June 14, 2010
Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right: On the Actual Ideology of the American Press
That it's easy to describe the ideology of the press is a point on which the left, the right and the profession of journalism converge. I disagree. I think it's tricky. So tricky, I've had to invent my own language for discussing it.
What is the actual ideology of our political press? There are two camps on this question: one is huge and includes almost everyone who has declared a position. The other is tiny; it includes almost no one. I’m in the tiny camp, not completely alone but— well, there aren’t too many of us. (And if you’re one, raise a hand in the comments.)
The big camp includes everyone who thinks it’s easy to describe the ideology of the political press in the United States. Most on the progressive left, most on the conservative right, and almost all of the people in the press itself think this way. Of course, they would describe that ideology very differently, but that it can be done in a sentence or two… about this they have little doubt.
(Now I’m generalizing here, okay? This means I’m aware that there are exceptions and that I am overlooking certain nuances that divide observers within camps.)
The left says: Look, it’s very simple. The political press ultimately serves the interests of the people who own it— the corporate capitalists, the ones with money and power and “access” to politicians, the people who run things and always have. Those who are unwilling to make peace with this fact don’t make it very far in political journalism.
The right says: Look, it’s very simple. Press coverage reflects the bias of the people who produce it— and they’re liberals! Conservatives who are against abortion, suspicious of gay rights, skeptical about global warming, against the redistribution of wealth and instinctively wary of government regulation don’t make it very far in political journalism.
Look, it’s very simple, our journalists say. The press isn’t on the side of the left or the right. Of course, journalists are human. They have passions, they have interests, they have opinions. But these are irrelevant to the way they define and do their job, which is to find out what’s happening and tell the world about it. Ideologues don’t make it very far in political journalism.
In the puny camp that I’m a part of the first sentence is: This is complicated…
Political journalists are cosmopolitans
For example: If we were able to survey their opinions on the issues that divide left and right, we would undoubtedly find that the people in the political press—the Gang of 500, as Mark Halperin calls them—are much more liberal than the population as a whole. We would also find that they are typical of the population in the cities where they work, which formed the basis for this famous column by Daniel Okrent: Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?
But if we were able to engage our political journalists in a deeper discussion we would also find that most of them are skeptical about changing society in any fundamental way. And they are big believers in the law of unintended consequences. So: liberal or conservative? My answer: it’s complicated. One thing we can definitely say: political journalists are cosmopolitans, and they will see the world through that lens. They may also stop seeing it as a lens, and that’s when it becomes an ideology.
But even if we had an x-ray machine that gave us perfect information about the beliefs of the journalists who report on politics, the ideological drift of the work they produce wouldn’t necessarily match the personal beliefs or voting patterns of the reporters and editors on the beat because there are other factors that intervene between the authors of news accounts and the accounts they author.
Take for instance the way professional journalists try to generate authority and respect among peers, or, to state it negatively, the way they flee opprobrium. Here it is important for them to demonstrate that they are not on anyone’s “team,” or cheerleading for a known position. This puts a premium on stories that embarrass, disrupt, annoy or counter the preferred narrative—the talking points, the party line—of one or both of the sides engaged in political battle. An incentive system like that tends to be an ideological scrambler, which doesn’t mean that it scrambles consistently or symmetrically across political lines. It means what I said earlier… this is complicated.
“True believer,” a term of contempt
Related to the scrambler effect is the delight most reporters take in inconveniencing with reported fact and discomfiting questions those who represent a particular point of view: whether they are office holders, spokespeople, activists, or committed ideologues. Important fact: “True believer” is a universal term of contempt in newsrooms, skeptic a universal term of praise.
Also involved is the one bias most journalists will admit to exhibiting (which doesn’t mean the only bias they have.) I refer to the love of a good story, and the glory of being credited for breaking that story, which causes them to look for revelations that will capture attention, provoke reactions and dominate a given news cycle. (A recent example.) Here is the late David Shaw, media beat reporter for the Los Angeles Times, with a view I’ve heard many times since he expressed it in 1988:
The one thing a journalist prizes above all else in his professional life is a good, juicy story, and most good stories offer bad news -scandal, war, disaster, murder. Most journalists I know would rather write an expose than a flattering profile, regardless of whether their subject is liberal or conservative. That may reveal something unhealthy about journalists’ psyches, but it doesn’t say anything about their partisanship.
Each of these factors cuts different ways in different circumstances. There are ideological implications to all of them. For example: one of the consequences of the contempt for true believers is that street protests and marches aren’t taken very seriously in political journalism. Also, religious leaders getting involved in politics have a huge hurdle to overcome. Third effect: Ironists do better with the press than idealists. None of these things is “neutral.”
Friends on both sides but friend to neither
Ed Henry is CNN’s White House correspondent. In March of 2009, he had a chance to pose a question to President Obama at a White House press conference. In a follow-up he asked why Obama had waited days to express outrage about the bonuses granted to executives at AIG (after a government rescue package that totaled $180 billion.) “Because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak,” Obama said, with some edge in his voice. Henry later gushed about the exchange on CNN.com:
I waited patiently and then decided to pounce with a sharp follow-up. From just a few feet away, I could see in his body language that the normally calm and cool president was perturbed.
But it’s in moments like that we sometimes find out what’s really on a president’s mind. In this case, he’s not happy about the scrutiny on AIG. So he did slap me down a bit.
Anderson Cooper said later half-jokingly that yours truly was “nursing his wounds.”
Even more comical to me was the flood of e-mail I got from Democratic and Republican sources.
Invariably, my Democratic friends tweaked along the lines of “how’d you like the smackdown” because they were pleased the president pushed back.
But my Republican friends hailed me by saying essentially, “Thanks for doing your job— he never answered the question.”
So the exchange was a great political Rorschach: Each party saw their own talking points in the reflection of the back-and-forth.
What do I think? I’ve got no hard feelings toward the president and I assume he feels the same, but I can’t worry about that. I was doing my job — and he was doing his
It delights Ed Henry to provoke these responses. He has produced a moment of theater that gets people “on both sides” (a magic phrase in pro journalism) cheering and jeering. He gets a warm glow from being “slapped down” by Obama because you only get slapped if you ask a tough question, inconveniencing the power holder in his effort to sell the nation on an image of mastery. (“Tough” is another universal term of praise in newsrooms.)
His Democratic friends love it because Obama showed a flash of anger. Take that, Ed! His Republican friends love it because Henry annoyed Obama. Way to go, Ed! Ed loves it because the narcissistic reactions of both sides prove how mature and professional and detached he is: just doing my job, folks. He has friends on both sides but in his mind he is friend to neither. And this is where we must try to locate his ideology.
