April 12, 2009
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.
There I am, sitting at the breakfast table, with my coffee and a copy of the New York Times, in the classic newspaper reading position from before the Web. And I come to this article, headlined “Ex-Chairman of A.I.G. Says Bailout Has Failed.” I immediately recognize in it the signs of a he said, she said account.
Quick definition: “He said, she said” journalism means…
- There’s a public dispute.
- The dispute makes news.
- No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)
- The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.
- The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.
When these five conditions are met, the genre is in gear. The he said part might sound like this:
Mr. Greenberg asserted that he would have reduced or at least hedged A.I.G.’s exposure to credit-default swaps in 2005, when A.I.G.’s credit rating was reduced.
“A.I.G.’s business model did not fail; its management did,” he asserted.
Followed by the “she” said…
That provoked another scornful counterattack from his former company, saying that Mr. Greenberg’s assertions were “implausible,” “not grounded in reality” and at odds with his track record of not hedging A.I.G.’s bets on credit-default swaps.
I had read enough of the Times coverage of Mr. Greenberg to wonder why the editors would run something so lame. Their business columnists have been (excuse the expression) kicking ass on meltdown coverage, including A.I.G. But here there was no attempt to assess clashing truth claims, even though Times journalism was available to do just that. Instead Hank Greenberg got to star in a game of “you say black, I say white.”
It seemed strange to me that in 2009 stories like that were still being waved on through. On Twitter I sometimes talk to Ryan Chittum, who writes The Audit column for Columbia Journalism Review. It’s a running critique of the business press after the banking meltdown. So I asked Ryan, “is this the best the Times can do?” because he knows a lot more about the coverage than I do. A few hours later he answered me at CJR.
This one’s easy: No. The Times’s story offers no analysis and forces readers—95 percent of whom know little or nothing about Greenberg’s tenure at AIG—to try to guess who’s right.
Which is why these stories are so frustrating: we’re left helpless by them. I want to quote the rest of his judgment because it helps nail down what is meant by he said, she said, not just at the New York Times, which has no special purchase on the form, but anywhere. The means are available to do better, but these are not employed. Chittum:
There’s no attempt to try to separate out who’s right here, even though everybody but Hank Greenberg knows he has major responsibility for driving AIG into the ground.
Here’s some stuff that helps explain why. I just culled it from the excellent Washington Post three-parter on AIG in December (if you haven’t read that yet, make sure you do):
He created the Financial Products division in 1987 with traders from soon-to-be disgraced Drexel Burnham Lambert, approved its entry into the credit-default swap market in 1998, empowered Joseph Cassano, oversaw FP when it set up “sham” companies that resulted in tens of millions in fines, was an unindicted co-conspirator in a huge fraud at AIG, oversaw the company’s credit downgrade from AAA, was in charge when half of the company’s $80 billion in CDS on subprime CDOs were written. Apparently, Cassano and FP stopped issuing CDS within months of Greenberg’s exit in 2005.
How much more evidence do you need to tell your readers that this guy has significant responsibility for the disaster that came to his his company and the entire economy—to not let him spin away?
“How much more evidence do you need?” is the kind of exasperation a lot of us have felt with what he calls “false balance,” which is another name for the pattern I’m describing.
So far so good. I told you what he said, she said is, and gave you an example. CJR chimed in, and told the New York Times it could do way better, showing how. Press criticism lives! (Twitter helps.) But this does not tell us why he said, she said reporting still exists, or ever existed. To understand that we have to cut deeper into news practice, American style.
Turn the question around for a moment: what are the advantages of the newswriting formula I have derisively labeled “he said, she said?” Rather than treat it as a problem, approach it as a kind of solution to quandaries common on the reporting trail. When, for example, a screaming fight breaks out at the city council meeting and you don’t know who’s right, but you have to report it, he said, she said makes the story instantly writable. Not a problem, but a solution to the reporter’s (deadline!) problem.
When you kinda sorta recall that Hank Greenberg is a guy who shouldn’t necessarily get the benefit of the doubt in a dispute like this, but you don’t know the history well enough to import it into your account without a high risk of error, and yet you have to produce an error-free account for tomorrow’s paper because your editor expects of you just that… he said, she said gets you there.
