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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

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

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 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   Print


I'm with you. I think of the ideology of the press as the ideology of The Narrative. You've captured the essentials of The Narrative (exactly 2 sides, with the press as the off-screen narrator of the story, the disembodied voice, not exactly omniscient, but above, outside, and the referee of the fray).

The thing that amuses/perturbs me the most is that the ideology of the press blinds them to the most blatant manipulations by the actors in the story the press thinks it is telling.

Posted by: William Ockham [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 14, 2010 7:06 PM | Permalink

Aren't some elements of society better served by this arrangement than others? Ultimately, if corporate interests are served and working people's are not, how does that skew things? Given that the dynamics you write about so compellingly are almost guaranteed not to change as long as those interests continue to be served, doesn't that render your arguments academic?

Posted by: Mark at June 14, 2010 7:28 PM | Permalink

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 think the dynamics you outline in your post tend to favor those already in power. "Sphere of Deviance" does so by definition. "Regression to a Phony Mean," "The View from Nowhere," and "He Said/She Said" all empower the "middle" which is of course, "Conventional Wisdom" which is of course the ruling ideology. "Church of the Savvy" worships political winners, who are, again, those in power by definition. These narratives prop up power and both reflect and reinforce the bipartisan crony capitalism we are mired in. Hopefully that isn't too simplistic for you. ;)

Posted by: Kid Charles at June 14, 2010 8:29 PM | Permalink

You have nailed it Jay.

Black/White - Right/Left etc are all part of a world view that sees the world as simple or at best complicated - where there is a "right" path.

But we live in a complex world now - where the path can only emerge from a large conversation - where the path is not a point but a broad range of probability - it's like the Quantum world.

Quantum 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.

So this model might have been OK for a more simple world but it makes the world we live in worse.

Worse - the pretense of objectivity hides the great stories of our time - What is the story of Washington? - Is it what happened today or the fact that it no longer serves the people? Is the really 2 sides to climate? Is Peak Oil really only one of many theories? Are we really facing a major threat of terror? Is it really OK that we don't know what is happening in the Gulf?

Our world is surely very complex - I am in Jay's small camp. I long for an approach to what is going on that accepts this as the truth of our time.

Posted by: Robert Paterson [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 14, 2010 8:54 PM | Permalink

Your phrase "our journalists" points to an aspect of reportage that interests me. There is no inherently-historical reason that an English-language newspaper (the New York Times) should continue to be the chronicle of record. Like many enquiring minds, I feel quite sure, I no longer look just (or even primarily) to American journalism for news reporting. Your disquisition, Jay, reveals how blinkered and even parochial our fourth estate has become. This state of affairs is all the more troubling because waiting in the wings is (among others) Al Jazeera, which troubles itself not at all about innocence, the savvy and any mean point whatsoever.

Posted by: Mayhill Fowler at June 14, 2010 9:17 PM | Permalink

You lost me at the Israel part. Otherwise lots of sense.

Posted by: Ira Stoll at June 14, 2010 9:33 PM | Permalink

I really resent you for being so damn smart. ;-)

The only thing I would add is that the notion of the "political press" infects the non-political press as well, at least based on the journalists I've worked with.

I suspect this is because the political press is the one that gets the most column inches, the most radio play, the most television shows -- the most attention. And the attention is a nourishing feedback loop for the Church of the Savvy.

Political journalism is apparently the practice to which most, if not all, journalists must aspire if they're to be admitted to the Church and the rest of the ideology.

So now the hard part: What does journalism look like outside this realm?

Posted by: John Proffitt at June 14, 2010 9:47 PM | Permalink

One of the great complications within the View From Nowhere and Quest For Innocence is accounting for political journalism that:

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's not just the Sky Box, but the Sky Box with benefits.

Posted by: Tim at June 14, 2010 9:54 PM | Permalink

I also think this response to a previous comment applies:

Strategist for a presidential campaign? I'd say at least 200 hands would shoot up. Reporters identify with those guys -- the behind-the-scenes message senders -- and they cultivate the same knowledge.

Posted by: Tim at June 14, 2010 10:12 PM | Permalink


Ah, the Codex! Great piece and I'm with you on all of it.

One thing I don't think you address is the Orthodoxy of Journalism --- that newspaper press in particular see the role of the journalist as gatekeeper, and more importantly, that journalism is a profession instead of an act.

This implies that "civilians" (or commenters, bloggers, twitterers and other riff raff) are inherently suspect and whose output is somehow unworthy. This is increasingly harder to pull off, but you can see this in the bashing of Arrington when he reports (often correct) rumors, and is savaged by your mainstream types. Or when paying for a story a la Gawker somehow tarnishes the scoop (with photos mind you)

Essentially, 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.

Posted by: Chris Tolles at June 14, 2010 10:22 PM | Permalink

Prof. Rosen:

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.

Posted by: Stuart Zechman at June 14, 2010 10:42 PM | Permalink

This, I think, is the most important point in a post that had many:

The power to place certain people, causes and ideas within the deviant sphere is one of the most ideological things journalists ever do.

To which I would only add, "and is one of the things they do that they're least conscious of as being significant, let alone ideological."

One other point maybe worth pondering -- 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. The journalists most under attack are the ones most likely to be defensive, and one of their first lines of defense is to point out that their critics do not share their own professional standards of impartial truth-telling. Which is a way of ignoring legitimate criticism, and perpetuating the cycle of misunderstanding.

Posted by: Matt Welch at June 14, 2010 10:50 PM | Permalink

Correction: I posted "Bipartisan Policy Institute" when I mean to write "Bipartisan Policy Center," the actual name of that Centrist message shop/think tank.

Posted by: Stuart Zechman at June 14, 2010 11:01 PM | Permalink

Maybe I missed the point, but didn't you just "win the argument not by having better arguments but by standing closer to...reality"? In this post at least, you have done a lot to define what journalism is but little to argue what it should be.

Posted by: Anna at June 14, 2010 11:49 PM | Permalink

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.”

Posted by: Howard Weaver at June 15, 2010 12:05 AM | Permalink

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.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 15, 2010 12:38 AM | Permalink

The ideology you describe shares a common trait with other forms of ideological thinking: it ignores or rejects all evidence that undermines its own paradigm.

As Christopher Beam playfully illustrated recently in Slate, the "narrative" enforced by the true believers of the political press bears little relationship to the portrait of political behavior of voters and elected officials that emerges from the more rigorous analysis of political scientists, economists, and historians.

For example, it is a fundamental tenet of Savvyism that the political universe is divided between red and blue partisans, with a large galaxy of "independents" in the middle. Yet research has repeatedly show that voters who call themselves "independent" vote more reliably for one party or the other than many self-identified partisans. For the Savvy to admit that reality would be to diminish their own sense of mission. View from Nowhere journalism holds little worth in a world where most readers have already made up their minds.

The other key feature of this style of journalism is a total absence of accountability. Yes, political journalists have to get facts right and quote people correctly. But there's never a penalty for getting the narrative or story wrong. I doubt that a single journalist who reported all the things that were reported in recent years—that Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in for the 2008 Democratic nomination; that the health reform bill was dead; that putting Sarah Palin on the 2008 ticket was a stroke of brilliance—has been packed off to work as a night clerk at the AM/PM mini-market.

No other group of American workers—excepting perhaps CEOs and political consultants—is allowed to be wrong so often with no consequence to their pay or prestige. For which we should all be grateful. It would be a very dangerous world if aircraft mechanics, bus drivers, meat packers, and dam operators were held to the same low standard as political journalists.

Posted by: Mark Paul at June 15, 2010 2:02 AM | Permalink

"The biases the media ha[ve] are much bigger than conservative or liberal. They're about getting ratings, about making money, about doing stories that are easy to cover." - Al Franken

The political spectrum used in mainstream media is one then runs from neo-nazi to somewhere to the right of Dennis Kucinich.

This makes a so-called centrist somewhere to the right of Strom Thurmond. There is no legitimacy given to the left.

As we may remember from the 2008 campaign, Kucinich was consistently ridiculed. He saw a UFO! Something that the media conveniently forgot means **unidentified** flying object.

And that is the quintessence of media think: ignoring true meaning to maintain bias. The MSM was most likely the most powerful influence toward putting W in the White House: All the supposed lies that Al Gore never actually told; all the conversations with himself in front of the mirror that Maureen Dowd imagined.

Creating a reality that suits their biases toward ease of reporting (he said/she said; two sides to every story), getting ratings, making money. Facts are irrelevant. Actual left and right, belief in the greatest good for the greatest number--these seem to annoy the MSM more than anything else.

Posted by: Bill Michtom at June 15, 2010 3:20 AM | Permalink

Another great contrast/contradiction/complication is:

the people in the political press ... 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
Journalists, he’s saying, help create the universe from which they draw news, which is a truthful but disruptive observation.

Posted by: Tim at June 15, 2010 8:48 AM | Permalink

"The man is simply compelled to tell the truth no matter who’s offended by it"

Come on, are we talking about the same Dana Milbank?

Posted by: anon at June 15, 2010 8:51 AM | Permalink

"The man is simply compelled to tell the truth no matter who’s offended by it"

That was me trying to paraphrase what Mr. Milbank thinks of himself.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 15, 2010 9:23 AM | Permalink

Jay, where would you fit all this into the notion of media literacy? Because my first reaction to this post was tongue in cheek, "Political journalism has an ideology?"

Would you say that this (the notion that political or plain journalism does have an ideology) is too meta for the consumer, or is in fact something the consumer must understand too? If the latter is the case, we're not starting early enough in cluing them in, if it were up to me.

Posted by: Jill at June 15, 2010 9:36 AM | Permalink

"Cosmopolitan" and "typical of the population of the cities in which they work" seem like a diagnoses of the "it's simple" type. But okay. Ideologies typically have fairly simple-to-trace patterns of dissemination. So, where do they come from? J-school?

Posted by: Andrew at June 15, 2010 9:44 AM | Permalink

This one comes from, and is sustained by, the professional culture of the press, from peer group hazing and prestige scoring, and to some degree the culture of other professions that surround politics (consulting, polling, the world of operatives.) For the most part J-school simply recreates and introduces newsroom and "boys on the bus" culture. It is not the originator.

Another origin is in ownership and management, especially of broadcast properties, where the bosses get freaked out if the advertising of innocence ever stops. This is as true at PBS as it is at CNN. In fact, I'd almost put Jim Lehrer in the extreme ideologue category that I have Milbank in.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 15, 2010 10:03 AM | Permalink

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.

Posted by: Mitchell Freedman at June 15, 2010 10:19 AM | Permalink

…and to some degree the culture of other professions that surround politics (consulting, polling, the world of operatives.)

It is interesting that these observations confine themselves to political journalism. Can we observe these phenomena elsewhere?

Do diplomatic correspondents belong to the Church of the Savvy or do they treat policy differences as germane and substantive?

Do economic correspondents confine themselves to He Said/She Said or do they try to understand the objective realities depicted by data?

Do sports reporters adopt the View from Nowhere or do they align themselves with the prejudices and desires of their fan readership?

Come to think of it, for a court reporter covering a criminal trial, adopting the View from Nowhere is a civic and ethical responsibility in order to preserve the presumption of innocence -- not a specious quest for a claim of legitimacy.

If it is hard to find the attributes described here in other forms of journalism but easy to find them in other spheres of the political culture -- the consultants, the pollsters, the operatives…plus the think tanks, the lobbyists, the politicians themselves -- maybe this essay tells us less about PressThink and more about PoliticsThink.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at June 15, 2010 11:24 AM | Permalink

Good questions. Sports is definitely different. My post on He said, She said used as its lead example a business story from the business section of the New York Times.

From a climate change blogger: "Rosen isn't even thinking about our turf, so the direct hits he makes on the failure of the press regarding our interests here in climate science, sustainable economics, and rational science-based policy are almost uncanny."

