This is an archive, please visit for current posts.
PressThink: Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine
Recent Entries
Like PressThink? More from the same pen:

Read about Jay Rosen's book, What Are Journalists For?

Excerpt from Chapter One of What Are Journalists For? "As Democracy Goes, So Goes the Press."

Essay in Columbia Journalism Review on the changing terms of authority in the press, brought on in part by the blog's individual--and interactive--style of journalism. It argues that, after Jayson Blair, authority is not the same at the New York Times, either.

"Web Users Open the Gates." My take on ten years of Internet journalism, at

Read: Q & As

Jay Rosen, interviewed about his work and ideas by journalist Richard Poynder

Achtung! Interview in German with a leading German newspaper about the future of newspapers and the Net.

Audio: Have a Listen

Listen to an audio interview with Jay Rosen conducted by journalist Christopher Lydon, October 2003. It's about the transformation of the journalism world by the Web.

Five years later, Chris Lydon interviews Jay Rosen again on "the transformation." (March 2008, 71 minutes.)

Interview with host Brooke Gladstone on NPR's "On the Media." (Dec. 2003) Listen here.

Presentation to the Berkman Center at Harvard University on open source journalism and NewAssignment.Net. Downloadable mp3, 70 minutes, with Q and A. Nov. 2006.

Video: Have A Look

Half hour video interview with Robert Mills of the American Microphone series. On blogging, journalism, NewAssignment.Net and distributed reporting.

Jay Rosen explains the Web's "ethic of the link" in this four-minute YouTube clip.

"The Web is people." Jay Rosen speaking on the origins of the World Wide Web. (2:38)

One hour video Q & A on why the press is "between business models" (June 2008)

Recommended by PressThink:

Town square for press critics, industry observers, and participants in the news machine: Romenesko, published by the Poynter Institute.

Town square for weblogs: InstaPundit from Glenn Reynolds, who is an original. Very busy. Very good. To the Right, but not in all things. A good place to find voices in diaolgue with each other and the news.

Town square for the online Left. The Daily Kos. Huge traffic. The comments section can be highly informative. One of the most successful communities on the Net.

Rants, links, blog news, and breaking wisdom from Jeff Jarvis, former editor, magazine launcher, TV critic, now a J-professor at CUNY. Always on top of new media things. Prolific, fast, frequently dead on, and a pal of mine.

Eschaton by Atrios (pen name of Duncan B;ack) is one of the most well established political weblogs, with big traffic and very active comment threads. Left-liberal.

Terry Teachout is a cultural critic coming from the Right at his weblog, About Last Night. Elegantly written and designed. Plus he has lots to say about art and culture today.

Dave Winer is the software wiz who wrote the program that created the modern weblog. He's also one of the best practicioners of the form. Scripting News is said to be the oldest living weblog. Read it over time and find out why it's one of the best.

If someone were to ask me, "what's the right way to do a weblog?" I would point them to Doc Searls, a tech writer and sage who has been doing it right for a long time.

Ed Cone writes one of the most useful weblogs by a journalist. He keeps track of the Internet's influence on politics, as well developments in his native North Carolina. Always on top of things.

Rebecca's Pocket by Rebecca Blood is a weblog by an exemplary practitioner of the form, who has also written some critically important essays on its history and development, and a handbook on how to blog.

Dan Gillmor used to be the tech columnist and blogger for the San Jose Mercury News. He now heads a center for citizen media. This is his blog about it.

A former senior editor at Pantheon, Tom Englehardt solicits and edits commentary pieces that he publishes in blog form at TomDispatches. High-quality political writing and cultural analysis.

Chris Nolan's Spot On is political writing at a high level from Nolan and her band of left-to-right contributors. Her notion of blogger as a "stand alone journalist" is a key concept; and Nolan is an exemplar of it.

Barista of Bloomfield Avenue is journalist Debbie Galant's nifty experiment in hyper-local blogging in several New Jersey towns. Hers is one to watch if there's to be a future for the weblog as news medium.

The Editor's Log, by John Robinson, is the only real life honest-to-goodness weblog by a newspaper's top editor. Robinson is the blogging boss of the Greensboro News-Record and he knows what he's doing.

Fishbowl DC is about the world of Washington journalism. Gossip, controversies, rituals, personalities-- and criticism. Good way to keep track of the press tribe in DC

PJ Net Today is written by Leonard Witt and colleagues. It's the weblog of the Public Journalisn Network (I am a founding member of that group) and it follows developments in citizen-centered journalism.