Or when the Congressional Budget Office issues a report on ethanol and what it’s costing us in higher food prices, the AP reporter to whom the story is given could just summarize the report, but that’s a little too much like stenography, isn’t it? So the AP adds reactions from organized groups that are primed to react.
This is a low cost way of going beyond the report itself. A familiar battle of interpretations follows, with critics of ethanol underlining the costs and supporters stressing the benefits. Of course, the AP could try to sort out those competing claims, but that would take more time and background knowledge than it probably has available for a simple “CBO report issued” story. “Supporters of ethanol disagreed, saying the report was good news…” gets the job done.
These are some of the strengths of the he said, she said genre, a newsroom workhorse for forty years. (Think it’s easy? You try making any dispute story in the world writable on deadline…)
The best description I’ve read of the problem to which devices like he said, she said are a solution comes from former Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor, who covered national politics. Here’s a comment about it that I left at the New York Times Opinionator blog. It was an attempt to explain a phrase I use to describe the kind of distortion that he said, she said can produce: “regression toward a phony mean.”
Journalists associate the middle with truth, when there may be no reason to.
In his 1990 book, See How They Run, former Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor (once seen as heir to David Broder) explained why regression toward a phony mean is so common in journalism. It answers to a need for what he calls “refuge.” Here is what he said:
“Sometimes I worry that my squeamishness about making sharp judgments, pro or con, makes me unfit for the slam-bang world of daily journalism. Other times I conclude that it makes me ideally suited for newspapering– certainly for the rigors and conventions of modern ‘objective’ journalism. For I can dispose of my dilemmas by writing stories straight down the middle. I can search for the halfway point between the best and the worst that might be said about someone (or some policy or idea) and write my story in that fair-minded place. By aiming for the golden mean, I probably land near the best approximation of truth more often than if I were guided by any other set of compasses– partisan, ideological, pyschological, whatever… Yes, I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge. I’m taking a pass on the toughest calls I face.”
Clearly, there can be something extreme about this squeamishness, too. Clearly, the desire for refuge can get out hand. Writing the news so that it lands somewhere near the “halfway point between the best and the worst that might be said about someone” is not a truthtelling impulse at all, but a refuge-seeking one, and it’s possible that this ritual will distort a given story.
Like the “straight down the middle” impulse that Taylor writes about, he said, she said is not so much a truth-telling strategy as refuge-seeking behavior that fits well into newsroom production demands. “Taking a pass” on the tougher calls (like who’s blowing more smoke) is economical. It’s seen as risk-reduction, as well, because the account declines to explicitly endorse or actively mistrust any claim that is made in the account. Isn’t it safer to report, “Rumsfeld said…,” letting Democrats in Congress howl at him (and report that) than it would be to report, “Rumsfeld said, erroneously…” and try to debunk the claim yourself? The first strategy doesn’t put your own authority at risk, the second does, but for a reason.
We need journalists who understand that reason. And I think many do. But a lot don’t.
He said, she said reporting appears to be risk-reducing, but this is exactly what’s changing on the press. For a given report about, say, former counter-terrorism official Richard Clarke, “the halfway point between the best and the worst that might be said about someone” is no more likely to be accurate than the one-fifth mark, especially when you factor in the reality of the Overton Window and the general pattern we know as “working the refs.” The halfway point is a miserable guideline but it can still sound pretty good when you are trying to advertise to all that you have no skin in the game. This is how I think of he said, she said reporting. Besides being easy to operate, and requiring the fewest imports of knowledge, it’s a way of reporting the news that advertises the producer’s even handedness. The ad counts as much as the info. We report, you decide.
“Ex-Chairman of A.I.G. Says Bailout Has Failed” was a text most likely intended for the print edition of the New York Times business pages. The newswriting formula that produced it dates from before the Web made all news and reference pages equidistant from the user. He said, she said might have been seen as good enough when it was difficult for others to check what had previously been reported about the ex-chairman of A.I.G., but that is simply not the case for Times reporter Edmund L. Andrews in April, 2009.
