What I Think I Know About Journalism

Next month I will have taught journalism at New York University for 25 years, an occasion that has led me to reflect on what I have tried to profess in that time.

Or, to put it another way, what I think I know about journalism.

It comes down to these four ideas.

1. The more people who participate in the press the stronger it will be.

2. The profession of journalism went awry when it began to adopt the View from Nowhere.

3. The news system will improve when it is made more useful to people.

4. Making facts public does not a public make; information alone will not inform us.

Shall we take them in order?

The more people who participate in it the stronger the press will be.

The more people involved in flying the airplane, or moving the surgeon’s scalpel during a brain operation, the worse off we are. But this is not true in journalism. It benefits from participation, as with Investigate your MP’s expenses, also called crowd sourcing, or this invitation from the Los Angeles Times: share public documents. A far simpler example is sources. If sources won’t participate, there often is no story. Witnesses contribute when they pull out their cameras and record what is happening in front of them. The news system is stronger for it.

In 1999, I wrote a whole book on this idea: What Are Journalists For? It’s about what we now call engagement. But that was pre-Web. Today we can do a lot more. According to the internet’s one percent rule, a very small portion of the users will become serious contributors, which is still a lot of people. Let’s say you’re a beat reporter who has a niche blog on the local public schools (like this one) with a loyal user base of 10,000. If the one percent rule is accurate, 100 of those loyal users are likely to become heavy contributors if given the chance. They should be given that chance. It will strengthen the site.

That’s what I believe. But we still don’t know much about how to make these pro-am combinations work, because for a very long time the news system was optimized for low participation. Switching it over is extremely difficult. Even CNN’s i-Report, which claims 750,000 contributors worldwide, is poorly integrated into the main CNN newsroom. In what Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, calls the “mutualization” of journalism, most of the big discoveries lie ahead of us. So we ought to get cracking.

The profession of journalism went awry when it began to adopt the View from Nowhere.

It’s Bill Keller insisting that “torture” is the wrong word for the New York Times to use in describing torture because it involves taking sides in a dispute between the United States Government and its critics. It’s Howard Kurtz suggesting that Anderson Cooper was “taking sides” when he called the lies of the Egyptian government lies. But it’s also the reporter who has to master the routine of “laundering my own views [by] dinging someone at some think tank to say what you want to tell the reader.” And it’s that lame formula known as he said, she said journalism. It’s the way CNN “leaves it there” when two guests give utterly conflicting accounts.

Long ago, something went awry in professional journalism the way the Americans do it, and it left these visible deformations. In my own criticism I have given various names to this pattern: agendalessness, the quest for innocence— most often, the View From Nowhere. The problem is not what it is usually said to be: that the press is supposed to remain “objective” but no one can be totally unbiased. The problem is equating trustworthiness with the prohibition on taking sides, when the actual result may be exasperation with he said, she said, rage at the helplessness that “leaving it there” creates, and mistrust of the formulaic ways in which journalists try to advertise their even-handedness.

“Harsh interrogation” isn’t a more objective term than torture. Rather, it appears to offer more protection against charges of bias. But these stratagems haven’t worked. The View from Nowhere is increasingly mistrusted. Journalists have to go back and fix the wrong turn they took.

The news system will improve when it is made more useful to people.

In the 1970s and ’80s, a number of classics in press scholarship were written by social scientists (like Herbert Gans and Gaye Tuchman) who went into newsrooms to study how decisions were made there. They all observed that routines drive what happens in journalism, and that these routines ultimately served the demands of a particular production cycle: the daily newspaper, the 6 p.m. broadcast, the monthly magazine. Ideas about what journalism is–and even what it can be–get frozen within these routines as they become second nature to the people who have mastered them.

Look at how J-schools organized the curriculum and you can see what I mean: there’s newspaper journalism, magazine journalism, broadcast journalism. Why do we teach it that way? Because the production routine is god. Master that and you’ve learned the business.

But that was during the era of heavy industry. The lighter, cheaper, and less restrictive publishing tools that we have today can free the news system from its production gods. The new gods are the users themselves, and what they find useful for staying informed and participating in public life— you know, getting things done. Which is why I’ve said that the simplest way to add value in journalism is to save the user time.