Here's Simon Waldman's blog. He's the Director of Digital Publishing for The Guardian in the UK, the world's most Web-savvy newspaper. What he says counts.

Novelist, columnist, NPR commentator, Iraq War vet, Colonel in the Army Reserve, with a PhD in literature. How many bloggers are there like that? One: Austin Bay.

Betsy Newmark's weblog she describes as "comments and Links from a history and civics teacher in Raleigh, NC." An intelligent and newsy guide to blogs on the Right side of the sphere. I go there to get links and comment, like the teacher said.

Rhetoric is language working to persuade. Professor Andrew Cline's Rhetorica shows what a good lens this is on politics and the press.

Davos Newbies is a "year-round Davos of the mind," written from London by Lance Knobel. He has a cosmopolitan sensibility and a sharp eye for things on the Web that are just... interesting. This is the hardest kind of weblog to do well. Knobel does it well.

Susan Crawford, a law professor, writes about democracy, technology, intellectual property and the law. She has an elegant weblog about those themes.

Kevin Roderick's LA Observed is everything a weblog about the local scene should be. And there's a lot to observe in Los Angeles.

Joe Gandelman's The Moderate Voice is by a political independent with an irrevant style and great journalistic instincts. A link-filled and consistently interesting group blog.

Ryan Sholin's Invisible Inkling is about the future of newspapers, online news and journalism education. He's the founder of and a self-taught Web developer and designer.

H20town by Lisa Williams is about the life and times of Watertown, Massachusetts, and it covers that town better than any local newspaper. Williams is funny, she has style, and she loves her town.

Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing at is a daily review of the best reporting and commentary on the presidency. Read it daily and you'll be extremely well informed.

Rebecca MacKinnon, former correspondent for CNN, has immersed herself in the world of new media and she's seen the light (great linker too.)

Micro Persuasion is Steve Rubel's weblog. It's about how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the business of persuasion. Rubel always has the latest study or article.

Susan Mernit's blog is "writing and news about digital media, ecommerce, social networks, blogs, search, online classifieds, publishing and pop culture from a consultant, writer, and sometime entrepeneur." Connected.

Group Blogs

CJR Daily is Columbia Journalism Review's weblog about the press and its problems, edited by Steve Lovelady, formerly of the Philadelpia Inquirer.

Lost Remote is a very newsy weblog about television and its future, founded by Cory Bergman, executive producer at KING-TV in Seattle. Truly on top of things, with many short posts a day that take an inside look at the industry.

Editors Weblog is from the World Editors Fourm, an international group of newspaper editors. It's about trends and challenges facing editors worldwide. keeps track of developments from the British side of the Atlantic. Very strong on online journalism.

Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

Syndicate this site:

XML Summaries

XML Full Posts

August 20, 2008

Hype Busting at Mother Jones Goes Bust

Has Obama compared his campaign to the great movements in progressive history, like civil rights? Mother Jones says he has. What were the editors thinking? And why aren't they linking?

Mother Jones is currently running a feature called The Audacity of Hype? It offer us the views of 24 writers, thinkers and historians on a question the editors find important:

Is Barack Obama exaggerating when he compares his campaign to the great progressive moments in US history?

There’s no quote from Obama comparing his campaign to the great progressive moments in American history. There’s no link to a text where he says that. This seemed odd for 2008; by now, the ethic of the link is reasonably well known among those who publish online. I asked the people in my Twitter feed, “If you’re editing this for Mother Jones, do you run the feature without a quote or link where Obama offers the comparison?” Russ Walker, formerly an editor at, said, “Absolutely not.”

In the email I got from David Corn as he pushed out to his list a promo for the Mother Jones feature, it says, “Prominent thinkers and writers ponder Obama and his claim that his campaign is comparable to the great progressive movements in U.S. history.” Obama really said something like that? His campaign is a “movement” comparable to, say, the civil rights movement, or to second wave feminism, or to the labor movement after the industrial revolution? If so, I had missed it. So had Dan Kennedy. (“Let’s have the precise language.”)

