March 22, 2010

the press turns to explanation, after the decision is made

"American consumers, who spent a year watching Congress scratch and claw over sweeping health care legislation, can now try to figure out what the overhaul would mean for them." -- Tara Siegel Bernard, today's New York Times.

Actually, the news media spent a year feeding American citizens a steady diet of stories about Congressional procedure, the possible impact of health-care reform on elections, and quotes that falsely described the bill or denounced its critics. Americans never showed any desire to watch Congress "scratch and claw." They would have appreciated some information about what various legislative bills would do.

Now that the bill has passed, reporters finally feel an obligation to explain it. Bernard's story lists the major provisions, although The Times also feels obliged to run a front-page "news analysis" of Obama's alleged strategy (he cast a "bet that the Republicans ... overplayed their hand"), a separate article about political fights to come, and a panoply of one-liners: "Freedom dies a little bit today ..." "It is almost like the Salem Witch trials ..." The ratio of substance to horse-race reporting remains low, but I predict that weekly news magazines and metropolitan dailies will begin to run helpful explanatory pieces.

The job of the press is not to tell us who won or lost, or how a bill will affect our votes in the next election. Its job is to give us information that we can combine with our values to reach judgments. Measured by that standard, the press failed spectacularly during the health care debate. Reporters are partly responsible for the public's deep misunderstanding of the bill--although the Democratic leadership also did a poor job explaining it, and we citizens should bear some responsibility, too.

Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist/blogger who studies such things, doubts that public misconceptions will dissipate any time soon. His research suggests that myths are stubborn and that efforts to correct them often backfire by inadvertently reinforcing the very misinformation that they seek to rebut.

As it must be, his work is based on data from the past, plus lab experiments. I think the health care situation may prove unusual, because (1) the legislation is momentous and will capture public attention, (2) the level of misinformation is striking, so there is lots of room for improvement, (3) people have incentives to learn what the bill means to them, (4) unless you are an ideologue, you have no motivation to reject positive information about the bill, and (5) trustworthy intermediaries, such as primary care physicians, have incentives to understand it and explain it accurately. I would be surprised if public understanding doesn't rise.

But there I go, prognosticating about public opinion--just like a reporter. The important question is what the bill will actually do. I encourage everyone to take a few minutes to find out, if you don't know already.

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November 11, 2008

my favorite article on the 2008 campaign

That would be Mark Danner's "Obama & Sweet Potato Pie" in the New York Review of Books. Danner describes two rallies, one for Obama and one for McCain. As he notes, the national press corps follows the candidates, listens to them repeat their stump speeches time after time, and reports only the new lines that are inserted daily for their interest--usually attacks on the other candidates or responses to attacks. I well remember seeing Bill Bradley speak live in the 1992 campaign and marveling that the only aspect of his speech that appeared in the newspaper the next day was a line about Bill Clinton. The whole thing is a game that the campaigns and the press know how to play.

But a campaign also consists of whole speeches delivered in real settings to people from geographical communities. Danner depicts two such occasions as the dynamic interplay between the candidates and their audiences. He does an unusually good job of portraying both sets of voters with understanding and sympathy. He suppresses his own judgments in the interest of clear-eyed reporting. For me, the piece pretty much sums up the whole campaign.

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October 30, 2008

media bias and election outcomes

The conservative world is abuzz with the idea that liberal news media are either hurting McCain or making his polling results look worse than his real support in the public. I know plenty of liberals who believe that the rise of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News accounts for conservative electoral victories after 1992. These two claims don't cancel out; one or both could be true. But a full statistical model of election outcomes would have to factor in at least:

a. The fit between candidates' positions and public opinion
b. The candidates as communicators/symbols
c. Strategic and tactical political decisions by campaigns
d. Grassroots activity by citizens
e. Campaign finance
f. Changes in the real economic and social circumstances of voters before the election
g. The real performance of the incumbent administration
h. Media bias

I can imagine that (h) would account for some of the variance in election results. But I don't think it can explain too much, because there is a lot of evidence about the importance of (f). Specifically, changes in inflation-adjusted, disposable household income before an election remarkably predict whether the "in" or "out" party wins. And people know their own income; they don't need the media to tell them.

We should wish that (a), (d), and (g) would explain most of the variance in election results. Those are the democratic inputs. Political reforms should maximize the importance of these factors. (H) is unfortunate, but I doubt it's very important once the other factors are considered.

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March 20, 2008

part of the problem

I generally don't like to quote at length from prominent blogs, but I can't improve on this reaction by Jay Rosen:

I was watching CNN for Obama's speech. Moments after it concluded Wolf Blitzer was asked to tell us what he heard in it. Wolf's ear is the big ear for the Best Political Team on Television, according to CNN. So he went first. And according to Blitzer, Obama's speech boils down to a "pre-emptive strike" against various attacks on the way: videos, ads, and news controversies that are sure to keep Reverend Jeremiah Wright and "race" in play as issues in the campaign. (I don't have his exact words; if someone out there does, ping me.)

Wasn't the speech about that very pattern?

This is the style of analysis--and the level of thought--we have become miserably utterly used to, especially from Blitzer, but also many others on TV: everything is a move in the game of getting elected, and it's our job in political television to explain to you, the slightly clueless viewer at home, what the special tactics in this case are, then to estimate whether they will work.

That Blitzer, offered the first word on that speech, did the savvier-than-thou, horse race thing tells you about his priorities (mistakenly "static," as Obama said about Wright) and his imaginative range as an interpreter of politics (pretty close to zero.)