There has been a loss of refuge. And this is why he said, she said journalism is in decline, even though you still see plenty of it around. Today, any well informed blogger, competing journalist or alert press critic can easily find the materials to point out an instance of false balance or the lame acceptance of fact-free spin. Professional opinion has therefore shifted and among the better journalists, some of whom I know, it is no longer acceptable to defend he said, she said treatments when the materials are available to call out distortions and untruths. (That doesn’t mean the practice has halted; I’m talking about a shifts in the terms of legitimacy among journalists, and about efforts like this.)
In fact, it’s taken a long time to get to this point. Back in 2004 setting a higher standard than he said, she said was still a novel idea. Chris Mooney wrote about it in the context of science coverage under Bush. (“How ‘Balanced’ Coverage Lets the Scientific Fringe Hijack Reality.”) As CJR’s Campaign Desk noted…
The candidate makes a statement. You write it down, then you call the other side for a response. It’s one of journalism’s fundamentals. Tell us what he said, tell us what she said, and you’re covered, right?
Well, no. Given the amount of spin this election year, the old rules don’t apply any more. Campaign Desk herewith proposes a new ground rule: “He said/she said/we said.”
… With a variety of Internet research tools readily at hand, it has never been easier for reporters to draw an independent assessment on any given day of who is right, who is wrong, and in what way.
The tools are there to make an independent assessment of who is right: for journalists, that is the critical point. (See also my post from 2004, He Said, She Said, We Said and Rethinking Objectivity by Brent Cunningham from 2003.) Because of that—and because of working the refs, the Overton Window, the failures of the political press under Bush—he said, she said no longer has the acceptance rates it once did. Which is why it was so easy to get Ryan Chittum to answer my question, “is this the best the Times can do?”
It wasn’t. And it’s easier than ever to show that. More people are involved in showing it, too. This raises the question of whether a he said, she said treatment loses you more in user disgust with your lameness than any informational gain in having fresh news to report about Hank Greenberg trading barbs with A.I.G. Do people want to feel helpless in sorting out who’s bullshitting them more? Is that the news media’s role, to increase that feeling? Is such a practice even sustainable in the Web era?
That it may not be (and the industry knows it) is shown by what The Politico called a “high-stakes experiment” at the AP’s Washington bureau. The plan was to move “from its signature neutral and detached tone” to a more aggressive style of newswriting that bureau chief Ron Fournier calls “cutting through the clutter.”
In the stories the new boss is encouraging, first-person writing and emotive language are okay.
So is scrapping the stonefaced approach to journalism that accepts politicians’ statements at face value and offers equal treatment to all sides of an argument. Instead, reporters are encouraged to throw away the weasel words and call it like they see it when they think public officials have revealed themselves as phonies or flip-floppers.
In other words, we can’t skate by on he said, she said any more. Call it like they see it is, in fact, a successor principle but this means that AP reporters are now involved in acts of political judgment that can easily go awry, and their own politics can be at issue.
Time to wrap this up.
Part of the problem is that American journalism as an occupational scene has never gone for the candor Paul Taylor showed in his comments on searching for the halfway point between the best and the worst that might be said. The pro system talks about the reporting of news as a truth-telling enterprise, but not a difference-splitting or dilemma-disposing one. It says: we’re the source of “the most authoritative news coverage,” as the AP recently put it. But it rarely mentions the refuge-seeking part, which subtly undermines that authority.
As I tried to explain in Why Campaign Coverage Sucks (published at TomDispatch.com and Salon, January 2008) there is an “innocence agenda” at work in the mainstream press. It favors certain practices:
Who’s-gonna-win is portable, reusable from cycle to cycle, and easily learned by newcomers to the press pack. Journalists believe it brings readers to the page and eyeballs to the screen. It [plays] well on television, because it generates an endless series of puzzles toward which journalists can gesture as they display their savviness, which is the unofficial religion of the mainstream press.
But the biggest advantage of horse-race journalism is that it permits reporters and pundits to play up their detachment. Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because “who’s gonna win?” is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession.
In its heyday he said, she said was like a stamping plant in the factory of news. It recognized that production demands trumped truthtelling requirements. But these were the production demands of a beast that is now changing. Refusing to serve as a check on Hank Greenberg’s power to distort the news when the means for a such a check are available— this too can have a cost, just as importing the knowledge to do the check has a cost. At a certain point in this dynamic, he said, she said journalism loses its utility and becomes one of the things dragging the news business down. But as the industry sheds people and newsrooms thin out, there could be greater reliance on a more and more bankrupt and trust-rotting practice. That’s a downward spiral.
