, who wrote “Shame of Cities,” a series about municipal corruption.
Steffens started the flame that awards like the George K. Polk keep alive. About his articles explaining the corrupt machines in St. Louis, Minneapolis, Chicago, he says, “They were written with a purpose, they were published serially with a purpose, and they are reprinted now together to further that same purpose.” The politicians “will supply any demand we may create. All we have to do is to establish a steady demand for good government.” (Yes, the progressives overestimated what could be done with publicity and exposure alone.)
Creating demand in the country for more transparent and accountable government is the political part of the reporting project Steffens undertook with his “shame” series. “All very unscientific,” he wrote.
But then, I am not a scientist. I am a journalist. I did not gather with indifference all the facts and arrange them patiently for permanent preservation and laboratory analysis. I did not want to preserve, I wanted to destroy the facts.
I wanted to destroy the facts. That’s Steffens, disclosing his agenda. He wanted to see if the findings in his report, “spread out in all their shame,’” would “set fire to American pride,” and change what was acceptable to voters and influential citizens.
That was the journalism of it. I wanted to move and to convince. That is why I was not interested in all the facts, sought none that was new, and rejected half those that were old.
Steffens, I think, would know how to deal with an accusation of bias.
The fourth branch of government
By re-claiming White and Steffens as heroes, Pincus is dissenting from the view you can hear in this account from columnist Matt Miller, who five years ago went searching for the limits of press neutrality.
“I don’t think that if you sat in on page-one meetings over the course of six months,” says Steve Coll, managing editor of The Washington Post, “you would hear any discussion about ‘We ought to do this because we want to put it on the map.’ You have to see the media as chronicling the public square. When nobody shows up in the public square to talk about what you would wish them to talk about, is the person standing in the back with an open notebook the structural cause of that?”
It’s a vivid image of a blameless press: the open notebook on a windswept public square. Miller interprets what Coll is saying:
The national press, despite its power and occasional hobbyhorses, sees its role as “witnessing,” as serving up a “daily diary of debate,” as offering “a platform for independent inquiry and investigation” — but not as setting the terms of public discussion.
Even though it does have that power, at times. Miller again:
I asked Downie, “Should the news side of an organization like yours have a perspective on what are the most important challenges facing the country?”
“No,” Downie said instantly.
Walter Pincus disagrees. And he has a theory, which starts with Edmund Burke on the rise of a “fourth estate” and winds up with Downey’s instantaneous “No.” I summarize:
Whoever can speak to the public as a whole has political power. This power can be used for good or ill. Some who have used it for good have sought to influence government. The framers of the Constitution were familiar with this type of editor, and so freedom of the press protects the power of the pen. But it also protects the kind of press that would shrink from using its power, or re-claiming it. This is where courage is necessary. But recent history isn’t very encouraging.
“Transmitters of other people’s ideas…”
In the 1950s Douglas Cater called the press the fourth branch of government. “The reporter is the recorder of government but also a participant,” said Cater. Since then, official policy has been toward a less political press, less inclined to see itself as a participant, even as complaints about bias have risen. This cycle has weakened journalism. The fairness doctrine, an official policy of even handedness, spread “backward” from television to newspapers. Media concentration, publicly-traded stock, and the rise of monopoly news gatherers helped enthrone the notion that providers of news should be onlookers.
Today’s mainstream print and electronic media want to be neutral, unbiased and objective, presenting both or all sides as if they were on the sidelines in a game in which only the players—the government and its opponents—can participate. They have increasingly become common carriers, transmitters of other people’s ideas and thoughts, irrespective of import, relevance and at times even accuracy.
Reporters with depth of knowledge are capable of challenging government and getting beyond he said, she said, a tepid style of truthtelling. But the media corporation shifts its people around a lot. They switch towns, beats, assignments so often that it’s impossible for most reporters to build up any independent base of authority. They can’t challenge spin because they don’t know enough. So they become transmitters. Neutrality valorizes a loss of footing and self-respect.
This is bad news for the press if you care about having a strong one, capable of challenging the line of the day. But fine for the media, which finds it far cheaper to farm out “context” and “analysis” to ex-government officials. They came by their knowledge at another sector’s expense.
