"Karen Ryan, you're a phony," said a Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial. She's a confused phony, however, unable to comprehend why faking the role of reporter, on behalf of a government "news release," should be questioned at all. But there's something bizarre here too. Call it her state of mind.
This month, Campaign Desk (the weblog of the Columbia Journalism Review) was hitting on all cylinders when it brought forward, by its aggressive reporting and fine sense of outrage, the strange--no, outrageous-- tale of one Karen Ryan, TV professional, PR flak, and Federal stooge. I have been thinking about her since she first popped up in the news, then started popping off about the unfairness of it all.
Ms. Ryan, you will easily recall, is the public relations person, owner of her own agency, who appeared in a video news release from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) praising the benefits of the new Medicare bill. A New York Times editorial called the videos "plugs for the controversial new drug program the White House is selling to elderly voters." What got Ryan into trouble with the press, and in the press was the way she faked the standard sign off in television news by saying in earnest tones: "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting."
The General Accounting Office, an arm of Congress, began looking at the use of taxpayer money for something akin to propaganda (which is against the law, unless Congress says it's okay) and this is how Ryan became news. The Times account (March 15) said:
The government also prepared scripts that can be used by news anchors introducing what the administration describes as a made-for-television "story package."
In one script, the administration suggests that anchors use this language: "In December, President Bush signed into law the first-ever prescription drug benefit for people with Medicare. Since then, there have been a lot of questions about how the law will help older Americans and people with disabilities. Reporter Karen Ryan helps sort through the details."
The "reporter" then explains the benefits of the new law.
Which is helpful in understanding what the ploy was all about: verisimilitude, making it seem like real news. Campaign Desk jumped on the story, under the reasoning that the "releases" were in fact campaign ads disguised as news. Therefore the Karen Ryan story was an episode in the battle for the White House. But it is also one episode in a conflict between the White House and the press that is not unfolding along traditional lines. It's going outside those lines to take in deeper convictions and new ideas. As Ken Auletta reported in the New Yorker (Jan. 19, 2004) every modern president has tried to control or route around the press; and each has complained about unfair coverage.
What seems new with the Bush White House is the unusual skill that it has shown in keeping much of the press at a distance while controlling the news agenda. And for perhaps the first time the White House has come to see reporters as special pleaders—pleaders for more access and better headlines—as if the press were simply another interest group, and, moreover, an interest group that’s not nearly as powerful as it once was.
"What seems new..." is further context for the Ryan affair: a calculated contempt for the press, a kind of percentage play, expressed more and more boldly, and joined to a perception (which may be accurate) that the press has lost a lot of its power in Washington. I wrote about an an earlier incident at PressThink: John Aschcroft granting interviews only to TV reporters ("not talking to print") during his speaking tour for the Patriot Act. It's one of many showing the same impulses at work. Indeed, last night on CNBC, David Gergen, the insider's insider for a time in Washington, observed that the Administration's stonewalling of the 9/11 Commission was of a piece with its treatment of the press.
After first declaring, "Bring Us The Heads of 'Karen Ryan' and 'Alberto Garcia'" (another fake reporter in the videos) the Desk found Ryan, who was steamed about all this, so a reporter interviewed her: "I Feel Like Political Roadkill" read the header on that one. Zachary Roth wrote that "HHS spokesman Bill Pierce originally described Ryan to us as a 'freelance journalist.'" This was a lie, brazen category, and it didn't hold. Then Pierce denied permission to speak to Ryan, another calculation that didn't work. "Ryan herself wanted to set the record straight, and she disregarded her handlers' advice by speaking freely to Campaign Desk," wrote Roth.
Among her explanations and rationales are these:
It's not fair to call her an actress, as some accounts did, because "an actress is someone that's playing someone they're not." (Hmmm.)
Not Karen Ryan but TV news stations bear the responsibility that some of the fake footage aired.
"I do feel I was singled out in this whole political mess, and I was used," she said. "All the good things I did in my life, and now I've become this horrible person." She said she was just a cog in the Bush political machine, not a player. Now she's has become a scapegoat, "political roadkill"-- a media victim when she was always careful to play by the rules.
Roth wrote about Ryan: "She's not some sort of fraud, she told us, she's a public relations professional who runs a p.r. company called Karen Ryan Group Communications -- and these days she feels as if her world has collapsed around her."
But the trouble is she is a sort of fraud, and what collapsed for her was a style of video fraudulence she happened to be good at. It may be a commonplace in politics, but if so then Ryan is just a more common type of fraud than some who find their way into the news pages. There is no rational interpretation, professional ethic, or angle of vision in which the sentence, "From Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting" looks like anything other than a simple lie.
There is no sense in which she was tricked into it, either, although tricking the eventual viewer of the "spot" was certainly on her professional mind-- not as a cunning or devious thing, but as a banal and automatic thing. (Make it seem real, like you're doing the news.) Ryan knew she was reading from a script prepared by others, not from one driven by her reporting, which of course did not exist.
Similarly, the suggested words, "Reporter Karen Ryan has the details," part of the package she helped prepare, is a suggestion to news people that they put on the public airwaves a lie. When brought to life by a local anchor person's voice (a home run in the video news release game) the words suggest to United States citizens than an agent of their government is actually a watchdog of their government. This is the whole point of Ryan's impersonation of a reporter, and of the HHS man's attempted deceit: oh, she's a freelance journalist.