Criticism of he said, she said practices and the flippancy that comes with it should therefore continue. The other day, Paul Kane of the Washington Post said it was too much to expect him to import into his account the background knowledge that a Republican Senator warning about the dangers to Senate comity of proceeding with only 50 votes had voted to do the same thing when her party held the majority but not 60 votes. (Matthew Yglesias picked up on it.)
Kane said he was astonished by this demand; he couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. “We reported what Olympia Snowe said. That’s what she said. That’s what Republicans are saying. I really don’t know what you want of us.”
If he’s not just blowing smoke, and he really doesn’t know— that is a problem for the Washington Post.
* * *
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…
Richard Sambrook of the BBC comments on this post. He has some reservations about my critique.
Mike Allen of The Politico has a twist on he said, she said. He said (on the record, can be held accountable) “it” said (off the record and unaccountable.) The “it” is the official Bush administration view, spoken by a mouthpiece known only to Allen. The mouthpiece was allowed to attack Obama for harming national security by releasing evidence that torture had been authorized by the Bush Adminstration. For a frank exchange of views on he said, it said reporting see Mike Allen to Glenn Greenwald and back to Mike Allen.
Can a fact lapse from “true” back into a more tenuous state if major pressure is put upon it? See this from The Plum Line, Greg Sargent’s blog at WhoRunsGov, a Washington Post site still in ramp up:
Today’s New York Times has published a whole article devoted to the claim by former Bushies, and some Republicans, that Obama’s release of the torture memos endangered our national security by revealing secret torture techniques that we can now never use again.
It is a matter of simple fact that much about these techniques were already publicly known, well before Obama’s release of the memos.
But today’s Times treats this as a matter of debate, as a claim being made by “Democrats” — even though the Times has itself reported this as outright fact in the past.
Read the rest. As Sargent points out, the truth claim that is now in dispute—did Obama tip off the terrorists with new information about what they might face?—is suspect according to the Times earlier reporting. But it is now framed in he said, she said terms.
Why would that happen? From the perspective of this post, the answer is: there are gains on the innocence (or, “extra studious neutrality”) agenda to be had now, whatever was said before. These offset the losses on a strict truthtelling scale. Is it like a conscious decision they made? No, it’s not. Newsroom routines do most of the “thinking” here.
Dana Milbank pens a little masterpiece of he said, she said reasoning. He finally reads his comments and discovers—what else?—angry people on both sides denounce him. Of course, Milbank is a columnist and wit as much as a reporter, but he is the sort of columnist who tries to be sandpaper to both sides. The idea is for the friction to be turned to laughs.
One of the nifty things about this gadget: when the political reasoning that creates the friction takes withering criticism, the author can just switch to the satire track and gain on the “look ma, no politics” agenda that way. Critics turn into humorless scolds. Thus David Carr of the New York Times said on Twitter that “Dana Milbank seemed to be having fun” with the criticism, not complaining about getting hit from both sides. Give him a break!
And after you give him a break read Digby on Milbank because her post is also about this post. She adds a few things I wish I had included.
Witness this On the Media segment that’s really a bitter struggle over the legacy of he said, she said reporting, and the mistrust it has engendered.
What an interesting summary by Michael Scherer, political reporter for Time magazine, at the Swampland blog: “Jay Rosen, new media deep-thinker, scourge, scold and provocateur, makes a substantial argument for reporters making more of an effort to take sides in public disputes when facts can be ascertained.”
Not to be picky—thought you have to be with this subject!—but I did not say additional effort should be expended in “taking sides” (a signal to journalists to freak out) but in calling out lies and distortions. But… If “calling out lies and distortions” equals “taking sides” to Scherer, that might help explain why it’s an infrequent practice. For then refusing to call out lies and distortions means refusing to take sides, and that’s a good thing in journalism… right?
Scott Rosenberg, who has written a really good book on blogging that’s out in July, in the comments:
A great value hesaid/shesaid used to have for the working journalist — and I think this is real value — was as a check against unfairness. It forced you, the reporter, to give at least a little space to a point of view you disagreed with.
