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

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

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

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Recommended by PressThink:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Group Blogs

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

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

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

Digests & Round-ups:

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

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

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

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

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

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

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June 22, 2010

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."

After I published my last post, Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right: On the Actual Ideology of the American Press, the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder, a political journalist who consults for CBS News in addition to his reporting and writing for the Atlantic, said my piece was provocative and worth reading but it left some important questions unanswered:

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 going to answer his specific questions and then I will have a general reply to what I take to be the spirit of this inquiry. (UPDATE, July 20, 2010: Marc Ambinder responds at The Atlantic site: The Ideology Of Journalists: A Response To Jay Rosen. A very interesting essay.)

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?

I didn’t say anything about the “sum total of the media.” I identified a number of beliefs that prevail among the political reporters, editors and producers who work at such places as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, the Associated Press, Time, Newsweek, National Journal, The Politico, The Hill, Roll Call, ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, CNN, PBS and NPR. I sometimes call this group the national press, or the political press, and its familiar practices and tendencies I call political journalism.

They are not the “sum total of the media,” but an important part of the national news system. Nor are the practices I identified the whole of political journalism, just a striking feature of it. I didn’t talk about accuracy in my post, but that is something the national press certainly believes in. I didn’t talk about personality-driven journalism (as in covering Russia by covering Yeltsin) but that is a characteristic feature, as well. So I freely admit I left many things out in order to highlight a few worth critcizing.

Is there a distinction between journalism and ideological argument?

Yes, there is. Or to put it another way: journalism is not just “politics by other means.” The simplest way to illustrate this is to picture a journalistic situation like a labor union newspaper, where the reporter and editors are likely to share with members and leaders a strong commitment to the labor movement and a general suspicion of its traditional adversaries— companies like Wal Mart, legislation like right-to-work laws, and politicians like Mitch McConnell. If they were in dramatic philosophical conflict with the union publishing the newspaper, they probably wouldn’t get the job. Shared ideology is a condition of employment.

Once hired as journalists, however, their job—if they are real journalists—is to tell the members what is happening and cover the issues union people care about and ought to know about, regardless of whether the news so reported supports the arguments leadership is making at the time. If, say, Walmart, aware of its poor reputation, has recently shown some openness to union organizers or dealt fairly with them, a good union newspaper would report that (in proportion) even if it makes for some cognitive dissonance among the membership.

If your job is lobbying for the union, representing it in negotiations, or acting as its spokesman, then ideological argument is what you do. You make the case for the union. If your job is editing the news section of the newspaper, you inform people of what is going on in the world of their union. You equip them to understand it without illusions, and to participate in it— including participation in argument. So, yes, there is a difference between journalism and ideological argument, and this difference would show up even when there is broad agreement on ideology and no hint of a View from Nowhere, as in my example of the union newspaper.

Is [this difference] methodological?

No, it’s larger than that. 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. To put it a little more sharply, power-seeking and truth-seeking are different behaviors, and this is what creates the distinction between politics and journalism. The work of the journalist cannot be done without a commitment to the act of reporting, which means gathering information, talking to people who know, trying to verify and clarify what actually happened and to portray the range of views as they emerge from events.

A primary commitment to reporting therefore distinguishes the work of the journalist. Declining to express a view does not. Refusing to vote does not. Pretending to be ideology-free or “objective” on everything does not. Getting attacked from both sides? Nope. But a commitment to reporting does. Watch what happens when Tucker Carlson tries to explain this to union members— the American Conservative Union, that is. “The New York Times is a liberal newspaper,” said Carlson.

The catcalls started in. “They go out, and they get the facts.” More boos. “Conservatives need to copy that— they need to get out find out what’s going on, and not just analyze things based on what the mainstream media has reported.”

If we’re going to have conservative journalism, Carlson was trying to say, we need a commitment to original reporting. (See this post, along the same lines.) The reaction he got suggests that the act of informing people actually requires the cooperation of those people, the would-be inform-ees. Absent that, there can be journalists, but no real journalism.

Are there times when, given the difficulty of discovering a truth, journalists can and should adopt a disinterested or disembodied stance?

I take your point, Marc. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell what happened, to know whom to believe, or to decide who’s right. Disputes can be so impenetrable, accounts so fragmentary, issues so complicated that it’s hard to locate where truth is. In situations like that—which I agree are common—what should journalists committed to truthtelling do? Is it incumbent on them to decide who’s right, even though it’s hard to decide who’s right?

I would say no. It’s incumbent on them to level with the users. If that means backing up to say, “Actually, it’s hard to tell what happened here,” or, “I’ll share with you what I know, but I don’t know who’s right,” this may be unsatisfying to some, but it may also be the best an honest reporter can do. Portraying conflicting accounts or clashing interpretations is an exacting skill, which does require a certain detachment. But there is no necessary connection between that skill, or that kind of detachment, and the ritualized avoidance of all conclusions, such as we find in He Said, She Said and the View from Nowhere.

Detachment is not an evil in journalism. To say so makes no sense. To stand back and look at a situation dispassionately is vital to accuracy, and in a sense to intellect itself. My almost foolproof measure of intellectual honesty is the ability to paraphrase the arguments of another such that the other recognizes his or her view in the paraphrase. That takes a certain kind detachment, and political reporters are often called upon to do exactly this: summarize the views of others. I have no quarrel with these practical uses of detachment. It’s the theatrical ones I mistrust.