About that guy, the brazen Bill Pierce: If the spokesman thought reporters would never check, that's the Administration's contempt for journalism right there. If he thought they would check, but no big deal, because no one cares what the press uncovers, anyway... that would be evidence of the Administration's greater and newer-model contempt.
Ryan is just a cog, yes, but in what? Machinery made to fool the taxpayers who paid for the video, and the journalists into whose hands it was deposited. If we take seriously her rationale (it's up to journalists to catch this stuff, and if it gets through, hooray for our side!) then she's a small time trickster who expects to be caught most of the time, but "wins" whenever she is not.
Crying, "but, I'm a public realations pro, not some horrible person" doesn't help her much, because if Karen Ryan belonged to a real profession, responsible members of that fraternity would denounce her fakery, and renounce the practice of sticking simulated reporters into video clips so as to maximize the illusion of independent journalism and serious fact-finding. A real profession would be criticizing the government for abusing the practice of public relations, instead of letting the press do it all. Ryan is a professional only in the narrowest sense: she gets paid to do her thing, and she's apparently good at it.
None of this is surprising, I admit. PR's "just fake it" mentality has advanced so far into normal practice, all over our public culture, left, middle and right, that it usually seems pointless to object. Yet in the case of Ryan we find someone so saturated with the PR mentality, with fakery as a normal condition in life, that she cannot distinguish between criticism of her creepy practice, ("I'm Karen Ryan reporting") and the world shouting at her: you're such a horrible person, Karen!
I'm prepared to believe that she is a perfectly nice person-- smart, competent, reliable, fun to be with, a good chum. It's sad for her that she cannot tell the difference between what is commonly done and what it is legitimately done. But sadder is that by claiming victimhood from the camp of the perps, she seems to hope that people will... I don't know, identify with her somehow.
But how? Could most Americans--Republicans, Democrats, Bush haters, Bush supporters, white collar, blue collar--even complete the kind of act in question, which involves lying with smooth demeanor about who you are, falsifying what you do for a living, tapping the remaining credibility of another profession to promote your own, and hoping you make it on the air to complete the government's deception?
I doubt that most people not in the game could manage to do it without troubling over basic matters of truth. By "basic" I mean capable of being understood by a fourth-grader. Could you put your average American nurse in front of a microphone, and have her calmly read the words, "I'm Doctor Karen Ryan," as part of an informational feature for patients, without some kind of objection arising from conscience, or self-respect? I don't think so.
Hilariously, Ryan went out of her way to say, "I am not an actress," when this is the one occupation that would have lent some innocence and moral sense to what she does. In fact, her line of work is a bizarre one, from a human point of view, quite apart from the contempt for press and public on which her genre, the "video news release," is based.
Still see nothing odd here? This is a woman capable of writing, "there is something wrong when a clearly marked video or print news release is used by a news organization without questioning its source or factual basis," and yet incapable of seeing anything wrong, at all, with, "I'm Karen Ryan reporting." About that her exact words are: "I did nothing wrong. Nothing." Weirdly, she describes herself in print as "that Karen Ryan who rejuvenated the veracity of the video news release."
And according to Zachary Roth, who interviewed her, she had no problem with a government official telling the press she was a "freelance journalist," rather than a PR person, because she used to be a journalist. "She seemed to approve of that description," Roth told me via e-mail. "In general I got the impression during our conversation that, as a PR pro, she genuinely felt confident she could convince me she was the victim." He added: "I couldn't tell how far she had convinced herself of that."
Well, me neither. Maybe you can tell. Here she is, writing boldly in Television Week:
Today's news organizations are bombarded with information, 24-7. How it is reported or disseminated is where the journalistic debate begins. The role of the reporter or journalist is supposed to be as gatekeeper of that information, with the innate responsibility to verify its truth or dig deeper....
If this story needs a scapegoat, it's not me. Rather, try checking the practice of journalists more interested in their own agenda as opposed to verifying facts, and remember the lessons of Journalism 101.
I'm a proud television professional and remain so to this day. However, thanks to overanxious reporters, my professional reputation has been challenged because of journalists who refused, for whatever reason-personal, political or just plain sloppy reporting-to do the basics. The American public deserves better.
This is Karen Ryan reporting.
Now a lot separates a bit player like Karen Ryan from a Karen Hughes or Karl Rove, and she is not the one to blame for the Bush Administration's misdeeds with the press. But in a strange way I see those two--Hughes and Rove--as more normal creatures by far. They understand that as part of a political operation, they and their team will seek power (or political advantage) over truth.
Ryan, who contracted voluntarily to be part of the same team, wants credit as our faithful supplier of truth's raw materials, as if she had never agreed to read from power's script. When her deceptions, designed to make it through, and get on the air, made it through, and got onto the air, she turned around and said she was outraged that journalists were such lousy gatekeepers! No wonder she made the Daily Show on Comedy TV. (In fact there were screw-ups by the gatekeepers, including CNN, which distributed the piece through its Newsource service to locale stations. See this from Roth on recent changes in policy at CNN.)