To wrap this up, a question via Sir Pincus for public editor Clark Hoyt: What if the very thing the New York Times is doing for reasons of trust—remain officially neutral, like Switzerland—is causing more people to trust the Times less and less? You can say those people are misguided. You can prove them wrong with better stats. Or you can read “the Power of the Pen” when it comes online, and start your re-think right there.* * *
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…
Weldon Berger got permission to publish the Walter Pincus essay, so it is now online: The Power of the Pen: A Call for Journalistic Courage.
Tom Edsall, now of the Huffington Post, formerly of the Washington Post, interviewed Walter Pincus about his views on this subject, March 22, 2008. Excerpt:
EDSALL: You said the Nieman article “Fighting Back Against the PR Presidency” got you in trouble.
PINCUS: Well, originally, yeah. I mean, not trouble. This is just this whole long thing that I’ve always had running. You’re not supposed to be an advocate….But otherwise why have a paper? That’s why you have the 1st Amendment. That’s why the press is free to print anything it wants.
EDSALL: So in effect you got in trouble for saying that the paper does advocate and should advocate?
PINCUS: Should advocate, yeah.
EDSALL: I mean — when I got into journalism a long time ago, I think the idea was for reporters to attempt, in breaking stories, to affect the [political and policy] agenda.
PINCUS: Yeah. I think this is generational. I mean, you may know better than I, but — and that’s why we all went into it.
In the comments, Lex Alexander of the News & Record in Greensboro lists some areas where daily newspapers might start to see itself as having a political identity:
- Public records. If you think of yourself as a public trustee and/or a watchdog, this is essential. It’s also a fairly easy sell to the public.
- Being pro-consumer. The market is more and more a rigged game these days, from dirty air to downed cattle.
- That watchdog thing. It’s hard and takes people and money, but when you identify a worthy target (be it an individual, a government agency, a corporation or a nonprofit) and hit it hard, people react.
“None of these involves picking a side in the red/blue culture wars,” Lex writes.
It’s always been of interest to me that most people think the available choices are toxic objectivity on the one hand or picking a side and joining the culture wars on the other. Absurdly de-politicized or instantly over-politicized: where do you stand?
Matthew Sheffield of Newsbusters.org (“Exposing and combatting liberal media bias”) in the comments:
I still think there is value in the desire to be unaligned (no one likes being thought a shill) and a danger in thoroughly throwing one’s lot in with a side (spiking stories “for the team”).
Steve Borris at the Future of News reacts to this post:
If neutrality isn’t necessarily desirable, is it possible “fairness” isn’t either? In my view, a partisan news outlet can demonstrate “fairness” in two ways — by admitting their biases to readers and by providing an honest presentation of opposing views. But in debates, which we consider to be fair contests, would we expect either side to admit their biases or give an honest presentation of the other’s views? Of course, it would not be good for either side to tell lies, but that involves a concept called “honesty,” not fairness. So bring it on, and let’s hear from a multitude of partisan news sources competing in a freewheeling marketplace of ideas. As the saying goes, “politics ain’t bean bag.” Nor is citizenship. Nor should be news.
Karl at Protein wisdom: “Urging journalists to admit that they are participants in the public square is a healthy notion.”
James Joyner at Outside the Beltway:
Even under the current Illusion of Objectivity model, the reporting is fair most of the time. I have my clock radio wake me to NPR every morning even though they’ve clearly got a progressive social agenda on a handful of issues. Even the dreaded NYT produces superb reportage on a day in, day out basis with only the occasional lulu thrown in.
But, ultimately, Rosen’s ideal type is better than the current one. The thing that makes the best bloggers better than the best reporters is that the former operate in a low trust environment while the latter operate under the mantle of automatic respectability. That forces the blogs to lay out the facts, link to sources, and anticipate the responses of those who will disagree. Terrific reporters for major outlets, by contrast, often trip up because they begin from the premise “Trust me, I work for ___________.”