If what Ambinder had in mind is some plea for common sense like, sometimes, a “he said, she said” account is the best we can do… yeah, I agree. But where it is possible to tell who’s misleading us more, journalists should say so. Dan Froomkin wrote a post about this: On calling bullshit. puts his point it into practice, as with this “pants on fire” rating for Sarah Palin.

Finally, I want to address what I think Marc Ambinder was really asking:

What ought to be the ideology of the political press and how should they handle this trickiest of problems in professional practice?

I go back to the theme of my Clowns and Jokers post: “this is complicated.” I don’t think there is one answer. I would not trust any magic solution or single device. Nor do I think my answers exclusively correct. It certainly isn’t possible to pick a point on the political spectrum and say: Journalists should be Scoop Jackson Democrats or Jim Leach Republicans. But there are some things they can do.

Transition from the institutional voice to the individual journalist with a voice. This is already happening. The “voice of god,” a disembodied language in which the news came to be presented, is slowly being phased out while the opportunities for journalists to speak with voice and interact as human beings are on the rise. The symbol of this shift is the reporter who also blogs, but an even better marker is the blogger who is hired to do a job that a “straight” reporter might have done before, as with Ezra Klein covering health care reform and other wonkish subjects for the Washington Post. During the dramatic battles of 2009-10, Klein had no trouble making his views known on health care reform and reporting with credibility on the issue, a combination once thought impossible.

Gradually replace the view from nowhere with “here’s where I’m coming from.” The weakening of the institutional voice is good news for those who would like to find a better solution to the (tricky) problem of ideology in political journalism. The discovery that users want to make a connection to the people who bring them the news is also useful. These developments prepare the ground for the bigger and harder shift that awaits political journalists, which is to abandon the View from Nowhere as a means for generating trust and replace it with “here’s where I’m coming from,” which is a different—and, increasingly, a more plausible—way of generating trust.

(On this point see The Case for Full Disclosure by James Poniewozik of Time and my own post from two years ago: Getting the Politics of the Press Right: Walter Pincus Rips into Newsroom Neutrality. For a more philosophical treatment see David Weinberger, Transparency is the New Objectivity. And if you’re really interested in these issues, watch my exchange with Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute.)

Let me explain how it might work for Marc Ambinder, who has already started in on the project of disclosure. Instead of saying in his bio, “I report on politics for the Atlantic and I’m chief political consultant for CBS News” and leaving it at that, he would say something like… I report on politics for the Atlantic and I’m chief political consultant for CBS News. Accuracy, fairness, doing the reporting before coming to a conclusion and trying to see all sides of an issue are first principles with me, but I am not without a perspective on politics. So here is where I’m coming from…

And then he would proceed to summarize as clearly and honestly as he can what that perspective is. This wouldn’t require him to declare his “position” on every issue that might come up in reporting on politics, as if he were a candidate for public office. I doubt he has such positions. The purpose is to provide enough transparency that readers of Ambinder’s work can understand where he’s coming from and apply whatever discount rate they want. That way he doesn’t have to pretend to viewlessness— an advantage in writing about politics! (My own such statement is found in this FAQ post at PressThink.)

A possible alternative route to “here’s where I’m coming from” would be for Ambinder to create a kind of heroes and villains list and link to it off the front page of his blog. It might feature, say, 40 visible people in politics he genuinely admires (with a careful explanation of why) and ten he has major problems with (and why.) Done well and kept current, it would probably tell me a lot about his perspective on things. I can think of many instant objections a reporter might have to this method (“what happens to my credibility when one of my so-called heroes is shown to be a liar or a cheat…?”) but that shouldn’t stop one of them from trying it. Reporters in the mainstream press have instant objections to everything you ask them to do that they’re not doing now. They’re rather good at that.

Kill the phony mean before it kills you. That the truth is probably somewhere in the middle… that if both sides think you are biased against them it probably means you’re playing it straight… that the extremes on both sides are equally extreme, deluded and irresponsible— these practices have rotted out, and the sooner they are done away with, the better footing political journalism will be on. Just as it should be routine for reporters to ask themselves, “am I showing undue favoritism here, am I slanting my account?” it should be routine to ask, “am I creating a false symmetry here, am I positing a phony mean?”

Fact checking is good journalism. Journalists should take a lesson from the success of the fact-checking site, I have already written extensively about this one, so there is no need to repeat myself.

But don’t do it unless you are willing to do what Politifact does: tell us when a political actor is lying, or speaking falsely. Drop the pretense that there must be deception in equal measure on both sides of the partisan ledger—a lie for a lie, and untruth for an untruth—just because we, the journalists, need to show how even handed we are. The AP has started doing it, and as Greg Sargent reported, “Their fact-checking efforts are almost uniformly the most clicked and most linked pieces they produce. Journalistic fact-checking with authority, it turns out, is popular.”

This is telling us something.

