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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.

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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

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February 21, 2010

The Quest for Innocence and the Loss of Reality in Political Journalism

"The quest for innocence means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus 'prove' in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade. But this can get in the way of describing things! What's lost is that sense of reality Isaiah Berlin talked about..."

This is a post about a single line in a recent article in the New York Times: Tea Party Lights Fuse for Rebellion on Right.

Before I get to the line that interested me, I need to acknowledge that the investigation the Times undertook for this article is wholly admirable and exactly what we need professional journalists to be doing. Reporter David Barstow spent five months—five months!—reporting and researching the Tea Party phenomenon.

He went to their events. He talked to hundreds of people drawn into the movement. He watched what happens at their rallies and the smaller meetings where movement politics is transacted. He made himself fully literate, learning the differences between the Tea Party and the Patriot movements, reading the authors who have infuenced Tea Party activists, getting to know local leaders and regional differences, building up a complex and layered portrait of a political cohort that doesn’t fit into party politics as normally understood.

This is original reporting at a very high level of commitment to public service; it is expensive, difficult, and increasingly rare in a news business suffering under economic collapse.

So I want to make it absolutely clear that I treasure this kind of journalism and indeed devoured Barstow’s report when it came online. (Although I wish it had been twice as long.) And I have no problem with his decision to confine himself to description of the Tea Party movement, rather than evaluating its goodness or badness. The first task is to understand, and that is why we need reporters willing to go out there and witness the phenomenon, interview the participants, pore over the texts and struggle with their account until they feel they have it right.

“A narrative of impending tyranny.”

As Barstow said in an interview with Columbia Journalism Review, “If you spend enough time talking to people in the movement, eventually you hear enough of the same kinds of ideas, the same kinds of concerns, and you begin to recognize what the ideology is, what the paradigm is that they’re operating in.” The key words are spend enough time and begin to recognize.

Now to the part that puzzles me:

It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny. This narrative permeates Tea Party Web sites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and YouTube videos. It is a prominent theme of their favored media outlets and commentators, and it connects the disparate issues that preoccupy many Tea Party supporters — from the concern that the community organization Acorn is stealing elections to the belief that Mr. Obama is trying to control the Internet and restrict gun ownership.

Running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny…That sounds like the Tea Party movement I have observed, so the truth of the sentence is not in doubt. But what about the truth of the narrative? David Barstow is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter for the New York Times. He ought to know whether the United States is on the verge of losing its democracy and succumbing to an authoritarian or despotic form of government. If tyranny was pending in the U.S. that would seem to be a story. The New York Times has done a lot of reporting about the Obama Administration, but it has been silent on the collapse of basic freedoms lurking just around the corner. Barstow commented on the sentence that disturbed me in his interview with CJR:

The other thing that came through was this idea of impending tyranny. You could not go to Tea Party rallies or spend time talking to people within the movement without hearing that fear expressed in myriad ways. I was struck by the number of people who had come to the point where they were literally in fear of whether or not the United States of America would continue to be a free country. I just started seeing that theme come up everywhere I went.

It kept coming up, but David… did it make any sense? Was it grounded in observable fact, the very thing that investigative reporters specialize in? Did it square (at all) with what else Barstow knows, and what the New York Times has reported about the state of politics in 2009-10? Seriously: Why is this phrase, impending tyranny, just sitting there, as if Barstow had no way of knowing whether it was crazed and manipulated or verifiable and reasonable? If we credit the observation that a great many Americans drawn to the Tea Party live in fear that the United States is about to turn into a tyranny, with rigged elections, loss of civil liberties, no more free press, a police state… can we also credit the professional attitude that refuses to say whether this fear is reality-based? I don’t see how we can.

As a matter of reported fact

Now we can predict, with a reasonable degree of confidence, what the reply would be from the reporter, his editors (who are equally involved here, as the Times is a very editor-driven newspaper) and his peers in the press. The reply is the reply that is given by the common sense of pro journalism as it is practiced in the United States. “This was a news story, an attempt to report what’s happening out there, as accurately and fairly as possible. Which is not the place for the author’s opinion.” Or: “I was trying to describe the Tea Party movement, and to understand it, which is hard enough; I’ll let others judge what to make of it.”

Sounds good, right? But this distinction, between fact and opinion, description and assessment, is not what my question is about. It may appear to be responsive, but it really isn’t. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, but… as a matter of reported fact, is the United States actually on the verge of tyranny? That is my question. Would an honest depiction of the American political scene by the Washington bureau and investigative staff of the New York Times lend support to the “impending tyranny” narrative that Barstow observed as a unifying theme in the Tea Party movement?

It’s a key point, so let me state it again: Based not on a subjective assessment of the Tea Party’s viability or his opinion of its desirability but only on facts he knows about the state of politics and government since Obama’s election, is there any substantial likelihood of a tyranny replacing the American republic in the near future?

I think it’s obvious—not only to me but to Barstow and the journalist who interviewed him for CJR—that the answers are “no.” For if the answers were “yes” it would have been a huge story! No fair description of the current situation, nothing in what the Washington bureau and investigative staff of the New York Times has picked up from its reporting, would support a characterization like “impending tyranny.”

In a word, the Times editors and Barstow know this narrative is nuts, but something stops them from saying so— despite the fact that they must have spent over $100,000 on this one story. And whatever that thing is, it’s not the reluctance to voice an opinion in the news columns, but a reluctance to report a fact in the news columns, the fact that the “narrative of impending tyranny” is ungrounded in any observable reality, even though the sense of grievance within the Tea Party movement is truly felt and politically consequential.

A faltering sense of reality

My claim: We have come upon something interfering with political journalism’s “sense of reality” as the philosopher Isaiah Berlin called it (see section 5.1) And I think I have a term for the confusing factor: a quest for innocence in reportage and dispute description. Innocence, meaning a determination not to be implicated, enlisted, or seen by the public as involved. That’s what created the pattern I’ve called “regression to a phony mean.” That’s what motivated the rise of he said, she said reporting.

I explained the quest for innocence in a 2008 essay on campaign coverage for (It also ran in Salon.)

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. This is experienced as pleasure by a lot of mainstream journalists. Ever noticed how spirits lift when the pundit roundtable turns from the Middle East or the looming recession to the horse race, and there’s an opportunity for sizing up the candidates? To be manifestly agenda-less is journalistic bliss. Of course, since trying to get ahead of the voters can affect how voters view the candidates, the innocence, too, is an illusion.

The quest for innocence in political journalism means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus “prove” in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade. But this can get in the way of describing things! As it did in Barstow’s account. Now let’s speed up the picture and imagine how this interference in truth-telling happens routinely, many times a day over years and years of reporting on politics. What’s lost is that sense of reality Isaiah Berlin talked about. In its place is savviness, the dialect of insiders trying to persuade us that they know how things really work. Nothing is more characteristic of the savvy style than familiar statements like “in politics, perception is reality.”

“For some reason, American political coverage is exempt.”

And in fact frustrated observers of political journalism have complained about this loss of the real. The latest to groan about it is George Packer in the New Yorker. He was commenting on how David Broder of the Washington Post, the dean emeritus of political reporters, had written a surreal column about Sarah Palin that nonetheless seemed entirely normal if you know the genre:

Broder wasn’t analyzing Palin’s positions or accusations, or the truth or falsehood of her claims, or even the nature of the emotions that she appeals to. He was reviewing a performance and giving it the thumbs up, using the familiar terminology of political journalism. This has been so characteristic of the coverage of politics for so long that it doesn’t seem in the least bit odd, and it’s hard to imagine doing it any other way.

Italics mine. Packer’s point becomes clearer when he transplants this kind of reportng to Afghanistan with the sense of reality dropped out. “Imagine Karzai’s recent inaugural address as covered by a Washington journalist,” he writes:

“Speaking at the presidential palace in Kabul, Mr. Karzai showed himself to be at the top of his game. He skillfully co-opted his Pashtun base while making a powerful appeal to the technocrats who have lately been disappointed in him, and at the same time he reassured the Afghan public that his patience with civilian casualties is wearing thin. A palace insider, who asked for anonymity in order to be able to speak candidly, said, “If Karzai can continue to signal the West that he is concerned about corruption without alienating his warlord allies, he will likely be able to defuse the perception of a weak leader and regain his image as a unifying figure who can play the role of both modernizer and nationalist.” Still, the palace insider acknowledged, tensions remain within Mr. Karzai’s own inner circle.

This sounds like politics the way our journalists narrate it, but as Packer notes, “A war or an economic collapse has a reality apart from perceptions, which imposes a pressure on reporters to find it. But for some reason, American political coverage is exempt.” Exactly. That’s the exemption Barstow was calling on when he wrote. “… running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny.” Somehow the reality that this narrative exists as a binding force within the Tea Party movement is more reportable than the fact that the movement’s binding force is a fake crisis, a delusion shared.

I leave you with a question: how the hell could this happen?

Posted by Jay Rosen at February 21, 2010 5:19 PM   Print


Welcome back to the world of more than 140 characters, Jay :-) Great piece!
In the shameless plug department, I'm working on a book for HarperCollins called "The Backlash" due out in August that covers the same ground as Barstow, and I go to great lengths to show that Obama isn't confiscating guns or launching concentration camps. Of course, I have a lot more room than Barstow! But sometimes in journalism you have to state the obvious.

Posted by: Will Bunch at February 21, 2010 6:02 PM | Permalink

This is a very insightful piece, elucidating the subtle decline in analytical, investigative journalism. After reporting on the opinions and perceptions of that permeate the Tea Party movement, it would seem that the responsible journalistic thing to do would be to provide analysis and context of how those sentiments fit with reality.

If perception is reality in politics, then reporters should be working to ground perception back in reality. Whether describing things and providing a sense of reality or providing objective analysis, there needs to be more than just reporting existing perceptions.

Have we really come to a point in journalism when this quest for innocence can lead the NYT to regurgitating what they see and hear, rather than critiquing it? Seems ironic when Fox is becoming the most watch news network... yet that's probably why real journalists are trying to "purify" the profession.

Thanks for just and interesting read.

Posted by: Kevin B. Gilnack at February 21, 2010 6:15 PM | Permalink

* Thanks for such an interesting read.

Posted by: Kevin B. Gilnack at February 21, 2010 6:25 PM | Permalink

My initial reaction is that the narrative of impending tyranny is so far into the sphere of deviance that there's no need to comment on its truth. In fact, I'd say Barstow is, in a way, lucky that the central tenet of the Tea Party movement is so crazy. Because by simply describing their belief, he is telling the typical reader of the Times that they are nuts. But he also maintains his innocence in the way you describe. If the organizing principle of the movement was something more reasonable-sounding, Barstow would have to at least go so far as to rebut it with an expert or something.

This reminds me of the following bit from Terry Gross's interview with John Oliver of the Daily Show:

GROSS: So, what happens in situations like that, where they think you're just a fool or dangerous?