When there is news, two and exactly two positions must be identified, one "left" and one "right". When the CRU emails were hacked, McIntyre quickly stepped up as the voice of the pole of the discussion that alleges that what is revealed in the emails is consequential and shocking. After all, making mountains of climate molehills is the key to his celebrity. He has been practicing the technique and has it down to an artform. So now Climate Audit becomes something of an official opposition.

Official oppositions don't make peace, particularly in situations where the rewards for two-sided polarization dominate. Curry thinks people are criticizing real flaws in how science is conducted because they genuinely want to improve matters. I think they are criticizing flaws with complete indifference to whether they are real or fake, important or trivial. It's criticism, but on the whole it isn't constructive criticism.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 15, 2010 11:42 AM | Permalink

I am Canadian and am curious to what you think of our media. I came here from Glen Greenwalds blog and am curious if he told you what parts of this piece he "doesn't exactly agree with."

Posted by: Alan at June 15, 2010 11:49 AM | Permalink

@Jill the consumer must understand too?

It has been very helpful for me as a consumer to improve my media literacy. I am no longer put off by knee-jerk pro-jo denials/accusations or claims of ideology-free reporting. I understand better "where they are coming from" and can communicate around discussion-ending catch phrases.

I am not struggling with "it's simple" frames to explain why pro-jos do what they do. It's much easier accepting pro-jos as complex individuals working within a complex process once accepting complex frames for what they do.

"Go. See. Tell." is way too simplistic.

Posted by: Tim at June 15, 2010 11:50 AM | Permalink

@Andrew Tyndall

The presumption of innocence is not a View From Nowhere. It is a correct view for a court reporter based on our society's norms.

It is not the view most often seen by news consumers.

Posted by: Tim at June 15, 2010 12:07 PM | Permalink

I am Canadian and am curious to what you think of our media. I came here from Glen Greenwalds blog and am curious if he told you what parts of this piece he "doesn't exactly agree with."

No, Glenn hasn't told me which portions he would quarrel with. I could guess but that probably isn't wise.

I wish the Canadian media were more different from the U.S. but from what I have observed and what I have been told, the similarities are stronger than any differences. However, I haven't made a careful study of it.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 15, 2010 12:35 PM | Permalink

The immigration topic is where this all becomes very clear and very simple: the MSM does not represent the views of most Americans but simply serves to help those who want to profit from illegal activity in one way or another (money or power).

For instance, dozens of MSM sources have offered a series of cookie cutter articles that are basically ads for one anti-American bill. That bill would let illegal aliens take college educations away from U.S. citizens. Several of those articles are discussed on this page about Pro-Illegal Immigration Puff Pieces.

For other examples of obvious bias, see:

And on and on and on. I've got hundreds of posts detailing obvious bias going back years.

Posted by: NoMoreBlatherDotCom [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 15, 2010 12:46 PM | Permalink

Very good post, Jay. There's a lot here that I find myself agreeing with. On one point, however, I think things are more ambiguous than you claim:

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.

As I recall, there have been surveys of this sort taken, and while they generally find that journalists are more liberal than the population as a whole on social issues, they have also found that on economic issues, the reverse is true: journalists are in fact less liberal than the general population.

I'm at work and my library is at home, so I'm unable to look up specific references at the moment, but I think some of this information was in one of Eric Alterman's books.

Posted by: Jestak at June 15, 2010 1:01 PM | Permalink


Great post. I think a clear description of the political press' ideology is something that's sorely needed. After all, we need to understand the weaknesses in our systems if we're going to improve them.

However, I was curious... do you think having an ideology is necessarily a bad thing for the political press, or is the current ideology just not supporting the goals of the political press?

Posted by: David Wynn at June 15, 2010 1:11 PM | Permalink

@Tim I think that's exactly right, or how I would wish/hope/pray we aim to have consumers consume. I would like to see much more of a concerted effort to educate with this in mind, the earlier the better.

Posted by: Jill at June 15, 2010 1:15 PM | Permalink

Jay, consider my hand raised. The value of savviness is something I see in my work in the broader field of Corporate America, where there's a conceit very similar to that found in the press. (And why wouldn't the press be part of the same trends, forces, etc. as the rest of society?)

I think it's related to the fear of being unmasked as unknowledgable. How rare is it to find a reporter who is actually expert on anything? By the time that happens, they are authors and pundits (Ricks, Woodward, etc.)

As for their "politics," i suspect a lot of them, having come up through local news, aren't interested in government, politics, public affairs, etc. That wasn't what got them to where they are. What got them there was playing newsroom politics, looking and sounding good, etc.

Posted by: Jim Pharo at June 15, 2010 1:25 PM | Permalink

I want to append a bit to High Broderism: The real/unreal distinction has some epistemological implications as well, in which a sort of crude realism allows one to make distinctions between the "substantive" and the "symbolic" (one in which the "real" is privileged, but the "symbolic" is still obsessed over)

The "real" is not so much a comment on the matter's substance, so much as the way the matter gets substantiated--whether or not it is connected to technicians or specialists ("wonks"), evidenced by credible institutions, etc. This is because the journalistic posture does not allow one to make claims about the matter itself, but rather only how the matter is being handled or discussed by others. When some players line up, we are dealing with "reality," and when others do, it is "for show."

So we end up with articles on "political theater" or symbolic acts (mere rhetoric, politicking) that tend to ignore the material conditions that give symbols meaning OR articles on "substantive policy" that underplay that policy is shaped through deliberation between real, concrete stakeholders that have different symbolic resources and different interests. It's a demand for distinction between real and symbolic, but without a criteria for deciding between them or an ability to understand the complex interaction of the two.

Posted by: cate at June 15, 2010 1:46 PM | Permalink

I think Jay’s term of “Cosmopolitan” as a means of describing most working journalists’ viewpoint is far better than saying they are “socially liberal/economically conservative.” I once worked for a 30,000 circulation daily that was in a rural county and EVERY SINGLE REPORTER (myself included) had just recently moved/grew up in a city larger than 200,000. Only the managing editor was a local, but he was a unique case having just moved back to his hometown after 20 years at the Indianapolis Star (and a huge paycut.)

Atrios had a post once that explained the “journos” are socially liberal merely translates to a passing acceptance of gays (they shouldn’t be stoned or fired, but marriage…maybe not), abortion (legal sure, but any steps to block access might be okay to them), and the belief that minorities/women should be treated equally. But beyond that, including steps to assure access to abortion, greater legal protection of gays, minorities/women, is something they will shy away supporting or even think “those groups” are moving too fast for their tastes.

Nowhere does the “social liberal” beliefs include any kind of well-thought out belief about equal rights or equal protections established within our laws. Is more along the lines of “I’m not a bigot/homophobe/misogynist and I expect others to act the same.”

Posted by: NewsCat at June 15, 2010 2:02 PM | Permalink

"[O]ne of the consequences of the contempt for true believers is that street protests and marches aren’t taken very seriously in political journalism."

Uh, unless those protestors and marchers are conservative "Tea Party Patriots" angry at "Big Government." Then the press is all over that.

Posted by: Q at June 15, 2010 2:07 PM | Permalink

When you said "Political journalists are cosmopolitans," this is the great divide. Here in Texas, the cities have been gerrymandered to the point of not being able to vote. Cities are on the left. Ag to the right. Journalists are part of the cities, the waste product of the industrial age in a period of de-industrialization.

Posted by: David Locke at June 15, 2010 2:10 PM | Permalink

Jay, interesting and provocative as usual. I'd raise two issues: where does the "view from nowhere/church of the savvy" originate, culturally/economically/historically speaking, and where is it going now? Is it dug-in for the long-haul, or is the ongoing collapse of the traditional news business model going to take the VFN with it?

On point one: the view from nowhere seems a product of postwar mass culture. Big institutions, new technology (TV) reaching everybody everywhere in the midst of an unusual national political consensus on many issues. The best way to smudge out all the differences among "everybody everywhere" is to shoot for some kind of omniscience. Washington journalists cling to some attenuated version of that notion, but of course it's untenable. Mickey Kaus used to mock the attitude of the Howell Raines's NYT as "the great and good American people will never stand for this..." - "this" being whatever story Howell Raines found outrageous and wanted to push in the pages of the NYT. He mistook his own passions for America's. But at least he had (has - sorry Mr. Raines!) them!

Where is this going? I have to admit, the VFN seems pretty resilient. But of course the news business is roiling, there are new, less beholden voices, and a public that can talk back. The assumptions behind the VFN are 50 years old and don't seem to fit in a world where political and government institutions seem are under constant assault (from environmental hazards, financial havoc, etc., and from politics itself).

Posted by: John McQuaid at June 15, 2010 2:11 PM | Permalink

Just want to say, I'm in your camp! (Sorry no time to read what I'm sure is a very interesting comment thread.)

Posted by: Jennifer at June 15, 2010 2:14 PM | Permalink

And a quick comment to Anna:

One doesn't need recourse to "reality" to critique ideology (though the "people think this, but it's REALLY that" approach is common). Rather, what I think is happening here is Prof. Rosen has shown where the overarching claims about journalism contradict the material practice. The original (and best) definition of ideology from Marx emphasizes that ideology is not simply a vaguely-held belief, but an action: "They do not know that they are doing it, but they are doing it." So, when doing ideological analysis, one doesn't separate ideology from reality so much as juxtaposes what you say with what you do.

Posted by: cate at June 15, 2010 2:27 PM | Permalink

It's complicated AND simple -- that's where your analysis fails. The ideological process is complicated as you describe -- but the basis are simple: the selection filter of political correspondents which selects for urban middle (who actually report) & upper class (who are pundits -- Cokie etc) individuals with a world-view congruent with those who hire & promote them.

Of course, the ideology that develops out of this is complicated as you describe it. That's a common phenomenon -- simply forces producing extremely complicated patterns. Three-body problems, so to speak.

One problem is that this is difficult for many consumers to analyze. Most don't have personal relationships with this class of people -- they are caricatures ("liberals", "conservatives", "big city") for them. They don't know what drives them -- they think that they have the same motivations (or counter-motivations) they do; in essence they make the same kind of errors of projection that journalists make.

A sub-category that I see of the "sphere of deviance" is the "crazy conspiracy theorist". Any discussion of corruption, conflict of interest and intent is automatically made equivalent to claims of shape-shifting reptiloid invasion -- as long as they are claims about our establishment. It's perfectly reasonable to discuss corruption & conspiracy by the Kremlin, in Nigeria or Turkey, but that never, ever happens among their friends. Mexico can be called a narco-state -- but it's a conspiracy theory to point out that the Mexican elite are bestest buddies with the American elite. You can report on coups and counter-coups in Turkey -- as long as you don't point out that Turkey is a member of NATO.

At a local level it's particularly egregious, since many of us have personal experience of corruption that is never, ever discussed in the local media, and that of course drives reptiloid shape shifting conspiracy theories, since if our local county board is so corrupt but it never gets reported, it's unsurprising to suspect that scaled to a national level that could imply that Larouchian type conspiracies are in play (particularly if you don't know anyone at that level). Which goes all the way back to the three-body analogy -- a simple relationship can lead to extremely complicated behaviors, and a common error is to assume that complicated behaviors have complicated causes.

Posted by: Zeta at June 15, 2010 2:32 PM | Permalink

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.

Posted by: Kurt Arbuckle at June 15, 2010 2:36 PM | Permalink

Jay, your piece is spot on. Very impressive analysis. Two minor quibbles. Broder did not get his column after he quit daily reporting; he had both assignments for a long, long time before that. Second, in one of his books -- it may have been in The Party's Over: The failure of politics in America -- Broder actually called for creation of a modified Republican Party, combining the then-still present moderate wing and black voters. If you read his columns, you will see that moderate Republican governors who support civil rights were David's favorite politicians. Of course, the alliance David suggested never came to pass.

Posted by: Tom Edsall at June 15, 2010 2:41 PM | Permalink

But perhaps it's no coincidence that the list of terms you use to describe journalists and their ideologies also tend to favor entrenchment of the current power structure and status quo.