Posted by Jay Rosen at March 14, 2008 10:36 AM
Thanks for the great post, Jay. As usual, you evoke a number of thoughts:
I am in complete agreement that the present objective posture is a sham, not just because it does cripple journalism but because it is an obvious lie. Every educated person has an opinion about at least a few political issues. That many journalists state that they have no opinions ("I had mine surgically removed" as Lesley Stahl put it) casts great doubt on their grasp of their issues or makes one wonder about journalists’ ability to delude themselves.
Few in the media seem to see the absurdity of this situation. Take for instance the issue of gay rights (something I support wholeheartedly). Now on the one hand, journalists tell us that they have no opinions but then on the other hand, you never see news stories attempting to cast doubt on those who argue that homosexuality is genetic. Most large newspapers have journalists assigned to cover the gay community in their area. Most large media companies have gay and lesbian domestic partner programs. Yet, when it comes to the question of bias, these same editors and managers will then turn around and insist they are not biased despite much objective evidence that they have such a bias.
The same pattern exists on numerous other issues. We hear the same ludicrous defenses on them as well from journalists who don't realize that each time they do so, they’re further discrediting themselves to the public.
Pincus’s argument actually isn’t that old at all. Many journalists before his piece have made the argument. What I find more interesting about it is that every reporter I’ve seen make it is a lefty—including Pincus. Part of the reason for this is that as countless surveys have shown, people who lean rightward are a small minority in American elite journalism. Could part of it also be that conservatives and libertarians long ago resolved that objectivity is impossible? I think so. It seems that on the question of journalistic objectivity, the post-modernist left is making a decidedly modernist position while the moral absolutist right is embracing relative truth.
Despite the foregoing, I still think there is value in the desire to be unaligned (no one likes being thought a shill) and a danger in thoroughly throwing one’s lot in with a side (spiking stories “for the team”). The present situation exists mainly because the approach that most news organizations use to pursue objectivity is fundamentally flawed in a number of ways.
I think most who read Jay’s blog would agree that racially undiverse newsrooms are much more likely to miss and misreport the news. I certainly would. I wonder how many would see the similar problem that is created by politically uniform newsrooms. I did an interview with Bill Sammon the conservative DC Examiner reporter a few years ago and he told me that he’d had many instances traveling around the world with the president where his left-leaning colleagues would fail to see the newsiness of something, thereby giving him the exclusive.
If I ran a news organization seeking to be objective, I would see to it that my staff was politically and racially diverse and then cut them loose to find whatever facts they’d like to seek. There’d be rules about calling out fellow staffers and making articles that completely contradict each other but that would be about it. That, or I’d fund a left- and a right-leaning publication to cover the same issue.
And (Pincus) says that courage in political reporting sometimes means the courage to admit you’re a participant—a player, a power in your own right—within the struggle for self-government, the battle for public opinion and the politics of the day.
Courage?? If you’re providing the public the information it requires to make rational decisions as voters of a democracy, it is an obligation to come clean that you’re a participant in the ‘struggle’ for public opinions, and just where you stand in the battle. Not to disclose these things (which seems more or less standard procedure in the industry) is clearly a form of dishonesty.
When “what’s going on is public relations — not governing,” the press still feels it must extend coverage because to refuse coverage would seem… too political.
Golly, the press still feels some vestiges of responsibility for reporting what our elected representatives actually said? For shame. It’s been years since major Presidential speeches were quoted in their entirety, but we are assured that the selective paraphrasing and counterfactuals in the papers are all we need to know.
[Pincus] says journalists should refuse to publish “in a newspaper or carry on a TV or radio news show any statements made by the President or any other government official that are designed solely as a public relations tool, offering no new or valuable information to the public.”
So journalists are to act as The Opposition and actually PREVENT the public from getting direct communications from elected officials, unless they judge them of ‘sufficient value’. Nice work if you can get it.
But the media corporation shifts its people around a lot…. This is bad news for the press if you care about having a strong one, capable of challenging the line of the day.