Mr. OLIVER: That's usually the...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. OLIVER: That's usually the best moments. When we go to things like the tea parties, their beliefs are so deeply held that it will really outweigh them feeling like they're going to be made fun of. And, also, I guess you have to understand that when you see people say crazy things on our show, they mean this stuff, and that's easy to forget. They're not joking. So, for instance, we'd done an interview a while ago with a guy before the election who was talking about how community organizing was a good gateway drug, really, as a career for becoming a crack dealer, which is a ridiculous thing to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: And you laughing at that is the appropriate human response. So we did put him in the piece, obviously, and people laughed again, obviously. And yet, he called afterwards - and this is more often the case than you would believe - to say, oh, can I please have some copies of the piece for my friends and family. Because you forget, he means that. What's a joke to us is a deeply held belief for him.

Posted by: someBrad at February 21, 2010 6:42 PM | Permalink

Jay, thanks for a thought-provoking essay. Though the Tea Party isn't an exclusively Southern movement, this piece reminded me of the Times' occasional valiant efforts to explain the South to the rest of the nation. As a native and (mostly) lifelong resident of the South, I wasn't particularly blown away by Barstow's article - I simply found it a thorough description of the environment I see every day.

With that in mind, I'd like to take exception to your criticism of it. You assume "impending tyranny" is an up-or-down, yes-or-no set of circumstances that Barstow had a duty to say does not factually exist. Many of my readers (in South Carolina: yeah, you've heard of us - "you lie," "Waterloo," state sovereignty acts, etc) would tell you the tyranny is already here. I have daily conversations with intelligent, well-read, congenial and witty people who deeply believe they have an absolute moral right to smoke tobacco indoors with a property owner's consent, and that the government has no right to intrude on that contract. A simpler, perhaps more timely example: they truly believe in a God-given right not to have health insurance, if a person chooses. For the government to take those rights away, to them, is tyrannical. Land of freedom, land of liberty - many of my readers truly feel a visceral slide away from these ideals, especially compared to their youth (obviously, in the South, we'd say there's a lot of good reasons for that). But even if we don't agree with their beliefs, I think we should acknowledge them as a fairly prevalent way of seeing the world in this particular region.

In my opinion, Barstown was actually exhibiting a "sense of reality" in not refuting the narrative, or even addressing its "truth." To do so would have been a slap in the face to the people he was reporting on, telling them that our sense of reality is superior to theirs (rather than simply "ours"), and I kind of admire him for resisting that impulse. He could have perhaps compared "tyranny" in the US to tyranny in Iran, but that would have been a different article (and the Tea Partiers would have simply replied that it's all a matter of scale, anyway). And then it turns into he-said, she-said journalism, perhaps less interesting than the article he wrote instead.

So let me back up a little. I really enjoyed your essay, and loved your concept of a "regression to a phony mean" and the indictment of horse-race reporting as just lazy journalism. I think of that stuff as process journalism - what we write to fill space, when nothing is actually happening (and political junkies gobble it up, while their eyes glaze over most journalism about issues). During a campaign, the only thing you have to know about to write one of those is the campaign itself - you don't have to have any knowledge of the actual issues. You're right to call for more substance here; and I hope in my own journalism I sometimes provide it.

I just don't think Barstow or his editors are guilty of any of that. NY readers can see that sentence and scoff at the Tea Partiers' naivete or paranoia, while I believe Tea Partiers will read it without too much quarrel (some will be affronted that he qualified the impending tyranny as their "narrative," instead of acknowledging the reality that the tyranny already exists ). In other words, it's a pretty apt description of his subject - now leave it to the opinion writers to convince the Tea Partiers why prohibiting smoking in restaurants is the proper role of the state. To me, it's the difference between Dexter Filkins and Nicholas Kristof - Filkins describes the worldview in the dangerous places on the globe, and Kristof describes to us why those worldviews are wrong - two excellent front-line journalists on separate missions, but both equally valuable to our readers.

Posted by: Robert Morris [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 21, 2010 6:53 PM | Permalink

Well argued, as always, and you may convince me yet, but I wonder ...

For many, the credibility and authority of Barstow’s piece will be enhanced by his decision not to render the judgment you want, based as that would perforce be on Isaiah Berlin’s “vast amalgam of constantly changing, multicoloured, evanescent, perpetually overlapping data.”

I am capable of drawing conclusions about whether the Tea Party’s unstated raison d’etre is valid or imagined. Barstow has described their behavior without reference to the “sense of reality” that is inevitably personal and idiosyncratic; he intelligently leaves it to the reader, or other commentary, to take the next steps and render conclusions. Do we think Berlin himself would argue that there is one singular or consensual “reality” in American politics upon which independent journalists may rely?

Would the report you request be valid journalism? Of course. Is journalism that chooses not to apply that lens invalidated? Of course not.

Posted by: Howard Weaver at February 21, 2010 7:01 PM | Permalink

Thanks, Robert. Very interesting. Don't agree but you've challenged me to think a little harder about this.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at February 21, 2010 7:02 PM | Permalink

I noted exactly the same phrase in Barstow's article and CJR interview, the tea party folks' fear of "impending tyranny." And I kept waiting for the reporter to tell me WHY these people have this fear. To this reader, this was something that required explanation.

Since Barstow didn't give me an explanation for an unexplained, incomprehensible phenomenon, I felt that he had ducked reporting what should have been the guts of the story.

Posted by: janinsanfran at February 21, 2010 7:04 PM | Permalink

Tyranny is here, but like the rest of the future, it's unevenly distributed.

A school district spys on students, using the cameras in the laptops it's given them. Is that a tyrannical act?

People are being held for years in Guantanamo, without charges, without trials. Is that a tyrannical act?

Cars, houses, money, and other property is seized daily in civil asset forfeiture proceedings. Are these tyrannical acts?

Often the answer is - "Well, maybe, but it's infrequent, and there is a legal system to correct these abuses."

Posted by: Mayson Lancaster at February 21, 2010 7:55 PM | Permalink

I don't have a grand theory about this, but I do have some impressions about possible contributing factors.

With respect to Packer: Karzai isn't in much of a position to push back. He may have a few partisans among big-footed US sources, but they're likely to already have been consulted for stories about him. It's much easier to be judgmental, accurately or not, about people who can't or won't effectively retaliate for what they may see as biased coverage. He's a foreigner who wears funny clothes in a far-off country.

The reporters I know don't want to get involved in dialogs, and editors even less so. If one makes a judgment--"there's no evidence to support this contention"--it invites a response that if loud enough requires its own response. And before you know it the ombudsman is breathing down your neck and instead of moving on to the next story you're exchanging emails with him or her and taking sensitivity training and resenting everybody involved. Easier to institutionalize as a virtue the practice of just reporting what people say rather than additionally reporting whether or not what they say is true.

In this case there's money involved too. I don't know what Barstow is paid, but somebody had to justify spending what, maybe $150,000 in salary and expenses on the story? Probably no one would want to spend more time and money dealing with the fallout from dismissing the particular concerns you mentioned, which would be seen by the people in the story as an assault upon their value as people.

And then there's the embed factor. Barstow spent a long time essentially embedded with his subjects. They're not an entirely unsympathetic bunch; regardless the specific content of their fears, they're very far from being the only fearful people in the country at the moment. So there might be a personal reluctance to fillet their beliefs as well as an institutional one.

I've complained to editors about he said/she said stuff and gotten an answer that I've seen elsewhere as well, to the effect that "our readers are smart enough to figure this stuff out for themselves." I call it the Lake Woebegone defense.

Anyway, good call. We're doomed. I think there's an institutional press conspiracy to steal our brains. Prove me wrong.

Posted by: Weldon Berger at February 21, 2010 7:55 PM | Permalink

Thanks, everyone--Howard, Weldon especially--for your good comments. I'm thinking about all of them and don't necessarily have good answers.

One of the things that frustrates about this post is that I was two-thirds done with it when I looked up and realized that I had written 2,000 words and ought to stop. The part I didn't get to and have been trying to pull into language for a long time can be summarized as follows: when the "quest for innocence" meets asymmetry between the two sides that make for innocence, the result is almost always a distortion of the real. That was supposed to be the final third.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at February 21, 2010 8:16 PM | Permalink

"impending tyranny" has a long tradition in this country.

Fear of impending tyranny was labeled Bush Derangement Syndrome by Krauthammer in 2003. It still shows up in references to black helicopters. Alex Jones goes from being a hero to crank with the changing of the palace guard.

What is most interesting is Jay Rosen in the role of "de-exciter".

Posted by: Tim at February 21, 2010 8:17 PM | Permalink

Good post Jay.
Like janinsanfran, I was waiting for an explanation of the incomprehensible phenomenon.

Posted by: PXLated at February 21, 2010 8:26 PM | Permalink

Here's a question: If Barstow had found someone to refute the sense of impending tyranny the Tea Partiers feel, would that make them feel it any less?

The answer, of course, is no. By reporting simply that they believe tyranny to be imminent, Barstow allows the reader to draw his/her own conclusions.

On the other hand, if the conclusions readers draw have no basis in reality, Barstow would seem to be doing them a disservice by not explaining the reality. I say, "would seem," because in many cases it wouldn't be his fault.

The simple fact is that to many people (whether affiliated with the Tea Party or not) the New York Times is not a legitimate news source because of its (perceived) liberalism. If Barstow had written anything to discredit the Tea Partiers' views, his arguments would simply be dismissed, because they didn't come with the Glenn Beck seal of approval.

Obviously, the Tea Party is a very small part of the Times intended audience, but I'm not sure the rest of the audience is hurt by the Times' failing to explain why tyranny might not be imminent. As other commenters have said, Times readers are probably smart enough to read the "impending tyranny" line and draw their own conclusions.

Posted by: Ian at February 21, 2010 8:50 PM | Permalink

At the risk of sounding wishy-washy, I can see this two ways.

If political behavior has anything in common with religious behavior (and I think it does), then we're dealing in part with a belief system when we confront assertions such as "we're heading for socialist tyranny" or "despotism is looming." Isaiah Berlin was wary of excessive rationalism (he was even wary, as I recall, of some aspects of the Enlightenment thought from which America's founders drew ideas and inspiration), but his insistence that political judgment should derive from an empirical sense, not a metaphysical sense, hasn't prevented ordinary people such as the Tea Party followers from indulging in what seems more like metaphysical flights. (There have been federal budget deficits for most of the last 40 years; suddenly to decide today that it's frightening isn't obviously a judgment of the facts.) To put it another way, they haven't read Berlin, any more than most of the Islamist radicals have. Their political judgment could stand an infusion of empirical sense, even for their own purposes, because hysteria isn't very convincing as a political stance. And yet it seems to have convinced some people. This is why I don't mind seeing the question of impending tyranny regarded, in the context of that article, as one of opinion.

In case that sounds like an evasion, maybe it'd be helpful to recall that even the Enlightenment philosophers had some trouble grounding all their propositions in observable reality. Despite (and also in light of) their efforts, America's founders fell back on declarations such as "We hold these truths to be self-evident."

On the other hand, I wouldn't have minded seeing what the Times labels a "news analysis" accompanying that article. I wouldn't even have minded seeing more facts in the article. The woman who discovered what the Federal Reserve "really is": what exactly is that, as she sees it? The fear of socialism: what are they thinking of when they use the word? What difference do they think it would make (apart from the Constitutional issue) if Barack Obama had been born in a foreign country? But going very far into those questions would become tedious. To some extent, the journalist has to write the article he's writing, which recites what he's seen and heard and observes patterns (such as the "narrative of impending tyranny"), rather than the slightly different article that addresses the background of such things.