Posted by: Smitty at June 15, 2010 2:44 PM | Permalink


I've come across the View from Nowhere in the context of scientific epistemology--it's caught up in a long-lived debate over the possibility of neutral observation, of suppressing our sensory distortions to get to the thing itself. I'd wager that the journalistic posture is an outgrowth of this scientific model of neutral observation, one that is actively challenged by post-structuralism's emphasis on social construction (that the real and the true are products of concrete, intricate interactions between humans and nonhumans). Other movements throughout history, like historical materialism and phenomenology, have also challenged the notion of objectivity.

For what it's worth, I think that 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.

Sorry for all the chatter--this thread is fascinating, and the subject matter is right in my wheelhouse.

Posted by: cate at June 15, 2010 2:54 PM | Permalink

Of course one additional issue now is even if we could reduce the false objectivity of modern media, there is just so much "noise" that the truth is lost.

That is, sometimes the press does print hard hitting truth, but it's just lost in the noise of alternate (sometimes fake) opinion and/or just the "15 minutes of fame" (news-cycle) turnover.

For instance, G.W. recently outright admitted that he authorized waterboarding. One would think that even if most Americans thought it was "ok" it would be "big news", however in all the noise of the mile-a-minute media it just got lost.

Or to quote Neil Postman:

"What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us."

In the end, Huxley was right.

Posted by: scathew at June 15, 2010 3:03 PM | Permalink

Even though I enjoyed this, I can't help but notice that it actually embodies some of the same tendencies that it identifies. 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?

Posted by: Evan Harper at June 15, 2010 3:13 PM | Permalink

This is a very interesting argument about the bias of the press - and one which I certainly do not disagree with.

I think the bias is not liberal nor conservative, but really a bias towards the arena. The political press in the United States is decidedly part of the arena, though as you point out they might be standing outside of the actual field of play. The arena gives them standing - it gives the press reporter a reason to be ... access to comfort, legitimacy, fame. The reporters also tend to live in the area - so the arena is all around them. There is some requisite saber rattling that might need to be done in order to retain some sense of "outsider-ness" but as you point out it's largely meaningless.

Really the coverage of politicians is generally favorable - as long as the politicians are PERSONALLY not sullying the arena. This would explain the wildly disproportionate responses to Obama's views on FISA or Bush's selling of Iraq versus the view of Bill Clinton's sex life. The latter sullied the arena. The others were merely aspects of covering the show.

Posted by: Sriram at June 15, 2010 3:15 PM | Permalink

This is a lot of epicycles on the lefty model, since every bias you've listed supports a corporate agenda.

Posted by: Michael at June 15, 2010 3:16 PM | Permalink

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.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 15, 2010 3:43 PM | Permalink

Concerning the policing of the Sphere of Deviance (and its cousin The Overton Window)…

It was instructive that the White House was roundly repudiated last year in its attempt to delegitimize FOX News Channel as a journalistic institution, even though its second most popular personality, Glenn Beck, refuses to allow himself to be called a journalist: “I’m an opinion guy.”

Tellingly, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, in its online almanac of the State of the News Media, not only included FOX News Channel -- including Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity -- inside its sphere of journalistic legitimacy, but also, questionably, Rush Limbaugh (but, appropriately, not Jon Stewart).

Last week, when all three network nightly newscasts reported on Helen Thomas being cast into the Sphere of Deviance, it was interesting that none addressed, specifically, what had disqualified her. Is anti-Zionism acceptable and only anti-Semitism beyond the pale? Or did the entirety of her comments to that rabbi belong in the deviant sphere?

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at June 15, 2010 3:47 PM | Permalink

"political journalists are ironists"
Agreed: They don't like too many wrinkles, they're always on board, they're full of hot air, they're always trying to impress themselves on starched collars, they're careful to avoid buttons, and they're constantly tugging on sleeves and holding onto other people's shirttails.
Ironically though, they never seem to mind if something's on the cuff.

Posted by: Reilly at June 15, 2010 3:50 PM | Permalink

I have to highlight and single out for praise cate's comment on substance vs. symbolism.

I've been trying for years to figure out how to write about the very peculiar and highly abstract way in which political reporters use the term "substance," primarily so they can switch over to symbol-land and talk about staging, imagery and other forms of impression management. This is accomplished with pundicisms like, "He may have been right on the substance, but the optics were terrible."

As cate says, the imagistic and symblic forms are simultaneously held to be less real, but also more important, in the sense that they seem to fascinate the savvy analyst far more than... substance, that limp, sorry thing. "Substance" is in fact a term of dismissal, but I doubt that the savvy realize that this is they way they use it.

One of my principles of analysis is that these moments of unawareness, when they are consistent across church-of-the-savvy members, are potential tip offs, little signs saying: DIG HERE, IDEOLOGICAL DEPOSITS LIKELY TO BE FOUND BELOW.

Anyway... right on, cate!

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 15, 2010 4:00 PM | Permalink

Great article, even though I can't get that song quoted in the headline out of my head now.

I guess you metaphorically sliced off Dana Milbank's ear for not using it.

Posted by: Ron Brynaert at June 15, 2010 4:10 PM | Permalink

The breaking of the press will began during Nixon and was fulfilled during the Reagan administration. If you wanted access to St. Ronnie Ray-Gun, you had to pimp the narrative put out by the White House press organ. The conversion of the news divisions of the major networks (starting with ABC) to management by entertainment and sports executives cemented the breaking of independent will within journalists and paved the way for hard-right conservative networks and paper media.

Posted by: CybScryb at June 15, 2010 4:16 PM | Permalink

"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"

This excerpt from your essay makes it very difficult to take your essay very seriously. Once again a very profound comment is made with no empirical data to back it up. Why does your essay and many others who often repeat this bit of conventional wisdom never cite a source for this belief. If its a well known fact it should be easy to cite a source. I do not mean that the media does not have liberal/progressive beliefs but that they are more liberal than the general US population. Remember most Americans live in large cities or on the coasts. Conservatives in generally hail from locations with much smaller populations. The fact that they wield a disproportionate amount of political power is a result of a constitutional convention that confered much more power based on geography rather than individuals.

Yet the assumption is that some well paid white collar professional living in the suburbs is more liberal than the US population as a whole. Can you actually cite a source? Because if this actually turned out not to be the case maybe we are missing the boat on what Americans really want from their elected officials.

Posted by: rf at June 15, 2010 4:21 PM | Permalink

"It’s very simple. The press ultimately serves the interests of the people who own it…"

No truer words. The press is driven by it's business model. The business model is NOT a subscription model. It's an advertising model. 85% of the press's revenues come from corporate advertising.

So, WHO do you think OWNS the press? Which political party do you think those OWNERS belong to?

Posted by: Bob Roberts at June 15, 2010 4:21 PM | Permalink

Thank you for the thoughtful piece.

I think you miss one historical element here (I speak as a former working print journalist):

Pre-Watergate, the press was neither anti Democrat nor anti Republican--it was anti stupidity and anti hypocrisy. The tendency of the Republicans then (as now) to be more stupid than the Democrats led Agnew et al to gripe about a "liberal" bias in the press.

Fast forward to now, and avoidance of "bias" turns into acceptance of "he said, she said" journalism, where failing to point out the lies and spin in the quotes turns journalists into the steno pool.

Jon Stewart is the only one left who is anti hypocrisy. More precisely, hypocrisy gives him material to do a show every night.

Posted by: B Dravis at June 15, 2010 4:24 PM | Permalink

Tom Edsall: thanks for your comments. I have made a correction in my post where I talk about Broder's column.

For those who don't recognize his name, Tom Edsall was a political reporter for the Washington Post for 25 years. So it means a lot to me, as an author, that he would say, "spot on." It means I am not crazy in my analysis.

John McQuaid: (Pulitzer-prize winning reporter for the Times-Picayune, now on his own) I think your questions are good ones.

I would agree that the View from Nowhere probably arises from the combination of 1.) the America of the post-WWII consensus within the political realm, 2.) the logic of "let's try to appeal to the entire market, and avoid pissing any one faction off" in the media business, 3.) certain notions of neutral expertise, objectivity and empiricism that come from the culture of professionalism generally in the U.S., meaning: most occupational groups bidding for professional status would adopt similar tropes.

Its resiliency is harder to explain; more factors involved there. Culture war, for example. Whether the View from Nowhere can survive, I don't know. That's a whole post! Signs of weakening abound, but I would not count VFN out. It's seductive and in a way productive. It gets you out of jams. Here's an example from 2009, in a public editor column in the New York Times:

Jill Abramson, the managing editor for news, responded last week on the newspaper’s Web site to similar complaints. She said the paper is scrupulously careful to describe the motives, histories, politics and perspectives of everyone in the conflict, allowing readers to decide who is right or wrong. “I see a backwards vote of confidence in The Times’s reporting, given that every identifiable faction in this fractured collision of peoples and injustices believes so firmly that we are taking a side — someone else’s,” Abramson said.

If you're going to kill that, you better have some powerful arguments because as rationalizations go that's pretty potent.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 15, 2010 4:45 PM | Permalink

Thank you for putting all this into such cogent words. The theater and false fairness of journalism broke my heart and derailed my career a long time ago, and for 20 years my complaints about the profession sounded like a combination of naivety and sour grapes. Seeing intelligent critics like yourself making this analysis at least makes me feel less crazy, if no more employable.

Posted by: Virginia O'Possum at June 15, 2010 5:01 PM | Permalink

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?

Posted by: Kevin Egan at June 15, 2010 5:26 PM | Permalink

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.

Posted by: D. Liddle at June 15, 2010 5:39 PM | Permalink

Just caught an example of Regression to a Phony Mean from Marc Ambinder:

But it is fairly clear that Arar was unjustly harmed by our government and its policies, even if he might not a complete innocent.

Evidence that Arar is not completely innocent? None. But hey! It's always possible!

That definitely strikes me as a “halfway point between the best and the worst that might be said about” Arar. And it certainly distorts the story.

Posted by: TG Chicago at June 15, 2010 6:22 PM | Permalink

Thanks, Kevin Egan. Charlie Savage and Warren Olney are two of my favorite journalists. They are both... inspirational.

D. Liddle: I think your theory--only new forms and genres are powerful as truthtellers--is fascinating and quite plausible.

Americans will find confirmation in the way John Stewart, wielding a new genre, seems able to tell certain truths that CNN cannot manage at all.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 15, 2010 6:46 PM | Permalink

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.

Posted by: Zach E. at June 15, 2010 7:00 PM | Permalink

Thanks for putting all this media criticism in one neat pile. It's really not that complicated. I've seen these critiques in bits and pieces scattered throughout the liberal blogosphere for a long time.

The most annoying thing about these criticisms, aside from the fact that they are true, is that they are considered exclusively liberal. I mean, it's flattering, but it would be nice if the Right accepted some of these same critiques. Then we may be able to talk to each other. To my knowledge, media criticism on the Right does not even approach this level of sophistication. It could. There's nothing in the critiques you have assembled here that contradicts conservative ideology. Amirite?

Posted by: cjackb at June 15, 2010 8:33 PM | Permalink

The press is self-serving vs. the press is biased vs. the press is neither left nor right. I guess I don't see why all three can't be true simultaneously. Indeed, your "It's complicated" position -- which is very accurate -- seems to be a way to explain exactly that.

Posted by: Tom Allen at June 15, 2010 8:57 PM | Permalink

And this must be said as well: The implication of these media critiques is that we simply want the press to report the facts. That's all we want. The NY Times Pentagon propagandists story is the perfect example. The story simply reported that a group of cable news military correspondents had conflicts of interest. That's all it did. It did not explicitly argue that the military industrial complex controls our government. It did not explicitly argue anything. It simply reported the facts!