In the ancient definition, which comes from the Athenians, the idiot is not an unintelligent, uninformed, or unreasoning person, but someone who leads an entirely privatized existence, for whom the public world means nothing. First with her Dadaist words, "This is Karen Ryan Reporting," and then with her explanations, which make no public sense (and do not connect to ordinary human experience or common decency) Ryan showed us that the ancient definition of idiocy is still needed from time to time.
Moral idiocy in the realm of information can be normalized, routinized, and rationalized, as with the video news release. But it should not be allowed to just flow on by, as if a regular part of politics. Campaign Desk would not permit it, and that is a very good thing.
BloggerCon: Discussion Notes for, "What is Journalism? And What Can Weblogs Do About It?"
The background essay, "No One Owns Journalism," and an initial list of questions for the BloggerCon session I will be leading April 17 at Harvard Law School. Expect this post to change as comments come in and I re-think it. Plus, I need ten more questions for my final list of twenty. Got an idea?
I will be discussion leader for a session at BloggerCon that we are tentatively calling "What is Journalism? And What Can Weblogs Do About it?"
If you plan to attend, (see Dave Winer's invitation) or follow along by webcast, or if you just have an interest in the subject, here are background notes, some distinctions that might usefully be drawn before discussion starts, and an initial list of questions for the group. There will be no lecture, no speeches, no panel. Dave's philosophy at BloggerCon (and I agree with it) is that the people in the room are the panel. Keep that in mind as you read this. If you show up, you are a participant. It helps to be on the same page as others, and that's the purpose of this post.
(Expect this to be revised up to the day of the conference, April 17.)
Background Essay, Draft Form:
No One Owns Journalism
(About 1,500 words, so read it when you have time.)
By "journalism" we ought to mean the practice of it, not the profession of it. Journalism can happen on any platform. It is independent of its many delivery devices. This also means that journalism is not the same thing--at all--as "the media." The media, or Big Media as some call it, does not own journalism, and cannot dispose of it on a whim.
Nor does any professional group own journalism, any more than museums and galleries can "own" painting. Although the best journalists around today are professionals, this has not always been the case. During Benjamin Franklin's time, printers were the people who served as journalists. They were stationed at the right point in the information flow, and they had the means to distribute news. Printers were often postmasters too, which helped.
If printers and postmasters, who didn't set out to be journalists, can wind up as that, then in any era we should think it possible for people to wind up doing journalism because they find it a logical, practical, meaningful, democratic, and worthwhile activity.
"There aren’t any teachers until there are learners, and there aren’t any learners until something is disturbed in the student’s world." These were my remarks yesterday at NYU's memorial service for Neil Postman, who passed away on October 5th, 2003. He was my teacher.
Tribute to Neil Postman, 1931-2003
March, 24, 2004
New York University
"Remembering Neil Postman"
Remarks by Jay Rosen
Your program says that I am to speak as a "faculty colleague" of Neil's. But as Neil would surely say in a situation like this, that's just not the speech you're going to get. I was a student of his, and I am so today.
Remembering Neil Postman is what we are here to do today. But it is also what we are commanded to do tomorrow, and in the long years ahead.
Remembering Neil is something you can do alone, and everyone here knows what I mean. But even then it is a social act. Think about it: when you picture Postman, in the privacy of your mind, you always picture him publicly. He is around people. You almost always hear him talking. In your head, in mine, he is found in conversation. And that is what I am calling social.
Memory is a social thing. Surely we say that today by coming together in tribute. If it’s social, then human communication is involved. If it’s communication, it passes to us through a medium. If there’s a medium, it imprints on us a message. The message of this medium, this forum, is that human plurality serves memory. Each of us has a part of the puzzle. When you share your piece you communicate Postman. Remembering Neil can be done alone, but not well. And honestly, I don’t recommend it.
It's a bankrupt form. It serves no clear purpose. There is no civic rationale for it. My newspaper's lead story today, about "an aggressive and precise 90-day media strategy to define Senator John Kerry," is a sad case in point.
The rant is not usually my style. But I have had enough with "strategy coverage" in the campaign press. I think it's a bankrupt form. It serves no clear purpose, has no sensible rationale. The journalists who offer us strategy news do not know what public service they are providing, why they are providing it, for whom it is intended, or how we are supposed to use this strange variety of news. And they cannot explain what would be lost if the entire genre, the strategy story, just died, from being too pathetic for too long.
Die, strategy news. Do it this year, 2004. And we'll dance the dance of real politics on your grave.
Journalists can think of something better to do in five minutes, and it will be better for them when they do. This isn't a reaction to a particular act of journalism (although I do have one to discuss, inflicted on me this morning). This is a rant about a form of reporting, a formula. It concocts news stories by presenting a look "inside" the calculations of the candidates, including fresh speculation about whether the strategy might work. This almost always involves political advertising and the buying of it, which we are told about in detail. But why are we told about it?
When it Goes Both Ways: A Blogger for the Liberal Media Thesis Meets Contrary Evidence at the LA Times
The Dog Trainer is the mock title blogger Patterico sometimes uses for the Los Angeles Times, which he monitors for liberal bias. Patterico saw bias. He e-mailed the editors. A front page story about Ruth Bader Ginsberg resulted. The blogger won a big victory. He also thought it would never happen. Why?