To be honest, like some of your other commenters, I had no trouble evaluating matters for myself. As I wrote in my journal after reading Barstow, I'm tempted to think that the Tea Partiers don't know what socialism, despotism, or tyranny really mean.

Posted by: John Branch at February 21, 2010 9:54 PM | Permalink

To be clear, I'm not fond of the "our readers can figure it out" construct, because I think it's fairly clear that lots of readers either can't or don't have the time and energy to. Hence the Lake Woebegone reference: The New York Times, where the women are strong and the men are good looking and all the readers are above average. But they're not. The sentiment strikes me as a dodge aimed at evading the kinds of headaches that evaluating a source's claims in print (or pixels) can create.

I wish I could remember the subject and I can't, but a few months ago I got into a discussion on a bulletin board with an Obama partisan about some conspiracy theory I had proposed sarcastically and he attempted to debunk in earnest. It went on for a long time and he finally demanded to know why there wasn't some confirmation in the press of what I was saying, and my response was that obviously the press were in on it.

Where do you go from there? It's an argument ender. I couldn't prove the press was in on whatever it was and he couldn't prove they weren't, and it became a question of belief, and in that context the fight usually goes to whoever is more personally invested in their belief, and that's hardly ever going to be a reporter or editor.

So I can empathize with the desire to avoid that territory by simply not addressing the validity of a belief, but I still think it's an abandonment of ... journalistic duty? I don't know what to call it. At the least it's a deliberate waste of resources.

Posted by: Weldon Berger at February 21, 2010 10:48 PM | Permalink

Jay, you've given me much to think about, particularly since I've begun to write about the Teas. Although I have a few quarrels with Barstow's narrative choices (he dwells upon the fringe elements rather than the movement's unifying belief that we must get control of government spending and therefore the sometimes surprising solutions to which Teas are amenable), the NYT piece and Ben McGrath's in The New Yorker are important work. At last, the large-audience media is taking the movement seriously.

I agree with Robert Morris about "the narrative of impending tyranny." At the Tea Party Convention, I was about to tell two men that I thought their fear of the federal government monitoring their home electricity meters was unfounded--I was about to take them to task--when I remembered that here in the SF Bay Area we now have "spare the air" legislation, and neighbors are turning each other in for fireplace fires on "poor air" days. (First offense: a warning. After that, steep fines.)

In the largest sense, tyranny is, of course, unjustified paranoia. Barstow's choices of tea partiers and concerns reveal his opinion of the movement. To my mind, he does not have to say more. On the other hand, he could have done a more informal and companion piece on the NYT blog recounting a conversation or two (better: a vidblog) in which he pushed back against this fear of tyranny. Surely he had such a conversation or two with tea partiers.

At the Nashville convention, I watched some in the media make what are to my mind questionable choices: staging eventers to appear and say what the reporter wanted; to get a story, flirting in the bar with attendees. And I got a great piece from the spectacle. "The Press Ate the Tea Party," on my blog.

But none of these choices approached your philosophical concern, Jay. I wrote Notes from a Clueless Journalist: Media, Bias and the Great Election of 2008 and discovered in the end that I had produced an extended meditation of the subject of reportorial point of view. Having had my name and reputation dragged from one end of the media to the other made me think long and hard about what the heck I thought I was doing. In that round-about way, if a bit of a trial by fire, I discovered that there is no such thing as opinion-free, or as you would say, "innocence-free" journalism. And so now, as in Nashville, I tell the people I am interviewing right up from where I am coming from so they can digest what I'm bringing to the table and make up their minds whether or not to speak with me. I do the same with my readers--a great thing about blogs, yes?

And isn't the better question than how the hell it happened "how do we go from here?"

Posted by: Mayhill Fowler at February 21, 2010 11:01 PM | Permalink

I too think "our readers can figure it out" is a complete dodge. Artful, but still a dodge.

Can readers figure out where this narrative of tyranny about to be imposed comes from? Can readers figure out why so many Tea Party faithful believe the community organization Acorn is stealing elections when there is almost no evidence of an election stolen in that way? Can readers figure out why so many in the Tea Party movement think Obama is trying to control the Internet when there is almost no evidence of such a thing? Can readers figure out how much of this derives from experience colored with fear, and how much from professionally manipulated emotion, in which the fear is pre-colored, as it were? Can readers figure out the likely consequences for the Republican party of attempting to assimilate a political cohort whose central narrative is a paranoid and drastically overdrawn portrait of impending tryanny? If readers can figure all of this out, why do we need political reporters?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at February 21, 2010 11:03 PM | Permalink

Daily Howler: "We were struck by the merit of some of the views ascribed to these inexperienced political actors—by the way their views sometimes dovetail with those of us genius progressives."

Posted by: Tim at February 21, 2010 11:25 PM | Permalink

What a superb piece. Thank you.

It is the responsibility of good journalism, to point out the unfounded claims of this strange "movement". This should have been front and center. It's important to do this without denigrating the people involved. These are their beliefs. In the same way that some people don't believe in evolution, you have to point out the absurdity of the belief in face of the fact. The people who need to hear it most are the believers themselves.

The only point I take issue with in you essay, is that the "tyranny" would be a bigger story if it was happening. If you watch Fox "news" I think you'd say it was being covered quit thoroughly. Coverage, or lack thereof, is not indication of truth. Evidence is the best thing to fall back on when you're refuting an unfounded belief.

Posted by: Charles Borwick at February 22, 2010 12:48 AM | Permalink

Reality has a liberal bias, and mainstream journalists must do their utmost to avoid appearing biased toward liberals or the cons will attack them (more).

It's called "working the refs" and it's what keeps conservatism alive in America.

Posted by: grytpype at February 22, 2010 8:16 AM | Permalink

I would say that there is a long term slide towards tyrany (or disenfranchisement to be more specific) in the USA.

There are a lot of symptoms: dodgy electronic voting, corruption of the political process (money becoming more important than people), shrinking middle-class, less transparancy in goverment, less tolarence for protest, goverment monitoring of journalists and activists (and everyone) - things like that.

The tea baggers are picking up on this. Maybe.

The odd thing is, that Obama is better than Bush on most of these issues, and I don't think he's worse on any of them.

They're all long term trends, that I think he's trying (and on some fronts succeeding) to reverse.

Posted by: Andrew at February 22, 2010 10:17 AM | Permalink

Another thought in light of Andrew's comment above. This liberal has no trouble identifying aspects of our situation that might look like a slide toward tyranny: increased ease of government surveillance through our voluntary adoption of intrusive technologies, depression of citizen engagement, dysfunction in previously more responsive democratic structures, funding of guns and prisons instead of education and health.

That may read like gobbledegook; if someone wanted to report the political universe I inhabit, they'd have to explain some of this stuff. Likewise, to explain the universe the Tea Party folks inhabit, their beliefs require explication.

And there is not really any socially agreed platform on which to stand to give that explanation, so journalists duck and we learn less than we might. I can sympathize with the instinct to duck this stuff, but please don't call it a principle.

Posted by: janinsanfran at February 22, 2010 11:47 AM | Permalink

It strikes me that Robert Morris' comment and Jay Rosen's most recent comment provide me with more insight into, in this case, the tea party movement than the original articles Jay was writing about. Barstow's piece(s) were very light on explaining the "why" of the beliefs he documented, and although I feel there is a place for the kind of non-judgmental reporting that his piece(s) represent, I'm not sure I want to make do without the "why". Robert Morris provided a few very clear examples of "why", and Mayhill Fowler offered a similar example or two. I don't need a reporter doing Barstow's job to tell me that the views of the tea party "movement" are nuts, but I do very very much want to get to a deeper understanding of how the people who believe what it espouses can hold the worldview that they do. This is critically important since its reasonably clear that their worldview feels internally consistent to them, just as mine does to me. Barstow doesn't need to write "Yet this notion of impending tyranny is completely unjustified by the facts of contemporary America" - what he does need to write is a clear account of the things that lead others to believe that it is completely justified by whatever they know about the world. Cataloguing the beliefs of others is junior reporting - elucidating the way that those beliefs self-organize, self-sustain and provide order for their believers - we're missing this kind of writing.

Posted by: Paul Davis at February 22, 2010 12:16 PM | Permalink

Glad to see PressThink pick up where it left off. If part 1 was "He Said, She Said," then part 2 is "what the reporter will never say," perhaps.

So let's look at this related piece from Mother Jones on the "Oath Keeper" movement and apply the same filters, shall we?

Halfway through, you'll hit the "It is easy enough to dismiss..." graf, where the reporter links to sources that say what she declines to.

Is that enough?

Is it a difference of audience? Does the journalist at the progressive Mother Jones get more room to operate, assuming her readers are likely to begin the story with the assumption that the Oath Keepers are nutjobs? Maybe.

Posted by: Ryan Sholin at February 22, 2010 12:45 PM | Permalink

Upon rereading Barstow’s piece, the narrative of impending tyranny failed to stand out for me with the same jolt that Rosen experienced.

It seemed clear to me that “tyranny” was used by Barstow as a term of art, referring to the range of conservative-populist-nativist bêtes noires that the Tea Party has inherited from its patriot-survivalist-secessionist predecessors: the federal income tax, gun control laws, the Central Bank, the United Nations, the National Debt and so on.

The impending part of this longstanding fear of tyranny, in Barstow’s reporting, refers to the looming consequences of the expanded role of the federal government after its recent efforts to provide a social safety net in the face of a ruthless recession -- borrowing more, taking over automobile and insurance business, bailing out Wall Street banks, seeking to mandate universal healthcare, trying to avert down climate change.

Rosen’s requirement that Barstow should stipulate whether the Tea Party’s use of the term tyranny conforms to one’s everyday use of the term seems severe. If one happens to believe that the Federal Reserve system represents the government’s incipient ability to expropriate our personal wealth, as Ron Paul does, then tyranny is not too harsh a word.

Rosen’s second set of demands on Barstow were more challenging:

Can readers figure out where this narrative of tyranny about to be imposed comes from?

Barstow clearly answers this, offering ideological, institutional, sociological and demographic explanations.

Can readers figure out why so many Tea Party faithful believe the community organization Acorn is stealing elections when there is almost no evidence of an election stolen in that way?

Barstow made only a passing reference to ACORN and his failure to answer this question does not mar his reportage.

Can readers figure out why so many in the Tea Party movement think Obama is trying to control the Internet when there is almost no evidence of such a thing?

No, readers have no way of figuring this out.

Can readers figure out how much of this derives from experience colored with fear, and how much from professionally manipulated emotion, in which the fear is pre-colored, as it were?

To my reading, Barstow answers this question, suggesting that grassroots enthusiasm is being organized only after the fact by professional propagandists and activists. The fear seems authentic not manipulated.

Can readers figure out the likely consequences for the Republican Party of attempting to assimilate a political cohort whose central narrative is a paranoid and drastically overdrawn portrait of impending tryanny?

Barstow seems to answer that this is an open question. He finds that the majority of the Tea Party is suspicious of both established political parties and so may not be amenable to assimilation by the Republican Party, even if it made such an attempt. He is clear that the Republican Party’s policies would be unrecognizably different if the Tea Party were to become the dominant faction in its coalition.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at February 22, 2010 12:49 PM | Permalink

I had the exact reaction Paul Davis did to Jay's last comment: "Barstow doesn't need to write 'Yet this notion of impending tyranny is completely unjustified by the facts of contemporary America' - what he does need to write is a clear account of the things that lead others to believe that it is completely justified by whatever they know about the world."