Now I’ve heard Obama say, “this is our moment, this is our time.” So have you. But that’s different from a truth claim like, “my campaign is a movement comparable to the great progressive movements in history.” My doubts were increased by the headline: The Audacity of Hype? This doubles the editors’ bet. They’re not only suggesting he made the claim, they’re saying it’s been repeated often enough to be an audacious form of self-promotion. They’re provoking Pat Buchanan and giving him a forum to say things like…

It is absurd to argue that the nomination or an election of Barack Obama would be as important a historical event as the liberation of 3 million slaves after the bloodiest war in American history, that took 600,000 lives and set the South back a century.

It would be absurd, if anyone had argued that. Buchanan is clowning, and Mother Jones is helping him. From what I know of the contemporary attack machine, any statement from the candidate himself that compared Obama ‘08 to the great movements for freedom and justice in our history would have been quite the controversy, what with the McCain camp already mocking his messiah complex and calling him “The One.” Why would Mother Jones, a progressive magazine, accuse Obama of the same thing McCain is attacking him for?

It didn’t make a lot of sense, especially without a quote, link, or reference point. So I wrote to David Corn, Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones, asking him: where did Obama make this claim? What were you guys talking about? He kindly sent me an excerpt from a speech given by Obama. He said it should have been part of the introduction to the published forum, but somehow wasn’t. (Okaaay… so you’re going to fix that, right?)

This is what Mother Jones editors sent to the participants along with the question, “Is Barack Obama exaggerating when he compares his campaign to the great progressive moments in US history?” I present it as a public service. See if you can find the point where that particular comparison is made. I couldn’t, but I am just one reader.

Nothing worthwhile in this country has ever happened unless somebody, somewhere is willing to hope. Somebody is willing to stand up. Somebody who is willing to stand up when they are told “No you can’t” and instead they say, “Yes we can.”

That’s how this country was founded. A group of patriots declaring independence against a mighty British empire—nobody gave them a chance—but they said, “Yes we can.” That’s how slaves and abolitionists resisted that wicked system, and how a new president charted a course to ensure we would not remain half slave and half free.

That’s how the greatest generation—my grandfather fighting in Patton’s Army, my grandmother staying at home with a baby and still working on a Bomber assembly line—how that greatest generation overcame Hitler and fascism, and also lifted themselves up out of a Great Depression.

That’s how pioneers went West when people told them it was dangerous, they said, “Yes we can.” That’s how immigrants traveled from distant shores when people said their fates would be uncertain, “Yes we can.” That’s how women won the right to vote, how workers won the right to organize, how young people like you traveled down South to march and sit in and go to jail, and some were beaten and some died for freedom’s cause. That’s what hope is. That’s what hope is.

That’s what hope is. That moment when we shed our fears and our doubts. When we don’t settle for what the cynics tell us we have to accept. Because cynicism is a sorry sort of wisdom. When we instead join arm in arm and decide we are going to remake this country, block by block, precinct by precinct, county by county, state by state. That’s what hope is.

There’s a moment in the life of every generation, when that spirit has to come through if we are to make our mark on history. And this is our moment. This is our time.

Which comes closest to your view?

1.) Sure enough, Obama in this except “compares his campaign to the great progressive moments in US history” and Mother Jones caught him at it, puncturing the Obama hype. Good for them!

2.) No, Obama does not “claim that his campaign is comparable to the great progressive movements in U.S. history.” Not even close. Mother Jones is engaging in the kind of audacious hype it claims to be opposing. Bad move.

3.) It doesn’t matter whether Obama actually said anything like that because his supporters believe his campaign is a movement of transcendent historical importance, and that’s what Mother Jones really meant, it’s just that the editors phrased it badly, attributing to the candidate claims that have been made by others about him.

My vote is for 2.) Yours? And if you have a better text where the claim is made that “Barack Obama for president” is like the great social movements of the past, send it along. (This speech to the NAACP might have had that language in it, but doesn’t.)

I’ve been around the block before on an issue like this. (““Mother Jones invites you to question if the Politics 2.0 revolution really lives up to its hype.”) Is the concept really so hard for the editors to grasp? Hype-busting and the exercise of hype are very closely related things; one may easily turn into the other if you’re not careful, in the same way that playing the race card and accusations of playing the race card bring on the same dynamic.

Mother Jones wasn’t being careful. I think the editors should correct their mistake, which was to publish this feature without any reference point or link. That would be “smart, fearless journalism,” circa World Wide Web. They should add that Obama didn’t explicitly make the claims they are accusing him of making, unless they have a passage where he does.

I’ll update you if anything happens.