That is perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned in weblogs; it was the first lesson... I had a new relationship with my "public." The public spoke; it argued; it agreed; it disagreed; it could be friendly; it could be generous; it could be trollish; it had names. But I now had a relationship with my public I'd never had before. And that public had a relationship with me it never could have before, when I was merely printed on paper: a two-way relationship.
--Jeff Jarvis, at his weblog, Buzzmachine.
Ten days ago (March 7th) an item appeared in a weblog, Patterico's Pontifications, that used a mock tone of pride and excitement to explain that soon the blogger in question, Patterico, would have news to report. "I may be about to break a big story in the Los Angeles Dog Trainer." It was no joke. It was journalism he was talking about.
The Los Angeles Dog Trainer is the mock title Patterico sometimes uses for the Los Angeles Times, the newspaper he maintains a critical relationship with. Blogging anonymously, he is part of a collective of press watchers with weblogs; and he monitors the Times for liberal bias, plus other sins, like sloppy or dumb reporting.
A new study from the Kennedy School pinpoints what happened between Big Media and the blogs in the case of Trent Lott. It does not portray weblogs as lead actor, but as reactor to a story that almost disappeared. A certain receptivity in the bloggers allowed judgment in the press to correct itself.
I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either.
-- Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, Dec. 5, 2002
One way to learn that pack journalism is real is to be caught outside the pack with a story it does not recognize. This happened to Ed O'Keefe, a young "off-air reporter" for ABC News in Washington, who happened to be in the room when Trent Lott, then the most powerful man in the United States Senate, gave remarks that embraced the spirit of Strom Thurmond's 1948 campaign for president. O'Keefe knew enough about that campaign to find Lott's words shocking, and he said to himself, "This is news."
But Washington journalism said back to him: we don't think so.
O'Keefe's judgment later won out. Pack judgment was wrong-- in this case, extremely so. Lott became the first majority leader in Senate history to resign under pressure. How it all happened is told in the new case study from Harvard's Kennedy School, “Big Media” Meets the “Bloggers." (By Esther Scott, supervised by Alex Jones of the Shorenstein Center at the Kennedy School of Government. Available only in pdf form here.)
My favorite moment in the story is when O'Keefe's counterpart at another network asks a more senior producer in the Washington bureau to look at what Lott said that evening at Thurmond's 100th birthday party. "No, I don't think it's anything" says the more experienced pro.
If the Press Digs Where it Thinks There's a Story, Then it Matters How The Press Thinks
We are coming to a point in the election story when a larger portion of the news is triggered by the decisions of journalists. There's a break in the action with the nominations set. What will the press do with this greater freedom to define and shape the campaign narrative?
A reporter I talk to often (he's on the media beat) called me last week and asked what I thought the press would do with the upcoming "lull" in the presidential campaign: no big news anticipated, beyond Kerry's choice of running mate and later the conventions. For much of 2003 and two months of 2004, it was clear what the press would be doing: covering the race. "So what are they going to do now?" the reporter asked. And together we speculated about it.
The reason the question arises is not a general lack of eventfulness in politics, as if reality had slowed once Kerry emerged as the winner. After the nominating season is over, and before the conventions begin, is a stretch of reporting time where lots is happening, but the triggers for news aren't as automatic. Debates, primary elections, candidates entering and leaving, intra-party attacks-- all generate news that must be covered. This differs from news that must be uncovered. That kind, sometimes called enterprise reporting, depends more on the initiative of the journalist.
Uncovering news is always an act of imagination, however. It is not just "digging," although there is a lot to be said for just that. If the press digs into politics where it thinks there's a story, then it matters what the press thinks. Imagination--how a journalist pictures things working--plays its part. This is especially so right about now, when a pause in the major narrative allows journalists to pick their spots, and develop more of their own ideas.
Players: Toward a More Honest Job Description For the Political Press
Given all the different roles the press has taken on since 1960, it's time to retire the old job description for the campaign press, and write one more honest, more nuanced, more effective— more true. My essay from the new CJR.
Originally published in Columbia Journalism Review, March/April, 2004.
What is the proper job description for a journalist during campaign season? You don’t find much discussion about it. Whether the press is doing its job consumes our attention, as it should. But we cannot know how well the press is doing unless we know—and sort of agree--on the job to be done. I am not sure we do.
I know this: The standard job description needs work. It does not point to all the tasks the press has accumulated since 1960, when the modern media campaign began. Horse race handicapper is not in there, but the press does it. (And not very well, either.) Press language needs to stay current, not only with trends “out there” in the world, but with roles and responsibilities journalists themselves have taken on—sometimes without announcing why, or thinking it through fully.
David Shaw writes in the Los Angeles Times: “When political journalists predict the future, their predictions often seem to eclipse — and at times substitute for — the reporting they're supposed to be based on. Worse, those predictions can become self-fulfilling prophesies. Look at the coverage of Howard Dean's post-caucus speech in Iowa.”
The Weblog: An Extremely Democratic Form in Journalism
In this chapter for Extreme Democracy: The Book, a collection taking shape now, I revisit my list, "ten things radical about the weblog form in journalism." (PressThink's most popular post.)