Moderates, mavericks and pragmatists
Dana Milbank is the Washington Sketch columnist for the Washington Post. To me, Milbank is one the most extreme ideologues in the business. I say that because of lurid passages like this…
On Tuesday, I learned that I am a right-wing hack. I am not a journalist. I am typical of the right wing. I am why newspapers are going broke. I write garbage. I am angry with Barack Obama. I misquote Obama. I am bitter. I am a certified idiot. I am lame. I am a Republican flack.
On Thursday, I realized that I am a media pimp with my lips on Obama’s butt. I am a bleeding-heart liberal who wants nothing more than for the right to fall on its face. I am part of the ObamaMedia. I am pimping for the left. I am carrying water for Obama. Lord, am I an idiot.
I discovered all this from the helpful feedback provided to me in the “reader comments” section at the end of my past four columns on washingtonpost.com
The conceit of Milbank’s column is that he had never read the comments before, but on the advice of an editor he finally went sewer diving. “As a sociological experiment, it was fascinating.” He discovered that everyone’s a bitter ideologue— except him, the columnist who by duty observes the foibles and excesses and pure BS of the hotheaded believers on both sides. What I mean by an “extreme” ideologue, then, is that Milbank is extremely likely to see the world is this hyper-symmetrical and self-congratulatory way.
In political journalism there are almost always two sides, not two-and-a-half, three or four. Inhabitants of the “it’s complicated” camp place a good deal of importance on this maniacal two-ness. The two party system and the journalist’s method of pushing off from both sides to generate authority fit perfectly together. That’s ideological. More from Milbank:
On April 10, I wrote a column about an Obama appearance urging Americans to refinance their mortgages— a fairly gentle piece pointing out that the president sounded like a LendingTree.com pitchman. The comments compared me to Bernard Goldberg and Glenn Beck. One complained that “I gave Bush and the Republicans a pass.”
Actually, a National Review column called me “the most anti-Bush reporter” in the White House press corps, but never mind that. “Uh oh, Milbank,” wrote commenter “farfalle44.” “Now the Obamabots have labeled you an Obama hater— watch out!”
For Thursday’s column, I criticized the “tea party” outside the White House. Conservatives left hundreds of indignant comments—I was an Obama “lap dog” and “licking Obama’s shoes”—but that didn’t buy me credibility with the left.
The man is simply compelled to tell the truth no matter who’s offended by it, so he is popular with neither side— and of course there are always and only two. But in order to keep up this image (for that’s exactly what it is, an image, similar to John McCain’s brand as a “maverick”) Milbank must continually locate “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,” as that bouncy song from the 70s put it.
What this means ideologically is that the people with political sense in press treatment will usually be the moderates, mavericks and “pragmatists,” a word that in political journalism has almost no content beyond, “opposite of true believer… ideologically flexible… not a purist.”
High Broderism and its heirs
This belief—that political sense, as well as reality, as well as the winning strategy in most elections resides in the center, while “the extremes” on both sides are equally extreme, deluded and irresponsible—has come to be called High Broderism, after the famous Washington Post reporter and sage, David Broder, for many years the “dean” of the capital press corps. And since High Broderism is a belief, there are true believers for it within the press corps. But this is one case where fundamentalism is perfectly acceptable.
It’s always been interesting to me that after Broder retired from daily reporting he was given a column on national politics by the Washington Post. It lives in the Post’s opinion section. But as far as I know, Broder has never openly declared any political opinions. (I kind of assume he’s an Eisenhower-style Midwestern Republican, but I don’t know that.) He continues to write as if he has no politics himself, even though he is fully licensed to express his views as a columnist for the op-ed page. What his column is really about, then, is the ideology that is baked into political journalism by years of practicing it at an elite level. (Correction: Broder’s column began well before he retired from reporting.)
One of the purest statements of this ideology came from a leading heir to Broderism: Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek. This is from a November, 2009 column on Sarah Palin as a star in the Republican sky:
What Obama advisers privately refer to as “Palinism” has created a climate of ideological purity inside the GOP. To deviate from the anti-Obama line at all—that is, to acknowledge that politics is the art of compromise—risks the censure of the party. Pure ideologues will argue that this is a good thing; others like, say, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close friend of Palin’s onetime champion John McCain, think differently. Graham was denounced last week by the Charleston County Republican Party for working with Democrats on issues such as climate change; the senator’s office replied by invoking President Reagan’s belief that “elected officials need to find common ground and work together to solve difficult problems.”
Note the contempt for purists, the praise for moderates, and the fuzzy pragmatism that is also called “bipartisanship.” These signify. Meacham goes on:
Reagan realized that movement conservatives like him needed moderate conservatives to win and ultimately to govern. In 1976, in his challenge to President Ford, Reagan announced that he would run with Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker, a Rockefeller Republican. It never came to that, but four years later, in Detroit, Reagan seriously considered only two men for the ticket: Ford and George H.W. Bush, both men from the middle, not the far right, of the Republican Party. It is difficult to imagine the 2012 nominee choosing a more moderate running mate, not least because there are so few moderates left in the GOP. Even those of centrist inclinations are finding it virtually impossible to work with the administration for fear of a backlash from the base.
We have been to this movie before, when the unreconstructed liberals of the fading New Deal–Great Society coalition obstinately refused to acknowledge the reality that America is a center-right nation, and that Democrats who wish to win national elections cannot run on the left. We are at our best as a country when there is something approaching a moderate space in politics. The middle way is not always the right way—far from it. But sometimes it is, and a wise nation should cultivate a political spirit that allows opponents to cooperate without fearing an automatic execution from their core supporters. Who knew that the real rogues in American politics would be the ones who dare to get along?
In Meacham-land “center right” is the right place for politics to be played not because the center-rightists have the best answers to the nation’s problems but because “the reality [is] that America is a center-right nation.” Now we’re near to the beating heart of the ideology that holds our political press together. That is when journalists try to win the argument not by having better arguments but by standing closer to a reality they get to define as more real than your reality.
Trust me on this: If you try to factor in the behaviors I’m describing, you will soon find that we don’t have a ready language for the kind of politics that is operating. What we have is an exhausted critique of media bias. In my own criticism I’ve tried to remedy this. Re-description has therefore been my aim.
Terms that don’t easily scan
So here are some of the key terms in the strange language I’ve had to invent in order to separate myself from the “it’s simple…” camp. My terms don’t scan easily. They have to be explained, which is the whole point of using them.
1. The Church of the Savvy. This is my name for the actual belief system that prevails in political journalism. I’ve been keeping a kind of public notebook on it via my Twitter feed.
Prohibited from joining in political struggles, dedicated to observing what is, regardless of whether it ought to be, the savvy believe that these disciplines afford them a special view of the arena, cured of excess sentiment, useless passon, ideological certitude and other defects of vision that players in the system routinely exhibit. As I wrote on Twitter the other day, “the savvy don’t say: I have a better argument than you… They say: I am closer to reality than you. And more mature.”