* * *

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links...

Meanwhile, Digby says of the forum:

I think the most interesting thing about the answers is the degree to which just about everyone sounds ambivalent or confused. It’s a very odd array of answers from people who are immersed in politics and history and who should be able to rattle off a compelling rationale for the candidate without any problem, even if they disagree with the notion that it’s a movement on par with civil rights or the labor movement. I think all of the people queried want Obama to win, but virtually none of them seem to be sure what he’s going to do.

But Paul Rosenberg of Open Left disagrees with Digby on a few points.

The editor of Mother Jones replies and the magazine adjusts its feature online, adding the text of the speech participants were reacting to. That corrects for part of what’s wrong with it.

Dan Kennedy, The audacity of Mother Jones. “I think the truth is #2 plus a strong dose of #3, along with at least a slight whiff of #1…. It’s not so much that MoJo is completely wrong; it’s that the magazine is being reductionist and stupid. Why?”

At the MoJo blog, Jonathan Stein posts Obama’s Historical Comparisons, with more explanation. “Obama does indeed put himself in a historical context alongside the great progressive movements of the last century,” he says. “Do I personally think that Obama sees his candidacy as on par with the civil rights movement or Revolutionary War soldiers? No.”

CJR’s Campaign Desk: Obama feature falls flat. Jane Kim on the sound of it: “No, they say (almost) in unison, Obamania isn’t a truly progressive movement. In fact, it’s not even really a movement—let me tell you what a movement is. Still, let’s not forget that it’s historic; I definitely didn’t say that it wasn’t historic.

Maybe it’s the question’s fault, Jane. Political man, he’s prone to exaggerate, right? So how good a question did our premier progressive political magazine ask of their 24 people: did political man exaggerate when he said…? But for instant production of a hype-busting atmosphere, a lame question like that actually works.

Kennedy points to this observation by Jonathan Stein at the MoJo blog, back in February. Barack Obama’s Messiah Complex. Definitely worth reading.

Does this post play unhelpfully into the pernicious and growing Obamaism-as-cult meme that we’ll likely see repeated over and over by the right wing if Obama gets the nomination? It does. Sorry. But Obama’s rhetoric makes an undeniable suggestion: that his election, not an eight-year administration that successfully implements his vision for America, would represent a moment in America of the grandest, most transformative kind. And that’s a bit much.

I asked Mayhill Fowler of OffTheBus, who has heard in person quite a few Obama speeches, if he was making the comparison Mother Jones accuses him of making. She wrote back:

Yes, because what’s the point of having the rights if you don’t come to the public square to exercise them? That’s what the Obama Campaign is about—bringing us all, regardless of party, together to effect in the body politic. In that sense, the Obama Campaign is the coda to the Civil Rights Movement. First and most obviously, African-Americans are exercising their right to vote and may be the deciding factor in this election. Secondly, the Obama Campaign is running on two tracks right now: winning the office and laying the groundwork for governing. That’s the 50-state strategy—getting citizens involved in the political process now so that a year and years later they will be pressuring their congressional representatives to step up to the plate on whatever difficult legislative choices Obama programs will entail.

So Obama sees himself as a successor to King, and before King to Lincoln. Many of his speeches are infused with his sense of this personal destiny. Obama is body to a movement, as MLK was. And right now that movement is centered in the campaign. (It will be interesting to see how a transition from campaign to governance works out.)

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 20, 2008 12:44 AM   Print


My reading says he is making that comparison. When he cites those past movements and uses the same phrase to refer to them that he later uses to refer to his campaign, calling it the moment for an entire generation, it seems to me like a clear implication. I suppose an alternate reading is that the last paragraph isn't even talking about his campaign, but I don't believe that's as strong.

Posted by: Donnie Berkholz at August 20, 2008 2:07 AM | Permalink

Sorry, Jay, but "There’s a moment in the life of every generation, when that spirit has to come through if we are to make our mark on history. And this is our moment." is clearly a claim that the election of Obama to the Presidency would be a historical moment of the same kind and magnitude as, in the order given, the Declaration of Independence, the Civil War, World War II, the settling of the frontier, the 19th Amendment, the Norris-LaGuardia Act, and the Freedom Rides. I don't see any other possible referent for the "this" which is "our moment", and such a referent would be necessary for David Corn to be mistaken in Obama's meaning. Mother Jones got this one right.