That might be bad news if the unelected journalist has set up as The Opposition, with the single purpose of interfering in communications between the elected and the electorate. That purpose presupposes that there’s an alternate ‘line of the day’ which should be substituted at this point, to strike a blow in that ‘struggle for self-government, the battle for public opinion’. In other words, the good news is that now the media is to generate and control the ‘line of the day’, and no challenges whatever shall stand against it since no one else owns such a splendid megaphone. In that case the ‘struggle for self-government’ is the New Yorker’s cartoon of blindfolded Justice engaging in a fencing match with an unhampered advocate for… the media line of the day. Fancy that ever happening.
I'll take both, if you don't mind: excruciatingly unaware spectator asleep during press controversies, and blantly biased shill for the blantanty biased media. That's me in a nutshell. Sorry, two nutshells.
Terry: If you ever got a copy of my dissertation (The Impossible Press, 1986, NYU) you would find quit a bit on Lippmann and the engineering of consent, and some on the Creel Committee. Ever heard of Wilson's Four Minute Men? Check into them sometime. They were broadcasting before the technology of broadcasting. Brilliant!
TA, I think there's something to this part...
A presumed impartial referee has more credibility to most than an ideologue, and such credibility is often a prerequisite for ideological influence. Abandoning (or exposing) the false pretense of objectivity reduces the dominant media’s credibility and, consequently, their influence. For this reason, of course, I don’t expect our press friends to abandon the pretense.
I don't expect it, either. However there is a dynamic you aren't recognizing.
The objectivity fiction, which is related to the neutrality fiction, which is related to the omniscient fiction, which is related to the "all the news" fiction... these things are getting expensive, in terms of what it costs to defend sweeping claims like that. They're a stretch, and the constant stretching takes its toll.
News organizations are careful to avoid bias: 36 percent said so in 1985, 31 percent in 2007.
News organizations are politically biased: 45 percent said so in 1985, 55 percent in 2007.
News organizations hurt democracy: 23 percent said that in 1985, 36 percent in 2007.
In 1985, less than half of Republicans (49%), independents (44%) and Democrats (43%) said the press is politically biased. By 1999, however, the partisan gap in perceptions of news media bias had grown to 18 points with 69% of Republicans saying the press is biased. And the divide in opinion has grown even wider since. Currently, 70% of Republicans and 61% of independents say news organizations are politically biased, compared with just 39% of Democrats. The percentage of Democrats who see political bias in the news media has fallen 14 points since 2005.
What's more likely: that the big news organizations will spend what it takes to increase quality, diversify staff and introduce the proper controls in an effort to reverse these numbers and bring the reality closer to the (impossible!) claims, or... they will figure that by backing off from the claims they can increase their credibility without requiring any such overhaul?
I refer you to this post for evidence that some in the "dominant media" get it.
Of course the most likely course of action is neither of my alternatives. It is to do nothing and let the slow drip continue. As Terry Heaton can tell you (he's a former TV news director) that is the biggest bias by far in news organizations.
That's awesome, getting permission to reprint Pincus' essay. Thanks!
I agree with Pincus on the first two sections. It's "Strictly Neutral" where he goes horribly wrong.
Neutrality in the media has its roots in the death of 19th Century party papers, the death of muckracking pre-1920, the Lippmann-Dewey debates starting in 1992, the 1927 Radio Act and Section 315 of the 1934 Communications Act pushed by FDR and directed at radio broadcasters.
Leading up to, and for a few years after the 1934 Act, the AP and newspapers were also engaged in the "Press-Radio Wars," which was basically a contest over the value of news as a commercial commodity (it should be noted that many newspapers also owned radio stations). This conflict of ideas about fairness in the public (broadcast) media and commercial interest brought the "Mayflower Doctrine" of 1941 and later the "Fairness Doctrine" of 1949 under Truman. [It is also worth remembering that a willing media cooperated with both Woodrow Wilson and FDR in censoring the news and distributing government war propaganda before the second half of the 20th century.]
In 1967, under LBJ, the FCC further defined the rules for fairness including personal attacks and political editorializing.
It was within this public expectation of fairness that Newspapers had been pulling back their own partisan views, valuing fairness, objectivity and neutrality.
Pincus, knowingly tells us, "Starting sometime in the Nixon administration, probably with Vice President Spiro Agnew’s attacks on the liberal press, newspapers began pulling back."