Now in order for this belief system to operate effectively, it has to continually position the journalist and his or her observations not as right where others are wrong, or virtuous where others are corrupt, or visionary where others are short-sighted, but as practical, hardheaded, unsentimental, and shrewd where others are didactic, ideological, and dreamy. This is part of what’s so insidious about press savviness: it tries to hog realism to itself.
2. The Quest for Innocence, which is the agenda (I say) the press must continually serve, even as it claims to serve no one’s agenda.
Innocence [is] a determination not to be implicated, enlisted, or seen by the public as involved… 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.
3. Regression to a Phony Mean, an especially dubious practice that is principally about self-protection.
Journalists associate the middle with truth, when there may be no reason to… Writing the news so that it lands somewhere near the “halfway point between the best and the worst that might be said about someone” is not a truthtelling impulse at all, but a refuge-seeking one, and it’s possible that this ritual will distort a given story.
4. The View from Nowhere, the taking of which journalists associate with their claim to legitimacy.
Occupy the reasonable middle between two markers for “vocal critic,” and critics look ridiculous charging you with bias. Their symmetrical existence feels like proof of an underlying hysteria. Their mutually incompatible charges seem to cancel each other out. The minute evidence they marshall even shows a touch of fanaticism. It can’t be that simple, that beautiful, that symmetrical… can it? Temptation says yes.
When you have an obligation to remain outside the arena, it is also tempting to feel above the partisans who are struggling within that arena. (But then where else are they going to struggle?) You learn the attractions of a view from nowhere. The daily gift of detachment keeps giving, until you’re almost “above” anyone who tries to get too political with you, or at least in the middle with the microphone between warring factions. There’s power in that; and where there’s power, there’s attraction.
5. He said, she said journalism, a formation I have been trying to bust up by pushing for more fact checking.
“He said, she said” journalism means…
- There’s a public dispute.
- The dispute makes news.
- No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)
- The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.
- The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.
When these five conditions are met, the genre is in gear.
6. The sphere of deviance. The power to place certain people, causes and ideas within the deviant sphere is one of the most ideological things journalists ever do.
In the sphere of deviance we find “political actors and views which journalists and the political mainstream of society reject as unworthy of being heard.” As in the sphere of consensus, neutrality isn’t the watchword here; journalists maintain order by either keeping the deviant out of the news entirely or identifying it within the news frame as unacceptable, radical, or just plain impossible…
Anyone whose views lie within the sphere of deviance—as defined by journalists—will experience the press as an opponent in the struggle for recognition. If you don’t think separation of church and state is such a good idea; if you do think a single payer system is the way to go; if you dissent from the “lockstep behavior of both major American political parties when it comes to Israel” (Glenn Greenwald) chances are you will never find your views reflected in the news. It’s not that there’s a one-sided debate; there’s no debate
This post is too long, so let’s wrap it up. Consider:
It’s very simple. The press ultimately serves the interests of the people who own it…
It’s very simple. Press coverage reflects the bias of the people who produce it…
It’s very simple. The press isn’t on the side of the left or the right…
This is complicated! You’ve got the Church of the Savvy, The Quest for Innocence, the View from Nowhere, Regression to a Phony Mean, He Said, She Said, the Sphere of Deviance. These form the real ideology of our political press. But we have to study them to understand them well.
You can see, then, why my camp is so tiny.
* * *
Posted by Jay Rosen at June 14, 2010 6:26 PM
There's another complicated answer to the question "What's the ideology of the political press corps?" that starts simply enough: "It's Centrism. Now, let me explain what I mean by that term..."
In order to provide just a bit more on what I mean by "Centrism" the ideology, I'm going to reprint an excerpt from a post of mine at Poli-Lag --the some-time political blog that Jay Ackroyd and I started in 2008-- called "Joe Klein is not your friend":
The entire "liberal media" is not liberal --we know this.
The establishment political press corps' professional ideology, by conviction, or custom, or trade temperament or by simple peer pressure is Centrism.
The problem here is that the national political journos won't admit to an ideology at all, because that violates their "professional objectivity" code. That's why they won't label themselves in mainstream print as such. Movement Conservatives call them "liberals", and they recoil in horror. Adding to the confusion, Centrism is an ideology that fatuously characterizes itself as "pragmatic", "non-ideological" and "moderate". Centrists pride themselves primarily on the national political press corps' claim to authority and Seriousness: an absurd, often reality-denying "objectivity".
Because of this phenomenon, we actual liberals are routinely mystified by this state of affairs. Some of this has to do with our internalizing of the "liberal media" meme, perhaps.
Even the great writers and thinkers among us confuse the issue, by reasoning that Beltway "liberals" are somehow irrationally pretending away an assumed liberalism...
...the reason "Broderian centrism" loudly renounces liberalism, demands "a centrist critique of everything", and then demands ridiculously false "centrist equivalencies as an ideology" is simply because it actually is Centrism, the ideology.
This is why these people habitually distort or ignore facts that contradict their premises, and are disastrously wrong on just about everything of significance...They are ideologues, just as determined in their premises and convictions as any Ayn Rand devotee or Trotskyist.
The main practical characteristic that needs to be understood about Centrism and Centrists is that, if you are in any sense of the word a political activist --even to the extent that you comment on political blogs in your spare moments, or go to your bible-based church a real lot-- they don't like you. That's it in a nutshell: they don't like politically active people trying to control their own government. They don't trust you to make the right decisions that they, the technocrats should be making for you. They trust institutions; they trust themselves. They don't trust you. They don't think that you're up to the job that citizenship in a democracy demands. They think that you should be working and shopping instead.
It also happens to be that professional class Centrists are scared sh*tless by the tent-revivalists, costume survivalists, antebellum Confederacy nostalgists and latter day Know Nothings who make up the Republican base. This is because they're threatened by people and popular movements in general. That's why they love to equate us with the speaking-in-tongues Pentecostals in Sarah Palin's rural Alaskan church. They think that, Left or Right, we're all nuts, and should just be out shopping for more SUV's, like normal, low-information, suburban Americans (whom they empower to ruin our political discourse every four years). You know: the people who let the political class run Washington --who genuinely judge the candidates on "appearing Presidential"? David Broder's store clerk, to whom he chats briefly when he's summering on Nantucket? They like those Americans.
Incredibly, laughably, they call these political in-activists "the Radical Middle", i.e. Centrists, like themselves. That's why they claim special knowledge of what "regular Americans" are really thinking, regardless of the reality of those claims, regardless of available polling data. That's also how the regular attendees of the National Radio-Television Correspondents' Association Dinner can know so much about what goes on in the minds of the customers of any given Applebees. This is why Conventional Wisdom is so bizarrely divorced from reality.