Mind you, it's routine for American politicians on the stump to compare themselves to the rising sun and the aurora borealis, but most of them have the sense not to believe the comparison, or to expect their audience to do so ...

Posted by: Michael Brazier at August 20, 2008 3:13 AM | Permalink

A well-tuned sensibility, I suppose, kept Senator Obama from making an explicit claim. But his comparison is indeed implied, as I read the texts you offered. And I agree -- if this man is elected it will immediately be a watershed event in modern America. The more important judgment, of course, will only be possible four or eight years from now, when we can assess how our next president leads and governs.

Posted by: John Hopkins at August 20, 2008 11:16 AM | Permalink

Now that David Corn has produced his evidence, I'd say it's complicated. Drain all the emotion out of it, and I'd say that #2 is the correct answer. But I also think there are strong elements of #3, plus a slight whiff of #1.

But I'm bending over so far backwards to see it MoJo's way that I'm in danger of dislocating something. In fact, MoJo has hugely exaggerated Obama's claims, and it shouldn't have.

Posted by: Dan Kennedy at August 20, 2008 11:30 AM | Permalink

This is over at the Huff Post version:

MoJo editor Monika Bauerlein replies


MoJo editor Monika Bauerlein here. Hey there, we're at it again! First off, sorry about the late response-- it took HuffPost this long to figure out my password. And yes, good point, we should have posted the quote that the question refers to, and we've updated the story to include it. On MoJoBlog, Jonathan Stein has also posted a few more quotes where Obama makes that comparison very directly.

Other than that, well, your post is a rethread of the same argument that we've had before and I"m not jumping into another flame war. But thanks to the commenters here for weighing in and those of you who haven't had a chance to read the actual forum, please come take a look at it. We got some terrific responses from the likes of Naomi Klein, Glenn Loury, Mike Kazin, Jennifer Baumgardner, and many more.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 20, 2008 7:21 PM | Permalink

The quote establishes that Obama is clearly guilty of promoting the concept of hope and he directly ties hope to great things that have happened in the past. We've reached a pretty sad pass in American public life when the very idea that people can make something positive happen in the present day is interpreted as a variety of personality disorder.

The alternative claim is that in the past hope was a powerful concept, but today everything is so screwed up we'll just have to passively accept the status quo into the indefinite future.

The Mother Jones story sets up a patently false and gratuitously negative opposition. Where Jessie Jackson promoted "Keep Hope Alive," Mother Jones is effectively saying, "Hammer in the last nail in hope's coffin, because suggesting people might defend themselves and you might personally contribute to that effort is psychotic."

The truth is that Obama often strikes theological notes suggesting that he is a vessel for a cause larger than himself. This language is familiar to most Americans from the literature of the abolitionist movement and it lives on in Oprah Winfrey's consistently theological notions of social self-help and philanthropy.

The suggestion that these forms of thought are frightening or delusional is insulting to any right-thinking person of faith across the country--even to all people who haven't simply resigned themselves to being punished by the powers that be forever more. Color me unimpressed by this nearly pointless distraction. Mother Jones needs to get a life. And a better editor.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at August 20, 2008 8:59 PM | Permalink

The nut of this Rovean jiujitsu is that Obama's faith utterly eliminates the GOP's old saw about the Democrats as the party of secular liberal decadence. They've chosen to pathologize Obama's faith in an attempt to neutralize or undercut his strength--his obvious challenge to their politicization of religion as exclusively and only legitimately belonging to the Republican party. His faith becomes a negative rather than a positive, because faith is not really what they are calling for.

In essence, the Republican charge is anti-Christian: they are condemning him for adhering to the Bible's most essential teaching--Christians are duty-bound to imitate Christ to the best of their ability. Rush Limbaugh and Karl Rove are able to pathologize Christian faith in this way because they are cyncial, anti-religious bigots who wipe their encysted asses with faith when they get up in the morning.

If a Democrat claims to truck in religion, rather than a sign of the Democratic party taking religion seriously, Obama must be the anti-Christ. It just demonstrates that Republican religion is always also a demand for conservative political theology and orthodoxy, not simply a call for the practice of faith. Any faith that doesn't produce Republican votes is a false religion for them.