Then he skips the permanent political campaigns targeting media and using polls to arrive at ... Reagan and Deaver!
Perhaps before reclaiming "the agenda," Pincus should promote a discipline of verification and greater transparency to build trust?
We just identified what we thought might benefit our audiences, and then set about saying it.
If the press is going to seek to "make government better" it's inevitably going to be a political actor, as the very definition of "better" is dependent on one's political beliefs. Being honest that that's what you're doing and honest in how you do it is obviously better than trying to pretend that you're not.
But an even better ethic than "activism" or "making the world better" would be an ethic of "service".
See your job as "Finding information that your customers will thank you for." Then any "bias" you show will flow from the customer base to the newsroom rather than vice-versa. At the very least you'll get fewer pissed-off customers and a much broader range of perspective in story selection than you get now.
It's been pointed out that if you get all your news from the NYT you'd know that Obama's started ending his speeches with "God bless America" without knowing why that's significant. The fact of the existence of his minister's "God damn America" quote has not appeared in any of their news pages yet, just in one Kristol op-ed column.
But any NYT customer who's just seen a YouTube "Wright's Greatest Hits" video has got to be asking WHY THE HECK DIDN'T YOU TELL US ABOUT THIS?!?!?! You found space for the McCain-lobbyist non-affair non-story, but not for this?
There may be some explanation of this other than trying to bury stuff that's bad for a guy they like:
Maybe they try to prove their objectivity by writing an equal number of "bad" sotries on all the candidates, ignoring the possibility that some may actually have more bad things to write about than others.
Maybe they're so far out of touch with normal Americans that they actually did watch the videos, and thought they were no big deal.
There may be some way they can pretend they were being "objective" or "fair" in their coverage.
But if the NYT followed an "ethic of service", they would have figured that New York's voters would want to know the worst about the two major candidates before they cast their votes, and would have covered J. Wright in honest detail before the New York primaries.
The problem with journalism is journalists. Journalists who have been taught how to be good story-tellers but not good critical thinkers. Journalists who want to make a point, and make a difference, without their point being confused or obscured with caveats and refutations.
That's what is so wrong with the Steffens quote in Jay's essay. It's the difference between Pincus' integrity and good facts, and Steffens wanting to destroy the facts. Steffens' is the rhino in the china shop model who smashes things while avoiding the costs of acquiring a genuinely detailed understanding. It's the opposite of being a custodian of fact practicing a discipline of verification.
It's bad journalism. Muckracking journalism in the early 20th century was bad journalism lacking integrity or good facts, and it died.
Pincus and Overholser have referred to Fox News as either overtly conservative or deceptively partisan while implying CNN and the rest of the media is neutral or at worst imperfectly objective. Neither will tell you what metrics they used to make such a determination or their facts. From their POV, it is a fact ... no critical thinking required.
Jay Rosen screws up the same way in his third point at TPM Cafe. He quotes Burns, "the absence of a plan, at least any the Pentagon intended to implement, for the period after Baghdad fell." For him to do so requires the suspension of critical thought. He knows the primary planners were COL Kevin Benson (CFLCC) and COL John Agoglia (CENTCOM). He knows there was a plan, not an absence of one. He just can't get his head around it. He doesn't want to acquire a genuinely detailed understanding. In fact, he doesn't even want to acquire a basic understanding that would enable him to answer four basic questions:
- Was the Phase IV planning poor at the strategic (multinational/interagency), operational (CENTCOM/CFLCC) and/or tactical level? Does that hierarchy still make sense in hindsight given Iraq?
- Was it poor because the planning process developed post-Vietnam (from Active Defense thru Airland Battle to Joint, Interagency and Coalition) no longer works? Does it work for some operations (Afghanistan?) but not for others (Iraq?)?
- Ike Wilson argues that the current hierarchical, phased planning process needs to be overhauled for 21st Century warfare. Do you agree?
- Do we need a new Goldwater-Nichols Act for Interagency training, doctrine and operations? Should we establish a "National Security Service Corps" to avoid future poorly planned/executed Phase IVs?
I do recommend reading Burns article along with Gordon's: Fateful Choice on Iraq Army Bypassed Debate.
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...