So those are four things I would have political journalists do to break free from some of the pathologies I wrote about last week. Let me conclude by listing a few things journalists should be strongly for or against. In the same way they are strongly for and often take action on freedom of information issues, they should…

Be strongly for transparency, which means our ability to see into the house of power. It is part of a commitment to transparency that one respects what is genuinely private, distinguishing it from what is truly public.

Be strongly against opacity as a tool of power.

Be strongly for accountability in government and civil society, especially where public money, human lives and people’s livelihoods are at stake. (Does David Gregory of NBC News understand what accountability is? I don’t think so.)

Be strongly against demagoguery (that’s when a leader makes use of common prejudices, false claims and false promises in order to win power…) which means trying to raise the cost of participating in it.

I mention these things because to pretend to neutrality when they’re afoot or at stake is malpractice.

* * *

What did I leave out, or overlook? If you know, leave a comment. Thanks!

Posted by Jay Rosen at June 22, 2010 1:02 AM   Print


Very nicely said.

As I see it, the role of the journalist isn't all that different than Postman's vision for teaching. The notion that information is understood according to context and that context is present in environmental form in media. The journalist uses language as his/her primary medium and as such should always strive to operate away from higher levels of abstraction and to take the audience as close to event level as is possible, both technically and stylistically. An issue suited for Korzybski, Hayakawa, Wendell Johnson, et. al.

If the reporting incorporates other forms of media, photos, video, hyperlinks, etc...the journalist should understand the strengths and limitation of those media and avoid contradicting the point I made regarding language. Don't elevate the news to a higher level of abstraction, in direct contradiction to your stated goal, by ignorantly relying on media that cancel out the desired effect. You 'ethic of the link' line of reasoning gets to the core of this.

The philosophy that you've described so well, and the remedies to the broken aspects of the philosophy not only include changes to the mode of thought, but of the means of presentation as well. Not enough journalists understand their tools, especially language, and end up philosophically and technically crippling the most constructive and publicly useful outcomes of their work.

Posted by: Mike Plugh at June 22, 2010 1:54 AM | Permalink

It occurs to me after my Postman comment that one of the main problems of political journalism is that the audience is also left with information without broader context. We're better informed thanks to the scope and range of journalism, but we don't see how issue A is connected to issue B is connected to issue C and where we, the public or the citizen, fit into that elaborate web of events. We can't see our own position amidst those issues, and therefore it hardly seems possible to use the information for anything worthwhile.

The journalist therefore, philosophically, must have as his/her goal the positioning of the citizen or the public at the center of the web and illustrate the web on our behalf. That necessitates understanding the web and how to represent it in a way that makes it navigable. Narrative provides the structure for journalists to present that map to the public now, but narrative necessarily relies on abstraction. Journalism needs to operate less on myth or religion and more as a technical manual.

Posted by: Mike Plugh at June 22, 2010 2:42 AM | Permalink

These things are always complicated in the details, but it is simpler in the big picture view:

Journalists have disengaged from the hazards of political reality by turning it into a game.

Explanation: Games are simplified antiseptic versions of reality which give quick feedback on winning or losing, and are mostly worth winning for their own sake rather than because they mean anything in the outside world.

The church of the savvy lays out the ground rules. You win by finding and spinning something that generates attention while making you look authoritative. You lose by being perceived as co-opted by another player (this is codified as the "quest for innocence"), and you avoid this with defensive strategies such as regression-to-phony-means and he-said/she-said tactics. Safety is reached when you arrive at the view-from-nowhere (i.e., the unimpeachable place from which you are looking down on everyone else). The sphere-of-deviance represents a power play to marginalize anything that could threaten the game.

How does this clarify things? It suggests the answer is to stop viewing journalism as a game, but rather as being about real life people, all of whom matter (not just the famous or dramatic ones). Policy is not a football that moves forwards and backwards and is kicked through uprights ("what does this mean for your team, coach?"), it is whether people get nutrition to eat, it is whether they commit more crimes, it is whether they live to see their kids get older, it is whether they lose their jobs and become depressed.

The political journalist's mission is to give people state of the art knowledge about how their lives will change depending on what happens in [insert-capital-here]. Having both parties mad at you is not a win, because it isn't a game. There is nothing to win. There are only voters lives who are affected or who aren't affected. And THAT is what is wrong with the Dana Milibankses of the world.

Posted by: Ecks at June 22, 2010 3:49 AM | Permalink

I'd add one other thing that journalists should be in favor of: Letting data tell the story.

We all love good writing, but most good journalism is not based on good writing, it's based in finding the signal in the noise and putting that front and center.

Posted by: Scott Yates at June 22, 2010 7:36 AM | Permalink

Nicely done, Jay, as expected.

I would like to associate the following posts to your excellent reply:

Fleshing Out Meta-Reporting

Fournier's "Accountability Journalism"

Posted by: Tim at June 22, 2010 9:24 AM | Permalink

Good post Jay. I do have one question. You wrote:

"Detachment is not an evil in journalism. To say so makes no sense. To stand back and look at a situation dispassionately is vital to accuracy, and in a sense to intellect itself."

But how would a journalist reconcile this reasonable practice of detachment with the "Here's where I'm coming from" approach when trying to gain trust? How do you convince readers that you can look at a subject/person dispassionately when you just told them that this is something/someone you feel passionate about? Even if you deal strictly in fact, would they not have cause to wonder if you're leaving out facts that conflict with your narrative?