It seems like there is a distinction developing between debunking vs. exploring the beliefs of the Tea Party movement. I interpreted Jay's original argument as a criticism of Barstow for not debunking. I agree that not doing so serves the quest for innocence. But in this case, I don't think it's necessary because, as Jay says: "I think it’s obvious—not only to me but to Barstow and the journalist who interviewed him for CJR—that the answers [to the questions about the legitimacy of the narrative] are 'no.'" I would just add a typical reader of the Times to the list of people to whom the answers are obvious. It's not that the reader can figure out the narrative is wrong -- rather it's immediately obvious. So much so, that attributing that narrative to the Tea Party movement is implicitly judgmental.

Jay's last comment seems to be asking for more of an exploration of the beliefs. I think this would be a fascinating and valuable piece of reporting. It;s also not likely to happen because it would be explicitly judgmental.

Posted by: someBrad at February 22, 2010 1:23 PM | Permalink

Let's see...
Habeas Corpus overturned - Gitmo not yet closed and most detainees will simply be shipped outside of US jursidiction.

Wiretaps of American civilians made cosher as Obama's last act in congress.

Obama supporting ACTA - a secret trade agreement that would cut internet access to those ACCUSED of intellectual property infringement (no courts involved) by private companies and allow border guards to seize, search and copy the contents of your hard drive.

US Supreme court saying corporations can pour as much money as they'd like into the American poltical process.

There's a reason one cannot report on the truth of the Tea Party narrative - one does not know.

Obama ran on Hope and on Change in Washington. He did not deliver on the later. Nor does it look as if he's any intention to.

The Tea Party movement talks of Fear and Tyranny. Both acknowledge Washington is broken.

One peddles hope, the other fear. Neither offers change. And when faced with no change in sight, one can either hope for the best or fear the worst. They are both right.

Tyranny is here. We simply can't use 20th century vocabulary to articulate it yet. But we all know it. Fear of losing our jobs, our homes, our democracy and our future.

Even those on the left (progressives, Democrats, whatever) know in our bones that the Powers That Be are pulling a fast one.

That's why no one speaks of the truth of the Tea Party narrative - none of us know if it's true or not.

Posted by: Bubbly Bob at February 22, 2010 1:30 PM | Permalink

In regards to Robert Morris comments in regards to tea baggers fear of an impending tyranny.
You explain the perceptions of people who's loss of certain "freedoms" justifies (to themselves) their belief that tyranny is impending if not already here. I do no think Mr. Rosen was pointing out that the NYT article should of questioned their sincerity, instead the factual accuracy of their belief.

While people may percieve it as tyranny, the fact is that none of what you stated is tyranny. Tyranny is "arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power; despotic abuse of authority."
Currently our system of government with the separations of powers, constitution and elected representatives make this type of abuse impossible. The only way that real tyranny can exist is if the current type of government was replaced by an absolute authoritarion leader, where niether the people, the justice or legislative branches have any ability intervene or supercede that leaders authority.
The effects of a true tyranny might take the following form: Being denied the right to vote. Using violence as a form of intimidation, Law enforcement is unrestrained in its use of power,
Courts of law would be corrupted by stacking juries with people who sided with the oppressive government denying justice for victims of crimes and due process to those who are accused, Being told where you must live and being told by the government who you can and cannot marry. Being denied access to public facilities. Restricting good paying jobs and economic opportunities to those who support the tyranny.

I think it would be fair to say that nothing like this currently occurs in this country, at least by the government. Any oppresive rule or regulation is subject to change by changing who is in office. The fact that the Tea Party is able to organize and start an open grass roots movement and make malicous and slanderous statements (via protest signs), disprove the existance of tyranny impending or otherwise.

Lastly the statement: ..."Land of freedom, land of liberty - many of my readers truly feel a visceral slide away from these ideals, especially compared to their youth (obviously, in the South, we'd say there's a lot of good reasons for that)."

I am not sure what you mean by the parenthetical comment about the south having "good reasons for that" I guess if the southern population went from freedom to the description I provided of tyranny they would have good reason to feel that there freedom was taken away. However, from my perspective the South has moved away from tyranny and oppresiveness that a good portion of south would percieve they are finally experiencing the land of liberty and freedom.

Posted by: Rich McClelland at February 22, 2010 1:47 PM | Permalink

BubblyBob: I think that your use of the word "tyranny" is precisely what is at issue here. Clearly, the Tea Party movement believes that there are a set of changes that either threaten to create or have actually created a situation in the US that they are not happy with. But is it "tyranny"? What is gained (and lost) by using that word? What is gained (and lost) by not asking about its usage? By not requiring that its use be explicitly justified? Are we going to allow everyone to just declare that words mean what we want them to mean, and that's that? Or do we need to hold the usage of such powerful terms (like "tyranny") to a higher standard?

Posted by: Paul Davis at February 22, 2010 1:47 PM | Permalink

@someBrad: i don't think that such reporting has to be necessarily judgemental. although its not reporting, there is an out-of-print book called "Rediscovering America's Values" by Frances Moore Lappe that serves as a 300+ page dialog between a progressive and a conservative perspective. Lappe notes with wry amusement that her conservative friends felt that she did them more justice than her own more progressive perspective. The dialog reaches no conclusions, other than to make it clear how, on several absolutely fundamental points, the progessive and conservative perspectives are irreconcilably different.

Its not hard for me to imagine more journalists (not just in print) being involved in presenting this kind of juxtaposition of viewpoints. It only requires a willingness to take seriously the worldview of people you consider crazy. This might involve a temporary suspension of that belief, but it doesn't mean abandoning one's interest, knowledge of the world, or even one's own worldview. I believe it can be done - I'm not sure that people want to read it.

Posted by: Paul Davis at February 22, 2010 1:57 PM | Permalink

First of all, Jay, welcome back. We've truly missed you. The Twitter blurbs can be overwhelming, and as a thought leader, it's nice to read the fruit of your thoughts instead of just a list of links.

I'm almost entirely with Robert Morris on this, for the South itself lies almost entirely within the Sphere of Deviance and has been that way for a very long time. I've lived here for 30 years, and the lifestyle is very different than it is in other places (the North). I think that, if it could be done, you'd find different circles for the Southern Press than you would that which dominates the East Coast.

So when any one writer speaks of impending tyranny, the reality of it depends entirely on your perspective. You and I have had previous discussions about the difficult process of pursuing a single "truth" in today's networked world, for the modernist concept of truth is being disrupted just like everything else. In this case, I believe Barstow has an absolute obligation to argue against this illusionary pending tyranny, if that is what he, or his readers, believe it to be.

I think the assumption of truth may be the biggest challenge for any of us in reporting the news in this new world. What most of the readers here believe is that nobody that "gets it" or has a sufficient education could possibly believe that Obama represents any sort of pending threat. That is a dangerous assumption in the pursuit of truth.

Posted by: Terry Heaton at February 22, 2010 2:07 PM | Permalink

There is no assumption on my part that Obama does not represent any sort of pending threat. I just have not seen the evidence and most what people claim as evidence is either factually incorrect or under critical thinking does not reach the conclusion that they think it does. This was true with the left acussing Bush as tyrant as well.

There are fundamental differences in the way the two wings of political spectrum view of what our country should be. Anytime that the other party is in power, people see "their" america as being threatened.

Posted by: Rich McClelland at February 22, 2010 2:30 PM | Permalink

McClelland countenances only one definition of the word tyranny: the "arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power; despotic abuse of authority."

Davis asks rhetorically about tyranny: “What is gained (and lost) by using that word? What is gained (and lost) by not asking about its usage? By not requiring that its use be explicitly justified?”

Both are being willfully naïve.

Back in the day, the new-left would call Mayor Daley a “fascist;” more recently, neo-conservatives call al-Qaeda “Islamo-fascist.” Neither is making literal claims about the ability of their ideological foes to make trains run on time.

“Tyranny” has a long history in American political culture as such a non-literal term, used largely for self-definition by those hurling the insult. John Wilkes Booth used it. So did Timothy McVeigh.

When we hear warnings about “tyranny” we are being told more about the place on the political spectrum of the speaker than we are being told about the political science definition of our government’s Constitution.

Barstow clearly explained the historical coherence of the Tea Party’s position on that spectrum. Tyranny belongs with other political buzzwords -- “liberty” for mainstream conservatives, “progress” for left-leaning liberals -- as ideological self-identifiers.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at February 22, 2010 2:36 PM | Permalink

Great post, thanks for writing it.

I think it goes without saying that journalists could better evaluate the basis for what they report, particularly where they are reporting another's opinion.

I also think that that becomes a sticky proposition, because it's unclear where one ought to set the bar. As Mr. Morris points out, for some, tyranny has already arrived.

It would require a prohibitive amount of research and investigation to properly evaluate the claim of "impending tyranny", because that would mean first accepting conspiracy theories as valid hypotheses, something few news organizations are ready to do.

Posted by: Robin Elliott at February 22, 2010 2:54 PM | Permalink

@AndrewTyndall: i don't think my question was naive. In fact, you went ahead and answered it by saying that using the word "tyranny" tells us "more about the place on the political spectrum of the speaker than we are being told about the political science definition of our government’s Constitution". How do you think the people who make up the Tea Party would respond to your claim that their use of an "impending tyranny" narrative is merely a way for them to self-identify them with a particular category of ideologue? Do you feel entirely comfortable dismissing their phenomonological stance on the world and insisting that "tyranny" just a convenient political buzzword?

"Fascism" is a much more difficult term to use in this way because I don't believe that there are any widely established and accepted viewpoints on what real-life examples constitute fascism (inspite of it having reasonably well established dictionary/textbook definitions). The fact that most people would agree that Mussolini was a fascist doesn't help solve the definitional problem. I think "tyranny" is much more widely understood, if only in a kind of folkloric sense, although the use by the conservative right in the US at the moment leads me to question that too.

Posted by: Paul Davis at February 22, 2010 3:32 PM | Permalink

Davis --

Good question; and not a naïve one.

I labor under no delusions that it would be difficult for me and a Tea Party member to find a common vocabulary to discuss our respective political ideologies. The conversation, I imagine, would be vituperative and unproductive.

Be that as it may, you should not interpret me as saying that their use of an “impending tyranny” narrative is merely a way for them to self-identify. You should not have added the “merely.”

What I meant was this: Populists from all parts of the political spectrum warn of the overarching power of the state: its threat to personal autonomy and privacy; its corrupt relationship with financial elites; the abuse of the powers to police and to incarcerate; to expropriate and to tax; to make war, invade and occupy.

When we hear populist warnings about impending abuses of state power, we can understand the political provenance of the warning from the vocabulary that is used. Hear threats of “corporatism” or “fascism” or “imperialism” and we know the warning comes from a left-populist tradition. When we are warned about the threat to “liberty” by “tyranny,” the speaker is notifying us of a secessionist-nativist heritage.