Posted by: cjackb at June 15, 2010 8:59 PM | Permalink

I'm with you all the way on this Jay, and I'm really happy that someone of your intelligence and passion is exploring the topic. One thing that needs to be considered here is the view of the American public, because there's considerable evidence that this "church" is preaching only to its own choir. For one, Gallup's press trust question has been asked since the early 70s and reveals that trust in the press has been in decline since about 1976, ironically, I think, when the practices of which you describe here began. When journalists became real celebrities, the rules of the practice had to change in order to validate a concept so foreign to its roots. In recent years, according to Gallup, more people actually distrust the press than trust it, so perhaps your argument scrapes the core of what's wrong. If 55% of the public has little or no trust of the press, then why does it continue to behave as it does? The press blames bloggers, but bloggers are a reaction to a distrust that began long before the Web. This is a reality that is not considered in discussions such as this, because it pokes a gigantic hole in any arguments that defend the status quo. Press distrust is, therefore, in the sphere of deviance, according to the church.

Further evidence is found in circulation declines and ratings losses. We look around and blame everything except the most obvious: the people formerly known as the audience don't think anything we have to say is relevant. No trust. No relevance. So this church of which you speak, by default, gives up the role of fourth estate, for a press speaking for no one is no press at all.

Finally, I think Chris Lasch was right in connecting the decline in participation in the political process in the U.S. with the rise of the professionalization of the press. By choosing the false position of center, the art of argument has been lost, and without argument, there is no incentive to participate. This is not by accident and neither is it an unintended consequence, for the sterile environment that "objectivity" was intended to produce was ideal for the sale of advertising, and so it goes.

Keep fighting the good fight, Jay. There's more in your tiny corner than you realize.

Posted by: Terry Heaton at June 15, 2010 9:12 PM | Permalink

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 []

Posted by: Tom Roche at June 15, 2010 9:13 PM | Permalink

cjackb: "...But it would be nice if the Right accepted some of these same critiques. Then we may be able to talk to each other."

I have no hope of that. I cannot think of a more depressing scene. (I mean within the subjects I study.) Right wing media criticism is about liberal bias and the continuation of the culture war around the subject that Agnew started in 1969. That's where it has been. That's where it is now. That's where it is going.

The only new element is the growth of a replacement media sphere, from Fox News to Free Republic to Red State to Newsmax. But even that is constrained by the subordination of all thought to liberal bias. To me this video, and the reactions Tucker Carlson gets, says it all. Carlson was giving conservatives good advice. But liberal bias is stronger than self-interest. That's pretty strong.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 15, 2010 9:43 PM | Permalink

One issue I think you've minimized is the impact of each individual member of the press's quest for power / influence / access.

Item 1 (tragedy) -- the runup to the war in Iraq.

Item 2 (farce) -- Biden's watersoaker invite-only party.

From Miller to Ambinder (among uncounted other examples), members of the press abdicated their role in order to have access to information / people that other people don't get.

And down this road lies the "anonymous" Senior Administration Official who can't be identified because she/he is "not authorized" to speak on the matter. (Oh, please.)

And then we have a political press that has been neutered into a bunch of stenographers.

Interesting post, though. Very insightful.

Posted by: Francis at June 15, 2010 9:53 PM | Permalink

It's not all that complicated. Journalists are social liberals (they don't care who's doing what with their body or body parts, including what they're smoking, sex, etc.) but other than that, they're mostly supporters of the status quo, whatever they perceive that to be. They color inside the lines, they will only rock the boat within pre-approved limits. (After all, they have mortgages to pay.)

They like to do corruption stories as long as the corruption can be pinned on individuals, and not the system itself - because they spent their lives learning to navigate that system, and they don't want to destroy it.

They're not being censored; they censor themselves.

Posted by: Susie Madrak at June 15, 2010 10:05 PM | Permalink

I trace the View From Nowhere ideology to the 1927 Radio Act and Section 315 of the 1934 Communications Act. Study the conflict of ideas about fairness in the public (broadcast) media and commercial interest that brought the "Mayflower Doctrine" of 1941 and later the "Fairness Doctrine" of 1949 under Truman. Trace this trend to 1967 when, under LBJ, the FCC further defined the rules for fairness including personal attacks and political editorializing.

Posted by: Tim at June 15, 2010 10:15 PM | Permalink

@Jill I would like to see much more of a concerted effort to educate with this in mind, the earlier the better.

Agree, but some educators must also overcome their own illiteracy about consumers.

Posted by: Tim at June 15, 2010 10:56 PM | Permalink

I remember I was hearing some kind of a commentary years ago from a media person on NPR who had been in some kind of journalistic or editorial position during the Vietnam War. He said, as I recall, that his organization got criticism from both left and right for their coverage of the war, and I think he said that as long as he got the same number of letters, or something to that effect, from either side, then he knew that he was doing his job. I can't remember if he suggested that they weighed the letters from left and right, or something like that.

This viewpoint has some merit, but it suggests that the best way to ascertain the truth is to "average out" the views of the American people--but in some cases, the "mean" views of the American people are completely wrong.

A great book on the phenomenon of he said, she said journalism is Edwin R. Bayley's Joe McCarthy and the Press, where I think that Bayley argues that the newspapers presented McCarthy's often implausible arguments in a he-said she said format, thus granting him a degree of legitimacy.

Posted by: Henry at June 15, 2010 11:03 PM | Permalink

I get what you're saying about The Church of the Savvy, but think it's a vague name. How about "The Cult of the Vulcans"?

Posted by: Jonathon Severdia at June 16, 2010 12:59 AM | Permalink

"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."

Glenn gets on MSNBC every once in a while. He was on Dylan Ratigan to talk about the Apache helicopter video, Maddow with Lessig re: Kagan nomination, again on Ratigan to spar with Eliot Spitzer over the Israeli raid. But I get the distinct impression that he is seen almost like candy over there; ok in veeeeery small doses, but go for too much and there are going to be problems. Maybe not candy, more like, oh, casu marzu.

Posted by: Jonathon Severdia at June 16, 2010 1:24 AM | Permalink

Howard's "fuck the average reader" is one hell of a motto.

Posted by: A different Anna at June 16, 2010 2:18 AM | Permalink

I agree with Francis that "the quest for power/influence/access" is a factor in contemporary political journalism that is not covered in the list of six Terms That Don't Easily Scan.

This is the decadent phase of the American Empire, a phase in which Court Gossip passes for politics. Who's Up and Who's Down? Who Has Control of the Narrative? Who Has the Emperor's Ear?

The coverage of the Gulf Coast oil disaster is a case in point: start with the latest news on the leak itself...then the coastal clean-up...then BP's corporate responsibility...then the livelihood of the fishing and tourist towns...then tug at the heartstrings with slimed wildlife...then we have to find a political angle.

And what, pray tell, might that political angle be? It turns out that it is not energy policy, or the contrasting clout of the environmental and the carbon lobbies. It is drama criticism -- whether Barack Obama has the thespian chops to project righteous anger convincingly.

This is coverage by courtiers not journalists.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at June 16, 2010 7:46 AM | Permalink

I agree with a lot of these categories but to me the explanation that fits best what I am seeing is that a lot of these people are psychologically stuck in high school and are still playing by those rules. They disdain the smart kids (Gore, Hillary) because they aren't cool. Worse, the smart kids make them feel stupid. They like the wiseguys who bully other kids as their adolescent justification of Bush's superiority was that he would be more fun to have a beer with clearly proved. They disdained Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter for being "rubes" from the South which can never be cool. Practitioners of "High Broderism" are the prissy brown nosers who like to impress the "adults", he said/she said reporting is basically gossip mongering, etc. Maureen Down is the classic mean girl who gets her power from putting down everyone but the coolest in her own tribe. She was appalled by Clinton's one dalliance yet her biggest hero is JFK. Clearly the big problem with Clinton was his hillbilly background. It eats people like her and Chris Matthews up to see someone like that get so far above them.

Howard Fineman explicitly made the case for this (seemingly without irony) in a column he wrote last year, in a column titled "Potomac High":

"You knew Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in high school. At least I did. They were candidates in the student senate election. She was the worthy but puffed-up Miss Perfect, all poodle skirts and multicolored binders clutched to her chest. He was the lanky, mysterious transfer student—from Hawaii by way of Indonesia no less—who Knew Things and was way too cool to carry more than one book at a time. Who would be leader of the pack?"

I was expecting him to be excoriated for this at a time when our country is facing terrorist attacks but apparently his fellow "journalists" saw nothing odd about it. We need adults in this field but all we have is a bunch of people stuck in emotional adolescence. To them their main value is their own social status, not the health of our democracy. It's extremely dangerous.

Posted by: Elizabeth Brady at June 16, 2010 8:23 AM | Permalink

It's simple: a journalist is one who believes each coin has two sides, and a center that holds all the value.

Posted by: Jasper at June 16, 2010 9:54 AM | Permalink

Well-done, Jay. You must have had a few minutes of time on your hands to pull all this together. It reflects a complex, nuanced view ... something we don't get often enough in journalistic circles.

Posted by: Ben Vos at June 16, 2010 10:36 AM | Permalink

>As I recall, there have been surveys of this sort taken, and while they generally find that journalists are more liberal than the population as a whole on social issues, they have also found that on economic issues, the reverse is true: journalists are in fact less liberal than the general population.
Posted by: Jestak at June 15, 2010 1:01 PM

I'd agree w/Jestak on this one, but I would replace the last instance of "liberal" with "literate". Sorry to stereotype, but I've always felt journalists just have so little sense when dealing with mathematics, physics, engineering, etc., so if they only interview conservative economists, what comes out is stenography.

Posted by: bartkid at June 16, 2010 10:52 AM | Permalink

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.

Posted by: Christine at June 16, 2010 10:54 AM | Permalink

There is much truth to what you say, particularly about marginalizing those who are deemed outside the mainstream and, as Noam Chomsky puts it, manufacturing consent. But this does not explain why, for example, large anti-war demonstrations are no reported at the same time the tiny Tea Party demonstrations are. By this theory they should both be marginalized by the press more or less equally.

Posted by: Richard at June 16, 2010 11:20 AM | Permalink

Great post. Even better comments.

Jay, while it has been educational to delve into your observations regarding the state of journalism and the ideologies of those who practice the craft today, I'm inclined to agree with one of the earlier comments and challenge you to lay out a road map describing your thoughts on where we go from here.

I commend your efforts to get fact-checking incorporated into the Sunday morning talk shows, but you're dodging the hard work here, which is injecting accountability into the conversation of what good journalism is.

Obviously journalists are accountable in getting facts and quotes accurate, but are they not also responsible for providing transparent perspectives, relevance and the veracity of what they report as well? If not, then the He said/She said paradigm that you speak out against so passionately will remain as the status quo (and I think you'd agree we all lose in this scenario).

The team I work with at Veracious Entropy is working on solutions to this problem, but we need the help of people like you to shine some light on the needs for accountability.

We hope you hear our call.


Posted by: Toma at June 16, 2010 11:33 AM | Permalink

Thanks for your post Jay. The ideology you write about does not just inflict Journalism, but the federal civil service as well. Especially in the ranks of people who are supposed be "objective" by way of their job title. I recently heard a government official say that "I know I have done my job when both sides [Democratic and Republican] are upset by my report." I immediately thought of the critiques you've made about Beltway journalism.

Posted by: iriedc at June 16, 2010 1:09 PM | Permalink

(just to be clear, since text isn't: there's a smiley emoticon under my earlier comment)

Posted by: A different Anna at June 16, 2010 1:43 PM | Permalink

Jay, do you have any sense that the Gang of 500 or their corporate management have any sense as to why they are bleeding market share to the British and Canadian press? Do they know that over half of the Guardian's web site are American readers?

Posted by: Alice Marshall at June 16, 2010 1:58 PM | Permalink

"High Broderism" -- “the extremes” on both sides are equally extreme, deluded and irresponsible There are extremists on the left saying it's simple, there are extremists on the right saying it's simple, then there is me in the middle saying it's complicated. Is that about it?