Posted by: John Zhu at June 22, 2010 11:44 AM | Permalink

"Gradually replace the view from nowhere with “here’s where I’m coming from.”

The end of the lie objectivity and a return to engaged intelligence. As I argued on your post in 2009
I linked to Andrew Marr who wrote My Trade: A History of British Journalism, and who got his start knocking on widows' doors.

Last week it was Nir Rosen who embedded with the Taliban and who says point blank that he's not on the same side as the US government, or any other.

John Mortimer

“Doing these cases,” he wrote, “I began to find myself in a dangerous situation as an advocate. I came to believe in the truth of what I was saying. I was no longer entirely what my professional duties demanded, the old taxi on the rank waiting for the client to open the door and give his instruction, prepared to drive off in any direction, with the disbelief suspended.”
A journalist's client is the public.

Taxi drivers are called hacks. Lawyers are fee for service: are hacks. Journalists in Marr's own terms are hacks.

Notice how your terms now come close to terms of law, concerning not truth but structure, Equal protection and freedom of speech are structural. Transparency is structural. Accountability is structure. Truth-seeking is self important, fact-seeking is gruntwork.

Journalists are not judges they're prosecutor or defense attorney, paid to do a job, Every absurdity of the American press is predicated on the desire to stand as authority or the next best thing, kiss up to it.

Jon Stewart is the best popular political commentator in the US because he takes the issues more seriously than he takes himself. He's a comedian. It's just a job.

You're right, thing's are changing: You've changed.

Posted by: seth edenbaum at June 22, 2010 1:04 PM | Permalink

Politifact is misspelled - missing the i between t and f, although the link is correct.

Besides that error, I applaud your post and your commentators' as well. We are truly in a journalistic crisis and it is literally killing our country as our discourse focuses not on substantial issues and effects of decisions, but on delusions and paranoia.

Posted by: Alain at June 22, 2010 1:09 PM | Permalink

"And then he would proceed to summarize as clearly and honestly as he can what that perspective is. This wouldn’t require him to declare his “position” on every issue that might come up in reporting on politics, as if he were a candidate for pubic office.

Of course, "pubic" should be "public."

Posted by: bajsa at June 22, 2010 1:21 PM | Permalink

Very small correction: "Public" is misspelled in the fourth paragraph of the "here's where I'm coming from" section. Unless, of course, that was intended to be a sly statement on the state of American politics...

Posted by: Mark Coddington at June 22, 2010 1:24 PM | Permalink

John Zhu: the whole idea that we can't give anyone "cause to wonder" because then we won't have credibility is flawed, and part of what I am trying to overthrow. People will wonder whether they should trust you, even if you don't give them a cause. Instead of seeing that as a crisis of credibility, or a weakness, we should talk a calmer view and treat it as part of the trust transaction. A disclosure statement of any kind is, precisely, a "cause to wonder..." Now that I know this, can I trust this person and their accounts? The answer is found in the work.

Also, the various strategies and priorities I have recommended here do not fit into a seamless system where nothing can ever conflict with anyone else. Which is another way of saying that good journalism requires judgment.

Thanks for the corrections! I fixed them.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 22, 2010 1:28 PM | Permalink

Scott: Your comment provides a welcome opportunity to situate journalism in the broader context of communication and technology.

Your description of the journalist distinguishing between signal and noise echoes a perspective that strongly influenced the early American study of communication (heck, it still does). John Durham Peters describes the moment here; the gist is that in the 1940s, communication studies begin to take up the language of newly blossoming information theory--and we get things like the sender-receiver model, that not coincidentally looks like the structure of an electrical (radio) transmission. But this is just one instance of a very old ideal, Peters argues, that of a perfect communication. Technology is variously posited as enabling us to access this perfect communication or as blocking our access (the debate has now raged from Plato's Phaedrus to Carr's The Shallows).

So, fast forward to today, as we try to make ourselves at home in the digital world, a technological medium that allows us to reach more (broadcasting), or address particular audiences (narrowcasting) while shifting from unidirectional (sender-receiver) to bi- and even multi-directional (as in the conversation occurring here). Some even speak to no one. That's a lot of sound, though how much is noise is increasingly obscure. In part, the question is, who how gets to distinguish between signal and noise, and how do they describe and justify their choices. Surely, political journalists see themselves as picking out the signal from amongst the noise, what is real and necessary and undistorted from the apparent, accidental and masked. But when there's no way to tell with certainty what's signal and what's noise, what to do? The problem with the sender/receiver radio model becomes acute--what IS a signal?

Sticking with the audio metaphor, maybe the guidelines above can be likened to making a soundscape. R. Murray Schafer coins the term to refer to our sonic environment--the sound of nature, technology (my snoring dog may be both), building acoustics, even cultural practices that "tune" us and "in and out." Part of the point is that we don't encounter these sounds as isolated (a pure signal/message), but we can focus our attention more or less, and have better and worse listening practices for hearing particular sound objects.