Making facts public does not a public make; information alone will not inform us.

There’s a reason why the word narrative has been on the rise in journalism, almost to the point of cliche. It’s become obvious to people that good information alone cannot inform us. News stories pushed at us can be defeated by narratives with greater pull. Under conditions of abundance, the arc of attention matters more than the availability of information.

To feel informed, we also need background knowledge, a framework into which the relevant facts can be put. Or, as I put it in 2008, “There are some stories—and the mortgage crisis is a great example—where until I grasp the whole I am unable to make sense of any part. Not only am I not a customer for news reports prior to that moment, but the very frequency of the updates alienates me from the providers of those updates because the news stream is adding daily to my feeling of being ill-informed, overwhelmed, out of the loop.”

In The Lost Art of Argument, Christopher Lasch said we should invert the usual order of information and debate. “We do not know what we need to know until we ask the right questions, and we can identify the right questions only by subjecting our own ideas about the world to the test of public controversy. Information, usually understood as the precondition of debate, is better understood as its by-product. When we get into arguments that focus and fully engage our attention, we become avid seekers of information. Otherwise, we take in information passively– if we take it in at all.”

So that’s what I think I know about journalism, after 25 years of teaching it, studying it, and writing about it.

Of course, I’m still learning.



The Twisted Psychology of Bloggers vs. Journalists: My Talk at South By Southwest

This is what I said at South by Southwest in Austin, March 12, 2011. It went well.

Many thanks to Lisa Williams for helping with the tech and the backchannel. You can find a live blog of my presentation here. The audio is posted here. It’s an MP3 and plays on contact. The Guardian’s summary is here. Photo by Rebecca Ambrose.

There’s an old rule among sportswriters: no cheering in the press box. In fact, a few weeks ago a young journalist lost his gig with Sports Illustrated for just that reason: cheering at the conclusion of a thrilling race. Sportswriters could allow themselves to cheer occasionally without it affecting their work, but they don’t. And this rule gets handed down from older to younger members of the group.

So this is a little example of the psychology, not of individual journalists, but of the profession itself. We don’t often talk this way, but we could: “No cheering in the press box” is the superego at work. It’s a psychological thing within the sportswriter’s tribe. You learn to wear the mask if you want to join the club.

Six years ago I wrote an essay called Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over. It was my most well read piece at the time. And it made the points you would expect: This distinction is eroding. This war is absurd. Get over it. Move on. There’s bigger work to be done.

But since then I’ve noticed that while the division–-bloggers as one type, journalists as another–-makes less and less sense, the conflict continues to surface. Why? Well, something must be happening under the surface that expresses itself through bloggers vs. journalists. But what is that subterranean thing? This is my real subject today.

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They Brought a Tote Bag to a Knife Fight: The Resignation of NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller

I feel compelled to share my view of the events that led yesterday to the resignation of Vivian Schiller as CEO of NPR. I don’t know if they add up to a coherent response. Maybe not. In these notes I make no attempt to conceal my feelings on the matter, or to neuter myself politically.

1. As I said at PressThink four months ago: Wake up, public media people! You have no magic exemption from the requirements of political maturity. There are people out there who seek your destruction, and they are not evenly distributed. They reside among culture warriors on the political right. That is a fact, and you are in the business of reporting facts.

2. Among them is James O’Keefe, the trickster who secretly taped NPR executive Ron Schiller ranting about the Tea Party and saying other incendiary things. Like his patron, Andrew Breitbart, who has said he’s “committed to the destruction of the old media guard” (adding, “it’s a very good business model…”) O’Keefe is a performance artist who profits from the public wreckage and institutional panic his media stunts seek to create.

3. To give in to that panic is to cooperate in your own demise. Which is exactly what the NPR board did by demanding that Schiller–a visionary leader who knew where NPR had to go in the digital age–resign immediately, and without a fight. This was a stupid and cowardly act, which will be justified as institutional realism, the price for one too many slip-ups. It is not realism. The decision to let Schiller go originates in a delusion, captured so well by Jon Stewart during the Juan Williams controversy when he told NPR: you brought a tote bag to a knife fight! The delusion is that you can keep doing that and somehow it will all work out in the end.