In the days when you, the reporter, controlled the mike (along with your colleagues and rivals at other publications), this was an important safeguard. If you didn’t give some space to “the other side of the argument” that you were making (either explicitly or, more often under the “objectivity” standard, covertly), it might well not have been heard at all.
Today there’s less need for it, he says.
John Walcott, McClatchy’s Washington bureau chief, in the comments. “This is a topic that deserves more attention, along with beat-sweeteners, access journalism (an oxymoron) and other afflictions of modern life.” He left a link to his excellent I.F. Stone award lecture:
Does the truth lie halfway between say, slavery and abolition, or between segregation and civil rights, or between communism and democracy? If you quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Winston Churchill, in other words, must you then give equal time and credence to Hitler and Joseph Goebbels? If you write an article that’s critical of John McCain, are you then obligated to devote an identical number of words to criticism of Barack Obama, and vice versa?
Patrick Nielsen Hayden comments at Making Light: “It’s unclear whether [Paul] Taylor realizes, implicitly or otherwise, how this rhetorical posture makes him the willing servant of whichever powerful person or organization decides to stake out a completely crazy position.” (This is the dynamic that has since gained a name: the Overton Window.)
Cheryl Rofer: He said, she said and the usual suspects. Some testimony from New Mexico.
More from Ryan Chittum on he said, she said: WaPo Skittish on Its Own Chrysler Scoop.
Pulitzer Prize winning reporter John McQuaid responds to this post: “The problem with [he said, she said] is that it implicitly assumes what everyone now knows to be wrong: that public figures make statements that can be taken at face value, and the truth can be ascertained by juxtaposing contradictory statements. It’s been obvious for some time that this is unworkable because the public ‘conversation’ is too splintered, its participants too practiced and manipulative.”
Fred Zipp, editor of the Austin American Statesman, says its hard to quarrel with my conclusions. However, “Rosen pays scant attention to the practical difficulties of the truth-telling function he considers appropriate for journalists in 2009.”
Mark Danner, writing about torture during the Bush years in the New York Review of Books:
It is a testament as much to the peculiarities of the American press—to its “stenographic function” and its institutional unwillingness to report as fact anything disputed, however implausibly, by a high official—that the former vice-president’s insistence that these interrogations were undertaken “legally” and “in accordance with our constitutional practices and principles” continues to be reported without contradiction, and that President Bush’s oft-repeated assertion that “the United States does not torture” is still respectfully quoted and, in many quarters, taken seriously. That they are so reported is a political fact, and a powerful one. It makes it possible to contend that, however adamant the arguments of the lawyers “on either side,” the very fact of their disagreement makes the legality of these procedures a matter of partisan political allegiance, not of law.
A 2007 post from Australian critic Julie Posetti on the Howard Government and he said, she said reporting there.
Eric Alterman and Danielle Ivory write on The George Will global cooling controversy and the reactions of Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt.
By letting Will express himself Bush-style, without being inconvenienced by any actual science, The Post was saying, yes, opinion writers are not merely entitled to their own opinions, but also their own “facts.” (Though Hiatt preferred to call these “inferences”):
“It may well be that he is drawing inferences from data that most scientists reject—so, you know, fine, I welcome anyone to make that point. But don’t make it by suggesting that George Will shouldn’t be allowed to make the contrary point. Debate him.”
Hiatt’s argument that George Will ought to be able to make a dissenting point, regardless of its basis in reality, is an argument for false balance, he-said-she-said journalism, in lieu of real analysis. On March 23, Chris Mooney asked a smart follow-up question in the Post: “Can we ever know, on any contentious or politicized topic, how to recognize the real conclusions of science and how to distinguish them from scientific-sounding spin or misinformation?”
Chris Mooney at his Discover Magazine blog responds to this post. “Is ‘He Said, She Said, We’re Clueless’ Coverage Dying?” Mooney does not think so.
This Julian Sanchez post from three years ago is notable for its description of “one-way hash arguments,” a major factor in the rise of he said, she said reporting.
If you’re interested in where this is all headed, then you are definitely a customer for Rosen’s Flying Seminar in the Future of News, an earlier post at PressThink.
Future-of-news blogger Josh Young, who was featured in my Flying Seminar, says in the comments to this post.