My point was merely that the use of the word “tyranny” tells us more about the speaker’s heritage than about the likelihood of those threats becoming reality. It was the heritage that Barstow was reporting on; not the accuracy of the Tea Party’s predictions.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at February 22, 2010 3:59 PM | Permalink

How could it happen? Decades of the right wing calling the media liberal and the media not wanting to be seen as liberal, even when it's far from it, which is almost always.
I was struck by "saviness." It describes Gwen Ifill's "Washington Week" panels to a T.

Posted by: plankbob [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 22, 2010 4:38 PM | Permalink

Oops: savviness.

Posted by: plankbob [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 22, 2010 4:45 PM | Permalink

Jay, if you'll let me borrow a little more space on your blog, I'd like to reply briefly to Rich: Some good folks down here do see the definitions you cite of tyranny ("arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power; despotic abuse of authority") as already at play. Isn't the government telling me whose buildings I can smoke in pretty arbitrary? Isn't the government telling me I must have insurance - even if I think I can afford any illness that comes my way - an abuse of its authority? Among my the better-read of my very conservative acquaintances here, the central complaint with health-care reform has always been the mandate: they simply believe the Constitution does not give the federal government the power to require people purchase a product from private companies. Abuse of power.
... and I think you did interpret my comment about the praiseworthy loss of freedoms down here in the way I meant it. To be specific, I'd point to elections (we can't move a polling place across the street without permission from the USDOJ) or school desegregation/cross-town buses or school prayer. Those are easy examples: a more interesting one might be zoning laws, which still aren't fully implemented in rural areas, where they also strike locals as an unwanted governmental intrusion. There are good reasons for these things; they've freed the minority populations from tyranny and thus strengthened the community as a whole; but they have entailed a loss of freedom for Southern whites (ie, the freedom to have neighborhood schools). Those restrictions, while justifiable, inevitably breed what should be an ultimately understandable tendency to see impending tyranny.
And I still see it as more the role of the news staff to describe that tendency, and the role of the opinion staff to judge and say whether it's right or wrong. I suppose it's why we still need both.

Posted by: Robert Morris [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 22, 2010 6:36 PM | Permalink

And thanks again to Jay for making me think much more deeply into this article than I did when I first read it.

Posted by: Robert Morris [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 22, 2010 6:37 PM | Permalink

Internet philosopher and "Cluetrain Manifesto" author David Weinberger at his blog, Joho.

I’ve had a little back and forth with Jay about this in email, particularly about the journalists’ defense that readers can be counted on to know that the “impending tyranny” idea is false. I don’t buy that defense, and neither does Jay. It means that journalists get out of having to state the truth – there is no impending tyranny – because they can rely on readers agreeing with their own point of view.

And we can be quite certain that this is what’s going on because (as Jay points out), if the journalists thought there was any credibility to the claim that Obama is imposing tyranny on us, that would be a far larger story than the Tea Party story in which the claim is embedded. So the journalists get to have their point of view and not have to state it…which makes objectivity into a pretense.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at February 22, 2010 6:44 PM | Permalink

@Andrew Tyndall

I think you have it right. Imagine a similar Barstow "investigation" of the Netroots with a sentence that read,

It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending fascism. This narrative permeates Netroot Web sites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and YouTube videos. It is a prominent theme of their favored media outlets and commentators, and it connects the disparate issues that preoccupy many Netroot supporters — from the concern that Diebold Election Systems is stealing elections to the belief that Mr. Bush is trying to control the Internet and restrict free speach."

Posted by: Tim at February 22, 2010 7:00 PM | Permalink

Good piece. Don't have time to read every answer to see if this is touched on but my impression is that both the commenter here and the Times are being a bit myopic.

They don't have to break impartiality by stating that the U.S. is not on the verge of collapse.

Similarly, they don't have to ignore that it's not: ask the subjects why they believe this. Their own answers will go a long way to illustrating the reliability of the material, or otherwise.

This morning, a reader asked me why I ran a pariticularly noxious letter on a local topic because "all it did was confirm that the writer was a jerk", or something along those lines.

Well, when he's arguing a point of public interest, that's a pretty important confirmation, when it comes to the public deciding how seriously to take someone.

Quote the idiotic sheep. Let them hang themselves.

Posted by: Jeremy Loome at February 22, 2010 8:22 PM | Permalink

Dear Jay:

Yes the socialist dictatorship is not upon us . . . yet! However, as a liberal and supporter of Obama, I am dismayed that the worst excesses of the Bush administration - warrantless surveillance, detention of innocents at Guantanamo, and threat of the use of military commissions instead of trials for "terrorists", are being continued by this administration. Why is the mainstream media not taking up the Harper's report about Camp No at Guantanamo, and the flat-out murders of three detainees who were slated to be sent home? The story used great sources and made it clear that the prior administration's claim that these 3 had killed themselves was totally bogus. By not prosecuting those involved, this administration is becoming culpable in the human rights violations we all railed against during eight years of Bush.
Concern for the future of good, transparent, law-abiding governance in this country is NOT a fringe view.

Having said that, I agree with your general point. At the risk of sounding like a Fox Newswriter(!) - too much "two-sidedness" is bad. Actually there are usually several sides to any story. American media coverage tends to focus too much time/column space on those viewpoints which oppose each other, regardless of their relative merit or the comprehensiveness of the report.

It may be a litigation response - if you give the squeaky wheels the grease, maybe they won't sue you. American media companies are owned by investors which treat reporting activities as part of just another product/investment. Significant legal liability means smaller ROI!! (Even if what is being reported is true).

This kind of defensive reporting takes on the blandness suggested in your piece. If your story has to be "neutral" then the journalist becomes neutered.

This milquetoast reportage actually emboldens those who hold ridiculous fringe views and frustrates the silenced majority.

Nonprofit publishing outfits backed by aggressive first-amendment lawyering is the only way out. I hope it is the way of the future.

Posted by: K. M. at February 22, 2010 10:57 PM | Permalink

Not to say the intellectual elites have blinders on, but what about the theory that the Earth is 10,000 years old? Should the 4.5 billion year alternative be re-explained in every related article? James Webb, in his book mentioned at link below, explains that not every group of early settlers passed through the age of enlightenment in the same way. It helps to read Webb. Or, "Albion's Seed," by David Hackett Fischer. (And consider how issues of class and identity are brought into the foreground by just the journalistic evasion that you point out.)

Posted by: JH at February 23, 2010 12:36 AM | Permalink

""Barstow doesn't need to write 'Yet this notion of impending tyranny is completely unjustified by the facts of contemporary America'"

And the obvious rejoiner is "Sez you!". Do I really need a NYT reporter to explain to me why a notion of impending tyranny is completely unjustified? Maybe for those of his rarefied ilk, but I can think of plenty of people who are constrained by arbitrary laws (City of West Hollywood just outlawed selling dogs and cats for money)that seem to serve no other purpose than to twart those with whom the law-givers disagree.

You need a license to be a florist in Louisiana.
You need permission to home school your children in NY and Nevada.
Some places ban smoking outside.

I think more people feel they're being nibbled to death by ducks than fear the iron fist of Obama. Additional Federal powers mean more things the average person must obey or watch out for, and that's a tyranny that's like a spider web--the more you struggle, the more entangled you get.

Posted by: Stacy at February 23, 2010 1:02 AM | Permalink

Hi, Jay, as a southerner transplanted to the northwest, I'm going to chime in here with Robert.

I have friends here -- in granola-crunching, Prius-driving metro Seattle -- who think that land use regulations are an act of tyranny. They believe that they are suffering from a "tyranny of the majority" -- that their government is "oppressive or unjustly severe" (also a definition tyranny). In the main, I don't agree, because I look at land use regulations from a "tragedy of the commons" point of view. However, I understand their point of view, particularly since I have read land use regulations that, although good-intentioned (one hopes), are oppressive and stupid.

We have similar debates about motorcycle helmet laws. I think that the laws are reasonable because the cost of a helmet-less rider's health care is born by society in direct and indirect ways. Some of my friends believe the laws are arbitrary and without constitutional (note the small "c" for state government) merit. My friends do not want to ride "helmet-less" -- they just do not wish the "state" ("collective") to tell them that they must wear a helmet. Being a very small percentage of the population, they feel victims of the tyranny of the majority.

Thus I was a little taken aback by your assertion that the "narrative (of tyranny) is nuts" -- just because you think that it is. The divide between strict constitutionalists and their opposite is not a new one: it is as old as the nation.

The fact that the NYT invested tremendous resources in this story demonstrates a surprising acknowledgment that the US remains a extremely heterogenous nation. It is also refreshingly different from the stereotypical New York City worldview depicted in the classic New Yorker cover in March 1976.

This post is another thumbs up to the NYT for the story (and validation of my exorbitant monthly subscription for the Sunday edition).

Posted by: kathy gill at February 23, 2010 1:47 AM | Permalink

@stacy writes:

"You need a license to be a florist in Louisiana.
You need permission to home school your children in NY and Nevada.
Some places ban smoking outside. "

Its odd that the laws that people have raised here as the reasons why some Americans feed that tyranny is either here or impending seem invariably to be the ones that come from the local governments that they seem to want to "return power to".

It isn't the federal government that bans smoking, stops sales of cats & dogs, imposes helmet law, institutes licensing requirements, sets up land use and building codes ... its towns, municipalities and states. Yet these are the very "local" government entities that I continually here touted in lines like "Small government that is close to the people governs best".

A conundrum?

Posted by: Paul Davis at February 23, 2010 7:49 AM | Permalink

I wonder how people who have lived under regimes that are truly tyrannical would react to the assertion that zoning laws and smoking bans are proof that tyranny is almost or already here in America.

Posted by: someBrad at February 23, 2010 8:45 AM | Permalink

I think Jay is right, though not quite in the way he stated it. Barstow's piece is not detached. It does implicitly take the stand that the "impending tyranny" belief is nonsense. It takes that stand simply by virtue of considering the belief newsworthy -- ie, that there is something out of whack in people's believing it. By dwelling on how they came to it, the piece tries to explain the belief as a product of circumstances in their lives rather than as an expression of an undeniable truth - which is as good as saying it's false.

So I would criticise Barstow (or rather, the journalistic style he and most of us mainstream journos practice), not, as Jay does, for failing to refute the tyranny belief - frankly, that would make for a rather cumbersome article and a clumsy narrative - but simply for not making his view explicit, which he could done through his investigations of how particular individuals came to particular beliefs and showing that they don't accord with the facts.

I also think we need more of that kind of inquiry in general. I was very struck by James Surowiecki's New Yorker piece last week ( in which he cites a string of popular beliefs about the economic crisis and the government's response to it that bear absolutely no relation to reality. I would like to know how this is possible in an age of unprecedented openness of information and media coverage. And I don't think it's because the mainstream media have been shrinking from taking clear positions.

Posted by: Gideon Lichfield at February 23, 2010 12:59 PM | Permalink

I cite local laws, because politicians start small, and grow. Today, it's banning sales of pure-bred poodles, because the local city council says that's what the community wants--just like same-sex marriage bans or bans on abortion.

And often tyrants do start small, and it's the slow erosion of small liberties that make the tsunami of despotic rule possible.