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Why “Bloggers vs. Journalists” is Still With Us

A pre-conference post. Ideas in motion. These are notes in preparation for my talk at South by Southwest in Austin next week. And you can help me make it better.

I am going to be doing a solo presentation at South by Southwest in Austin this year. The title is Bloggers vs. Journalists: It’s a Psychological Thing. (If you’re at SXSW, come: March 12, 3:30 pm at the Sheraton on E. 11th Street and Sabine Streets.) My pal Lisa Williams, CEO of placeblogger.com, will be moderating, watching the back channel and handling the tech. Here’s the description in the SXSW program:

I wrote my essay, Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over, in 2005. And it should be over. After all, lots of journalists happily blog, lots of bloggers journalize and everyone is trying to figure out what’s sustainable online. But there’s something else going on, and I think I’ve figured out a piece of it: these two Internet types, amateur bloggers and pro journalists, are actually each other’s ideal “other.” A big reason they keep struggling with each other lies at the level of psychology, not in the particulars of the disputes and flare-ups that we continue to see online.

The relationship is essentially neurotic, on both sides. Bloggers can’t let go of Big Daddy media— the towering figure of the MSM — and still be bloggers. Pro journalists, meanwhile, project fears about the Internet and loss of authority onto the figure of the pajama-wearing blogger. This is a construction of their own and a key part of a whole architecture of denial that has weakened in recent years, but far too slowly. The only way we can finally kill this meme–bloggers vs. journalists–and proceed into a brighter and pro-am future for interactive journalism is to go right at the psychological element in it: the denial, the projection, the neuroses, the narcissism, the grandiosity, the rage, the fears of annihilation: the monsters of the id in the newsroom, and the fantasy of toppling the MSM in the blogosphere.

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The “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” Article

It’s a genre that’s starting to get a swelled head about itself. Here’s why I say that.

I found it! I announced on Twitter yesterday. “It” was the generic Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators article. I said it had everything, meaning: every identifying mark and mandatory cliché needed to lift a mere example to the exalted status of genre-defining classic.

First, let’s be clear about the genre in question.

It’s hard to know how much weight to assign to the Internet and its social media tools–Facebook and Twitter–in recent uprisings like Iran and Moldova in 2009, Tunisia this year and Egypt’s stunning January 25th revolution. Because the tools are still fairly new they naturally draw a lot of attention from analysts, journalists and headline writers looking for a “sexy” newsy sidebar to the main event. And inevitably some people get carried away. But then a strange thing happens. Even more people get worried that everyone is getting carred away. And they decide to bring us all back down to earth. “It’s not that simple!” they cry.

The name I am giving to these cries is Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators, a genre that is starting to get a swelled head about itself. Here it is in condensed form, from a lead-in to an On the Media segment:

Demonstrators flooded the streets in Tunisia this week calling for an end to corruption and ousting President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Many have attributed the wave of protests to the rise of the internet and social media in a country notorious for its censorship but Foreign Policy blogger Marc Lynch says it’s not that simple.

As if we thought it was. Some recent examples of Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators:

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The Politics of the New Huffington Post at AOL

Is ideological innovation possible in online journalism? I think it is. My suggestion: Drop the View from Nowhere and go with transparency throughout the reborn AOL.

These are the top five questions journalists have been asking about Monday's announcement that AOL will purchase the Huffington Post and Arianna Huffington will become the editor-in-chief of all AOL properties:

1. Will it work? (Howard Kurtz: "Can a fast-moving, irreverent, and sometimes racy product keep its DNA once transplanted into a very different corporate culture?") 

2. Did AOL overpay? (Yes, they did. No, they made a smart bet.) 

3. Will Huffington Post starting paying its bloggers? (Dan Gillmor: They should. Tim Rutten: Picture a slaveship.)

4. Can you imagine Arianna trying to boss around Mike Arrington? (Link.)

5. Will AOL now lean left? (Ken Doctor, for example, or Dana Milbank.)

My top question: Is ideological innovation possible in online journalism, and will we see it from this merger?

Well, is it? 

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The Year in PressThink: These are the Ten Best Things I Wrote in 2010.