This is adapted from a chapter I wrote for a collection, to be called Extreme Democracy: the Book, edited by Jon Lebkowsky and Mitch Ratcliffe for O'Reilly Books. (A draft of first chapter, here.) Other authors include Adina Levin, Joi Ito, Ross Mayfield, Jim Moore, Howard Rheingold, Doc Searls, Clay Shirky, and Ethan Zuckerman.
“Journalism,” James W. Carey tells us, “takes its name from the French word for day. It is our day book, our collective diary, which records our common life.”
To record the events of the day is equally the aim of the newsroom and the diary writer. Carey, a press scholar who teaches at Columbia University, finds a connection at the soul between journalism and the practice of journal keeping. Both are trying to prevent events from disappearing without reflection, narration, and the means to look back. “That which goes unrecorded goes unpreserved except in the vanishing moment of our individual lives,” he writes.
When Carey speaks of journalism, he means the practice of it. “Not the media. Not the news business. Not the newspaper or the magazine or the television station but the practice of journalism,” which exists independent of any media platform. He goes on:
There are media everywhere. Every despot creates his own system of media. There is a news business everywhere; there just isn’t all that much journalism, for there can be no journalism without the aspiration for or institutions of democratic life….
Just as medicine, for example, can be practiced in enormous clinics organized like corporations or in one-person offices, journalism can be practiced in multinational conglomerates or by isolated freelancers. Just as medicine can be practiced with technologies as advanced as magnetic image resonating machines or as primitive as an ear that hears complaints and an eye that observes symptoms, so journalism can be practiced with satellites or script. The practice does not depend on the technology or bureaucracy. It depends on the practitioner mastering a body of skill and exercising it to some worthwhile purpose.
And what is worthwhile about it? Carey puts it this way: “For journalism and for us, that purpose is the development and enhancement of public life, a common life which we can all share as citizens.” The title of his talk where he says all this is, “The struggle against forgetting.”
When a writer dissents from it, or departs from it, the master narrative is a very real thing. Here are two examples: one from politics, one from music.
"The assignment was straightforward enough," writes Marjie Lundstrom of the Sacramento Bee, "talk to people." This is how she begins her essay, "Campaign Coverage Without the Candidates," in the Winter 2003 Nieman Reports. It's a mini-memoir of her off-the-grid political coverage during California's recall election last year.
The Bee sent a photographer, José Luis Villegas, with Lundstrom, an editor and writing coach who won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 1991. The purpose of their statewide listening tour was to understand the voters: what Californians were saying and thinking as they prepared to vote in the election a majority of them had just elected to have:
Just “go find people,” hear them out, and take their pictures—an extended man/woman on-the-street assignment, with “the street” being the 156,000 square-mile state of California. So off we went.
It wasn't so casual. Before Lundstrom left, she asked the Bee's librarian, Pete Basofin, to help her identify some logical places to go. She also identified patterns she wanted to avoid when she got there:
All too often, it seems, journalists take the easy route on these kinds of assignments, blowing into a community, locating the town “hang-out,” and quizzing a handful of patrons while discreetly gathering colorful anecdotes about the tablecloths and quaint wall hangings to give each piece a sense of place. But this election, and this state, were far more complex than that.... To truly capture these wide-ranging voices, and to distinguish the pieces, we had to spurn the journalistic tradition of the mom-and-pop café—of hitting the road and winging it. We had to have a plan, a strategy for where we were going and why.
Zachary Roth (And His Boss) Respond to "The Morals Squad at CJR's Campaign Desk"
I thought CJR's Campaign Desk was triangulating and moralizing to excess when it went after weblogs on exit polls. "It‘s a clever-sounding theory," says the Desk's Zachary Roth, "but it doesn’t come close." Mike Hoyt, top editor at CJR, agrees. Their letters and my response.
To: Jay Rosen
From Zachary Roth
Date: February 24, 2004
I wanted to respond to your lengthy piece about Campaign Desk posted on your site. I’m not speaking for Campaign Desk here-- this is a personal response.
First, I agree that, as you say, “there are some standards emerging online where webloggers meet the mark and the press falls short.” I personally have no interest in holding bloggers out to be any less responsible than anyone else, and where I’ve implied that they are--by talking about being "taken seriously"-- I’d have done better to focus my criticism more narrowly on the issue at hand: the release of exit poll results. Kos is right to say that his readers will decide whether or not he gets taken seriously.
But I’m a little confused about the moralizing charge. You write, “If Campaign Desk is worried about sounding too moralistic, then it’s a good bet there is some moralizing going on.” Are you saying that our stance on the exit polls issue is itself “moralistic”, and therefore worthy of dismissal, or are you taking issue simply with what you see as our moralistic tone? If we were making our point in a more self-effacing way, would that make it okay?
Adam Gopnik argued ten years ago that the press did not know who it was within politics, or what it stood for. There was a vacuum in journalism where political argument and imagination should be. Now there are signs that this absence of thought is ending. The view from nowhere is being challenged.
It was December 1994, Bill Clinton's first term, in the weeks after the spectacular Republican takeover in Congress. Adam Gopnik, writer for the New Yorker, sketched a portrait of the political press that I clipped because it drew on his many talents as a stylist. What he said may have been obvious to any alert and informed viewer, but it was also at odds with how journalists think of themselves and their problems. It remains that today. Remember, it was during the Clinton years that he wrote this:
"Any ordinary television viewer who has watched Presidential news conferences over the last couple of Administrations can't have failed to pick up a tone of high-minded moral indignation in the reporters' questions, which seem designed not so much to get at a particular fact or elicit a particular view as to dramatize the gulf in moral stature between the reporters and the President." ("Read All About It," the New Yorker, Dec. 12, 1994, not online.)