They guard their privilege --including the privilege of inside information on how everything actually works in government and the press-- as tightly as they can. They do so because they believe that they deserve such privilege, that they are entitled to their power. This is why they're so reflexively revolted by the concept of blogging (and commenting). Because of they worship at the altar of institutional power, they respect and even sometimes admire the Right-wing media nutcases who created their own massive (and now established) press/political machine, even whilst fearing and loathing the talk-radio show calling, mouth-breathing carnival marks to whom they condescend in print.
We need to get this through our heads, so that we don't end up letting the Villagers be the perpetually corrupt referees of a game whose rules by right should be decided by us.
I think that, by revealing the political press corps as fundamentally ideological, and by exposing the ideology of "pragmatism" and "realism" for the rank, un-self aware orthodoxy it is, you have gone a long way toward advancing real critique of this constitutionally enumerated profession.
What might be worth examining and considering is what you have left out of the critique: that the professional ideology might possibly be closely aligned with a political equivalent held by the majority of those who now hold an increasingly permanent place of power in the capital, and who are equally interested in maintaining an elite-consensus Sphere of Legitimate Debate.
Which ideology most closely shares appropriations of the language of "pragmatism" and "realism?" What kind of political perspective also prides itself on "post-partisanship" and the transcendence of party politics? What ideology sees itself as an insider, savvy, activists' naivete-rejecting technocratic synthesis, reveling in its otherness to both popular Right and Left? What political faction religiously denies its ideology, and will not willingly name itself as either conservative or liberal? Who are alternately statists and corporatists as it suits them in the accumulation of power? Finally, what self-important, narcissistic group of Beltway ideologues culturally reject accountability, share a cosmopolitan contempt for social conservatism beneath a veneer of respectability for provincial consumption, and a devotion to the maintenance of a nominally adversarial partnership between financial, industry and social elites mediated by themselves?
Those are Centrists, i.e. Third Way centrists, i.e. Lakoff's neo-liberals, i.e. the New Democrat Coalition.
The political and policy equivalent of the Church of the Savvy is the Third Way, Prof. Rosen.
Please note that I'm not asserting that these are identical ideologies, or that a journalists' trade centrist is going to necessarily come to exactly the same conclusions as someone who works at the highest levels for CAP or PPI or the Dole/Daschle/Baker Bipartisan Policy Institute, or the New Democrat Network --just that it's likely.
I think it might be useful if you were to also consider that the professional ideology of the political press corps seems to line up extraordinarily well with that other complex "something else" than Left and Right that just so happens to dominate our politics and our policy in the year 2010.
Please pardon the length of this comment, and thanks so much for reading and considering this, Prof. Rosen.
You asked those of us who see this issue about like you to “raise a hand” in these comments. Here’s mine.
I lost patience with the dominant paradigm a long time ago.
Though we doubtless practiced it more than we needed to through my many years as editor of the Anchorage Daily News, I believed then and later felt confirmed in knowing there was a better way. Left largely to ourselves up in the great white north, we often avoided the curse of savvy in those days, and I’d argue that honest and transparent reporting was a key factor in winning the Alaska Newspaper War.
In the mid-1970s I had left the Daily News within months of winning the Public Service Pulitzer in order to start an alternative weekly paper. A year into that effort, I wrote a long manifesto to my colleagues, encouraging us to abandon the last vestiges of respectable, “savvy” journalism. I have a copy still:
“This newspaper ... has become too goddamned respectable. We have somehow lost track of the original spirit with which it was launched. We’re trying to be all things to all people, to offer ‘responsible’ coverage and find a blend of contents that will satisfy some kind of ‘general readership.’
“That’s nonsense ... If we reduce the Advocate to some kind of mythical common denominator, we’re spitting in the faces of those ‘educated, active and influential readers’ we talk so much about. We’re also saying something pretty degrading about ourselves.
“So, fuck the average reader; he doesn’t exist anyhow, and if he does let him read the (Anchorage) Times. We’re doing something more important and exciting at the Advocate....
“When pressed, we often revert to the formulas that produced exactly the kinds of newspapers we are all running away from: Keep yourself out of the story. Balance criticism with a favorable quote. Be objective. Two sides to every story ...
“From here on out, let’s pull out the stops. If we err, let it be on the side of excess. If we are irresponsible, let’s be irresponsible to something besides our consciences..."
Then I quoted the manifesto we had published in our first edition just about a year before. I am still proud of it more than 30 years later:
“We do not intend ever to view ourselves as part of the establishment. Too often, newspapers confuse their role with that of an official government process. They become weighted down with chains of artificial respectability and become just another cautious, sterile institution.”
Thanks for all these comments. They have made me think.
Mark: "Aren't some elements of society better served by this arrangement than others?" Definitely.
Kid Charles: "Echoing what Mark says above, even if your analysis is valid (and I think it basically is), it does not render the question 'who benefits?' moot." I agree. That is why I was careful to say several times that these are not neutral factors I am discussing.
Robert: " What is the story of Washington? - Is it what happened today or the fact that it no longer serves the people?" I tried to make this very point on Bill Moyers Journal. Watch.
Mayhill: "There is no inherently-historical reason that an English-language newspaper (the New York Times) should continue to be the chronicle of record." ... True. However, I am writing about "our" journalists, the American press, because as a scholar I have studied its belief system and its methods of deriving legitimacy. These would be different for the French press or for Al Jazeera, but before I write about them I should want to make a careful study. From a user's point of view, there is no reason not to rely on foreign providers, and, as you note, they may not feel so foreign.
John: "The notion of the 'political press' infects the non-political press as well, at least based on the journalists I've worked with." I think this is very true. What I call "the savvy" can be seen in many different genres of journalism. I do think political coverage sets the pace. That is why I focus on it.
Chris: "... the belief that journalists, when paired with editors and a printing press, take on some sort of holy quality, unreachable by some guy with a camera phone and an comment." As you suggest, this power and this argument, is waning. Not that journalists don't try it, still. They do.
Stuart: here's another complicated answer to the question "What's the ideology of the political press corps?" that starts simply enough: "It's Centrism. Now, let me explain what I mean by that term..." I think this is a very interesting line of thought. One thing I would add is only hinted at in my essay: political journalists are ironists. Incorporate that and you may really have something!
Matt: "Journalists especially at the most establishment/successful outlets (who are therefore more likely to embody your descriptions) are also the ones most likely to be under attack." This is an extremely important point that I just did not deal with because it would have added 1,000 words. You know how that is. :-)
Anna: "In this post at least, you have done a lot to define what journalism is but little to argue what it should be." True, true.
Howard: Thanks. Fascinating.