Posted by: Stacy at February 23, 2010 1:11 PM | Permalink

Jeremy Loome is spot on: "Quote the idiotic sheep. Let them hang themselves."
The sad part about all this is that it's Journalism 101. We shouldn't need to be debating here whether tyranny is impending.
Instead of trying so hard to sum it all up in his own narrative (to justify five months of work?), why can't the writer take a step back and be a reporter? What's wrong with the basics? Ask the subject the follow-up question (done, certainly), then share that answer with the reader. "They believe ... citing as evidence ... ."
Sorry, it's not elegant. But neither is the job title on the business card: "reporter." Which journalist didn't hear at his first job from his first editor that, "You may have covered this all year, but you need to write the story so that a tourist can also get a basic understanding." And, "If you make a grand statement, back it up."
The NYT writers are the smartest, most impressive writers out there. But this is still reporting, and frankly I'm more interested in what the subjects have to say. How do they back up these claims?
Maybe this is why so many people watch the Daily Show. Sure, it's presented as comedy, but admit it, the "correspondents" do practice this Journalism 101: They let the subjects explain it for themselves, then they listen and pass it along to us. They "report," and, "Let them hang themselves."

Posted by: Karen at February 23, 2010 1:33 PM | Permalink

@gideon: something makes me feel that you haven't spent enough time hanging out blogs :) The notion that you can show that beliefs don't accord with "the facts" is just so ... uh ... so mid-20th century. I wish it were otherwise, but until I read an account of, say, the recent banking/credit collapse, that doesn't lend itself to instant questioning via the introduction of "facts" drawn from a particular worldview, I am skeptical that this can be done. I am not a conservative, but when I read accounts from those who are of why the collapse happened, I am confronted with a worldview in which even the facts don't seem to be shared with my own. Or rather, the facts are all shared but absolutely none of the interpretation. Where I clearly see insane investment strategies, they see a government-led push to expand credit to the less credit-worthy. When I see discussions come up that attempt to grapple with these differences of opinion, for example by contrasting the magnitude of different components of the collapse, I see disagreements over the math, the assumptions - basically everything.

I don't understand how journalism can bridge this divide. When, as a nation, we can't even agree in a clear way, on what led to one of the greatest ever financial meltdowns (and that to me has very clear causes), how is it ever likely that anyone can show how a particular opinion is at "odds with the facts"?

Posted by: Paul Davis at February 23, 2010 1:59 PM | Permalink

I'm a fan of Kathy Gill and I try to respect local knowledge but I'm sorry there is no way in hell you are going to persuade me that having to wear a helmet on a chopper equates to, serves as illustration for, or explains in any way a narrative of impending tryanny where the fear is that the United States will very soon no longer be a free country.

To suggest that it does is, I believe, condescending. In my opinion it is less condescending to say to the offended minority in that situation: gimme a break. That treats them like political adults. "Wearing a helmet is to them almost like living under a dictatorship..." treats them as children. And yes, I know that isn't what you said but my exaggerated version, KG.

Being mighty pissed off that the majority is making you do something you don't want to do? Yes, makes sense. Does that feeling then transfer over into real political anger with a valence in elections and protests? Yes, it does. I can go no further than that.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at February 23, 2010 2:39 PM | Permalink

This is why I don't read US newspapers.

Posted by: mathew at February 23, 2010 3:02 PM | Permalink

Welcome back, Professor Rosen!

Perhaps this can be attributed to having read this post before the NYT article, but I don't feel as though the "impending tyranny" line was irresponsibly inserted. Rather, I think Barstow does well to couch its meaning in the article's 11th paragraph (well before the line in question):

Urged on by conservative commentators, waves of newly minted activists are turning to once-obscure books and Web sites and discovering a set of ideas long dismissed as the preserve of conspiracy theorists, interviews conducted across the country over several months show. In this view, Mr. Obama and many of his predecessors (including George W. Bush) have deliberately undermined the Constitution and free enterprise for the benefit of a shadowy international network of wealthy elites.

Am I alone in thinking that this paragraph, especially when complemented by the 13th paragraph, provide adequate context for the reader?

Posted by: Tim Peterson at February 23, 2010 4:22 PM | Permalink

Kevin Drum in Mother Jones thinks this post is seriously misguided. Jason Linkins in Huffington Post thinks its dead on.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at February 23, 2010 6:06 PM | Permalink

A Narrative of Impending Tyranny

In fact, the article seems to be a “productive” one in that it has inspired a deeper conversation about the current political movement, and in that sense, I don’t think that the article (or a single line within it) should be read in isolation. It is a keen insight and, hopefully, a launching point for further dialogue.

Posted by: Tim at February 23, 2010 7:19 PM | Permalink

When George W. Bush won re-election, I happened to be in north-central Florida for my mother's funeral. The family visitation was election day. I clearly remember sitting on the porch listening to my relatives discuss why they voted for Bush that day. Repeatedly I heard one or another of them say that they voted, some for the first time in years, because if Gore won, God would forsake this country. Or, if Gore won, we'd witness the final moral downfall of this country. I don't think Gore's people had any idea that such ideas were even being said aloud in places other than where we think white supremacists live.

This trope of impending doom if the 'godless liberals' win an election may not be recent, but it most certainly is fed by our current political climate in which 'opposition' now equals 'evil'.

Thanks for you post!

Posted by: Guy S at February 23, 2010 10:12 PM | Permalink

Re: The title of this post: In what way was Dr. Rosen's notion of reality once present in the press?

Posted by: Daniel Doyle at February 23, 2010 10:31 PM | Permalink

Great to hear from you, Jay. You add:

The part I didn't get to and have been trying to pull into language for a long time can be summarized as follows: when the "quest for innocence" meets asymmetry between the two sides that make for innocence, the result is almost always a distortion of the real. That was supposed to be the final third.

This is why, well more than twenty years after geology, climatology, and environmental studies programs across the globe began teaching global warming as textbook fact, there is any degree of controversy over wether or not it exists.

The press did a tragically lousy job of understanding or explaining that there are not two equal and opposite sides to every story.

The inability to draw distinction between the weight of evidence on one hand and the dearth thereof on the other hand owes to what is the real bias in modern journalism: that the medium itself distorts the message through presentation of both sides as if they are not only opposite, but also equal, even when they are not.

That false equalization doesn't just distort the story in which it appears; it is amplified from story to story until the two asymmetrical contentions become embedded in the larger narrative and perceived by the public as being truly equal.

That does real damage -- as, with global warming, we can see: the ice caps are literally collapsing and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it, because the narrative that it's equally reasonable to believe there is no such thing as global warming as it is to believe (as most experts in the field do) it is real and human-caused has taken nasty, nasty root.

This bias delegitimizes know-somethings.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at February 23, 2010 10:50 PM | Permalink

@Richard B. Simon: "well more than twenty years after geology, climatology, and environmental studies programs across the globe began teaching global warming as textbook fact"


While specialists have learned a great deal about man-made pollution, they still know little of the atmospheric role of natural ecosystems. Such knowledge is important both for understanding current trends and for predicting the consequences of such changes as the large-scale clearing of the Amazon and other rain forests.

''Atmospheric science is a new frontier that requires new ways of thinking, new techniques,'' said Dr. Robert Harriss of NASA. ''We are dealing with a whole new set of issues. There is almost nothing in the textbooks about this.''

Posted by: Tim at February 23, 2010 11:07 PM | Permalink

I couldn't find an Atmospheric Chemistry or Atmospheric Science textbook in the IPCC references. Can you link to a textbook from the late 80s or early 90s that backs up your statement?

Posted by: Tim at February 23, 2010 11:21 PM | Permalink

Sure, Tim. In one of my classes at the time, we used a textbook version of the IPCC Response Strategies.

Climate Change: The IPCC Reponse Strategies. Island Press 1991. ISBN 1-55963-103-1

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at February 24, 2010 12:48 AM | Permalink

@Richard B. Simon,

I'm surprised you didn't link to the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED).

I take it that you stand by the statement, "well more than twenty years after geology, climatology, and environmental studies programs across the globe began teaching global warming as textbook fact".

Posted by: Tim at February 24, 2010 1:14 AM | Permalink

@Richard B. Simon,

I'm quite serious about the question. Environmental education had a high point in the 70s, died off in the 80s, and picked back up in the 90s.

Formal curriculum for environmental education was rare until the late 80s and, as I remember, global warming in textbooks was a mid- to late 1990s curriculum topic.

Posted by: Tim at February 24, 2010 1:58 AM | Permalink

Thanks, Tim.

I'm writing from personal experience. Also, shooting from the hip, just a little bit.

I linked to a textbook I used at a pretty conservative university with a top-notch earth science program in the late 80s, early 90s. I was also reading Lovelock and a few other texts on climate change that, sadly, aren't still on my shelf.

My intended point was that Universities at that time were already teaching global warming as established ("textbook") scientific fact.

Your Times article, BTW, is from page C-1 -- which is another problem. Such stories weren't treated as top news -- but as science stories. Not for general interest.

You omit a few key parts of the quote you cite from 1987. Here it is in a bit more context:

Industrial activities are producing carbon dioxide and other gases that trap heat like a greenhouse, raising the earth's temperature. Scientists believe that man-made chemicals are helping deplete the ozone of the upper atmosphere.

But nature, too, emits and absorbs many compounds, including various ''greenhouse'' gases, ozone, and ozone-destroying compounds. While specialists have learned a great deal about man-made pollution, they still know little of the atmospheric role of natural ecosystems. Such knowledge is important both for understanding current trends and for predicting the consequences of such changes as the large-scale clearing of the Amazon and other rain forests.

''Atmospheric science is a new frontier that requires new ways of thinking, new techniques,'' said Dr. Robert Harriss of NASA. ''We are dealing with a whole new set of issues. There is almost nothing in the textbooks about this.''

The Amazon tests have been made possible now only by the development of new instruments that can measure gases and particles on the smallest scales. For instance, a new laser system devised at NASA is able to picture ozone all the way from the forest to an altitude of 40,000 feet.

In addition, the six-week expedition, which ended May 15, brought together an unusually diverse group of 60 Americans and 90 Brazilians, including geochemists, physicists, biologists and meteorologists, working at 20 different sites. In a gigantic logistical operation, tons of equipment from the United States was moved up the Amazon by ship. Sometimes things simply bogged down when no bulldozer could be found to move heavy gear up the mud roads.

(emphasis added)

What's at issue in 1987 is pretty clearly -- from your article -- not whether or not manmade global warming exists -- that, in 1987, is established fact. The issue in your story is how, exactly, a natural system such as the Amazon functions to regulate climate.

When Harris is quoted as saying "There is almost nothing in the textbooks about this", he appears to not be referring to whether or not the greenhouse effect exists, but how, exactly, the global carbon cycle interacts with a massive forest ecosystem.

Massive-scale deforestation of the Amazon was in progress in 1987; the forest is an enormous storehouse of carbon. These scientists aren't asking whether the greenhouse effect exists on earth in 1987 -- they're asking, if we continue to slash and burn the Amazon at rates then current, to what degree will it exacerbate the greenhouse effect?

In other words, in 1987 -- 23 years ago -- the science is already decidedly beyond "is this happening?" and into "how does this work, exactly?"

So why, twenty years later (to get back on point), are we back at "is this happening"?