Posted by: gizzardboy at June 16, 2010 2:11 PM | Permalink

These analyses have merit, but I see another, simpler facet. In order to get ratings or readers in this celebrity obsessed age, journalists need access to famous people. To gain this access most journalists do not rock the boat by asking tough questions, using immediate fact checking, or presenting authoritative information that contradicts what a source has stated. Also, journalists think that boring analytical stories won't be popular (and they may be right), so we rarely have stories we need to know. For example, taxpayer ramifications about how a city's budget has quietly changed over a ten year period. This is important, but it isn't usually covered unless it is already controversial.

Posted by: wts at June 16, 2010 2:53 PM | Permalink

This is a hilarious thread, particularly if one assumes many of the respondents are actual journalists. Let's see:

"the tent-revivalists, costume survivalists, antebellum Confederacy nostalgists and latter day Know Nothings who make up the Republican base"

"This makes a so-called centrist somewhere to the right of Strom Thurmond. There is no legitimacy given to the left"

"If you wanted access to St. Ronnie Ray-Gun, you had to pimp the narrative"

"the Republican Party... has completely bowed out. Essentially none of these peoples' arguments are based in fact"

"... The tendency of the Republicans then (as now) to be more stupid than the Democrats"

"the left's critique of the media is far closer to reality than the right's critique"

"...their adolescent justification of Bush's superiority was that he would be more fun to have a beer with"

"this does not explain why, for example, large anti-war demonstrations are no reported at the same time the tiny Tea Party demonstrations are" (WOW! Beautiful inversion of reality there!)

"Atrios had a post once..." (Ah. One of the many Ann Coulters of the left)

Yeah, Jay. You're right. The whole thing is really complicated. Really.

Posted by: Bruce at June 16, 2010 4:21 PM | Permalink

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).

Posted by: Batocchio [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 16, 2010 4:45 PM | Permalink

Sure, I could talk about press ideology...
But I'd rather Sing! Sing! Sing! about it! (w/apologies to Don McLean)

Posted by: driftglass at June 16, 2010 4:59 PM | Permalink

"What is the actual ideology of our political press?" Not liberal or conservative or corporate, I'd say. Instead, it's more like pure careerism and trading truth for access so as to advance, coupled with a love of conflict of any sort, mostly aimed at creating higher ratings, more page views and comments, more friends and followers to develop that now-necessary "personal brand."

Posted by: Rory O'Connor at June 16, 2010 5:27 PM | Permalink


I wonder whether the root cause of the ideology you describe can be found in the economic history of media -- particularly newspapers.

The vast majority of newspapers were launched and built with strong points of view or biases (partisan, business-oriented or sometimes single social issues like slavery), but as the media biz consolidated and often turned into local monopoly, the bigger slice of the pie was in appealing to a broad public instead of a niche. It appears easier to maintain that readership by avoiding offense as much as possible, too.

Conveniently, back in the paper and in days, the unbiased thing served as a pretty good barrier to entry for new news operations.(Non-partisan is more expensive than partisan).

Now the official ideology is unraveling in part because the financial barriers to entry are so low and the new entrants -- Fox News, talk radio, the blogosphere, MSNBC, HuffPo -- are using the 19th century model of strong partisanship to build their own readership in opposition to the "discredited" non-partisanship of the MSM.

Posted by: David Mastio at June 16, 2010 5:51 PM | Permalink

That's a lot of it. We have to add to the factors you name three cultures that combine to favor the practices I describe here: the culture of Washington and the way journalists seek to make careers there that extend across Administrations; the professional culture of journalism and the way it distributes rewards and censure; the culture of celebrity and network television (the politics of the green room, if you will) and the way it teaches aspirants to color within the lines.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 16, 2010 7:11 PM | Permalink

>>We need adults in this field but all we have is a bunch of people stuck in emotional adolescence. To them their main value is their own social status, not the health of our democracy. It's extremely dangerous.

Elizabeth Brady for the win in today's comment-off!

I'm not just saying that as a Nashville boy who is constantly aware of being taken for a rube (there are advantages to being so perceived, by the way...). It really can feel like high school all over again to encounter the national media from down here.

Brady's post also cuts the other way, making me wonder how often my work comes over as unconsciously contemptuous of the frothing zealots who do make up much of the population around these parts. Not too much, I hope. But it's useful to get a chastening reminder of the need to treat readers with respect.

Posted by: E. Thomas Wood at June 16, 2010 7:19 PM | Permalink

The more I think about, the better I like it, particularly the cult of the savvy and the sphere of deviance.

But it's not something unique to journalism. It's a very common trope in American culture -- the whole thing is. It allows one to posture cynicism, claim superiority while still basically acting as a naif -- and then claiming cynicism & realism over those who are actually much more "realistic" than they are.

I think you may need to think of this in a more ethnological way -- journalists are a sub-culture within middle & upper class America. What Americans do, journalists do even more. Their ideology is OUR ideology -- avoiding commitment to any "tribe" other than the consensus, avoiding sticking out like the proverbial nail.

Posted by: Zeta at June 16, 2010 8:34 PM | Permalink

First of all your camp is going to be small on account of it being a nuanced view that attempts to be informed. Such things are not welcome for ideologues or their followers. Secondly while you are correct in that it is complicated I think you can try and dumb it down, so to speak: the ideology of the American press is that of self-interest. Of course what the actual self-interest results in will change depending on the institutions, individuals, and situations involved. An excellent example of this is polling which often provides nothing of substance, thus existing to serve the interests of those reporting it..."The people are on my side", "The American people believe", horse race coverage, etc. The polls are often poorly done as there is no interest in undecided views, votes, etc. Yet there is a continuing stream of polls talking about issues that many have no read or care about, politicians they have not firmly decided to vote for, etc.

Mitchell is right in that the left's view is closer to the truth than that of the right. The fact is that political ideology doesn't matter if one is not able or willing to use it. We're uninformed and disinterested politically, with a full 25% of the population unwilling to engage in any sort of discussion/action for fear of conflict. Views are either not really held or held with such flimsy conviction, if even correct to begin with. And of course there's the issue of power which is addressed by the left (although simplisticly and sometimes incorrectly) but is largely ignored by the right. Given these realities it's almost impossible for the right's critique to stand up to criticism, of course it's not meant to but that's a different matter altogether. I wish I could use something other than 'left' and 'right' since that paradigm is incorrect, however 'liberal' and 'conservative' is even worse.

Posted by: Derek at June 16, 2010 8:42 PM | Permalink

Zeta: I think your comment is dead on.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 16, 2010 9:04 PM | Permalink

The most trusted name in news is not any practitioner of the News from Nowhere, it's, which takes a stand and backs it up.

Posted by: Brian Cubbison at June 16, 2010 10:47 PM | Permalink

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.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 16, 2010 11:37 PM | Permalink

Julian Sanchez on the Atlantic Magazine's site: The Newsroom's Unknown Knowns

Suppose Rosen is right that there is a distinct journalistic ideology... One obvious question is where it comes from: What determines and sustains it? Parts, to be sure, are linked to the explicit canons of ethics they teach in J-school, but other parts don't seem to be. For Marx, ideology was determined by the dominant system of production--by which he meant that it was a kind of rationalization cooked up to protect the interests of those with economic power, comparable to the idea that press bias reflects the preferences of the owners and advertisers. But we can take it a little more literally and consider how the demands of selling and producing journalism might tend to reinforce some of the tendencies Rosen's talking about.

The big obvious constraints, especially in the contemporary mediasphere, are the demands for speed and volume. A successful journalist in the modern market needs to put out a lot of copy fairly quickly and, ideally, get to the story first. (This is also why we get a lot of reporting on tactical maneuvering and short-term perceptions that ultimately don't make a lick of difference electorally--an enterprise that seems guaranteed to inculcate cynicism.) These are matters of professional pride, but that's partly because they're also--as I was reminded in my former life whenever I'd try to persuade an editor to back off for a few days so I could work on a longer investigative piece--good eyeball-maximizing strategies, especially in a world where the second paper to report a story is ever less able to count on a built-in reader base.

A lot of Rosen's ideological profile plausibly falls out of this. The journalistic sweet spot is a story that's "disruptive" or "counterintuitive" enough to distinguish itself from the pack, while remaining sufficiently rooted in a familiar narrative that it can be turned out by rote and (crucially) digested in a two or three minute news segment without a great deal of explanation.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 17, 2010 12:05 AM | Permalink

Conor Friedersdorf, also writing on the Atlantic's site:

In describing journalists, Professor Rosen asserts that "most of them are skeptical about changing society in any fundamental way. And they are big believers in the law of unintended consequences."

This seems partly wrong to me. Sure, journalists are overly friendly to the establishment. As I recently argued in Newsweek, for example, their treatment of Rand Paul versus their treatment of more establishment politicians betrays an egregious double-standard that has no substantive justification -- and it demonstrates a bunch of the pathologies that Professor Rosen discusses, including his contention that journalists are quite skeptical of fundamental change.

But I don't think journalists are big believers in the law of unintended consequences. In the policy coverage that I read, the direct consequences of proposed legislation are thoroughly reported on, as are the most immediate political implications. Very seldom, however, does the reporter touch on the indirect effects of legislation.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 17, 2010 12:41 AM | Permalink

Rosen writes of surveillance within the panopticon of public opinion where individuals police themselves according to the dominant (centrist) agenda.

A few hundred years ago, power was able to be wielded more overtly. With the rise of democratic states, and the need for the citizenry to feel that they were acting according to their own will, power had to grow more invisible, more psychological.

The ideology of the press is the ideology of the state and is infused throughout education, religion, the family, and the practice (disciplining) of all professions, as they are the gatekeepers of the normal, and the perpetuation of "normal" allows the state to maintain its guarded relevance.

To attempt to work outside this state ideology is to cast oneself as an unclean consumer. Great work if you can get it to pay the bills.

Posted by: Ed Santoro at June 17, 2010 3:18 AM | Permalink

You hit the nail on the head with the Sphere of Deviance paragraph. This is one reason why newspapers are doomed, as the topics in these spheres were often the most fascinating. Too many spheres of deviance existed. And as a conservative, I wouldn't hesitate to agree with the left that a lot of that had to do with corporate sponsors not wanting things like BPA in plastic being discussed. Feminism stopped being debated a long time ago in the media. That ideology operates by creating Spheres of Deviance for those who oppose it.

Posted by: Jack Mendel at June 17, 2010 6:57 AM | Permalink

I've always felt that the search for media bias within a political context (liberal, conservative, centrist) misses the point. From what I can tell, the overwhelming bias of the media is towards towards commerce, fueled by its partner-motivation, ambition. Even overtly-politicized news outlets (such as Fox News) are, more essentially, all about earning money and market share; in the most crass, obvious way, they've adopted the standard business practice of identifying a potentially lucrative clientele/market/demographic and creating a product it will buy. Instead of political bias, I'm much more concerned about the tendency of media people to turn every set of facts into a narrative they can sell. And instead of resisting this natural human tendency to mingle fact with low-level poetic imagination, reporters are actively encouraged to indulge it. Because in the words of the "great" Don Hewitt, people want to hear "stories". The dull truth? 'Taint no money in that.

Posted by: Anthony Princiotti at June 17, 2010 9:09 AM | Permalink

On the one hand, a very thoughtful, thorough analysis which should be read by those in the industry and journalism students as well.
...On the other hand, I'm puzzled by the case Rosen seems to make that journalists look for opportunities to "embarrass, disrupt" the "talking points, party line" of...who?..conservative Republicans?? And "true believer" is a "term of contempt" in newsrooms?
....In my 30 years of observation as a journalism student, broadcaster, factory worker, political fundraiser, I've never gotten the impression that these things are true of the mainstream media to any meaningful extent.
....If anything, our TV newspeople seem to have a fascinated admiration for "true believer" conservatives. I've long detected a kinship journalists feel with their fellow "cosmopolitan" economic conservatives - both groups share a skepticism about "changing society in any fundamental way."
.....I see the same thing going on here that I saw in radio. Those who are closest to the product see variations that the average consumer does not see and is not affected by. The cases Jay presents of reporters "embarrass(ing), disrupting" a party's talking points are minor and inconsequential at best. It's like using a scalpel and saying "look what I've done" while others like 'Foxy' News Channel are using a Sledgehammer and saying "Look what I'VE Done."
....I definitely see the "sphere of deviance" however. That's the receptacle the media threw the left wing into at least 15 years ago.