As a year-end review, I put into one post my best stuff from 2010. (In chronological order.) Naturally I would be grateful for any year-end comments you may have.

1. The Quest for Innocence and the Loss of Reality in Political Journalism (PressThink, Feb. 21, 2010). “The quest for innocence means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus ‘prove’ in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade. But this can get in the way of describing things! What’s lost is that sense of reality Isaiah Berlin talked about…”

Wherein I finally nail down a key term in my criticism of the political press: its innocence agenda, which interferes with truthtelling.

2. David Gregory: "No, I won't fact check my guests and you guys can't make me…" A Time Line (Public Notebook, April 18, 2010) "David Gregory, the host of NBC's Meet the Press, has painted himself into a strange corner with his assertion that there's no need to fact check what his guests say on the air because viewers can do that 'on their own terms.' His competitor, Jake Tapper of ABC News, disagrees. Tapper has instituted the after-the-show fact check on This Week. I am a participant in the story of how this happened, as you can see from the time line I have constructed."

One of the few instances–maybe the only one–in which an idea I suggested was actually adopted by a journalist in the national press.

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From Judith Miller to Julian Assange

Our press somehow got itself on the wrong side of secrecy after September 11th.

For the portion of the American press that still looks to Watergate and the Pentagon Papers for inspiration, and that considers itself a check on state power, the hour of its greatest humiliation can, I think, be located with some precision: it happened on Sunday, September 8, 2002.

On that morning the New York Times published a now notorious story, reported by Michael R. Gordon and Judith Miller, in which nameless Bush Administration officials claimed that Iraq was trying to buy the kind of aluminum tubes necessary to build a nuclear centrifuge. Press critic Michael Massing, who in 2004 reviewed these events, describes what happened:

Gordon and Miller argue that the information about the aluminum tubes was not a leak. “The administration wasn’t really ready to make its case publicly at the time,” Gordon told me. “Somebody mentioned to me this tubes thing. It took a lot to check it out.” Perhaps so, but administration officials were clearly delighted with the story. On that morning’s talk shows, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice all referred to the information in the Times story. “It’s now public,” Cheney said on Meet the Press, that Saddam Hussein “has been seeking to acquire” the “kind of tubes” needed to build a centrifuge to produce highly enriched uranium, “which is what you have to have in order to build a bomb.” On CNN’s Late Edition, Rice said the tubes “are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs.” She added: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”—a phrase lifted directly from the Times.

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Building a Better Explainer: NYU and ProPublica Will Collaborate and Share What They Learn

PressThink has an announcement to make! ProPublica is making it at the same time. (Here’s the official press release.)

The Building a Better Explainer Project

ProPublica, a non-profit that produces investigative journalism in the public interest, and NYU’s Studio 20 program, which is focused on innovation in journalism, announced today a joint project to experiment with new ways of doing “explainers,” a form of journalism that provides the essential background knowledge necessary to follow events in the news.

The goals of the project are to improve the art of explanation at ProPublica’s site and to share what is learned with the journalism community.

The Building a Better Explainer project will extend for the remainder of the 2010-11 academic year. Graduate students working under NYU professor Jay Rosen, and consulting closely with the editors of ProPublica, will:

* research best practices in explanatory journalism;
* collect relevant knowledge from other disciplines about how users absorb complex subjects;
* pick one of ProPublica’s major investigations and produce model explainers suitable for publication at ProPublica.org;
* experiment with different ways of delivering critical background knowledge, using all the tools of the web
* investigate how to make the explainer genre more interactive with web users;
* share their findings with ProPublica and the wider journalism world.

“An explainer is a work of journalism, but it doesn’t provide the latest news or update you on a story,” Rosen said. “It addresses a gap in your understanding: the lack of essential background knowledge. We wanted to work with the journalists at ProPublica on this problem because they investigate complicated stories and teach what they’ve learned to other journalists. It seemed like a perfect match.”

“Orienting readers and giving them context has long been a key component of good journalism,” said Eric Umansky, a senior editor at ProPublica. “But the Web allows you re-think what forms that can take and how it should be done. We’re thrilled to be working with Studio 20 and Jay on experimenting with that.”