Here's the formulation I use for corporate media pundits and reporters: The pundits and reporters tend to be (obviously not much past the majority) socially more liberal than people who live in a southern State. They tend to be more economically conservative than most Americans. On issues of science, they tend to be...dumb.
In other words, they have the political and philosophical views of Jack Welch and any number of corporate executives around the nation.
These people are also acutely aware of what their bosses want, and so fit the profile of middle management of a large corporation. They need no real direction, other than an indirect reminder from time to time.
This leads them to the Narrative that more often supports Republicans ("It's rarely a bad day for Republicans"), the horse-race (which nicely and deftly takes out issues affecting real people), he said/she said (which undermines any true understanding of an issue, or who is telling something quaintly known as the Truth), and defining one's political views more by cultural hot-button issues than economic ones (which is how Clinton and Obama, who despise labor unions, get to be called "liberal"). And on top of that, because most were "Communications" majors, or increasingly coming from the ranks of political consultants, they are far more concerned with parsing words or phrases or telling us about perceptions than nearly anything else. They really don't know the substance of economics, history, sociology, and again, anything relating to science.
Please. This is not a "conspiracy." It is an institution. And institutions have personalities and create patterns over time.
So, Jay, is more right than wrong. But he still wants to deny the reality that the left's critique of the media is far closer to reality than the right's critique. The left critique focuses on the relations of the reporters to powerful economic forces, which does explain much of the culture of the media as well as its function and operations in how it perceives and disseminates information.
It is not much interesting to read someone agreeing with you, so I will focus on where we diverge.
Of the three alternative perceptions listed at the beginning of your post, the one journalists have of themselves (not on any side) is probably most accurate for most prominent members of the media (Fox news aside). Note that does not rule out what you label as the liberal view that media serves corporate interests (as another comment already said). It does rule out what you describe as the conservative view that media elites have a liberal bias.
Note also that the liberal view and the conservative view seek to give a cause for what comes from the media: “journalists do what they do because they serve corporatism;” “journalists do what they do because they have a liberal bias.” The self view just describes the situation: “journalists have no side,” but not “the reason why journalists have no side is….”
Your post does more than describe the journalists’ “ideology” as you see it, it also reflects it. As I read your post, it seems your comments, albeit perhaps unwillingly, support the view journalists have of themselves (not on any side). Your description simply describes a journalist not on anyones side. You marginalize the liberal view and the conservative view as simple. While I understand it was not your purpose to discuss liberal or conservative motivations for why they think what they do about the media (and that is assuming you have characterized the substance of those views accurately), labeling them “simple” forecloses any further consideration.
Imagine a commenter responding, “I do think journalists serve corporatism.” Just a liberal simpleton, right? Imagine a commenter responding, “Hey, you admit the media is more liberal than the public. Are you saying that doesn’t affect their reporting? Come on!” Just another conservative simpleton, right?
You have to start, I think, with the question of whether what you are describing is an ideology, or whether it reflects some relatively simple cause(s) that produce the phenomena you describe. What you describe may seem complex, but you have jumped from “because” to “this is how it is.” A case could be made that all you describe is the result of self-interest, as simple as that may sound.
The next question is whether the question you did ask, and the way you go about answering it, is substantially isomorphic with the ideology you seek to uncover.
Evan Harper: "You've rapped the press for casting themselves as savvy, nuanced pragmatists, immune to the mad excesses of the partisan ideologues flanking them on both left and right. But didn't you open the article by... casting your view as savvy, nuanced, and immune to the partisan ideologues attacking the media from both left and right?"
Well, I thought about this as I was composing my piece. Here are four reasons that I don't think I am doing what I'm critiquing.
1. I opened my article by distancing myself from three views, not two: the left, the right and the press. There's no both sides here, with the truthteller in the middle. That isn't a structural feature of the post, but it is a structure I analyze in the post.
2. Nor do I present myself as position-less. In fact, what I say is: these three views are over there, and I am over here, disagreeing with them, and here's why. Is that what Dana Milbank did in his column? No, it isn't.
3. I do not present myself as someone who has no politics himself, no perspective on journalism that I am standing up for. You can read my FAQ and disclosure statement to see what I mean. I specifically disavow the View from Nowhere. Do you know of anyone in the Church of the Savvy who has a statement like that? Got a url?
4. I don't think of my post here as anything but an argument for a view that I hold-- "this is more complicated than you think..." It is an attempt to persuade you, a work of rhetoric. It is not simply an account of reality, although I think my argument corresponds to observable facts and in that sense is a better account of reality than other arguments.
Finally, Evan... If by savvy you mean: trying to see clearly, without illusion and with a nuanced perspective, okay, then I am trying to be savvy in that sense. But that is not what I mean by the "church" of the savvy. Cheers.
Thank you for this excellent material towards an analysis of the pathologies of many of our journalists.
It made me recall some proverbial hints in this direction by past thoughtful observers:
"A journalist is someone who hasn't paid for his own drinks in 20 years." Norman Mailer (who was called the best journalist in America for a long time)
Johnny Apple's famous expense accounts.
Scotty Reston's scoops, which came from occupying the exact same space as those whom he covered: same table in the restaurant, same seat in the limousine.
The way to become the editor of the college newspaper: by using exactly the same skills you use to become president of any college club or fraternity. The transition to the Times or the Post is seamless.
I think of your point about them as ironists and savvy-worshippers in terms of their being fatalists and vitalists: fatalists about anyone's ability to change society's iron cage (which turns into the protective ideology of objectivity) and vitalists in their unconscious appetite for the doings of the powerful (and for food and drink and money--Apple again, Milbank, Maureen Dowd). They are preeminently appetitive: "Oh show me the way to the next whiskey bar," said Brecht in his description of the type.
I think we could learn a lot too by a Maslow-type approach: analyzing the frames of mind of the truly healthy, exemplary journalists still practicing; learning from the healthy as much or more as from the sick.
In no particular order, Charlie Savage, Warren Olney, Daniel Zwerdling, Linda Greenhouse. They all have in common a focus on the event--on trying to find, without prejudice and from all possible sources, a more adequate explanation of some significant thing that has happened to us all.
Their reporting is deeply social, the opposite of the personal, narcissistic reporting of the journalistic whiz kids.
Why are those reporters lesser lights? (In the sense that Warren Olney, who would be the best possible host of Meet the Press, will never get that job: only a David Gregory gets that job.)
I think that the answer to that question is where you have to cross over into the realm of analysis where studying the influence of capital and power has the best answers: the false consciousness of industrial society has an endless need for tools (the human type, I mean) to advance its aims in opposition to the needs of human persons.
Mose Allison said it best, I think: social conflict always comes down to "somebody's money against somebody else's life."