Part of the problem is certainly that political operators who are asking, in 2010 "is this happening" -- or insisting that it is not -- are treated in the press as equally expert to, their positions as valid as, those of experts who answered such questions more than two decades ago from within their fields.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at February 24, 2010 3:09 AM | Permalink

Fascinating article and subsequent conversation.

There is a large part of me -- as a native southerner -- that agrees with Robert Morris, that it is an important mission of the NYTimes to help its readers know and understand this phenomenon that is out there in their country without calling them to arms to oppose it (which would probably only further stoke the tea party flames).

That said, when I am confronted with these types asserting impending tyranny -- and they have been around under various guises for years, some are members of my family -- I ask them one question: How has the government oppressed you today? By making you drive on the right? Stop at stop signs? Or something more serious? I have yet to have one of them come up with an answer that in any way justified their fears. The only ones of substance usually have something to do with paying taxes to support things they don't agree with, which the left has complained about for years, of course.

So, I do think this would be a better article if Barstow had asked his subjects that question. I think it would have revealed the fundamental weakness of their foundation without launching some sort of independent attack on it.

That said, I do think it is important for journalists -- all the more so these days -- to "write with authority." This was impressed on me by a colleague from the NYTimes when we were both posted in South AFrica (I was there for the Baltimore Sun). The point he made was that we were not sent there to do he-said-she-said piece, we were sent there to figure out what was going on and tell our readers that (which, I would argue, in no way compromises the ideal of objectivity).

I took that to heart in the remaining decade of my journalism career. I am glad that the correspondent who taught me that is now executive editor of the NYTimes. Because I think it shows in the NYTimes reporting every day. I think it was there in Barstow's piece. But like most every article I have ever read, it could have been better.

Posted by: Michael Hill at February 24, 2010 10:31 AM | Permalink

Thanks, Michael.

"We were sent there to figure out what was going on and tell our readers that."

Okay. Sounds pretty good. At issue is whether, with respect to ...a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny.... Barstow figured out what was going on and told his readers. I say he didn't, with that portion of his account. A possible reason is he ran into the innocence agenda, and it interfered.

Some in this thread are saying, "Readers can figure it out!" Correct me if I'm wrong but that seems to be a different idea from, "We were sent there to figure out what was going on and tell our readers."

Others seems to be suggesting that I wanted Barstow to openly disagree with "impending tyranny" and express in the story how crazy that is, as in.... It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny. Clearly this is nuts...

Actually, that's not what I suggested. I suggested that if Barstow doesn't try to square this narrative of impending tyranny with what he and the Times know from their reporting to be the reality of politics and governance in the United Sates, then they are doing readers a (winking) disservice.

And I suggested that investigating how "they're making me wear a helmet!" or "they're making me get health insurance!" gets transformed into a belief that soon the United States will lose basic freedoms and cease to be part of the free world might have made an excellent investigation far better.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at February 24, 2010 12:47 PM | Permalink

I see both sides of this discussion, Jay's query and what would likely be the reporter/editor's response. But how to explain what it's like for the reader when you read this passage?

At a recent meeting of the Sandpoint Tea Party, Mrs. Stout presided with brisk efficiency until a member interrupted with urgent news. Because of the stimulus bill, he insisted, private medical records were being shipped to federal bureaucrats. A woman said her doctor had told her the same thing. There were gasps of rage. Everyone already viewed health reform as a ruse to control their medical choices and drive them into the grip of insurance conglomerates. Debate erupted. Could state medical authorities intervene? Should they call Congress?
What the hell are they talking about? What in this very specific case is the answer? As a New York Times reader I guess I'm supposed to assume they are mistaken? Is that what "the reader" is supposed to figure out. Or maybe they have a point. Maybe there are some privacy concerns in the new bill. How should I know if they are "crazy" or not?

Posted by: NewsCat at February 24, 2010 1:34 PM | Permalink

“They’re making me wear a helmet!”…“They’re making me get health insurance!”

You trivialize the complaints Barstow cited. If you had paraphrased the Tea Party ideology more seriously…

“They are borrowing trillions of dollars to bail out Wall Street bankers while my neighbors suffer layoffs and evictions and my home value and my retirement savings get wiped out. And the only imaginable way that the government will pay off those trillions in debt is for Federal Reserve to print so much paper money that the value of even what I have left will be wiped out too.”

…the fear that basic freedoms may be eradicated because of the actions of the federal government would not seem so preposterous nor in such need of explication.

If you reread Barstow’s article, I think you will find that it is terror of financial calamity -- not motorcycle helmets or monthly insurance bills -- that inspires the fear of tyranny. It is certainly the recurring nightmare of Glenn Beck and Ron Paul. Those underlying fiscal and monetary policies are, indeed, “the reality of politics and governance in the United States” and are routinely reported as such by The New York Times.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at February 24, 2010 1:42 PM | Permalink

No Andrew. I'm not buying it. This...

“They are borrowing trillions of dollars to bail out Wall Street bankers while my neighbors suffer layoffs and evictions and my home value and my retirement savings get wiped out. And the only imaginable way that the government will pay off those trillions in debt is for Federal Reserve to print so much paper money that the value of even what I have left will be wiped out too.”

.... is an explication for severe economic anxiety, fear of long term decline in wealth and rage at the unequal burden-sharing. It does not shed light on why Tea Partiers think we're on the verge of a tyranny. Its sheds light on why Tea Parties think we're f*cked, economically, and have beeen screwed over by the powers that be.

The helmuts and insurance were mentioned earlier in this thread as concrete examples that make "impending tryanny" more plausible. They may seem trivial to you, but they are at least pointed at the emotion of being tyrannized.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at February 24, 2010 2:22 PM | Permalink

Barstow lays out the progression from financial calamity to tyranny thus: "...hyperinflation, social unrest or even martial law."

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at February 24, 2010 2:27 PM | Permalink

@Richard B. Simon

My intended point was that Universities at that time were already teaching global warming as established ("textbook") scientific fact.

I agree with that. I tried to find the earliest date that the "greenhouse effect" became a scientific concern and found:

Scientists have been serious concerned about the greenhouse effect since 1957 when extensive investigations of the Earth's climate began in what was called the International Geophysical Year.
Such stories weren't treated as top news -- but as science stories. Not for general interest. As I remember, in the late 80s/early 90s, the front page concerns were acid rain and CFC/ozone hole.

When Harris is quoted ... how, exactly, the global carbon cycle interacts with a massive forest ecosystem.

Not how I read it, but I can see that interpretation: "how" the Amazon acts as a carbon sink wasn't a textbook item in Atmospheric Science/Chemistry at the time.

Posted by: Tim at February 24, 2010 6:28 PM | Permalink

Illegal wiretapping, torture and interminable imprisonment of suspects, the redistribution of Americans' incomes to corporations deemed "to big to fail" (not coincidentally also funders and friends to the people in charge), mandated expenditures on personal services (profiting the same people, again), and more haven't been major stories? Those all seem to me to include elements of tyranny ... Your point, especially on he said/she said stories, is valid, but your example is terrible.

Posted by: Three Oranges at February 24, 2010 6:52 PM | Permalink

I see. So when the Tea Partiers Barstow observed spoke of an "impending tyranny" they meant things like illegal wiretapping, torture and indefinite detention of terrorism suspects. Got it.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at February 24, 2010 7:33 PM | Permalink


Tea Party followers are obsessed with privacy rights. They want the government out of their lives. Worried about creeping totalitarian tyranny, they're against Obama's healthcare reform proposal in part because they believe it would grant the feds access to heretofore private medical records. "In New Mexico, Mary Johnson, recording secretary of the Las Cruces Tea Party steering committee, described why she fears the government. She pointed out how much easier it is since Sept. 11 for the government to tap telephones and scour e-mail, bank accounts and library records," reported The New York Times.

Posted by: Tim at February 24, 2010 7:45 PM | Permalink

So your argument isn't that there is no creeping tyranny, just that the Tea Partiers are only mad about Obama's contributions to it?

I can buy that, I guess.

Posted by: Three Oranges at February 24, 2010 10:50 PM | Permalink

Thanks for bringing up these issues, but I'm not sure I agree with the examples you use. My greatest frustration with American journalism is the "savvy" perspective as you put it. I do believe that the news media shape public opinion and political outcomes by analyzing events from the condescending "I-understand-the-subtext" position the moment the event happens. I rarely have time to gauge for myself the meaning of a political event or statement, because some news outlet is doing the thinking for me.

But at the same time you condemn the pervasiveness of the savvy analysis, you complain that Barstow _didn't_ analyze the validity of the Tea Party's fears of impending tyranny... in a news story. Then, you go on to criticize Broder's "thumbs-up" analysis of Sarah Palin's performance despite the fact that he was writing an op-ed column.

It seems to me that both writers got it right for their genres. Broder, though in my view deluded about Palin, has every right to state his opinion of her performance in an op-ed column. And Barstow was doing what, it would seem from the rest of your column, you wish journalists _would_ do in straight news stories: report the news. As an earlier commenter noted, I can gauge for myself whether or not the Tea Party is correct in their fear of impending tyranny; there's ample evidence or lack thereof out there and no shortage of opinions to help me form mine.

Posted by: Maryann at February 25, 2010 9:20 PM | Permalink

How the hell does someone abandon their blog for 10 months and then get 81 comments on the first post?

Make that 82.

Posted by: eoin at February 25, 2010 10:25 PM | Permalink

After reading this article, and all the comments one thing becomes apparent to me. Nowhere in the article or the comments does it mention how during the past eight years of the Bush adm, Progressives,Liberals and Democrats were using the same tyrannical words to describe the Bush adm.

We had convincing evidence and proof, as far as we were concerned that a cabal was taking place right under our eyes. The NSA, wiretapping, torture etc. So when a reporter goes looking for some unbiased purely innocent viewpoint isn't it really an "US" vs "THEM mentality that is driving the reporter to/for the truth? If your team has the ball, that's the side you're rooting for. Even if both teams are in the same league, they still compete in that league and then they ultimately compete against another league. NFC/AFC.

But if both leagues are tyrannical in nature, there is no seperating the tyranny. They are all in the cabal together.

There is no innocence.

Posted by: K.a.m. at February 25, 2010 10:58 PM | Permalink

This just in... a question about the last line of this post from Twitter: why "how the hell did this happen" and not what's to be done?

Because the answer to "what is to be done?" depends on the answer to "how did this happen?" Diagnosis precedes prescription.

My own view is that it's hard to explain how truthtelling became less important than the production of innocence, especially since the producers still think of themselves as truthtellers, first. They would for the most part reject my analysis. I don't think anyone knows exactly how political journalism wound itself into this state.

Look at what George Packer says, “A war or an economic collapse has a reality apart from perceptions, which imposes a pressure on reporters to find it. But for some reason, American political coverage is exempt.” Until we know what that reason is, it's difficult to say what the corrective action would be.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at February 25, 2010 11:23 PM | Permalink

Maryann --

I disagree that Barstow’s article is a straight news story. It is classic feature reporting, functioning as an explainer -- What is this Tea Party anyway? -- sprinkled liberally with human interest vignettes.

It is because of its status as an explainer that Professor Rosen’s question has leverage: if Bartsow is in the business of explaining what this Tea Party is all about, how come he avoided explaining the validity of their raison d’etre? What is the empirical basis for their Narrative of Impending Tyranny?