I read Prof. Rosen's guidelines as working out what is necessary to develop our ability to hear in a chaotic soundscape. I'll leave this with what Murray Schafer suggests regarding designing better soundscapes:

The best way to comprehend what I mean by acoustic design is to regard the soundscape of the world as a huge musical composition, unfolding around us ceaselessly. We are simultaneously its audience, its performers and its composers. Which sounds do we want to preserve, encourage, multiply? When we know this, the boring or destructive sounds will become conspicuous enough and we will know why we must eliminate them. Only a total appreciation of the acoustic environment can give us the resources necessary for improving the orchestration of the soundscape. Acoustic design is not merely a matter for acoustic engineers. It is a task requiring the energies of many people: professionals, amateurs, young people--anyone with good ears; for the universal concert is always in progress, and seats in the auditorium are free.
The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, pp. 206-206

Posted by: cate at June 22, 2010 1:48 PM | Permalink

It's a little shocking to me that people need explanations of the difference between advocacy and reporting, but maybe that's because I'm in law school. The first thing you learn in a Legal Writing class is the difference between a memo (reporting) and a brief (advocacy). Lawyers have to play both roles all the time, and they are obviously distinct. How is it that any so-called journalist cannot understand the difference?

Posted by: Andrew at June 22, 2010 1:53 PM | Permalink

A good companion to Sargent's piece on fact checking is Ben Smith's take on the practice.

Posted by: Ben at June 22, 2010 2:00 PM | Permalink

The competent paraphrase is, in my opinion, the most important concept that Professor Rosen has introduced to us at PressThink, both in his advice to working journalists and in the moderation of his own commenters. Its exercise even makes He Said/She Said journalism more palatable. Maybe it should be a rule that political journalists should summarize the positions of those they cover instead of -- or in addition to -- relying on direct quotes or soundbites. It would be one way of policing anodyne, fatuous and sophistic talking points, not to mention the more serious sin, singled out above, of demagoguery (?demagogy).

Speaking of the four points -- Supporting Transparency, Opposing Opacity, Insisting on Accountability, Denouncing Demagogy -- that journalists should elevate to the same status as embracing Freedom of Information…

…I think they are only three, since supporting transparency and opposing opacity amount to the same thing.

My question is, how can journalists sanction their peers when they violate these cardinal rules? When Halperin & Heilemann or Bob Woodward use blind quotes and unnamed sources, are they disqualified as journalists in good standing because of their offenses against transparency? When FOX News Channel airs demagogic rants by Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity, does it lose its credentials as a cable news network, and its accompanying seat in the White House briefing room? When pundits go on Sunday morning show round tables and venture predictions that turn out to be valueless, should they be held accountable and never be invited back?

Do you, Jay, really believe that these sins are as serious for a journalist as self-censorship? Or was that hype?

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at June 22, 2010 2:31 PM | Permalink

Marc Ambinder's initial reply. Which I would summarize as: "...wait a minute, I can't do all these things--and do my reporting--without running into conflicts between different goods I'm supposed to be upholding."

I'm in New York today reporting for a magazine article, so I don't have much time to digest Jay's essay. In the coming days I will digest it fully (I have a small stomach, you know), and I will respond to it, where I think it needs responding, in due course. Generally, I would say that I easily agree with the principles he lays out, but I still have some nagging doubts about the way in which they are, or should be, regularly applied to the craft.

For example: tonight, I'm learning a lot about the back end of how the Rolling Stone article about Gen. McChrystal came to be written. I could share everything I know immediately, thus satisfying the transparency and anti-opacity principles, but in order to figure out who ought to be held accountable and why, I'm going to have to use that information to gather other information and then make an informed decision.

There's no doubt that I will NOT able to identify, by name, all of the sources I've spoken to. I will always do my best to relate to the reader the biases of the sources, but if my goal is to explain to people what's really happening, and I think that IS my goal, then I'm going to have to ... well ... sacrifice at least one of the principles (opacity) for another (accountability).

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 22, 2010 2:37 PM | Permalink

There's one crucial technique for doing real reporting as news sources move online: linking. Linking is what makes the Web a *web*, it's the defining characteristic of the medium. It's also a crucial element in establishing credibility.

Jakob Nielsen is the guru of online usability studies, including how people read, follow, and trust websites. He's found that outbound links increase your credibility -- but you'll notice that mainstream news sites use very few outbound links, and even their within-site links are often to vague search results, not to specific articles. Without outbound links, news sites look self-involved, unconfident, opaque, and useless. Everything becomes an appeal to authority, which is only underlined by the reliance on unidentified sources.

The desktop image for every journalist should be Citation Needed. Links are where transparency begins.

Posted by: Doctor Science at June 22, 2010 4:59 PM | Permalink

Yes, as part of a "show your work" philosophy, which I could have included here.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 22, 2010 5:00 PM | Permalink

When Halperin & Heilemann or Bob Woodward use blind quotes and unnamed sources, are they disqualified as journalists in good standing because of their offenses against transparency?

The way I would put it is they should be super self-aware that the fabric of trust strains each time they do it, and that presumptive anonymity is damaging their craft big time. Woodward in the methods he uses for his inside-the-White-House books has, I believe, passed beyond the normal, stretchable bounds in journalism and is into another kind of work. I don't think there's a good word for it. "Best seller-ism," maybe.