I think that summation brings us through your embrace of a complex analysis of journalistic consciousness, which is just and fair, but then out the other side to a new simplicity: we live under an oligarchy that will do anything to sustain itself; that fact and their power produces those sorts of consciousness (not only in journalists: in financial analysts, tenured professors, car salesmen, you name it!). Doesn't your analysis fit comfortably under that rubric?
Fine post/article, Prof. Rosen--Thanks for trying to appropriately complicate the issue of press ideology. I hope you will publish your argument, or an expanded version, outside of this blog, for the widest possible audience.
Press history--especially British press history, which I know a bit more about--might be a good place to look for corroboration of your larger point. I've been working a bit on the idea that press ideology is partly a function of the pressures and limits imposed by the small set of genre forms available to working journalists at any given historical moment. Journalism has always had the disadvantage that all its forms have to be producible on very short deadlines, easily aquirable by novice journalists, and easily readable by not-terribly-attentive readers.
This has always (in 1800, 1850, 1880 as well as today) meant that they must be built of a lot of prefab and stock materials, and rely on a relatively few good tricks combined with a host of workarounds and shortcuts, intellectual and discursive. When the genre is a relatively recent invention (the authoritative newspaper editorial in 1850, the interview in 1870, the multiple-anonymous-source political story in 1972) its built-in weaknesses matter less--the new form seems mysterious and powerful because people aren't sure yet of all it can do.
Given enough time and motivation, however, the discourses that always compete with journalism--political, commercial, religious--necessarily figure out the key weaknesses of the current set of journalism genres and learn to exploit them, basically pulling the teeth of any journalists who cling to that set of forms. The London Times could use the relatively new "leader" editorial article to bring down a British government in 1855, but twenty years later many of the classic leading article's moves had become cliches, and leader-writers wielded much less power.
In the same way, modern political coverage has been badly weakened partly because political operatives have become so good at manipulating journalistic ideals such as objectivity, and exploiting time-saving shortcuts such as quote-fact equivalence (the practice of treating the words of a partisan source, however dubious, as if they had a status equivalent to that of a fact).
To me, all this suggests that the forms and genres in which journalists write are a bit like antibiotics. Only new ones are powerful--the longer a form has been around, the more successfully antagonist forms will have adapted to counter them. This is why I get a impatient when old-salt journalists write their perennial articles calling on journalism to return to its supposed roots. Journalism has never gotten anywhere by keeping or rebooting older forms and practices. Journalism has only ever become or stayed powerful by continually reinventing its own discourse.
That's a spot-on analysis. I do agree that, if the mainstream press can be said to have any ideology, it is that of a "tough, skeptical, cosmopolitan centrism."
I think there should be a distinction, however, between real centrism and faux centrism.
Real centrism is defined by an openness to arguments that contradict what has become known as either "liberal" or "conservative" conventional wisdom. The Obama administration is clearly centrist in this way. They anger liberals by, for only a few examples: disagreeing with teachers' unions, undermining a health care public option, continuing much of the Bush-era approach to military prisons and executive power, and arguing that there should be studies done before the military embraces DADT. Then they anger conservatives by, for instance, calling the Arizona immigration law misguided, promoting clean energy and mass transit projects, pushing through fiscal stimulus and raising taxes on the wealthy, etc.
However, the press is mired in faux centrism. Actual policy debates are over their heads, for the most part. Faux centrism is marked by a naive -- or possibly cynical and self-promoting -- belief that official sources from both major political parties are engaged in a valid, reality-based exchange of substantive ideas. That, of course, is not true. There is one entire segment of this supposed dialogue -- the Republican Party -- that has completely bowed out. Essentially none of these peoples' arguments are based in fact. Rather, they are engaged in a wholesale attempt to mislead the public on a whole host of issues, and to justify their followers' need to cling tightly to an array of erroneous opinions.
So the reason the mainstream press in America is in such a bad state is that most journalists mistakenly equate real centrism with a phony, rhetorical version of the idea that "opinions on the shape of the earth differ." There is a legitimate place in our political discourse for real centrism. The needs of the working classes and the proper functioning of our banking system, for example, do not need to be mutually exclusive priorities. However, in the looking-glass world of corporate journalism (CNN, talk radio -- including NPR, which is often wrongly called a liberal radio station, when in reality it is as overwhelmingly critical of Obama as many corporate news outlets are --, Time, Newsweek, even sometimes in more serious publications like the New York Times and BusinessWeek), the political debate shapes itself around the arguments put forth by both Democrats and Republicans, *not* around factual substance.
Anyone who has paid attention to the press narrative over the course of Obama's first year and a half in office has to be struck by how often the mainstream press simply gets the facts wrong. They continue to portray the bank bailouts as an entirely negative thing, and never mention the fact that much of the bailout money is being paid back, or that, if the big banks had frozen up, the recession would have been much worse. They continue to overstate the danger posed by our budget deficit. They describe cutting out government giveaways to pharmaceutical companies and health-care providers with the cookie-cutter phrase "cuts to your Medicare." They foster uncertainty over the established scientific consensus regarding climate change, and also disparage cap & trade as too unwieldy while at the same time balking at the idea of a straight tax on carbon. They have some cockamamie notion that the president can magically swoop into Louisiana and single-handedly shut off the oil valves a mile deep in the ocean. The list goes on and on.
There should be a centrist element to policy-making. This goes all the way back to the Federalist Papers. National policy requires some degree of expertise that must transcend partisan clamoring. However, the American political press does not promote this sort of agenda. Rather, its centrism has to do with giving equal credence to both sides' arguments, and then "letting the reader or viewer make up his own mind." This pretense is patently ridiculous, and is one reason why the press is insulated from ever having to face consequences for their loose handling of the facts. As another reader mentioned, if they worked in most other types of industries, many journalists would have been fired already.
Good article, but a few quibbles regarding "Terms that don’t easily scan":
1 Your #6, "The sphere of deviance," is sooo close to being spot on. IMHO the more salient MSM function is the construction of (for want of a better phrase) "the sphere of acceptable discourse" ... which made me wonder, "where have I heard this before?" And then I remembered: "Manufacturing Consent." Assuming you've read it (no?), I'd say, props to Chomsky and Herman are in order.
2 I'd add, "7. The New Objectivity." You tangent this in your #5: "No real attempt is made to assess [truth value of] claims in [a he-said-she-said] story." Once upon a time, "objectivity" meant, even in journalism, the activity of comparing a claim to "objective reality" (admittedly, as one perceives it) to assess the truth-value of said claim. But the new MSM "objectivity" means the activity of "getting quotes from (nearly) both ends of some diameter of the sphere of acceptable discourse." I suspect the New Objectity stems from 3 main sources:
2.1 Getting quotes from somewhat opposed ends of the sphere of acceptable discourse implicitly reinforces the bounds of the sphere of acceptable discourse, which is the main event.