So, sure, maybe sometimes it’s embarrassing to pass the buck of analysis. It’s reveals an intellectual lack of seriousness. But maybe other times it’s just what works best, allocating responsibilities to the parties most able and interested in bearing them.
“This news has got to get out the door!” a newspaper editor might say. “Let’s revisit our he said, she said simplicity in a minute or an hour,” he might say. “We can post a link from the original to the update later. Maybe that thoughtful update will be ours, written not by an intern but by a wise veteran. But maybe it won’t….”
In January, Harvard’s Shorenstein Center published a study by Eric Pooley, former managing editor of Fortune. He shows that he said, she said “stenography” is the pathetic norm in climate change reporting. The right role is to be an active referee, calling fouls when there are fouls. But it is rarely done. Here’s the Environment Defense Fund blogger on it, with a link to the PDF.
Click here to return to the top of After Matter. To see what I am up to on Twitter go here.
Posted by Jay Rosen at April 12, 2009 11:46 AM
Chris: Thanks for your post, and for your 2004 article, too. I tried to anticipate your point when I wrote:
Refusing to serve as a check on Hank Greenberg’s power to distort the news when the means for a such a check are available— this too can have a cost, just as importing the knowledge to do the check has a cost. At a certain point in this dynamic, he said, she said journalism loses its utility and becomes one of the things dragging the news business down. But as the industry sheds people and newsrooms thin out, there could be greater reliance on a more and more bankrupt and trust-rotting practice. That’s a downward spiral.
It's the part in italics :-)
@ pc britz: "What bothers me though is the use of the term 'truth' that implies a capital T throughout the post and quotes. This might be unintentional, but I would like to call attention to it."
Correct me if I am wrong, pc, but I don't believe I used the term truth with a capital T, as in "I have Truth" (and you don't!) I talked of truthtelling, a gerund not a noun, by which I meant to invoke the difference between two things: being willing to call out lies and distortions or add missing facts on one hand, and difference-splitting, refuge-seeking, ass-covering, genre-obeying, safety-providing behavior on the other.
For some reason when you try to talk to journalists about that difference, within a sentence or two it gets reframed as "giving your opinion" vs. declining to do so. I'm not sure why that is. Is this Ryan Chittum's "opinion?"
He created the Financial Products division in 1987 with traders from soon-to-be disgraced Drexel Burnham Lambert, approved its entry into the credit-default swap market in 1998, empowered Joseph Cassano, oversaw FP when it set up “sham” companies that resulted in tens of millions in fines, was an unindicted co-conspirator in a huge fraud at AIG, oversaw the company’s credit downgrade from AAA, was in charge when half of the company’s $80 billion in CDS on subprime CDOs were written.
Sounds pretty factual to me.
Related material. This is from After Matter:
Interesting summary by Michael Scherer, a political reporter for Time magazine, at the Swampland blog: "Jay Rosen, new media deep-thinker, scourge, scold and provocateur, makes a substantial argument for reporters making more of an effort to take sides in public disputes when facts can be ascertained."
Not to be picky--but you have to be with this subject!--I did not say additional effort should be expended in "taking sides" (a signal to journalists to freak out) but in calling out lies and distortions. But... If "calling out lies and distortions" equals "taking sides" to Scherer, that might help explain why it's an infrequent practice. For then refusing to call out lies and distortions means refusing to take sides, and that's a good thing in journalism... right?
That "there has been a loss of refuge" is important. Readers can research out their own facts and discover false balance. That newfound ability for research has flushed out the refuge and made "taking a pass" less economical because there's greater possible downside from embarrassment.
Maybe this bears amplification. Now, it is certainly the case that readers are bloggers are experts are sources are journalists. Often and increasingly. But most readers are still just readers. Even if they're bloggers of sports, they're still just readers of politics; and even if they're bloggers of politics, they're still just readers of finance. Often.
So let's suppose that most readers are not writers. Some readers are just readers. They share news and discuss it intelligently among friends but haven't got the time for research. Most readers haven't got the time to flush out the he said, she said refuge.
And here's my point: that's just fine. Bloggers can do the flushing. And these readers, or a sufficient number of them, will read the bloggers. Yes, readers can research; that's critical. But, they don't have to; they just have to pay some attention to others who do.