Posted by: Dean Orff at June 17, 2010 9:39 AM | Permalink

Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic, What Should Political Journalists Do?

Jay Rosen, the New York University press critic, has written a treatise on what he calls the "actual ideology of the American press." It is compelling and provocative, and I recommend a full read. I also think it leaves out something quite important: if the ideologies he identifies -- the pathologies, actually -- are the sum total of the media, what would Jay Rosen, if he were running the world, have us do? Is there a distinction between journalism and ideological argument? Is it methodological? Are there times when, given the difficulty of discovering a truth, journalists can and should adopt a disinterested or disembodied stance? His criticism applies largely to political journalism, and so I anticipate his answer.

I will be answering Marc in a post at PressThink when I have the chance.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 17, 2010 10:54 AM | Permalink

Jay Rosen's recent post on the ideology of the press centers on the introduction of fresh terms for a taxonomy of its various proclivities. Embedded among these, like a journalist in a humvee, is another call to "bust up" he said, she said journalism and replace it with, of all things, fact-checking.

It's a brilliant move and has already spawned a challenge to David Gregory's bald refusal to as much on Meet the Press. On having been asked to fact-check Gregory's guests, following their appearance, Gregory said, "People can fact-check 'Meet the Press' every week on their own terms." Though Rosen had addressed Gregory, others were listening, and two college students launched Meet the Facts, a crowd-sourced effort to challenge the many empty and inadequate claims made on the program.

The Sunday morning political murderball that passes for political debate deserves the scrutiny. Gregory found that the attention has grown according to his defiance, but the format perfectly matches the limitations Rosen discusses. The dispute is the news, and though a careful evaluation of the facts might arrest its inflation, the format couples controversy with controversy, yielding a tense bundle of trembling balloons, like so many disappointing and maybe toxic carnival prizes. Even the great statesman of the media, Tim Russert, whose hard-hitting questions appeared to inure him to the criticism, fell to blade of an earlier critic, Lewis Lapham, who wrote in Elegy for a Rubber Stamp:


Posted by: still titled at June 17, 2010 11:14 AM | Permalink

What about an ideology towards self promotion, even to the point of seeking celebrity? We are living in a world where you can read a Dan Balz report in the Washington Post and look up and see him opining on the potential implications of it on CNN or where prominent political reporters withheld "news" during the campaign in favor of saving it for a future book.

In a personality driven culture like ours, this ideology transcends political philosophy and even a journalists desire for peer affirmation. This ideology isn't inherently at odds with good journalism, but much like the cosomopolitan background, we have to consider if it is a lens that can cloud the media's vision or distort its priorities (see Henry's "gushing" after getting attention for simply "doing his job").

Posted by: Jeff D at June 17, 2010 11:55 AM | Permalink

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. leads the way in being savvy about the savvy.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at June 17, 2010 1:10 PM | Permalink

Tom - Tom Roche at June 15, 2010 9:13 PM

Yes Quantum is rooted in the micro. Complex issues share many of the attributes of that micro world in that everything is not finite - can never be pinned to a point but only to an area of probability.

My point is that most of our challenges today are no longer simple or even complicated. Engineering cannot apply.

There can be no such thing as objectivity. We are all prisoners of our world view. As in Quantum, we do shape the world with this POV - is not Jay's essential point that the POV of journalism today is destructive? Do you really think that you or I or anyone is not utterly embodied by our POV? Do you really think any of us are capable of stepping outside this?

Back to Complexity and Quantum - no factor or particle on its own can shape emergence or the probability field. But a large number of them can and do.

My point if you can listen to what I was trying to say rather than to what you were saying (POV again) was that there can be a "Truth" if enough views are curated to offer the emergent pattern or the probability field.

I am sure that I was not as precise as you wanted me to be and maybe I am not as precise now either - but then it would appear that your POV finds exact precision important and I am happy (My POV) to wallow in the mess for a while.

My POV also gives me a starting point about not being personally rude - after all I know nothing about you and how does being rude to you help any of us.

Was it your certainty about being right, well read and informed caused you to be be rude to me?

Posted by: Robert Paterson [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 17, 2010 2:38 PM | Permalink

Tom Roche:

I sure can name a good or service improved by a feminist epistemological perspective! Sound engineering!

The rhetoric of the neutral observer is key here. We talk about sound recording as though it were a matter of simply presenting the object faithfully, without distortion ("Is it real, or is it Memorex?"). This, however, deviates pretty radically from the practice of engineering, in which a musical object (surely this counts as a "good or service," --in fact, as both, yes?) is actively created in the studio. A "gritty sounding guitar" is produced by the practiced use of amps, processors, filters etc. The Steve Albini cymbal sound comes from his heavy keyring sitting on the high-hat. The rooms have a color and shape, the studio monitors add their own changes...I could go on forever, but will instead point you to Jonathan Sterne's excellent book The Audible Past. The point is, from the post-positivist perspective, the sound engineer not only actively participates in the making of the object, but must be intimately aware of their influence on making a sound rather than simply re-producing it. This doesn't mean that just anything goes. In an interview with Tape Op Magazine (article not online), Leslie Ann Jones describes her style of engineering as

'supporting the illusion.' Whatever people are expecting to hear from what I am recording, that's what I want them to hear. If it's sound effects, an orchestra, a string quartet, or a pop or jazz thing, I try to record it in such a way that it doesn't surprise anybody. It sounds the way they would expect it to sound.

To reach this sort of intersubjective perspective requires that the engineer must relate themselves carefully not only to their equipment and the sound it creates, but to those making, and listening to, the sound as well. Pragmatically, the engineer and producer must work closely with the artist, learning both to correctly interpret the request of the artist and then know how to make the request work ("Make this heavier! It should sound like "Reign in Blood!" point to very specific, concrete tempos, pitches, timbres and volumes to both an engineer and a producer). The more sensitive and responsive the engineer is to this communicative interaction, the better the product. Jones, in the same interview cited above, contends that it is her focus on maintaining a respectful and open relationship with musicians that sets her work apart and earns praise from others.

Sense a kinship between the position of the journalist and that of the sound engineer?

Posted by: cate at June 17, 2010 2:45 PM | Permalink

Shorter Rosen: the "Gang of 500" is an oligarchy. The ideology outlined above is the ideology of any governing oligarchy, anywhere in human history. You will see it in the apparatchiks of the Soviet Union, the patricians of the late Roman Republic, the gentry of 18th and 19th-century England, the Jesuits of the Counter-Reformation, etc, etc, etc. All the details will vary, of course. But the pattern is the same: oligarchy.

A good modern primer on oligarchy is Gaetano Mosca's The Ruling Class (1939). More broadly, it is irresponsible to consider 20th-century history without James Burnham's condensation of the Italian Elitist School, The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom. (If you need an official endorsement, try Sam Tanenhaus.)

The first priority of the oligarchy is that it must continue to rule. The second priority of the oligarchy is that it must rule well. All the ideological details above fit one of these two rules. There can be considerable tension between them.

For the non-oligarch, the question is simply: "is the oligarchy doing a good job?" Is it ruling well? Everyone will have his own answer to this question. Mine comes in one word: "Detroit." There's also a video...

Posted by: Mencius Moldbug at June 17, 2010 3:13 PM | Permalink

As I said the last time I was here [and that's somewhere in the middle of my 5 or 6 comments on that post] the problem is the self-importance of the press: the slide from idealism concerning one's job into idealism concerning one's self which is narcissism.

Reporters. now Journalists, want to take themselves seriously as judges. But lawyers take themselves seriously even when they're representing people they assume to be guilty. They see their moral responsibility not as judge and jury but as advocates playing a part in something more important than they are. If political reporters took their role as advocates as seriously as entertainment reporters do -in hounding movie stars- we'd all be better off. Politicians should fear journalists. That's how you should get access.

It's possible to respect yourself as a cog in a noble machine. More than that it;s preferable. When reporters learn to love their proper role as amoral hacks who perform a moral function the complex problem which Jay Rosen pats himself on the back for understanding will reveal itself as simple.
Simple solutions for complex people.

Posted by: seth edenbaum at June 17, 2010 3:15 PM | Permalink

The Economist:

The problem I see is that if you want to avoid point five [he said, she said journalism], you have to allow some room for point six. A press that can't "place certain people, causes and ideas within the deviant sphere" is one that will be unable to escape "he-said, she-said journalism". There is, for example, simply no room in most articles to refute the belief of people who "don't think separation of church and state is such a good idea" that the authors of the constitution intended America to be a Christian nation. That contention is simply wrong, and there's generally no space or time to get into proving it every time it arises. For example, I'm not going to take the space or time to prove it in this post. Instead, I'm going to place people who think the United States was founded as a Christian nation inside the "sphere of deviance". I don't think such people are "unworthy of being heard", exactly, but I'm not going to let them be heard in my blog post without a refutation, and I don't have time for a refutation, so they'll have to go elsewhere to make themselves heard. The same goes for a variety of views that have currency in contemporary American politics. Here are a few: advocacy for the gold standard; the belief that the Earth is not growing warmer; the belief that cutting taxes in America today will increase government revenue; the belief that Barack Obama was not born in the United States; denial of evolution. On these issues, I would fall among those journalists for whom, as Mr Rosen says, there is "no debate". And in this case I will refrain from attempting to generate authority by pushing off against two sides.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 17, 2010 5:12 PM | Permalink

The press is biased toward being objective, no doubt about it. But the press is also lazy; too often content with froth or a tendency to see events as mere political combat.

Posted by: Arion at June 17, 2010 5:46 PM | Permalink

@Robert Paterson, you might enjoy reading this:

What if we envision the journalistic system as layers? On the bottom layer is the body of information produced by the world. It's a quantum world.

Posted by: Tim at June 17, 2010 6:55 PM | Permalink

"Advocacy for the gold standard."

Obviously "M.S" of the Economist has never heard of John Stuart Mill. Or at least, never read his immortal The Currency Juggle. (He might not even read the New York Times.)

On quite a number of such issues, the late 20th century is pretty sure its thinking is straight and clear, and it's just the entire rest of human intellectual history that got it wrong. Coming from the golden age of science, this is perhaps excusable. Unfortunately, government is not physics. In the department of politics, the 20th century is not the golden age of government, but the golden age of mass murder.

In particular, there aren't really a lot of degrees of separation between the New York Times and Vasily Blokhin. If it wants to be in the business of declaring deviance, perhaps our media oligarchy could start with Mr. Duranty. Physician, heal thyself! If you can't - why not? And in the meantime, I'm really not sure why a reasonable person should care what noises these mouthpieces emit. Especially when it's a matter of investment advice...

Posted by: Mencius Moldbug at June 17, 2010 7:26 PM | Permalink

Oh, and I can't resist "the belief that Barack Obama was not born in the United States."

There is a simple question for anyone who jokes about "birthers." The question is: do you believe that President Obama's life records, from birth records through college transcripts, should be disclosed, or sealed? If the former, let's call you a "discloser." If the latter, a "sealer."

If you are a sealer, you have two questions to answer. One - why are you a sealer? Why should these records remain secret? Two - until what date should they remain concealed from history and historians? 2027, like the King tapes? President Obama's lifetime? Or should they be destroyed permanently?