2.2 Economics: to get a quote is usually more "productive" (i.e. cheaper, easier, faster) than assessing truth-value (which often requires research).
2.3 Abandoning the Old Objectivity allows one to spout superficial, (Fritjof-) Capra-esque twaddle as:
Robert Paterson June 14, 2010 8:54 PM: "Quantum [mechanics] reminds us that there can be no objectivity - the act of observation changes the result. To be neutral as a journalist is a lie - all that we do and say is affected by our POV."
This is, as anyone with a modicum of physics knows, hopeless bullshit. We don't live at quantum scale, we live at macro scale. Even at quantum scale, one can make objectively valid claims (e.g. regarding the momentum of a particle) with bounded error. (One cannot make bounded claims regarding *both* of some pairs of properties, notably momentum and position.) At macro scale, we daily make tons'o'objectively valid claims regarding lotsa stuff (is it raining outside? how could one know?), and the relatively minor effects of POV can be bounded by social conventions, like reproducing results. But the New Objectivity is propounded mostly by folks who failed basic calculus and physics, and thus, as Krugman stated, have no problem headlining "Opinions Differ on Shape of Earth" should some politician assert our planet is literally flat.
While on this rant, allow me to further note that, just as the fact of the progressivity of engineering (i.e. we can make things better/cheaper than we could N years ago, subject to the Profit Motive) kneecaps the Dancing Wu Li Masters, that fact also demolishes "[your oppressed group here]ist Science":
cate June 15, 2010 2:54 PM "the best discussion of the view from nowhere comes from Sandra Harding, in her book "Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?," which critiques objectivity from a feminist perspective."
The feminist perspective on objectivity can be morally illuminating, but it's useless empirically: can one name a good or service that is better produced with "feminist engineering"?
Anyway, thanks for thinking! Tom Roche [Tom_Roche@pobox.com]
You're forgetting the most important factor in this discussion, and that's the issue of money.
Everything basically comes down to money.
Ratings are key, and with newspapers and magazines failing nationwide, the dialogue has become more sensationalized, more focused on the fringe and the crank element of society.
We must never forget the old adage "No news is good news". News is about relating problems, crises, death, violence, conflict and disasters to the masses.
In that respect, it can be seen as a tool of those in power (Congress & Corporations), imbuing fear and calm simultaneously to soothe the masses and keep them glued to their tv screens, or the internet.
We can't pretend that Congress isn't owned by corporations through lobbying money, and we can't pretend that the very revenue stream for news organizations isn't reliant on those same corporations. To go against that and report the story behind the story - ie where the money is flowing from and to, and how that influences every news item, every decision made about what to report, and every piece of legislation passed or proposed, is to in essence ignore the constructs of our 'so-called' democracy.
We can't pretend that the press doesn't play the game of distraction, delving into trivial minutiae, ignoring the broader issues that are never seriously debated, never moving past the premise that the democratic structure is somehow acceptable, when every member of Congress is merely a conduit to corporate lawyers, letting lobbyists write bills.
How can you pre-suppose that the members of the press are mostly liberal, or that they don't represent the majority view, when the policies of both parties have moved so far to the right over the last 3 decades.
If we look at a chart of politics in the US, as compared to other Western democracies, both parties in the US are on the right.
If we look at the policies of Nixon in comparison to the current administration, we see that Nixon was indeed more liberal.
To ignore this shift, to ignore the revenue stream, to ignore the affirmation from the press that the current political system in the US is even close to democratic or has a left or right slant, is ignoring reality.
Both parties are two sides of the same coin. One party must fight the other and use wedge issues to elicit an emotional reaction from their base to motivate them to vote. From the far right (the GOP), we see the issues of abortion, taxes, gays, god, and guns, as the tools of manipulation. From the moderate right (DNC) we see the issues of healthcare, immigration, abortion, gay rights, welfare, education. These are mostly social issues, rather than economic, and therefore they remain trivial and meaningless when both parties continue to take corporate dollars, in return for doling out taxpayer dollars to those same corporations, through earmarks and huge spending bills.
Politics in the US, is no more than a game that both parties play so they can have control of the taxpayer revenue, not so they can enact their ideologies. Their ideologies are the means of manipulation for each side, who are unable to see past that to the truth of our corporate hegemony disguised as a Republic.
The press (left and right) is complicit in this shell game, which is nothing more than a con on the public.
Unless one questions the philosophical ideas versus the reality of the current construct of society; which is wealth extraction for a few through exploitation of labor and resources, the purpose of the press and journalism is still propaganda, even when they report "facts" without bias or emotive language.
That is when journalists try to win the argument not by having better arguments but by standing closer to a reality they get to define as more real than your reality.
Sharp stuff. I've written more in-depth pieces elsewhere, but basically, I find anthropology often explains the failures of Beltway journalists best. For them, the truth is socially rather than empirically determined. Someone like Richard Cohen doesn't really think, reflect or analyze, and rarely researches anything – he just represents a set of attitudes common - and self-evident - to his particular class. "Conventional wisdom" isn't so bad as a starting point, as long as one does research and is willing (or eager) to re-evaluate.
But the Beltway crowd doesn't do this, and their "conventional wisdom" is almost always wrong, in large part because it skews to the dynamics you describe. Whatever their voting habits, most Beltway journalists are establishmentarian, and functionally conservative in this sense. Many in the older set seem to be Reagan Democrats, or at least think this is the norm, and think it's "real America" – the Meacham "center-right" passage is very much in this vein.
With Broder, Milbank and others, I think they arrived at a master narrative of politics years ago, and it's just ossified – or they just impose it on everything. Broder almost never considers the actual consequences of policies, that these actually matter, and that political sides can have important differences. Even after the Bush years, he's somehow rarely noticed that the Eisenhower Republicans are almost non-existent in office or have become Democrats. He's somehow missed the major dynamics of the era, even though he's paid to cover politics - movement conservatives have little interest in competent governance.
Some old-school conservatives critique this as well as liberals, but for Broder, even the most pragmatic, reality-based critique of conservatism is "partisan" – he ignores content, and sometimes even the source, and only notes the target. (As far as I've seen, his pleas for "bipartisanship" and accommodation almost always cut in one direction, but perhaps that's because Broder still thinks Reagan and Tip O'Neill, or Eisenhower, are running the government.)
Additionally, there are commercial incentives for "he said-she said" journalism, a lack of fact-checking, and a reluctance to call BS. I agree it's complicated, but I do find the sharper liberal bloggers/commentators describe more of that complexity, in addition to the corporate critique (which has some merit).
Great post, Jay -- and your comments about the comments helped me finish the over-hour long thread.
There are 4 factual truths about any political question of my-side, other-side: facts that support me (my argument), facts that hurt the other; facts that hurt me, facts that support the other.