Gopnik found a dearth of reasoning in the press think of the day, a vacuum where journalists might have developed stronger ideas. Since Watergate, he wrote:
the American press has undergone a transformation from an access culture to an aggression culture: the tradition, developed after the Civil War, in which a journalist's advancement depended on his intimacy with power, has mutated into one in which his success can also depend on a willingness to stage visible, ritualized displays of aggression. The reporter used to gain status by dining with his subjects; now he gains status by dining on them...
The key word was displays. Gopnik looked with a drama critic's eye on the journalist's (increasingly televised) presentation of self. He told how the culture of aggression was fatally constrained in journalism; it could not develop into a new kind of political institution, for it "still has to thrive within the old institutions of the commercial press."
American newsrooms, he said, tend to suppress "political thought in the interests of an ideal (or at least the appearance) of objectivity." This produces strange results. Journalists now "relish aggression while still being prevented, by their own codes, from letting that aggression have any relation to serious political argument, let alone grown-up ideas about conduct and morality." I'll let him elaborate:
Aggression has become a kind of abstract form, practiced in a void of ideas, or even of ordinary sympathy. In a grim paradox, the media in America, because their aggression has been kept quarantined from good ideas, have become surprisingly vulnerable to bad ideas... the jaded tone and the prosecutorial tone are masks, switched quickly enough so that you can appear active and neutral at the same time. Or, to put it another way, the cynicism and the sanctimony turn out to be a little like electricity and magnetism -- two aspects of a single field, perpetuating themselves in a thought-free vacuum.
Attempted use of the "gulf in moral stature" is still common. (I wrote about Wolf Blitzer doing it with Dennis Kucinich.) For example, Chris Matthews, the host of Hardball on MSNBC, was profiled this week in USA Today. He's been climbing in the ratings during the political season. On that count--440,000 viewers and gaining--Hardball is one of the few bright spots for the network. Listen to Matthews explain his success:
The Campaign Desk decided to police the Web on early release of exit polls. Triangulation was at work. The Desk wanted moral distance between itself and webloggers, so as to impress the traditional press. "We have standards, they don't. See....?" But the action was fraught with anxiety, and there are reasons for that.
Campaign Desk is starting to feel like the indignant moralist who loudly informs everyone within earshot that there is nudity on channel 35 at 10:15 pm every other night. Nonetheless...
And in that nonetheless... is a revealing little episode in election year press think, morals division.
The prime mover was Columbia Journalism Review's Campaign Desk. In debate with the Desk were Jack Shafer of Slate and Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos, with pointed commentary by Cynthia Cotts in the Village Voice. Plus others as word got around. The ostensible issue--later I will call it a pretext--was the early release of exit polling data by various players online, including Drudge, National Review, Kos, Instapundit, Josh Marshall and others. "Blogs Gone Wild" read the header on one item denouncing the practice.
Internet activism that thrust up the Howard Dean U.S. election campaign later hobbled the organization's ability to respond to criticism in the weeks before the primaries, Dean's former campaign manager said on Monday.
Wrong. Trippi did not say his ability to respond to critics was hobbled by "Internet activism." Rather, he couldn't figure out a way to get that "activism" into the game as a plus factor on his side. He was the one with the Internet troops. But he (somehow) could not command those troops to come to the campaign's aid, and so Dean did not benefit, in a storm, from having all the extra hands-- the Deaniacs and their energy.
Joe Trippi at an Emerging Technology Teach-In spoke to his Internet troops. He came to teach them about a fateful moment in the campaign, where the Net movement disconnected from Dean's condition. But he also told them: you made us. You are changing American politics. And it's still about the money.
You tend to put your own belief system in the vessel of the guy that you're supporting. Clearly that happened with Howard Dean as well.-- Trippi.
San Diego, CA: Feb. 9-10 When Joe Trippi took the stage here at O'Reilly's Digital Democracy Teach-In, it was an address to Net loyalists by a fallen hero. Trippi had lost three battles in full public view: Iowa, then New Hampshire, and then his position at the top of what he yet called an "insurgent" campaign. If you knew the history, knew the crowd, and had followed Trippi's press, it was an appearance not without drama.
Of course, loyalist did not apply to everyone in the room in their attitude toward Trippi or Dean or even Net politics. I found skepticism about all three at the conference. But the bonds were real enough to make his talk a more intimate act than "figure in the news speaks out." As Scott Rosenberg of Salon said to me the following day, Trippi was talking to his troops. For a core group at the Teach-In this was true. And Joe Trippi received a hero's welcome: two standing ovations, with 50-60 percent joining in.
The d-democracy event was a shrewd and late addition to a larger happening: the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference at the Westin in downtown San Diego. It's known as E-tech. Some 800 were expected for E-tech, and perhaps a quarter of these came to Monday's events. In that group were about 45 journalists, including correspondents for Wired, Reuters, AP, Salon, the Nation, CBS News, plus all the webloggers doing the blow by blow, or commenting on parts of the day. (See Jeff Jarvis, Ross Mayfield and this page for lots more. Ross's post lists many others who blogged.)