When FOX News Channel airs demagogic rants by Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity, does it lose its credentials as a cable news network, and its accompanying seat in the White House briefing room?

That's up to the White House Correspondents Association; if they choose to make a distinction between the "opinion" programming of Fox--which is demagoguery--and the "news" side, then a case could be made for permitting Fox correspondents a chair.

When pundits go on Sunday morning show round tables and venture predictions that turn out to be valueless, should they be held accountable and never be invited back?

They shouldn't be asked for predictions-- it's a stupid ritual that burns trust. If they turn out to say stuff that is patently untrue and the fact check shows it, they should not be invited back, yes.

Do you, Jay, really believe that these sins are as serious for a journalist as self-censorship? Or was that hype?

Can't answer that in the abstract, but I didn't say all these things are equal in seriousness, I said they are all serious components of a workable ideology for political journalism.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 22, 2010 5:23 PM | Permalink

re: blind quotes and unnamed sources

The way I would put it is they should be super self-aware that the fabric of trust strains each time they do it, and that presumptive anonymity is damaging their craft big time.
I'm convinced that journalists continued to misuse anonymous sources based on thinking that is industry/insider/peer-centric rather than intentional contempt for readers.

Posted by: Tim at June 22, 2010 5:55 PM | Permalink

How does putting the onus on the White House Correspondents Association to decide whether there is a distinction between "opinion" and "news" raise the cost that FOX News Channel pays for participating in demagoguery? Shouldn't the onus be put on FOX News Channel itself, a journalistic institution, to disavow demagogues, especially those in its employ?

I did not say [the four precepts of strong support and opposition] are equal in seriousness...

...but you did say they should be treated "in the same way" that journalists take action on freedom of information. That same does a lot of work.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at June 22, 2010 7:22 PM | Permalink

In a "show your work" vein, while reporting on Tom Harkin's lecture on filibuster reform yesterday, Ryan McNeely wrote: "Harkin has credibility on this issue, as he first proposed these reforms in 1995 when Democrats were in the minority." I love that McNeely doesn't just attribute credibility to Harkin, but takes the further step of articulating why, in this case using Harkin's past acts as proof that he's not motivated by self-interest. This approach both helps the reader determine who to trust, and by explaining the reasoning, it provides the reader an opportunity to disagree. Maybe you don't find the reasoning sound or evidence sufficient. Either way, any time a reporter can give the audience more resources and opportunities to critically engage an argument, deliberation gets a little healthier.

There's been a lot of talk about what journalists are not qualified to do, but I think this is an example of an area where political journalists can add an especially helpful perspective--one particularly well-suited for reconciling a speaker's current claim with his/her interests and past acts.

Posted by: cate at June 22, 2010 8:04 PM | Permalink


Shouldn't the onus be put on FOX News Channel itself, a journalistic institution, to disavow demagogues, especially those in its employ?

This is sarcasm, right? Or at least irony ...

Putting aside the question of what sort of institution FOXNews might be, journalism will only be a profession insofar as it is *self*-policed, not employer-policed. Doctor police doctors, lawyers police lawyers, scientists police scientists -- that's why medicine, law, and science are *professions*. As currently practiced, journalism does not appear to be a profession: it's just a job.

I see more professional policing among bloggers than among journalists, frankly. For instance, John Cole and his co-bloggers have a policy of not linking to Politico; the Obsidian Wings bloggers make a point of not linking to National Review. Is there any similar culture of shaming in place among "professional" journalists? Is shaming and the drawing of professional lines something Jay is teaching his students?

Posted by: Doctor Science at June 22, 2010 8:58 PM | Permalink

John Cole and his co-bloggers link to Politico.

I imagine Obsidian Wings bloggers make a point of not linking to National Review out of resentment from Ed Whelan outing publius.

Posted by: Tim at June 22, 2010 10:07 PM | Permalink

Dr. Science, you live in a fantasy world. Do economists police economists? Do professors of philosophy police each other? Most of them wish they were hired to police the others.

Fox gave us Fox News and The Simpsons. And the best of the critical reporting on the web owes its existence to the need to counter Fox. Thank you Rupert Murdoch for forcing the change that may allow the US to have our own Guardan UK or Independent.

Lawyers police lawyers because they have a trade to practice and clients to represent and very specific ethnical obligations. Lawyers aren't paid to be objective except in regards to the best way to do their job. That's why John Yoo still has one.

Nir Rosen

"i'm a journalist, not an american journalist. my job is not to serve as a propagandist for anybody, just to tell stories and my advantage is that i can tell stories that are hard to come by
...imagine if that one taliban commander had not screwed up my plans to go with them when they conducted attacks, and i had seen that too. isnt that interesting? isnt it important to understand who they are? and most importantly, wouldnt it make for a fun read?"
How refreshingly amoral. How refreshingly cognizant of ethical obligation.

I asked before: If he can embed with the Taliban why can't the US press embed with the Senate? I'll give you the answer. Because they have more respect for the Senate than they do for their clients: their clients are their readers.

Everybody in the press wants to be a moral philosopher, a judge and jury, or the bitch of one. No one wants to do their job. The government of the United States in not the people. I do not want my lawyer palling around with the prosecutor. He works for me. That's not rocket science or the critique of pure reason that's adversarialism.