Why Mother Jones would think it is a good idea to participate in Limbaugh and Rove's strategy of pathologizing Obama's religious belief escapes me. Maybe as secularists they fear Obama's politics as too religious. But you're right, it ultimately only serves to amplify the line Limbaugh has been hammering for months now. It's a stunning sign of cluelessness regarding the bigger picture.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at August 20, 2008 9:22 PM | Permalink

Mark Anderson’s two wonderful comments are very tough acts to follow; so “Give me Door Number 2, Monty!” and I’ll just leave it at that --- except:

While one candidate hypes hope to his audiences, the other major party candidate has been a serial trafficker in hyperbole on foreign policy for the last two decades, ramping up the neoconservative rhetoric at seemingly every opportunity since the first Gulf war.

Matt Welch’s Reason article, McCain's Georgian Hyperbole (last link above), begins:

On Thursday of last week, Republican presidential nominee John McCain said that Russia's invasion of Georgia was "the first probably serious crisis internationally since the end of the Cold War." This is most certainly not true, at least according to the last two decades' worth of foreign policy assessments from one John McCain.

Other extracts from Welch’s article:

And of course, during the current campaign, he has repeatedly reminded voters that he's running for president to confront "the transcendent issue of our time: the battle and struggle against radical Islamic extremism." …

… The problems with their approach should be evident by now, but are worth repeating. Perpetually exaggerating threats leads to, well, perpetual exaggerations, whether about a bad guy's wickedness or a good guy's virtue. On such faulty edifices are constructed unnecessary wars, those most murderous of foreign policy mistakes. In October 2001, McCain, a longtime Iraq hawk, told David Letterman that "some of this anthrax may—and I emphasize may—have come from Iraq." …

How dare Obama call on his audiences to emulate the vision, determination and selflessness of previous generations.

Posted by: rollotomasi at August 21, 2008 12:10 AM | Permalink

The truth is that Obama often strikes theological notes suggesting that he is a vessel for a cause larger than himself. This language is familiar to most Americans from the literature of the abolitionist movement

I don't recall the abolitionists as saying anything like that. Their focus was the cause, abolishing slavery, not on their role as vessels of the cause. With Obama the cause is difficult to discern, but his role as its vessel leaps at the eye.

Moreover, people who claim to be the special instrument of the Holy Spirit, and demand loyalty and service based on that claim, don't get elected in America; even -- nay, especially -- in the most God-ridden districts. Prophets aren't supposed to have worldly ambitions, so ambitions are strong evidence against a claim to the prophet's mantle. Obama does himself no favors by offering himself as hope's vessel in this generation; it sounds like evangelical language to the secularist, but evangelicals know it's not genuine, so it offends both.

Face it, Mark: Mother Jones isn't supporting Limbaugh's line here; they're seeing the same issue Limbaugh sees because it's really there. I'd be surprised to learn that what Limbaugh is saying about Obama ever crossed David Corn's mind when he circulated that Obama quote ...

Posted by: Michael Brazier at August 21, 2008 4:31 AM | Permalink

Whether the Mother Jones tack here was hype or sloppy or even anti-religious is a matter of opinion, of course. I tend to think it's sloppy hype crafted by avowed atheists. And it doesn't bother me.

Perhaps I'm a little off-base here, but every time I've picked up a copy of Mother Jones and thumbed through it, I've not gotten the sense it's a "progressive" magazine -- I sense a full-on "lefty" magazine, comfortably beyond mainstream journalism.

So I'm not sure I understand why you'd take MoJo to task for doing, well... whatever they want to do. It's an advocacy magazine that uses journalistic ethics and models for the most part and usually in an honorable way. But such rules are bent or broken as needed when you're writing an advocacy publication, regardless of which side of the political fence you call home. It's just what you do. I can't fault them for that.

This kind of thing gets readers, copy sales, online hits, buzz, etc. It gives multiple writers something to write about in an entertaining way without having to do any real research or interviews. It's editorializing in the purest form. This blog post alone has generated more readers for the story.

I'm just not concerned that Mother Jones editors are playing fast and loose here. Isn't that par for the course?

Posted by: John Proffitt at August 21, 2008 4:50 AM | Permalink

Great discussion happening here. For the most part I just see Obama identifying himself with a "cause". This is a classic kind of "us vs. them" kind of psychological tactic. Don't really see anything wrong with it or inappropriate in this context though.

Posted by: Genewize Team at August 22, 2008 3:40 AM | Permalink

After eight increasingly surreal years of the presidency of George W. Bush, it's not surprising that Obama's campaign would come across to many as a "great progressive moment" in US history.