Perhaps this introduces a new category - "destroyer." The Shredding Foundation, for Destruction of Embarrassing Historical Documents - Sandy Berger, President. Staff - the "Gang of 500," and their fawning audience around the world. If M.S., or any other journalist, will put his name on this letterhead, I'll let him say "birther." Meaning, of course, "discloser."

Posted by: Mencius Moldbug at June 17, 2010 7:35 PM | Permalink

Jay, I had not encountered your term Quest for Innocence as part of your taxonomy of political journalism. I think it may be a synonym for a phrase I used back when we were arguing whether political journalists should vote. To not vote, I argued, was an act of Civic Celibacy. No screwing around with the enemy.

Posted by: Roy Peter Clark at June 17, 2010 7:50 PM | Permalink

Julian Sanchez: "The big obvious constraints, especially in the contemporary mediasphere, are the demands for speed and volume."

This is one place where this ideology overlaps with the wider population. For example, science is increasingly driven by "speed and volume". It's better to produce a large number of minor papers, than to spend time working on a significant breakthrough. Graduate students are paid relatively less (to faculty) than 50 years ago, and are expected to be out in 4-5 years rather than 7-8.

This may produce some of the same effects -- there is less space for "deviant" opinions, because you are focused on Kuhnian normal science. You can't spend 8 years mucking about in Oxford like Crick & Watson -- you'd need to get out at least 16 papers in modern biology, and you'd be cut off from fellowships after 5! That leads to "saviness" as well -- a shallow attitude of realism which is just plain silly, given that you've put your skills in a field where production is largely random and unrelated to intention.

When everything is "what have you done for me today?" -- what other kind of ideology can you have but an utterly shallow one?

Posted by: Zeta at June 17, 2010 7:58 PM | Permalink

I agree. Journalists can be deceptively manipulative, in that they pretend to hold a neutral position when in fact they show bias in judging policies, characters, and even audiences as 'left wing loons' and 'right wing hypocrits'

I've recently decided to address this imbalance in my new blog, which focuses on questioning the arguments of various journalists and columnists. I even email my responses to them (interestingly, most don't reply).

Check out the blog at:

Posted by: TheDevilsAdvocate at June 18, 2010 3:43 AM | Permalink

At the risk of sounding self-serving, may I just inject a little good news here? After being excommunicated from the Church of the Savvy, I found a wonderful new home at the Huffington Post, whose reporters were already modeling a new (old) way of doing political journalism, which involves calling bullshit and telling it like it is, without fear or favor -- and without checking their brains at the door. Look at what we do. Look at what I do. I've never been more proud. And we're thriving, whereas, last time I checked, playing it safe is killing the American newspaper. Ultimately, I think the Internet may create a financial imperative that drives even the corporate MSM toward a more authentic form of political journalism.

Posted by: Dan Froomkin at June 18, 2010 7:37 AM | Permalink

Concerning MS’ post on the Sphere of Deviance at The Economist’s Democracy in America (quoted here)…

It strikes me that Rosen himself was caught on the horns of the same dilemma in his February discussion of David Barstow’s feature reporting on the Tea Party in The New York Times. At the time Rosen wondered why Barstow had not consigned the Tea Party’s obsession with the “narrative of impending tyranny” into the Sphere of Deviance.

Unlike MS, who sees a conflict between 6) The Sphere of Deviance and 5) He Said/She Said, Rosen posed the same dilemma as a conflict with 2) The Quest for Innocence.

Be that as it may, both MS and Rosen appear to be in accord that the Sphere of Deviance needs to exist. The question, rather, is whether political journalists are conscious about when they are -- and are not -- enforcing such a sphere and are precise about the litmus tests they use.

Which leads me back to my earlier question: when Helen Thomas was cast out of the Gang of 500, condemned to wander for all eternity in a state of deviance, did anybody specify the exact nature of her transgression? Was it only her anti-Semitism? Or was her anti-Zionism, too, beyond the Pale?

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at June 18, 2010 8:49 AM | Permalink

Bravo sir,

Thank you for enlightening me on this fundamental flaw in political journalism. I see that, through the very writing of this column, you have shown yourself to be guilty of this very sin. Your ideology may not be political in this instance, but you assert yourself as "in the middle by claiming you are neither Millbank nor extremist. I have been enlightened by your narcissism. Thank you. (To dumb it down, you are correct, but you are also guilty)

Posted by: MQuerry at June 18, 2010 9:28 AM | Permalink

@Andrew Tyndall

The question, rather, is whether political journalists are conscious about when they are -- and are not -- enforcing such a sphere and are precise about the litmus tests they use.
I also question balancing the need for transparency, "show your work", and "She didn't have to treat us like fourth graders and tell us explicitly."

Posted by: Tim at June 18, 2010 10:22 AM | Permalink

Pretty insightful post. Never thought that it was this simple after all. I had spent a good deal of my time looking for someone to explain this subject clearly and you’re the only one that ever did that. Kudos to you! Keep it up

Posted by: Christy Bell at June 18, 2010 10:23 AM | Permalink

The myth of objectivity becomes the myth of the journalist. Reason becomes the reasonable, and self-love becomes sycophancy.
Mike Allen

WOLFGANG PUCK is in town from Beverly Hills to cook for YOUSEF AL OTAIBA, ambassador from the United Arab Emirates, where more U.S. Navy ships are ported than any other foreign country. The ambassador (who was G’town classmates with Norah O’Donnell and knows the Morrells) hosted 14 young Washingtonians for dinner and convo at his McLean home, followed by Game 7 (and a life-size Kobe) on his 103-inch TV screen. What Puck whipped up: 1) terrine of foie gras with toasted brioche, seared foie gras with cherry chutney, and mousse on apricot tartlet (Riesling, Hirtzberger, “Singerriedel,” Austria 2004); 2) seared wild salmon with cucumber raita and sweet pea puree (Chardonnay, Littorai, “Mays Canyon,” California 2006); 3) risotto with porcini mushrooms (pinot noir, Clos De Tart, “Grand Cru,” Burgundy 1995); 4) veal Milanese (Barolo, Oddero, Italy 2000); 5) slow braised Kobe short ribs and grilled Kobe New York (cabernet sauvignon, Beaulieu Vineyard, “Georges de Latour,” Napa 2001); 6) strawberry shortcake, chocolate raspberry soufflé and peach cobbler (Grüner Veltliner Eiswein, Anton Bauer, Austria).
Nir Rosen put it well: He's not on the same side as the US government, or any other, he's a Journalist. He's not objective he's honest. That is to say his perspective is his own and he takes responsibility for it, but he's an advocate for the public and their right to know. That's his job.

If Nir Rosen can imbed with the Taliban and do his job, why can't you imbed with the Senate?

Posted by: Seth Edenbaum at June 18, 2010 11:11 AM | Permalink


It is not ideology but decision-making at work when political journalists are conscious -- that is "transparent" to themselves -- that they have actively rejected an idea as not worthy of discussion. So, no, they do not have to treat us like fourth graders and tell us explicitly that they have made such a decision but, yes, they do have to realize that it was an actual decision.

One of my favorite definitions of "ideology" is the transformation of conditions that are not automatically so, so that they seem natural.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at June 18, 2010 11:12 AM | Permalink

MQuery: Thank you for enlightening me on this fundamental flaw in political journalism. I see that, through the very writing of this column, you have shown yourself to be guilty of this very sin.

By my count (Twitter and comments) you are the seventh person to make this observation. I addressed it here.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 18, 2010 11:40 AM | Permalink

Andrew: "The question, rather, is whether political journalists are conscious about when they are -- and are not -- enforcing such a sphere and are precise about the litmus tests they use."

My post doesn't say this, but I don't think political journalists can operate intelligently without a sphere of deviance. I think they can operate intelligently without he said, she said and the continuous production of innocence. As you suggest, the critical factor is the degree of awareness and the willingness to be open about "sphere placement decisions." The more open and self-conscious the journalist becomes, the less hidden the ideological basis for their journalism.

This would be a good thing, in my view. But I doubt it would be a simple thing to get to.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 18, 2010 11:52 AM | Permalink

Jay, listen to Mitchell Freedman. The polling data, if you check it in detail, shows that the press is socially liberal, but economically conservative.

However, even those findings need to be broken down a bit more carefully. There's a huge difference between local media and national media, between print media and electronic media. National electronic media is the most economically extremely conservative subcategory, though many have socially liberal leanings.

I think that all of this is irrelevant. What matters is how well informed and how capable in critical thinking skills a journalist is. Journalists are, for the most part, very poorly informed and lack critical thinking skills. I have been amazed to discover how little many reporters seem to know about the stories they cover. Consider how poorly the financial press performed in analyzing the mortgage crisis as it was happening. Many of them, even those in elite institutions, could not even get the basic facts right.

Read the blog Calculated Risk on what Gretchen Morgenson got wrong as an example. Here's a quote from Wikipedia: "Morgenson's articles have been described by Calculated Risk, a popular financial and economics blog, as 'a noxious mixture of fact and hype, information and innuendo.' Calculated Risk further notes that several of Morgenson's stories were broken not by Morgenson but rather on financial blogs, and that this fact was not noted by Morgenson in her articles, an accusation tantamount to plagiarism.[2] Other bloggers have questioned whether Morgenson's articles would be better categorized as editorials instead as news stories." Calculated Risk was right: Morgenson's reporting was awful. Yet she's far from the worst reporter out there.

Posted by: Charles at June 18, 2010 2:15 PM | Permalink

Suppose most members of the press are socially liberal, but economically conservative. How would that change the analysis in this post? It wouldn't. At all.

For "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."

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 18, 2010 2:32 PM | Permalink

I, again, offer that there is an important relationship, perhaps even a complex contradiction, in:

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.
Journalists, he’s saying, help create the universe from which they draw news, which is a truthful but disruptive observation.

Posted by: Tim at June 18, 2010 4:26 PM | Permalink

I very much enjoyed reading this. Thanks.

Posted by: mike viqueira at June 19, 2010 9:36 AM | Permalink

Thank you for this thought-provoking post - it was a great read, and an even greater one to look through all the comments and read a productive/open discussion.

One point I find interesting is the persistence of this question over time (as in, despite or because of the Internet, recent changes in the news cycle, disruptive publications, etc.).

For example, on these topics I recommend Robert Entman's "Democracy without Citizens," which is a fascinating book on press and democracy ideals. It was published in 1988, but the better part of it is remarkably applicable today:

"“Journalists should not assert that, because they follow rules of objectivity, the news stands apart from and mirrors reality. Nor should critics demand that journalism cleanse itself of bias to become neutral. Both defenders and detractors of journalism accept the misleading metaphor of the reflecting mirror. They should recognize that journalism cannot help refracting rather than reflecting reality and thereby exerting political influence. In a way, ideological bias is a comforting explanation for the ills and power of journalism. To trace news slant to journalists’ ideological predilections is to assume that the uncontrolled power of the media might change if only journalists would behave themselves. But neither journalists nor anybody else can fully control the complex interactions that produce news slant. This is the paradox of media power.” (64)

Posted by: Chris at June 19, 2010 12:06 PM | Permalink

I know that book well and it influenced me. Thanks for mentioning it.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 19, 2010 12:11 PM | Permalink

I'm surprised that you think these observations are almost unique to you, Jay. For the last ten years leftist bloggers have been making essentially the same critique of the national media. Although the term "Villagers" is inept (no village I've lived in would ever qualify as preening, narcissistic, elitist, or out of touch with reality), that is what the label is meant to evoke.

The most telling thing about nearly all political journalists at the national level is that they disdain politics. They don't care about public issues or causes or even the results of contests over issues/causes. Instead they make a virtue of focusing on the trivial and ephemeral, who's up and who's down, as if they were empty-headed high school gossips. Most other journalists are fascinated with the topics they specialize in, and may have strong feelings on central issues, but the elite political reporter in DC affects a disdain for everything substantive about his field in order to promote the mystique of his own distance from (above) his subject. It's about seeking to appear superior. And it's simply pathetic.