Public intellectual life in the US is moving slowly towards an understanding of the obvious. Still too slowly.

Posted by: seth edenbaum at June 22, 2010 11:59 PM | Permalink

Dr. Science is right that John Cole et. al. have developed a general policy of not linking to Politico, but they break their own rule on it somewhat regularly.

Posted by: Ecks at June 23, 2010 12:34 AM | Permalink

It's a little shocking to me that people need explanations of the difference between advocacy and reporting, but maybe that's because I'm in law school. The first thing you learn in a Legal Writing class is the difference between a memo (reporting) and a brief (advocacy). Lawyers have to play both roles all the time, and they are obviously distinct. How is it that any so-called journalist cannot understand the difference?
When people's income, or social position, depends on not understanding something, they'll usually find a way not to understand it. That's what's in play here -- the political press gained their power by confusing the distinction between advocacy for the View from Nowhere and real reporting, and they'll keep on confusing it until they lose their audience's trust and go bankrupt. Certainly they ought to follow Jay Rosen's recommendations, but almost certainly they won't.

I'd like to emphasize, again, that while the View from Nowhere is characteristic of the political press, it's hardly confined to them. It is, in fact, the bedrock assumption of political elites throughout the Western world. Amongst the powerful it is presumed that standing outside any ideology, speaking and thinking as if one had no connection with any party or faction, is necessary for anyone who would rule, and that the "true believer" must at all costs be kept away from positions with influence. The bare recognition that this is an ideology exposes it as incoherent and throws the elites' status into question. And so the suggestion that reporters must abandon this ideology to do their job properly, however true, is revolutionary ...

Posted by: Michael Brazier at June 23, 2010 3:37 AM | Permalink

Follow the money and its nefarious ability to debase......The most profitable form of news media now is probably Cable TV (over network-TV news, newspapers, radio & magazines, though it wasn't always that way). Therefore Cable TV's style will be the one copied in the hunt for better profits. This mode is all-style-over-substance, all the time. The point of any production is to raise viewer anxiety and tension between commercials, not to calmly inform or instruct. Therefore we get cheap flashy graphics; pretty girls; blow-dried David Gregory wannabes; vapid commentary; screaming confrontations; sound bites; Glenn Beck propaganda; ad nauseum. The other organs of news media struggle to imitate as best they can so as to imitate the profits they see. And so journalism destroys itself bit by bit. Look, for example, how Newsweek turned into a bad imitator of People magazine for people with college degrees; the NYT let Judith Miller sell a war based on deliberate lies; David Gregory is a corporate sell-out; conservative talk radio has become a hatefest.

Posted by: theod at June 23, 2010 9:34 AM | Permalink

Michael Brazier:
the View from Nowhere is ... the bedrock assumption of political elites throughout the Western world

I disagree. Off the top of my head, GWB, Dick (and Liz) Cheney, John Bolton, Donald Rumsfeld, Sarah Palin, Alan Greenspan are all very much *not* Viewers from Nowhere, they all have ideals and viewpoints that define them. Are they not political elites? And if they aren't, who the heck is?

If there's a bedrock assumption of the political elites, it's that the people with power and (especially) money deserve it. To pretend that this is a View from Nowhere is a classic example of the kind of thinking Jay is railing against.

Posted by: Doctor Science at June 23, 2010 10:05 AM | Permalink


Of course economists (to pick one profession) police each other -- in the sense of calling each other on errors, with public shaming for egregious cases. See Krugman's blog, Brad de Long, or Crooked Timber for daily examples. But de Long (for instance) does more calling-out of bad journalism than the journalism "profession" does, which is one reason I say journalism isn't being practiced as a profession.

Posted by: Doctor Science at June 23, 2010 10:14 AM | Permalink


"Show your work" needs IMHO to be less of a philosophy, more of a practice or method. The guidelines you've given here are IMHO too vague, it's too easy for your colleagues to read and nod and change nothing.

Posted by: Doctor Science at June 23, 2010 10:25 AM | Permalink

They are not practical guidelines. They are concepts, and answers to Marc Ambinder's questions. I'm used to being ignored by the vast majority of professional journalists as they fret and change very little about what they do. I have no illusions about that. I am more concerned that the things I come out and say journalists should be for are correctly derived, deeply reasoned and potent enough to be true (and useful) five or ten years from now. Then I simply push them forward, by talking about them, for years and years and years. Usually, the result is failure. But I have my successes too :-)

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 23, 2010 10:35 AM | Permalink

Dr Science,
And who was calling out Krugman in the 90's when he was a full on free trader? There are always normative assumptions; that's why people refer to rules for debate not for result. "Due process" does not designate a truth. The logic of divided government is of competition governed by rules. The model of reason and collaboration is a model for leadership by an elite. It is not a good model of democracy.

A friend of mine knows lawyer in criminal defense. He does mostly Federal cases, drugs guns etc. He drives a bimmer wears Italian suits, smokes fat cigars and states loudly: "I am at the forefront of the defense of your civil liberties."
He's right. And that should be the model of the press. It isn't.