If the public and the press see it that way -- and this is an international phenomenon -- is MoJo really faulting the Obama campaign for capitalizing on it?

Posted by: Jim Demers at August 22, 2008 1:37 PM | Permalink

John Proffitt:

It's an advocacy magazine that uses journalistic ethics and models for the most part and usually in an honorable way. But such rules are bent or broken as needed when you're writing an advocacy publication, regardless of which side of the political fence you call home. It's just what you do. I can't fault them for that.

So I'm not sure I understand why you'd take MoJo to task for doing, well... whatever they want to do.

I thought a lot about your puzzlement, John. There is no question that I do have an unusually sharp reaction to what Mother Jones did, when it could be shrugged off as part of the license, as you suggest. I'm sure many people feel as you do about it.

True: Having a little fun with the headline is hardly out of character for the alternative press. "Mother Jones punctures their hype with our own" is genre-appropriate. In that sense no big deal...

In reply:

There's something about the double talk in deflating hype with your own hype that just... leads me to despair! But I tried not to say anything extreme about Mother Jones. I tried not to expand my critique beyond the very narrow frame of what interested me.

It interested me, what Jonathan Stein said in retrospect. “Do I personally think that Obama sees his candidacy as on par with the civil rights movement or Revolutionary War soldiers? No.”

It interested me when the editor of Mother Jones said that in the additional quotes supplied by Stein, "Obama makes that comparison very directly." Remarkable thing to say. Instead of, "here are some other occasions when an indirect comparison is made," which is true, she says "very directly," which is... I don't know what that is... do you? The best word I can think of for it is "hype."

It interested me that the piece was incompetently published on the Web in its original form. (They corrected that, and good for Mother Jones...) There was something about how dated the treatment was. This spoke. Saying Obama claimed such and such but not even bothering with a quote or a link? Esteemed writers reply to a text, but you can't even offer the text on the web? Let alone a link to where I can read the rest of it. I'm not saying he complained, but do you think Gary Wills appreciated reacting to a speech, but having the speech nowhere in sight when people read his reaction?

And I think there probably is some connection between the way it was published--as if there is no web--and the phony hype busting atmosphere. So I wrote about it.

But what you said is accurate.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 24, 2008 4:15 AM | Permalink

Most people are stupid and incapable of making simple distinctions, which is a problem for someone like Obama who is capable of intricate thoughts. MoJo has committed a fallacy of affirmation of the consequent, mistaking necessity for sufficiency. Obama stated what (in his view) it takes to have a significant effect on history; so, if you want to have such an effect, you have to have that -- it's a necessity. He didn't say that, if you have that, you will necessarily have a significant effect on history -- it's not sufficient.

But even if Obama had said "We're gonna change history", why the hell would MoJo attack him for that and call it "hype", rather than enthusiasm, hope, positive thinking, etc.? Perhaps MoJo is just too accustomed to having the sort end of the stick and moaning about how bad things are (and there's certainly plenty to moan about) that they can't even imagine actually being progressive and making real change. Even if a Obama presidency (the possibility of which recedes with every such article) turned out to be mediocre, it would still be a big change from the Bush years, and would create a space in which progressives could have a real impact -- if they really want it and are prepared to work for it, which MoJo appears not to be.

Posted by: political logician at August 24, 2008 5:51 PM | Permalink

I'd like to suggest that this Obama quote (via Arthur Silber) would be more in keeping with the claim that Obama "compares his campaign to the great progressive movements of history".

[I]f we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that, generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless...


... this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal...


... this was the moment when we ended a war, and secured our nation, and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.

I don't think there is any question that Obama sees his campaign as "historic progress" -- that he thinks "he is the one we've been waiting for".

Where MJ went wrong was in using the word "progressive" because Obama went out of his way to avoid being attached to any ideological labels. Instead, he presented himself as the embodiment of generic "historical progress".

But simultaneous with this "generic" progress claim, he intentionally set out to have people project their own values upon him -- being 'all things to all people' was a deliberate strategy, and thus (IM not so HO) #3 is the correct answer.

Of course, the process of encouraging 'projection' is essentially an exercise in dishonesty. When challenged on his FISA vote by a progressive at a recent campaign event, he acted as if his original pledge (in January) to filibuster the FISA bill was based solely on some rather archaic technical language in the bill. Had Obama at any point back in January indicated he would support a bill that included telecom immunity, his support among "latte liberals" would have all but disappeared.