And, really, what's wrong with that? The internet is the great unbundler. (Who would've thought there'd be so much value in mere headlines and ledes abstracted away from articles?) The internet splits up units of information in ways we never previously imagined. It reveals new, smaller units. What we thought was one big value proposition was actually very many commingled, fused together as one. And the internet's showing us the contingency of that commingled state. We take things apart like we couldn't on paper, and we realize the things are valuable as independent economic propositions. (If we're lucky, the sum of the value of those smaller units of information is greater than the value of the previously unbundled unit. If we're unlucky--and I think there's evidence, in some places, that we are--the sum of the value of those smaller units is less than the value of the previously unbundled unit.)
So, sure, maybe sometimes it's embarrassing to pass the buck of analysis. It's reveals an intellectual lack of seriousness. But maybe other times it's just what works best, allocating responsibilities to the parties most able and interested in bearing them.
"This news has got to get out the door!" a newspaper editor might say. "Let's revisit our he said, she said simplicity in a minute or an hour," he might say. "We can post a link from the original to the update later. Maybe that thoughtful update will be ours, written not by an intern but by a wise veteran. But maybe it won't. Maybe it will be a blogger's thoughtful update. And maybe it won't be embarrassing that she adds insight. Maybe it will be helpful, no more or less. She's an expert in the field, so maybe it will be efficient."
This is a topic that deserves more attention, along with beat-sweeteners, access journalism (an oxymoron) and other afflictions of modern life. Here, FWIW, is my little contribution to the discussion, from the I.F. Stone Medal ceremony last fall:
"Relying on The Times, or McClatchy or any other news source, for the truth is dumb, but it's infinitely preferable to the pernicious philosophical notions that there is no such thing as truth, that truth is relative, or that, as some journalists seem to believe, that it can be found midway between the two opposing poles of any argument.
". . . Does the truth lie halfway between say, slavery and abolition, or between segregation and civil rights, or between communism and democracy? If you quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Winston Churchill, in other words, must you then give equal time and credence to Hitler and Joseph Goebbels? If you write an article that's critical of John McCain, are you then obligated to devote an identical number of words to some criticism of Barack Obama, and vice versa?
"The idea that truth is merely a social construct, that it's subjective, in other words, first appeared in academia as a corruption of post-modernism, but it’s taken root in our culture without our really realizing it or understanding its implications.
"It began with liberal academics arguing, for example, that some Southwestern Indians' belief that humans are descended from a subterranean world of supernatural spirits is, as one archaeologist put it, “just as valid as archaeology." As NYU philosophy professor Paul Boghossian puts it in a wonderful little book, “Fear of Knowledge”: “ . . . the idea that there are many equally valid ways of knowing the world, with science being just one of them, has taken very deep root.”
"Although this kind of thinking, relativism and constructivism, started on the left, many conservatives now feel empowered by it, too, and some of them have embraced it with a vengeance on issues ranging from global warming and evolution to the war in Iraq.
" 'Journalists live in the reality-based world,' a White House official said to Ron Suskind, writing for The New York Times Magazine back in the headier days of 2004. 'The world doesn’t really work that way any more. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.'
"I respectfully disagree.
"The Church was wrong, and Copernicus and Galileo were right.
"There is not one truth for Fox News and another for The Nation. Fair is not always balanced, and balanced is not always fair.
"No matter how devoutly they may have believed their own propaganda, Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling were wrong about Enron, and a whole lot of very smart, very rich people were very wrong about mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps.
"President Bush was wrong to think that it would be a simple matter to make Iraq the mother of all Mideast democracy.
"Or, as the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau said when he was asked what he thought historians might say about the First World War: 'They will not say that Belgium invaded Germany.'
"I’m not talking here about matters of taste or of partisan politics or, heaven help us, of faith: Whether Monet or Manet was a better painter; or whether Jesus was the Messiah, a prophet or a fraud. Those are personal matters: beliefs, opinions and preferences of which we all must learn to be more, not less, tolerant.
"As Harry G. Frankfurt, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton, puts it in a marvelous little book called, 'On Truth' (which is the sequel to “On Bullshit”): 'It seems ever more clear to me that higher levels of civilization must depend even more heavily on a conscientious respect for the importance of honesty and clarity in reporting the facts, and on a stubborn concern for accuracy in determining what the facts are.'