"I am out of the campaign, I am not out of the fight." So said the general to the troops. (Read the transcript here.) And a few days later, the chatter at E-tech was confirmed. Trippi started his weblog, Change for America, with its lead post: Still in the Fight.
We need to keep the press from being absorbed into The Media. This means keeping the word press, which is antiquated. But included under its modern umbrella should be all who do the serious work in journalism, regardless of the technology used. The people who will invent the next press in America--and who are doing it now online--continue an experiment at least 250 years old. It has a powerful social history and political legend attached...
The Siegal Report: A Triumph of Self Reflection at the New York Times: "The various teams looking at pieces of the puzzle did not back down. They said it several times: today we need different values than the ones that prevailed when Jayson Blair got his chance to ruin us. We need a different culture of control. And in particular, there are calls for truth, justice and democracy in the document." More...
Top Ten List: What's Radical About the Weblog Form in Journalism? "The weblog comes out of the gift economy, whereas most of today’s journalism comes out of the market economy." PressThink's most linked-to post. More...
A Second Top Ten List: What's Conservative About the Weblog Form in Journalism? "The quality of any weblog in journalism depends greatly on its fidelity to age old newsroom commandments like check facts, check links, spell things correctly, be accurate, be timely, quote fairly." More...
Times Web Editor Goes to Harvard in Search of Something:
"He just indicated, in a very polite and open way... I'm trying to get a handle on this myself, so let's talk. To me, this was a welcome move by Len Apcar. Good citizenship, intellectually speaking-- a notion that has perhaps become more important at the New York Times after recent turmoil." More...
Blogging is About Making and Changing Minds: "Sure, weblogs are good for making statements, big and small. But they also force re-statement. Yes, they're opinion forming. But they are equally good at unforming opinion, breaking it down, stretching it out." More...
Editors Rock Who Let Weblogs Roll: "When you're sitting at your desk and there are things strange, wonderful and new on your screen, you may have to re-decide what journalism 'is' and is finally about, in order to cover the new class of cases that arise when you're doing it live online." More...
Bill O'Reilly and the Paranoid Style in News: "O'Reilly feeds off his own resentments--the establishment sneering at Inside Edition--and like Howard Beale, the 'mad prophet of the airwaves,' his resentments are enlarged by the medium into public grievances among a mass of Americans unfairly denied voice." More...
Notes on the Creature Called Fox: "As a political consultant Ailes had worked for Nixon, Reagan and the elder Bush. He thought there was a winnable audience there for news in a different political key. And he put his sense of the under-served market together with his knowledge of how winning coalitions are made, plus his familiarity with the mind of mainstream journalism (from having to manuever around the political press on behalf of his clients) to give birth to the Fox way." More...
The Other Bias at Fox News: Volume: "Almost all Murdoch properties identify themselves to us by means of the oldest marketing strategy there is: shock and awe, hype and miracle, outrage and scam, the language of screaming headlines. It's not just information with more excitement pumped into it (although that is true too) but also excitement as information." More...
Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate: "This here is a post for practically everyone in the game of seizing on media bias and denouncing it, which is part of our popular culture, and of course a loud part of our politics. And this is especially for the 'we're fair and balanced, you're not' crowd, wherever I may have located you." More...
When the Learned Rant at the Times: "Why do learned people behave this way about the New York Times? One possible answer: they "hate" it for the same reason that they would die with pride if their book were reviewed well in the New York Times. Journalism professors have to query these things." More...
Opinion Bad, Reporting Good and Nothing Else Do You Need to Know: "Dvorkin writes as if fact-based reporting and 'opinion and commentary' are natural opposites. Common sense says no. Can there be fact-based commentary, Mister Ombudsman? Sure, and it's the only kind that's worth having because it comes from people who know what they are talking about. If reporting and opinion were mutually hostile or logically opposite, European journalism would not exist, but of course it does exist." More...
We Just Don't Think About It: The Strange Press Mind of Leonard Downie: "Back of all the Downie doubletalk about 'information agendas' and 'organic' news decisions is a matter more serious: Leonard Downie's quest for absolute innocence when it comes to having a political thought or two about journalism. He achieves this innocence by receiving all questions about the inherently political nature of the press as crude demands to politicize the press." More...
LA Times Editor is Defiant: Don't Like Our Investigations? Go Elsewhere: "Carroll, in a column that levels with readers, is eager to defend the genre of investigative reporting--a trade category that is not common ground--but in all of 1,700 words he does not try to explain why 'character' is a fit subject for public probing by a powerful newspaper. (He just assumes it.) He does not tell us how journalists come to know what good character is, such that they can document cases of bad." More...
Exit, Voice and Loyalty at the Los Angeles Times: "Newspapers need the loyalty of readers, precisely because there are bound to be stresses and strains in the relationship. This is a truism. But how good are newspapers on voice? And when 10,000 people choose exit over a single incident, it may be time to question the reasoning that explains this mass flight as an inevitable consequence of doing a good job, a price the tough and determined must pay and accept." More...
The View From Nowhere: "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." More...