Bringing clarity to complex systems so that non-specialists can understand them is the “art” of the explainer. For instance, an explainer for the Irish debt crisis would make clear why a weakness in one country’s banks could threaten the European financial system and possibly the global recovery. A different kind of explainer might show how Medicare billing is designed to work and where the opportunities for fraud lie.

“Good explainers are engaging, not only informative,” said Rosen. “They lower the barrier to entry to news stories that are difficult to summarize in a headline.”

The project site is Explainer.Net, which launched today. It will be edited by the Studio 20 team. The site will highlight outstanding work in explanation, interview skilled practitioners and update interested audiences on the project’s progress.

Now for the background on this project…

It begins two years ago, with This American Life’s hugely successful one hour documentary, The Giant Pool of Money. To my mind it’s the greatest explainer ever heard. That led to my 2008 post, National Explainer, which is about a flaw in the model of information acquisition that got built into the existing news system:

In this model, I would receive news about something brewing in the mortgage banking arena (“”Subprime lenders in trouble: check.”) Then I would receive some more news and perhaps keep an even closer eye on the story. After absorbing additional reports of ongoing problems in the mortgage market (their frequency serving as a signal that something is truly up) I might then turn to an “analysis” piece for more on the possible consequences, or perhaps a roundtable with experts on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer. I thus graduate from the simpler to the more sophisticated forms of news as I learn more about a potentially far-reaching development. That’s the way it works… right?

Wrong! For there are some stories—and the mortgage crisis is a great example—where until I grasp the whole I am unable to make sense of any part. Not only am I not a customer for news reports prior to that moment, but the very frequency of the updates alienates me from the providers of those updates because the news stream is adding daily to my feeling of being ill-informed, overwhelmed, out of the loop. I respond with indifference, even though I’ve picked up a blinking red light from the news system’s repeated placement of “subprime” items in front of me.

My conclusion was: “If the providers of information aren’t providing the basic explainers that turn people into customers for that information, they don’t deserve those customers and won’t retain them. If explanation is required for information acquisition, then the explainer comes before the informer as a pre-requisite. We typically have it the other way around.”

Meanwhile, Matt Thompson, then a fellow at University of Missouri, now at NPR’s Argo project, was thinking along similar lines. To actually understand the biggest stories in the news we need to know “what just happened” and we also need a grasp of the “longstanding facts.” One without the other doesn’t work. But typically we only get the “what happened” part. He later refined those terms. The news system, he wrote, gives us “episodic information,” but a series of episodes cannot actually inform us.

Hundreds of headlines wash over us every day. And part of why many of us engage in this flow is because we have faith that over time, this torrent of episodic knowledge is going to cohere into something more significant: a framework for genuinely understanding an issue…

But mounting evidence indicates that this approach to information is actually totally debilitating. Faced with a flood of headlines on an ever-increasing variety of topics, we shut off. We turn to news that doesn’t require much understanding – crime, traffic, weather – or we turn off the news altogether.

It turns out that in order for information about things like the public option and budget reconciliation to be useful to you, you need a certain amount of systemic knowledge to be able to parse it. You need an [effective] framework for understanding health care reform before the episodic headlines relating to health care reform make any sense.

It used to be impossible to provide this background because space was at a premium and broadcast time was precious. But in the digital era the scarce resource is the user’s time and attention. And, as Thompson pointed out, a stream of context-less updates is not a productive way of informing people who have limited bandwidth and an abundance of information options.

“Suppose your laptop continually received updates to software that was never installed on your laptop.” This was the way I put it at the South by Southwest panel in Austin that Thompson and I were on, along with Tristan Harris of Apture.com and Staci Kramer of paidcontent.org. We called that event “the future of context,” and created a separate site for it with essays and guest posts by others. (See: futureofcontext.com. You can listen to the SXSW panel here.)

The Austin event was a success: the room was packed, the tremors continued for weeks after. This convinced me that the future-of-context puzzle was important to the rebooting of news, and that a lot of people were tuning into it. In May of 2010 I started discussing with editors at ProPublica a possible collaboration in which my Studio 20 students and I would try to build better explainers for them. They were receptive.