The bias in the press is based on (usually) accurately but incompletely focusing on facts that support their desired policy and facts against those they disagree with.
Everyone's entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. But facts don't answer the question: What is to be done?
Rush L & Glenn B. bring up more facts that Leftists don't like; and then make conclusions Leftists disagree with (from my limited exposure).
@Bruce's analysis of comments matched my own anti-Left thoughts.
Corporations want folks to be consumers -- the Big Lie about advertising is that buying one piece of junk or another is NOT going to make you happy. Journos just reflect this Corporatist (not Conservative) view. It's the Left that wants to wrongly equate Conservatives with Corporatists.
The Press wants, in general Big Good Government. But that's about as likely as the cosmopolitan sexual ideal of Responsible Promiscuity -- ain't gonna happen.
The Tea Party folk mostly want smaller gov't, but also less promiscuity. Most Republicans, once elected, are more successful at increasing gov't than in decreasing it, and pols need to be successful even more than journos.
Which 5 year period was most important in Indo-China: '64-'68, '69-'73, '74-'78? From the '73 Peace Accords thru the Killing Fields baby boomer accepted (supported?) commie genocide to '78, it was the third. But Leftist US news did not report the facts of civilians being killed by the hundreds and hundreds of thousands.
But yes, local gov't Facts are the "killer app" for news, but its so unglamorous.
What Should Political Journalists Do?
Five quick ideas…
Get Smaller Political journalism occupies too big a slice of the overall newshole, especially on the cable news channels. There are plenty of issues where the political angle is overemphasized or introduced too early, before the underlying policy options have been properly examined. Think of healthcare or immigration or offshore oil. Politics sucks the oxygen out of policy.
Triangulate No, not in the Morris-Clinton sense. But as an exercise in avoiding the urge to shoehorn every debate into a right-vs-left binary, try to find three opposing points of view on each issue. For example, what if the politics of the General Motors bankruptcy had been reported as laissez-faire free marketers vs pro-labor interventionists vs anti-auto public transit greens. The story would have been easier to cover as a public policy debate, less as a winners-and-losers political struggle.
Observe the Separation of Powers Political life does not center around the White House and political events should not be judged, first and foremost, on whether they are positive or negative for the President. Observing the separation of powers does not only mean giving more time to Congress, even though that is an undercovered branch It also means recognizing Cabinet Secretaries, lobbying interests, permanent bureaucracies, think tanks and so on as autonomous political players.
Comprehensiveness Remember that the Overton Window is constantly in motion, contracting, expanding and scanning around the edges. There is a diversity of political players constantly jockeying for attention. The Tea Party is Exhibit A for the idea that once-deviant ideas make for provocative copy. The coalition components of the two main political parties are especially illuminating. We get more of the flavor of the diversity of the body politic when we hear of power struggles and ideological fissures within each party than straight-up contests between them.
Be Savvy about the Savvy Needless to say, electoral politics is an indispensible part of the beat. So the overused question of how any given event or dispute affects the electoral prospects of the players involved cannot be ignored. Obviously, the usual cast of characters -- the operatives, the strategists, the pollsters, the party organizers -- have to be consulted. But they also have to be checked. The academic profession of political science is an underused resource by political journalists. Spin and conventional wisdom needs to be factchecked. 538.com leads the way in being savvy about the savvy.
As someone who has hung around too many journalists for too long, I believe you are confusingg the image of how journalists see themselves or rather how they rationalise their job, with the rather more simple and straightforward issue of how biased their work product actually is.
Of course journalists don't see themselves as right wing apologists, they imagine their 'jaundiced view' of the world comes through their work so well that they don't have any bias at all in their reporting.
The trouble with that angle is it regards the journo as a single all powerful presence in the media, when in fact he she is just a cog in a much larger machine.
The sub editor frequntly determines the political bias of a story far more than a journalist does because the subbie picks the headline, moves the pars around so an expose can end up being an excuser - just because the subbie led off with the bits from the target where he/she explained him/herself and moved the accusation or heinous crime, down to the bottom of the story. Now those who wade through that far will no longer be able to gather any outrage overthe issue because they have already heard the seemingly reasonable 'explanation'.
Of course the subbie doesn't have the power in room the editors do, they get to pick the stories every morning and they set the target the journo turns his self deluded world weary eye upon.
"Lets do politicians expenses today" It seems like an innocuous bi partisan sort of thing but whether it is or not depends completely upon the stage in the electoral cycle of the pols concerned and the political stripe of the incumbents.
No it shouldn't matter and wouldn't if the media exposed the shenanigans of all governments but they don't .
Issues like pols expenses are driven downstairs when those upstairs have decided they have had enough of the 'current mob' most usually the upstairs types have had enough when the 'current mob' are concerning themselves with people that aren't from the same socio-economic slice as the 'people upstairs'.
i.e. when the pols don't put the interests of the upper middle class ahead of everyone else.
And that is only the journos who have convinced themselves they are doing the right thing. That segment are getting fairly thin on the ground in the media I access, mostly the new breed of journos is as celebrity obsessed as their readers. However they only go after the weak celebrity.
Going after a celebrity with power is considered foolish because it jeopardises a potential long term news source.
Consequently female or unwhite celebrities are far more likely to have unproven or poorly sourced stories published about them than rich white male famous persons.
The same rules apply with these so-called sceptical world weary journos if they have to do a story on institutional malfeasance.
The institutions which hold the interest of the citizens ( chiefly law enforcement or health industry just like the soap operas) are major news sources and only stories that are cast iron will ever reach the light of day and, it isn't unheard of for journos to tip off such institutions about a story before it is fully prepared. That means the institution gets to cover up in time.
I could go on for hours about journos who have leaked their 'one off sources' to regular news sources causing dismissal or arrest.
Journos who don't understand the meaning of objectivity, journos who will reprint a press release unchecked and unverified but who would never take a poor person at their word - if the other side has a couple of slimy liars they give more weight to the liars. etc etc.
Journalism is completely 100% a service of corporate capitalism and the few exceptions don't in the slightest disturb the media's role as an apologist for corporate capitalism, they never will.
All this rationalisation and excusing of the crimes intelligent communicators commit upon the people who buy their work would be better spent analysing the current strategies being used to close down any alternative viewpoints deemed contrary to the interests of corporate amerika.
Try running a web site that holds views contrary to the 'center right'. You'll quickly find that Paypal has blacklisted you so anyone who wants to subscribe or help cover costs has to jump through many more hoops than those who want to support the 'noble lies'.
this stuff works because people get worn down.
Taking journos out of a huge well oiled machine of uniform deceit and excusing them on the grounds f cynicism isn't only disingenuous, it misses the point.
Any single role in the machine can easily be excused as 'confused but well meaning' but that tells us nothing. It is the whole machine which needs to be stripped bare and analysed.