Rosen argues that the answer to that question is so self-evident -- no, there is no basis to fear impending tyranny -- that Barstow’s failure to stipulate such baselessness constitutes a perfect Exhibit A in his argument about the extents to which main stream journalism will avoid truthtelling in its Quest for Innocence.

It seems he failed to anticipate the objection of many commenters to what seemed to him to be a crystal clear example. Some commenters have no problem perceiving a potential path towards tyranny in the current actions of the federal government and so they disagree with Rosen’s assertion that this is “a fake crisis, a delusion.” There is a second group, to which I subscribe, that has no problem in believing that Tea Party members’ use of the word “tyranny” to describe their anxieties has an understandable basis in their history, demography and ideology. I think that Barstow succeeded in explaining that understanding as a sociological fact.

You, Maryann, seem to me to belong to a third group that has a problem with the premise of Rosen’s question about “how the hell this happened.” You do not believe that in Barstow’s genre of journalism Rosen’s this -- a failure to address empirically whether tyranny is impending -- is a failure that needs to be accounted for.

For my part, I agree with Rosen that it does need to be accounted for. I just argue that Barstow -- in his own way, maybe a way that does not satisfy Rosen -- did not fail to do so.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at February 26, 2010 10:47 AM | Permalink

I'm a fan of Kathy Gill and I try to respect local knowledge but I'm sorry there is no way in hell you are going to persuade me that having to wear a helmet on a chopper equates to, serves as illustration for, or explains in any way a narrative of impending tryanny where the fear is that the United States will very soon no longer be a free country.

Erm. I don't see how it doesn't. Liberty means autonomy; the freedom from arbitrary exercise of authority. In my mind, I see tyranny as an antonym for this.

On the surface, helmet laws may not be the most apt analogy, but it is still valid. It then becomes a game of pushing that example further and then universalize the maxim. Should there be a law that requires me to wear a helmet when I play football at the park? When does my health and safety become my responsibility and not that of someone else. (Though I can see the upside to seatbelt laws - don't want my kids carcuss flying through the back of my seat and possibly causing me harm).

I think the problem a lot of "conservatives" have is that they see the "tyranny" as the government taking care of people when they should take care of themselves. Smoking laws, helmet laws, etc.

I think the idea is that tyranny is a threat to liberty be you republican or democrat, liberal or conservative, or whatever over-ionic label you'd like to use. I'll leave the reality of tyranny to the "experts" in the media. But for the big bad government to fine you if you don't buy and wear a helmet is a bit of a stretch for me. Then again, I'm not well read on the subject.

Personally, I think some of our liberty is in peril, but it's not Obama's fault. It's not Bush's fault either. I blame the lawyers. Everything has to be so PC nowadays that everyone is trying to keep everyone elses feelings from being hurt.

Bah I'm rambling now. I leave you with a quote from

#4753 +(16426)- [X]

The problem with America is stupidity. I'm not saying there should be a capital punishment for stupidity, but why don't we just take the safety labels off of everything and let the problem solve itself?

Posted by: troybob at February 26, 2010 4:58 PM | Permalink

Andrew Tyndall

I agree Barstow's article is a feature, not straight news. I doubt most readers are familiar with different news styles and generally have two categories: news and op/ed.

I disagree that this feature is an explainer. I would categorize it as a color piece with profiles rather than an explainer with human interest vignettes.

I agree with you about the choice/use of rhetoric in terms of "tyranny," "fascism," etc. However, I see Rosen's reaction and push for empirical analysis of the "impending tyranny" claim as a result of the feature being a color piece.

Posted by: Tim at February 26, 2010 6:23 PM | Permalink

The strength of this very fine argument might also be its weakness, Jay. For yes, there is a divergence that happens in "rational news" - the Enlightenment product - between what is conceived of as news, and something else going on, larger, harder to name, measure and deliver. Here it is a divergence between the imaginary story enjoyed by the baggers covered by Barstow, and what you see (and, you argue, the NYT ought to have seen) as the reality.

Let me offer what might not be a perfect analogy, but seems relevant:

Every day that Bush was in office, it was apparent to some that he was not simply stupid, manipulable or incompetent, but "in fact," damaged, possibly insane. Every day the press reported on his actions without articulating that as either a rumor, a possibility, or a fact. It existed as a fact for some of us, but apparently not for others. And the others included all the media that are considered news media in the US.

When society moves into madness, news media basically shrivel into little pellets of dry, irrelevant information.

Posted by: Tom Matrullo at February 26, 2010 6:59 PM | Permalink

CNN Poll: Majority says government a threat to citizens' rights

The survey indicates a partisan divide on the question: only 37 percent of Democrats, 63 percent of Independents and nearly 7 in 10 Republicans say the federal government poses a threat to the rights of Americans.

Posted by: Tim at February 26, 2010 9:30 PM | Permalink

Recognising Post-Democratic Tyranny

Via The Browser a rather lame article by Jay Rosen arguing that journalists in the USA have become so non-judgmental that they are striving for an impossible professional 'innocence' and are just missing the point...

What I dislike is the Rosen logic leap which takes us from where we are today to a banal lumpen Cuba-style tyranny - rigged elections, loss of civil liberties, no more free press, a police state - as if there was nothing in the middle which people should be worried about. Since he defines tyranny in such a banal way, Tea Party people ipso facto must be delusional

His argument is that an accumulation of small annoying things is a kind of tyranny, and so I was being crude by using a standard definition.

Of course what Barstow said he found was people "literally in fear of whether or not the United States of America would continue to be a free country." That sounds like invoking the standard definition to me.

Post is by a former UK diplomat

Posted by: Jay Rosen at March 1, 2010 12:57 PM | Permalink

Can anyone seriously argue we have not lost liberties?

Try erecting a fence or cutting down a tree on your own property on Long Island.

Try to earn, spend, invest, save, or move money without being scrutinized (and usually taxed) by several levels of government.

Try to buy a single round of ammunition in NY.

Try to buy a house, start a business, make a will, get a divorce without a lawyer to navigate you through our massive byzantine legal system.

Try to get an hourly job at GM, or the state of NJ without having union dues removed from your wages.

The "impending tyranny" that many Americans fear is not a sudden Communist takeover. It is a death of a thousand cuts. A slow erosion that blurs the lines that shouldn't be crossed. It is "The Criminalization of Almost Everything" (Gene Healy) that allows those in power to arbitrarily enforce the vast legal system Congress has created.

Posted by: Bram at March 2, 2010 10:20 AM | Permalink

Some of the confusion around the question that Jay raises arises from the inability to distinguish between sincerity of belief and objective truth.

Objective truth is something like, for instance, a mathematical description of gravity. We don't have to prove it every time an orange rolls off a table top. The truth of this formula (really a description of a set of relationships among forces and objects) depends in no way on the sincerity of my belief. If I choose to believe that an invisible elf is responsible for this phenomenon, all the sincerity in the world will not make it true.

It's one thing to say "It is true that an elf makes the orange fall to the floor at a certain rate of acceleration."

It's quite another thing to say, "It is true that I believe an elf makes the orange fall to the floor at a certain rate of acceleration."

Up through at least the 19th century people distinguished between "lying" and "telling a lie," between saying something that was not true when you didn't know it was not true, and saying something that was not true when you did know it was not true. We;ve somehow got it in reverse. In, say, Samuel Johnson's time, whether a thing was true mattered more than whether you believed it; now a lot of people feel that the strength of belief matters at least as much as the objective truth.

We should be wary of this, we should resist it, because we are slobs and don't observe nearly as carefully as we might, and we are often afraid to think or judge for ourselves.

In my observation the inability to distinguish between sincerity of belief and objective truth has the effect of personalizing every disagreement. You tell me you believe that the orange rolls off the table because an invisible elf pushed it. I tell you no, and I am somehow challenging your sincerity, your authenticity, your right to your opinion. So you become even more entrenched in your belief, more willing to make sacrifices for the sake of it, because of your commitment to your sincerity, to standing up for your beliefs. When people take their beliefs in this way, and have them standing in for their real selves, challenging them is like yanking someone's toupee off.

What's needed is not more sincerity but better judgment, comprised of things like a sense of proportion, the ability to admit and correct error, the ability to ask questions, self-awareness that isn't a source of terror and shame. To take for example the difficulty of purchasing ammunition in a crowded city that has been combating gun crime for almost its entire history: this may be factually true, but it makes me wonder about your judgment, your sense of proportion, your ability to put that fact in context with other facts.

The truth needs to be spoken. The truth needs to be stood up for, not because we sincerely believe it but because it helps everyone to calibrate their judgment better.

Something I try to keep in mind when I contemplate people like the teabaggers is that a lot of people are not very good at speaking for themselves. They really do depend on being told how to put their thoughts into words. They are afraid of their own thoughts and feelings, of the solitude that attends thinking for yourself. It is a shameful thing, it puts you outside. They want to hear themselves saying the same things that other people say. This, they imagine, is what competently belonging to the human family feels like. Their education has failed them.

Posted by: Kia at March 4, 2010 12:09 AM | Permalink

"A sense of proportion..." Yes. Thank you.

There is no sense of proportion in claiming that the United State is on the brink of tyranny. When there is no sense of proportion we cannot get our bearings. Journalism, done well, is supposed to permit us to get out bearings.

I don't know who you are, Kia, but you write extremely well.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at March 4, 2010 6:49 PM | Permalink

panopticon: [fixed formatting, please delete previous comment]

Here is a subjective truth:
I think spinach tastes awful.

Here is an objective truth:
Spinach is a vegetable.

Here is something else:
Spinach tastes awful.

If a color-blind person were to say "Spinach is gray" is that a subjective truth? What if everyone was color-blind, would it be an objective truth? Or is the assertion that spinach has a particular color neither objective nor subjective, and yet true?
Rhetorically, this is a sign of weakness, "when I contemplate people like the teabaggers."

Posted by: Tim at March 4, 2010 7:27 PM | Permalink

It Can Happen Here By Joe Conason

Fascist America, in 10 easy steps By Naomi Wolf

Is the U.S. on the Brink of Fascism? By Sara Robinson

Posted by: Tim at March 4, 2010 7:44 PM | Permalink

Since the empirical model of gravity was used as an example of "objective truth," I feel obliged to quote Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity

It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical 'reality,' no less than social 'reality,' is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific 'knowledge,' far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it.

Posted by: Tim at March 4, 2010 8:11 PM | Permalink

If a color-blind person were to say "Spinach is gray" is that a subjective truth? What if everyone was color-blind, would it be an objective truth? Or is the assertion that spinach has a particular color neither objective nor subjective, and yet true?

Have you ever subjectively seen electricity come out of the wall socket, then?

Posted by: Kia at March 4, 2010 9:25 PM | Permalink

Have you ever subjectively seen electricity come out of the wall socket, then?

I have seen many electric arcs. I have seen many people react differently to electric arcs. I have used multimeters (voltmeters/ammeters) to measure ("see") the electric potential at a wall outlet and the flow of electrons (current) to a load. I have taught how to recognize, account for, and "seen" the results of uncertainty in measurements and mistakes.

Does that answer your question?

Posted by: Tim at March 4, 2010 9:58 PM | Permalink

From the Intro