So that’s what we are going to try to do. We will start by researching what’s working now, and by going beyond journalism to fields that might know something journalists should know. In the spring of 2011, we’ll devote a whole graduate course (18 students, two instructors, plus consultants) to producing explainers that we hope ProPublica can publish, as well as a kind of tool kit to make the task easier. At the project site, explainer.net, we’ll post highlights from our research, solicit help, and publish interviews with thinkers and do-ers who are pushing the practice forward.

We can’t fix the flaw in the old system’s model of information acquisition; that’s baked in. But while we’re building a better news system we should be trying to avoid the mistakes of the past.



Resentment News (and More Blondes Per Square Foot): Explaining What Fox News Channel Is

Not sure whether I will continue to do these things, but I recorded my second Late Night with PressThink video. It tries to explain “what Fox News actually is, which really means explaining it to myself…”

The original is here if you wish to embed. Some of the key concepts:


On Fox, the news exists in order to generate controversy. And controversy exists in order to generate resentment. And the resentment is what generates ratings. So this is my most concise idea about Fox: we should consider it “resentment news.” I think that’s the genre in which it trades… Resentment of whom? Well, a cultural elite that is corrupt and maneuvering behind the scenes to exercise power.


Resentment of the cultural elite as a recurring theme in news puts me in mind of something that the critic Roland Barthes—a Frenchman—said about myth. Myth in the sense of a kind of ideological narrative that motivates people to particpate in politics and engages their emotions. And what Barthes said is: “many signifiers, one signified…” Or to put it another way: many stories—every night there’s new stories on Fox—one narrative that endures. Many provocations, one lesson. The liberals, the cultural elite, are at it again. And this is the essence of myth: that no matter what happens, the story remains the same, [which] is one reason the whole notion of Fox as a news channel is a little dubious: because nothing ever changes in Foxland.

The Paranoid Style

As I say in the clip, one of the best texts for understanding Fox is the famous essay by historian Richard Hofstadter: The Paranoid Style in American Politics. It shows that this way of generating resentment has deep roots in our political culture, a theme I explored in my 2003 post: Bill O’Reilly and the Paranoid Style in News. (“The Fox News host is a new type in the press, but an old type in politics. And O’Reilly’s style—resentment news—is gaining.”)


A whole other way of understanding Fox begins with the logo… The logo of course goes back to 20th Century Fox, the movie studio, and reminds us that the roots of Fox are not in the Murdoch empire at all, or in news, but in entertainment. And the logo, which is searchlights angling in different directions, speaks of movie premiers, and the entertainment world and the glamour associated with it. And this is why—these roots in the DNA of entertainment–Fox is distinguished by its blondes. Blondes are really important for understanding the formula of Fox: more blondes per square foot than any other news network.

Lack of confidence

What we have to understand about Fox as a political organization is that it really lacks confidence, it lacks the courage of its convictions…. That’s why its slogan isn’t “news from the right,” or “a conservative take on the world,” or “it’s time to put the liberals in their place,” but Fair and Balanced… This is responsible for a lot of the strange behavior that you see from people in Fox, most recently from Roger Ailes, who is the head of Fox News network, calling NPR a bunch of Nazis… What these outbursts and these irrational explosions tell us is how little confidence the people of Fox have in their identity as a political organization, even though they don’t make any secret of it, I mean with all the presidential contenders for the Republican nomination on their payroll, and the organizing of rallies, and raising money and so forth. But because they lack confidence, when other people talk about that political identity they get mad.

Here’s the video: it’s 15 minutes.

Finally, for an extended and highly intelligent reflection on the ideas in this video and my first one, see Andrew Tyndall: When Jon Stewart Met Rachel Maddow. A snippet:

There is no denying that MSNBC’s primetime line-up is liberal and that FNC’s is conservative. What I do deny is that MSNBC’s ideological and cultural role in the body politic is symmetrical with FNC’s. Generally speaking, the conservative wing of American politics is organized differently from the liberal-progressive wing and it is inconceivable that their news media would not be different too.

I agree with that. Tyndall is author of the Tydnall Report, which tracks what the network newscasts cover. He is also a loyal PressThink reader and commenter.