The President's Secret Flight to Baghdad: "Ask any of the reporters who accompanied Bush to Baghdad what they were doing there and, after allowing for the unusual circumstances (extreme secrecy) they would say they were there to 'cover the president's surprise trip to Baghdad.' Which sounds reasonable enough until you realize that the president's trip did not exist as a workable idea outside the anticipated news coverage of it. This realization takes under three seconds." More...
Thoughts on the Killing of a Young Correspondent: "Among foreign correspondents, there is a phrase: 'parachuting in.' That's when a reporter drops into foreign territory during an emergency, without much preparation, staying only as long as the story remains big. The high profile people who might parachute in are called Bigfoots in the jargon of network news. The problem with being a Bigfoot, of course, is that it's hard to walk in other people's shoes." More...
Journalism Is Itself a Religion: "We're headed, I think, for schism, tumult and divide as the religion of the American press meets the upheavals in global politics and public media that are well underway. Changing around us are the terms on which authority can be established by journalists. The Net is opening things up, shifting the power to publish around. Consumers are becoming producers, readers can be writers..." More...
CAMPAIGN POLITICS AND THE PRESS, 2004, HIGHLIGHTS:
Politics in a Different Key: "It is the politics of the savvy class. Its members are the insiders. They are the pros. They are the pundits, handlers and funders, vultures and parrots who run and staff the campaign story, which is above all the inside story of how you get elected in this country. Its outstanding feature, Joan Didion wrote, is "remoteness from the actual life of the country." They are the people of this remoteness." More...
Raze Spin Alley, That Strange Creation of the Press: "Spin Alley, an invention of the American press and politicos, shows that the system we have is in certain ways a partnership between the press and insiders in politics. They come together to mount the ritual. An intelligent nation is entitled to ask if the partners are engaged in public service when they bring to life their invention... Alternative thesis: they are in a pact of mutual convenience that serves no intelligible public good." More...
A Politics That is Dumber than Spam: "I remember the moment when presidential campaigns turned from just maddening and absurd to completely empty for me. It might have happened years before, but I am a believer in politics. So it took until the fall of 2000. Bush and Gore were then fighting it out, not by opposing one another in any kind of argument, but by running virtually the same campaign, on the same issues, pandering to the same groups, advancing a rhetoric that sounded the same but for a few catch phrases." More...
Private Life, Public Happiness and the Dean Connection: "Somehow it had all gotten away from them. Presidential campaigns had drifted out of alignment with most Americans. The ritual no longer seemed like something the country did for itself every four years, but what a professional cadre did, and sold back to the country as 'politics.' But it wasn’t, really. At least it wasn’t democratic politics at anything like capacity." More...
Nine Story Lines in a New Campaign Narrative: "By drastically multiplying the opportunities for speakers and actors, the style of campaign favored by Dean opens another story line in politics, which is all the discoveries people make about the conditions in which they were held voice-less (or inert) before. Inertia spills its secrets the moment you reverse and commit yourself to politics as an actor." More...
Politically Significant Cluelessness: "Frank Rich wrote effectively this week on a culture of cluelessness in Washington. Ignorance of what's happening with the Internet, and thus the movement for Howard Dean, is a kind of emergent force in itself-- active in political events. He charges that shifting coterie--the Washington establishment--with being condescending and simple-minded about the Net." More...
Horse Race Now! Horse Race Tomorrow! Horse Race Forever!: "How is it you know you're the press? Because you have a pass that says PRESS, and people open the gate. The locker room doors admit you. The story must be inside that gate; that's why they give us credentials. We get closer. We tell the fans what's going on. And if this was your logic, Bill James tried to bust it. Fellahs, said he to the baseball press, you have to realize that you are the gate." More...
Adopt a Campaign Journalist in 2004: The Drift of a Suggestion "Over the holidays, an idea gained some Net traction: webloggers 'adopting' a campaign reporter. That means you monitor and collect all the reporter's work, and then... And then what? Follow the turns as the suggestion is taken up and debated." More...
Why I Love the Adopt-a-Reporter Scheme. Why I Dread It: "I am curious why we don't see hatred of the press as taking some toll on the hater. (We do when it's racism.) In this sense I dread the adopt-a-journalist scheme, even though I support the idea, because I think dread is a fit response when people who are in some quarters hated--perhaps symbolically so--are being carefully "watched" in those quarters" More...
Psst.... The Press is a Player: "The answer, I think, involves an open secret in political journalism that has been recognized for at least 20 years. But it is never dealt with, probably because the costs of facing it head on seem larger than the light tax on honesty any open secret demands. The secret is this: pssst... the press is a player in the campaign. And even though it knows this, as everyone knows it, the professional code of the journalist contains no instructions in what the press could or should be playing for?" More...
Why Are You Such a Loser, Dennis Kucinich? "Political man gives it his best shot. He runs in order to speak to the country, and to see if the country listens and responds. It is for others to say why he failed when he is still in the campaign to succeed. Intuitively we know this. Blitzer, in a boorish way, does not." More...
The Master Narrative in Journalism: "Were 'wining' to somehow be removed or retired as the operating system for news, campaign reporting would immediately become harder to do, not because there would be no news, but rather no common, repeatable instructions for deciding what is a key development in the story, a turning point, a surprise, a trend. Master narratives are thus harder to alter than they are to apprehend. For how do you keep the story running while a switch is made?" More...