"That is what I.F. Stone always sought to do, and I think it's what journalists should always strive to do. If, in the short run, doing so seems costly, I think we've all seen, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and now on Wall Street and on Main Street, that the costs of not doing so are far greater."
Perhaps journalists, as they are in the profession that deals with facts, should take as a required in j-school a course in Philosophy of Science. Then they would not embarrass themselves by quoting Popper (or Kuhn) which have bitten the dust in the philosophical (and scientific) circles decades ago.
Even more pernicious is the use of Popper to justify relativism/postmodernism. Whenever we discuss HSSS and the need of the audience to get the facts, the journalists immediately change the wording - instead of the word "facts" they start talking about "opinions". This is as if they do not believe there are facts about the world, just opinions.
If that is really the case, then HSSS is easy to understand: there are various people who hold various opinions and each opinion is equally valid, and all there is to report on is who holds which opinion.
If reporting was done right: there are, let's say, two groups that are fighting over some issue. Group A has a spokesman A' who explains the position A". Group B has a spokesman B' who explains the position B". The job of the reporter it to dig through all the relevant documents, research articles, raw data, statistical analyses, etc. and write inn his/her article: Group A is correct, and Group B spouts shit because of PR needs of their employer C.
The way reporting is done today, following the postmodernist beliefs of its practitioners: Group A has a spokesman A' who explains the position A". Group B has a spokesman B' who explains the position B". The articles than stated that A' said A" and B' said B" and....that is information?! How?
What journalists mix up is the words and the substance that those words describe. It is not news what is said, but it is news that someone uttered words. And if the "person-of-interest" is mum, then the journalists employ various tactics to get that person to utter words. This is what they do at WH pressers - not interested in what Gibbs (or Obama, or Bush before him) means, but the fact that he was forced, by the journalist, to say 'something'. Those words are, then, reported as news. Although it was the journalist who caused those 'news' to happen by forcing a question.
Then, the journo goes home and writes an article. Both A' and B' are quoted with a sentence or two each. If a person talks for an hour, it is because an hour is what it takes to explain something, providing backround, details and all the needed caveats. Thus, every quote is always, always, always a quote out of context. In the old paper economy, that was a necessary evil. With the Web, and our ability to link the quote to a complete transcript, that evil is not necessary any more.
you're a menace, rosen. if you'd spent ten minutes as a reporter i'd give you some credit for your goddamn olympian critiques...
Well, I may be a menace, but on your point about ten minutes:
In the summer of 1978 I was at a town council meeting in Hamburg, NY, south of Buffalo, and a screaming match unfolded. I had to write a four-paragraph story that night for the Buffalo Courier-Express, the morning daily in town, and dictate it over the phone. It ran the next day. It's safe to say that I didn't understand enough of the background to know what the shouting was about.
During that summer (I was a replacement reporter, interning there) I also covered... A parade on Hertel Avenue, an auto show at Eastern Hills Mall, the anguish of homeowners in the Love Canal area (one of the first toxic waste sites to get national attention) the move of patients from an old hospital to a new hospital, which required the services of a special U.S. Army medical evacuation unit, a little feature on flag stealing from suburban cemeteries on Memorial Day that the editor said was the best written thing in the paper that day. I did night cops, and reported on an apparent kidnapping that was really a child custody thing. I had more than ten front page stories that summer and I even stayed late one night to watch one of them roll off the giant presses.
In December of 1978 I was asked back and wrote a story about kids stuck in the hospital on Christmas eve, another about homeless men on Christmas Day. I was asked to go to the home of a family whose son had died in police custody to try to get them to talk to the Courier-Express (It was uncomfortable, and they refused.)
I don't present these experiences as any substantial amount of "experience," but I certainly know what is it like to write a story on deadline and hope that a source calls you back in time. And you said "ten minutes of..." so there's your ten minutes. Where's my credit for a sound critique?
Meanwhile, Michael Scherer on Twitter says: "See what I get for trying to praise one of your essays. Stupid goddamn mainstream stooge."
Sorry, Michael, but "substantial argument for reporters making more of an effort to take sides in public disputes when facts can be ascertained" is just not a good enough summary.
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...