Posted by: seth edenbaum at June 23, 2010 11:28 AM | Permalink

"Journalism isn't being practiced as a profession"
Journalism didn't begin as a profession but as a trade. The transformation to respectability is a problem. Again: Andrew Marr

Posted by: seth edenbaum at June 23, 2010 11:33 AM | Permalink

Dr Science: Any classification that puts Alan Greenspan and Sarah Palin in the same box must be superficial and useless. Greenspan is a technician, claiming the authority of an expert within his narrow field; Palin is a populist politician after the manner of Andrew Jackson. So far as I know, beyond his expertise Greenspan's politics match up with those of the political press; Palin made her career by attacking political establishments, in which views like those of the political press were unquestioned assumptions. And the political press treated Greenspan as a respected authority, and reacted to Palin's elevation to national politics as if barbarians were about to sack the country.

For actual examples of Viewers from Nowhere, you need only look at the meetings of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Samuel Huntington's description of Davos man differs in no important way from Jay Rosen's description of the View from Nowhere, or from several other descriptions of the mindset -- descriptions made by people whose own ideologies bear no other resemblance.

Posted by: Michael Brazier at June 23, 2010 1:20 PM | Permalink

Because our journalism is primarily market-driven, journalists too often report what people want to hear, instead of what they need to hear. Just look at how much more time is spent on superficial scandals than on stories of actual relevance.

Especially with the presence of the internet, there are no longer any excuses for having "too little" time or space to report on important issues, or to report such stories with the time--or lack thereof--that they deserve.

Market-driven journalism means that our reporters will never live up to these idealistic standards. Truth be told, there are many journalists who try to do this, but they still must cater to the demands of their producers, who cater to the viewers. This is why an hour is spent on sexual affairs and petty verbal feuds, while global conflicts or technological advances are given less than half that amount of time.

Our media also fails to use enough creativity in its search for truth. Every event, it seems, happens to have a "universal effect" on the way our society works. Sometimes this may be true, but because journalists and our society are too lazy to tailor specific questions or ideas to each situation, there seems to be a pre-engineered script for any occasion.

For a scandal:

1. Perpetrator denies all allegations
2. Perpetrator comes up with unlikely alibi
3. Journalists waste 40% of air time talking about scandal
4. Journalists ask "what this scandal says about our entire society," even though this scandal involved only ONE person
5. Perpetrator calls press conference with spouse and family, and thinks people will sympathize
6. Perpetrator goes to rehab, family members writebooks, and college professors waste time on theses discussing the cultural impact of the scandal
7. As a result of the media's handling of the story, the public is convinced that they should be "outraged"
8. Pseudo-expert is called in to "analyze" the situation
9. A random wingnut (distant relative of perpetrator, radio show host, religious fundamentalist, etc.) makes absurd statement about the scandal

For Obama's winning of the 2008 election, journalists were right to pay some attention. Any presidential election is greatly important and, yes, this one was especially historic. But our news media, due to a lack of critical thinking or common sense, coined the phrase "post-racial," which was a HUGE miscalculation. As with their coverage of scandals, these journalists will exaggerate the importance and influence of several stories.

Which brings me to my central point. A market-driven news media NEEDS to exaggerate, overanalyze, frighten, and enrage. Reporters and announcers need to condescend to and rile up their viewers. They need to make generalizations about what all Jews think about Israel, or what all people of color feel about Oprah Winfrey, even when Jon Stewart and Aaron MacGruder represent an entire population of people who disagree. They need to be outraged over non-issues, and play nice with people who make purely inaccurate statements.

If these networks were as accurate as this article is asking them to be, the public would see how boring our world really is, and they just might turn off their TV or radio.

Perhaps as a result of vast social progress (at least in the U.S.) and an increased sense of corporate monotony in our society which began to creep in after WWII, average citizens are almost "too" happy or indifferent about their uneventful lives, to the point where they need to have government takeovers and conspiracies, protests and politicians with sinister agendas. They simply need a way of feeling something other than the routine deadness of their work week. Why else would we have so many Code Pinkers attempting to handcuff republicans, or so many Tea Partiers dressing up like revolutionaries and throwing bricks through democratic office windows? Why else would we have "journalists" comparing themselves to Paul Revere or Jesus, and writing books whose titles are merely puns based on the life works of these individuals?

Two reasons. One, it sells. And two, it's fun to play dress-up. Probably the worst thing to do to a Tea Partier in full costume, is to point out that he is an overweight 50-something with a poorly disguised combover, a beer gut, sweat stains, a great misunderstanding of what the Boston Tea Party actually was, a life that is nowhere near as hard or impressive as a revolutionary's, and pieces of flair (buttons) that use one-liners to cheapen their deeply held views.

Not to mention the misspelled sign they are holding.

It doesn't matter to Glenn Beck that his rants have no central point or logic to them. It doesn't matter that Keith Olbermann is spending hours constructing his carefully worded daily addresses, which are basically used to call Rush Limbaugh a doody-head. These guys just like to play dress-up. As moronic and childish as they look, they would love to think that they are the 2010 equivalent of Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin. If any of these commentators were to realize that they are only another TV personality who manipulates ratings and bows down to focus groups, they would break down and need to be institutionalized.

So much for being informed.

Posted by: J at June 26, 2010 3:12 AM | Permalink

From the Intro