Posted by: smintheus at June 19, 2010 2:34 PM | Permalink

This is a wonderful, thought-provoking piece. But I think there is one overriding motivation you omitted -- the celebrity journalist. I think the whole approach is more about access and ego than actual journalism. When the White House is the top beat; the reporters all look like they stepped out of the pages of G.Q.; and the kids of the pols and the reporters go to the same exclusive, private schools together, it becomes its own social class. Maintaining the relationships within the class is now what is important, not actually committing journalism.

Posted by: Kirby at June 19, 2010 3:53 PM | Permalink

A word about right-wing media criticism: in the language of the conservative movement, "liberalism" very often means exactly the View from Nowhere. In fact I'd be hard put to find a better capsule description of the dominant political stance in the USA than that. In every walk of life, not just journalism, the easiest road to power is to detach oneself from prior loyalties, discard fervently held principles, and present oneself as a dispassionate, moderate, ironical observer of the fray; to claim, as far as possible, the position of Rawls' unborn souls, about to descend into the world with no notion of where they will be born.

Hence the left-wing criticism of the media that it serves the politics of its owners is true, but not enlightening; the media's owners are just as committed to the View from Nowhere as the editors and reporters are. The leftists' focus on money and power usually obscures the question of why the View from Nowhere, of all possible ideologies, is backed by money and power, and takes "they say it because it pays them" as sufficient explanation. The right-wing criticism takes the ideology as first cause, and thus comes closer to the heart of it -- if you take the trouble to understand the language.

I'm thinking specifically of the many acidic remarks Thomas Sowell has made on the pernicious influence of intellectuals in modern politics. The similarity between those remarks and our host's analyses is quite remarkable ... aside from his classifying the View from Nowhere as a school of the Left, of course.

Posted by: Michael Brazier at June 19, 2010 7:50 PM | Permalink

David Gergen, Master of THE GAME

Unhappily aware that much of what Government officials say and do in public is a charade, unknowing of much that occurs behind closed doors and unwilling to admit ignorance, reporters fashion reality out of perceptions.
The Obama 'narrative' is overshadowing this presidency's real stories

Posted by: Tim at June 19, 2010 9:27 PM | Permalink

Wonderful work, Jay. I'd like to echo the many commenters who suggest that status games: those of pack animals, teenagers, celebrities -- might be a key to extending and deepening your analysis. I know you are aware of status as a factor, but like Elizabeth Brady and several others, I believe it is more central than you make it out to be. For example: why must protestors be dismissed? To exclude an attempt by the hoi polloi to add their voice where politicians' and journalists' should prevail. Why must we be equidistant from the two parties: to be equidistant from the two sources of power. I'd like to see you consider Jim Lehrer (to name just one) as a sort of court jester in negative: his place at the table comes from humorlessness, impeccable manners, and a refusal to acknowledge existence of the sphere of deviance. In so doing he reinforces status and draws from it. Where the jester served as a sort of pressure valve, he serves as a seal, keeping out what does not belong, and drawing status as a useful albeit humble functionary.

Posted by: Sam Penrose at June 20, 2010 1:24 AM | Permalink

Neat post, Jay.
Some interesting things to think about and I see myself in a lot of different spots.

Here in Canada, though, such an analysis would begin from a spot that is much less polarized and more nuanced than in America for a few reasons:
1. Our federal state is a a Parliamentary system with four different political parties/ideologies (and could soon be five); as opposed to the 2-party republic;
2. There's no money in our politics. In Canada, unions/corporations are forbidden to make any donations to candidates/parties. Individuals are restricted to making a donation of no more than $1,100 a year to any one party or candidate. When the money disappears, so does the ideological rigidity of all actors in the drama.
3. Federally we have a significant separatist party and with that come journalists who view the political dialogue along that cleavage rather than a left/right cleavage
4. The single biggest news-gathering organization in the country (CBC) is owned by the state, not by the private sector. With an annual $1-billion a year federal subsidy (roughly equivalent to $10-billion a year if it was Washington), most of the journalists in that organization are freed from the tyranny of the ratings game.

As a result: Journalists are, often at the same time, coming from multiple ideological blinds.

Posted by: David Akin at June 20, 2010 7:53 AM | Permalink

Thanks, David. Those differences are in fact important.

Sam Penrose: I said in my post that Dana Milbank is one of the most extreme ideologues in the press corps, by which I meant "extremely likely to see the world is this hyper-symmetrical and self-congratulatory way." If I were going to select an example of this extremism from the broadcast media I would use Jim Lehrer of PBS.

One of the elements I left out of this analysis was the insider-outsider, or "in group" vs. "everyone else" dynamic.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 20, 2010 11:32 AM | Permalink

Jay Rosen says, "Suppose most members of the press are socially liberal, but economically conservative. How would that change the analysis in this post? It wouldn't. At all."

Jay, if you would please actually read my post, I say "I think that all of this [about ideology] is irrelevant. What matters is how well informed and how capable in critical thinking skills a journalist is. Journalists are, for the most part, very poorly informed and lack critical thinking skills."

But I mention these issues about the difference between "conservative" and "socially conservative" vs. "economically conservative" and local media vs. national media and print vs. electronic because way you frame the issue is at best simplistic and at worst, erroneous. It misrepresents what the universe of studies about ideology of journalists vs. what gets printed actually shows.

Now, back to this critical thinking skills thing....

Posted by: Charles at June 20, 2010 3:07 PM | Permalink

@Robert Paterson, you might enjoy reading this:

What if we envision the journalistic system as layers? On the bottom layer is the body of information produced by the world. It's a quantum world.
Posted by: Tim at June 17, 2010 6:55 PM

Thanks Tim

Posted by: Robert Paterson [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 21, 2010 10:10 AM | Permalink

Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic wrote last week:

Jay Rosen, the New York University press critic, has written a treatise on what he calls the "actual ideology of the American press." It is compelling and provocative, and I recommend a full read. I also think it leaves out something quite important: if the ideologies he identifies -- the pathologies, actually -- are the sum total of the media, what would Jay Rosen, if he were running the world, have us do? Is there a distinction between journalism and ideological argument? Is it methodological? Are there times when, given the difficulty of discovering a truth, journalists can and should adopt a disinterested or disembodied stance? His criticism applies largely to political journalism, and so I anticipate his answer.

I am mostly finished with my reply, which I will post Tuesday. If you have followed my work over time there won't be much in it to surprise you. But if any of you have suggestions for what I should say back to Ambinder, please post them here. Thanks!

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 21, 2010 10:13 AM | Permalink

VFN: Being or being seen?

Last October, Mark Bowden talked about the VFN this way:

"the great fun of speaking wholly for himself, without fear or favor . . . is what gives reporters the power to stir up trouble wherever they go. The honest, disinterested voice of a true journalist . . . requires at the very least being seen as fair-minded and trustworthy by those—and this is the key—who are inclined to disagree with him." (emphasis added)

He ends his article:

The honest, disinterested voice of a true journalist carries an authority that no self-branded liberal or conservative can have. “For a country to have a great writer is like having another government,” Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote. Journalism, done right, is enormously powerful precisely because it does not seek power. It seeks truth. Those who forsake it to shill for a product or a candidate or a party or an ideology diminish their own power. They are missing the most joyful part of the job.

This is what H. L. Mencken was getting at when he famously described his early years as a Baltimore Sun reporter. He called it “the life of kings.”

Posted by: Chris Bugbee at June 21, 2010 1:07 PM | Permalink

I think the difference between power-seeking and disinterested truth-seeking is key. It's not just blowing smoke, either. There is something to that. But I don't think that truth-seeking requires taking the View from Nowhere.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 21, 2010 5:52 PM | Permalink

Is it really so complicated? All of the ideas you describe fall under the general rule:

"Disengagement from reality by turning it into a game".

Your various terms simply unpack the details of how this happens, and why it is a self-reinforcing attractor to journalists.

Posted by: Ecks at June 22, 2010 2:57 AM | Permalink

As promised, a new post at PressThink: Fixing The Ideology Problem in Our Political Press: A Reply to The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder.

"If your job is to make the case, win the negotiations, decide what the community should do, or maintain morale, that is one kind of work. If your job is to tell people what's going on, and equip them to participate without illusions, that is a very different kind of work."

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 22, 2010 1:01 PM | Permalink

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.

Shouldn't matter?

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.

Posted by: Xtian Not! [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 23, 2010 7:11 AM | Permalink

"It’s very simple. The press ultimately serves the interests of the people who own it…"
Would you say this fully characterizes the Chomsky/Herman propaganda model, or only the way certain people interpret it? Without the word ultimately, I'd think it was the latter.

And what do you make of the assessment that advertising-funded media consumers are the product, not journalism itself?

Posted by: me at June 23, 2010 7:52 AM | Permalink

oh really? Ideology and corporate ownership are not the primary drivers of bias? How would Fox News and the Daily Show survive without blatant ideological bias? It's like what people watch for! And corporate ownership rarely steers a news outlet, but it does restrict what can be said, thus placing limitations on discourse.

This is just another typical, "let me take something simple, set up some straw men and present my view as the more nuanced and even handed approach." This is about on the same intellectual level as sociology (see "made of crap that people like to call a social science.")

Posted by: Andrew Clunn at June 25, 2010 10:45 PM | Permalink

More on the history of the View From Nowhere, Why the News Makes You Angry

The concept of journalistic objectivity is fairly new. For our first centuries, most newspapers in the U.S. were partisan, serving the political or religious parties that financed them. H.S. Stansaas, writing in Journal of Mass Media Sciences, said it took until 1904 for objective journalism to become commonplace, and only by 1925 had the practice been established as the norm.

No one can say with certainty where the notion of objectivity came from or how it became an ethical imperative, but it almost certainly had something to do with money. Some say the primary impetus was the introduction of the telegraph, which introduced the delivery of news over long distances (the news wires). The stories had to be palatable to those in both Seattle and in Sewanee. Certainly in the age of three television networks, objectivity -- defined as unobjectionable to all -- was the only business model that made sense.

Posted by: Tim at June 26, 2010 6:18 PM | Permalink

Jay, Excellent post. Many people seems to default to an Us or Them binary mode of viewing politics and other subjects. I think this is more than an effect of the Two Party System!

Popular use of the terms right wing, left wing, extremist, or radical are clues. For many people, any who disagree with them, are by definition extremists or radicals.

The following quote by Thomas Sowell captured the essence of this phenomena: The reason so many people misunderstand so many issues is not that these issues are so complex, but that people do not want a factual or analytical explanation that leaves them emotionally unsatisfied. They want villains to hate and heroes to cheer-- and they don't want explanations that do not give them that.

I like to refer to the human predilection for this process of identifying them and us as "McThinking."

IMO, zeitgeist molds politicians more than politicians influence mobs.

I also think Tip O'Neil said it well, "All politics is local." IMO, population density has a large effect on local opinions.

The Elliott Wave Theroists also state it well, when people are outside their area of knowledge, they herd.

It's very simple: Since a large number of individuals will expose an almost infinite number of constantly changing opinions, limitations of time and space in media will always require simplification.

Keep up the good work.

Posted by: Simple Minded at June 27, 2010 10:07 AM | Permalink

re: McThinking, I like it! Automatic thinking and cognitive bias.

Satullo Responds: "Bloggers, Journalists, Can't We All Just Get Along?"

In fact, reporters tend to be quite nonideological and unreflective about political ideas; when we commit bias, it is a thought-less act, not a thoughtful, premeditated one.

Posted by: Tim at June 27, 2010 11:59 AM | Permalink

Re he said/she said "journalism", and the abdication of responsibility to sift out the truth:

Paul Krugman nailed it ten years ago, when he wrote. "If a presidential candidate were to declare that the earth is flat, you would be sure to see a news analysis under the headline 'Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.' ”

Posted by: John Quick at June 27, 2010 3:09 PM | Permalink

From the Intro