Obama is the "fine print in the Florida Retirement Home contract" candidate -- the candidate who did a great job selling the vision of your future retirement home and making implied promises that your "investment" would be rewarded, but when you read the 'fine print' in the contract, when five years later it turns out that the developers were merely scam artists, you are left with no recourse.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at August 25, 2008 5:30 PM | Permalink

I live in Denver. The DNC is on every channel since it started today. Not sure if we are getting overdosed since we live in this city or what? I turned off the TV to get away and now I'm reading a political post. What the heck is my problem? Is anyone tired of this yet? I am. I just want it to be over and it's just starting.

Good points above.

Posted by: Steven Beam at August 25, 2008 11:16 PM | Permalink

oh... one other point.

It interested me that the piece was incompetently published on the Web in its original form. (They corrected that, and good for Mother Jones...) There was something about how dated the treatment was. This spoke. Saying Obama claimed such and such but not even bothering with a quote or a link? Esteemed writers reply to a text, but you can't even offer the text on the web? Let alone a link to where I can read the rest of it.

It looks to me like the piece was published in the "dead tree" edition -- and (originally) simply reproduced on the web. (Assuming this to be true), rather tnan citing MJ for "web incompetence", a more appropriate response may have been to note the difficulty of reconciling a 'dead tree based' business model with the web.

And again assuming that this was just a web-reprint of the print edition, at the time this project was conceived, within the context of Obama's "all things to all people" strategy the premise of the Mother Jones article was an "obvious" one. Most of the progressive movement (or at least most of the "progressive" blogosphere) had embraced Obama assuming he was a progressive, and identifying themselves as part of a "movement".

And it is this "given" -- the fact that progressives themselves interpreted their role in the Obama phenomenon in term of their participation in a "great progressive movement" -- that is the proper framing for this piece.

Keeping in mind that Mother Jones is a magazine aimed at progressive audiences -- and that those are part of its intended audience "read" things differently than those outside its audience, MJ's treatment becomes much more understandable, and much more 'valid'. There are certain things that don't need to be "explained" to their audience because they are "assumed", and Mother Jones' question was about challenging those assumptions that did not require further explanation.

Until dead tree periodicals vanish completely, I suspect that were going to see a lot of this kind of phenomenon -- and the "failure" that this article represents is not so much an example of "bad journalism" as it is an example of the inadequacies of dead-tree journalism in a digital age.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at August 26, 2008 10:31 AM | Permalink


Instead of waiting for dead tree periodicals to vanish completely, journalists/publishers could reverse their thinking to a web2print/"reverse publication" model so that links become a part of their writing and are later removed by software for paper publication.

Posted by: Tim at August 26, 2008 8:39 PM | Permalink

But how does that fit into a viable 'business model'. Its bad enough that you can get the content for free on the web, but when the web version is 'better', what's the point of subscribing at all?

Posted by: p.lukasiak at August 27, 2008 6:42 AM | Permalink

I don't have the magic online "business model" for print journalism.

I am convinced that it would require that the paid-for web content be 'better' than the free web content. I don't know (along with everyone else) how the paid-for piece gets generated among donors, investors, advertisers, customers/subscribers, etc., to cover salaries, infrastructure, travel, etc.

I consider moving to reverse writing/publishing a necessary and viable "learning model" preceding any successful next-gen journalism "business model."

Posted by: Tim at August 27, 2008 2:43 PM | Permalink

The initial closed-ended inquiry wherein the reader is invited to select three choices regarding one's inference from the selected passage is reminiscent of the polling question, "Do you think electrocution or lethal injection is the better method of carrying out the death penalty?" Even if the professed reason for this manipulative narrowing of the response universe is for the sake of expediency, the deficits of its determinism outweigh any puported benefits. One could even suspect that the initial question regarding the motivations and methods of the two major players cited (Obama and Mother Jones) is a form of hype to promulgate this particular outlet. With an absolute minimum of effort, number 4, to whit, "None of the Above" could have been easily added, and would have reduced the possibility for any responder to infer anything but a straightforward inquiry

Posted by: Alan John Gerstle at August 28, 2008 12:14 PM | Permalink

Comedy Central rifs on the hype.

Posted by: Tim at August 30, 2008 1:27 PM | Permalink

From the Intro