Compare Wolf to active, thoughtful citizens who care:

"The Rev. Joel Hunter, senior pastor of a mostly white evangelical church of about 12,000 in Central Florida ... said the Obama speech led to a series of conversations Wednesday morning with his staff members. "We want for there to be healing and reconciliation, but unless it’s raised in a very public manner, it’s tough for us in our regular conversation to raise it."

Julie Fanselow: "Time and again Tuesday, speakers at Take Back America and writers on blogs like The Super Spade and Booker Rising and Pam's House Blend echoed and dissected and even wept over what Obama had said in Philadelphia."

Rich Harwood reflects on what we should do when someone (such as Rev. Wright) "cross[es] the line of politeness and rupture[s] norms of give-and-take." We should, says Rich, "step forward and renounce them in ways that reflect the kind of public life and politics we seek to create. Let us take in the fullness of their argument and respond in kind - with clarity, forthrightness, and strength of conviction, even love. I do not suggest that anyone should back down, but neither do I advocate a slash and burn response that poisons the very public square we wish to invigorate."

Less favorable to Obama, but equally responsible and deliberative, is Bill Galston's take.

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February 20, 2008

an opening for the news media

David Carr, a financial reporter for the New York Times, argues that the rising youth turnout rate offers the news media an opportunity to expand their audience among young people. He quotes me, saying, "I think that there is a clear message in here for the media: these campaigns have made very direct and serious pitches to young people and they have responded. ... I think it demonstrates that if you approach them in a specific way about things they care about, they will engage."

This is certainly an important issue, because using the media (especially a daily newspaper) correlates powerfully with voting and all forms of civic participation, including membership in groups. For young people, news consumption has fallen:

This graph provides an incomplete picture. It doesn't continue until 2004-7, when you would see some increase in newspaper readership. And it omits other news sources, such as the Internet. But notice that the decline was long, slow, and steady and started well before the Internet achieved mass scale.

I serve as a trustee of the Newspaper Association Foundation and do other work in this field because I believe that the news media (as well as schools and other institutions) need to invest more in building young people's interest in the news. They are also going to have to rebuild trust, because American youth are more cynical--or sophisticated--about bias and spin in the press than they used to be. The graph below shows trends in trust; our qualitative research finds that young people are especially sensitive to perceived bias and manipulation.

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November 21, 2007

interacting with "the media"

(We're heading west for Thanksgiving, and this will be my last post until Monday.)

I have minuscule impact on the news media, but I do have interesting experiences with journalists.

For example, yesterday at 7 am, I walked the halls of XM Radio in Northeast Washington, DC. XM Radio produces 170 separate channels of audio programming, mostly for specialized audiences. I was on my way to be interviewed for "POTUS '08," a channel that talks about nothing but the presidential campaign, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I should note that the questions turned out to be very good; they went far beyond the usual horse-race analysis. But what struck me were all the studios for the other radio channels, visible through glass windows along the groovy curving halls as I walked to my interview. Baseball jerseys and bats covered the walls of one studio, where three guys were talking into mikes. Another studio looked like a business suite with leather furniture and copies of the Wall Street Journal. It all seemed like a Monte Python skit. I expected to see the "Yo-Yo Channel" around the next corner, with people in beanies keeping their Imperials in motion, 24/7.

Later in the same day, a crew came to interview me for a documentary about the future of democracy (not about my book of that name; about the actual future of our actual democracy). The crew is also filming the interview process to create a video blog about making the documentary. That explained why there were two cameras, one filming the other one. Again, I should note that the interview questions were very thoughtful.

Finally, not long ago, a foreign TV crew came to interview me about KidsVoting USA. This is a fine program that involves discussing a campaign in school and then conducting a mock election. A rigorous study has found that participants' parents actually vote at higher rates, because the program stimulates discussion of politics around the dinner table. The TV crew had gone to Duluth, Minnesota (i.e., the heartland) to film a KidsVoting class and some dinner-table conversations. After the interview, the reporter told me privately that she was so moved by what she saw in Duluth that she was thinking of quitting her job to start KidsVoting in her home country. She wanted my advice about fundraising.

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September 4, 2007

7 questions about the campaign

On the front page of Saturday's Washington Post, in a "Campaign Memo" addressed "To: The Voters" about "The Seven Things You Need to Know about the 2008 Race," Dan Balz addressed the following questions:

1. Is the Clinton campaign a true juggernaut -- or is that just what she wants everyone to believe?
2. Is there a Republican front-runner?
3. Is anyone on either side positioned to break into the top tier?
4. Does the new, turbo-charged calendar make Iowa and New Hampshire more important -- or less?
5. Is it too late for Al Gore or Newt Gingrich to get into the race?
6. Do ideas matter in this election?
7. When do I really need to start paying attention, and should I trust the polls?

These are questions for spectators who are considering following the 2008 campaign as they might follow the NFL season--as a contest among professional teams. The big underlying question is: Who's going to win? But what if you follow the campaign as a citizen concerned about the country and the world? Then your questions would be quite different:

1. What are our problems as a country?
2. What are some leading diagnoses and interpretations of these problems?
3. What should we do about our problems?
4. What role do I have?
5. What role does the next president of the United States have?
6. What are the candidates saying about how they would play their roles if elected?
7. What does other evidence (such as the candidates' records, behavior on the campaign trail, choice of advisers, and core constituencies) tell us about how they would play their roles?

Perhaps Dan Balz would say that he cannot address my questions without editorializing. But he can hardly claim that he merely provides "the facts," since his memo is full of declarative judgments about the horse race. (In his magisterial opinion, it is too late for Gore and Gingrich. No candidate has proposed any significant big ideas yet. Etc.) Besides, I'm not asking the Post to tell us what our problems are and how to solve them. I'm asking them to give us the factual basis to help us make up our own minds--along with a sampling of interesting views quoted from a variety of experts and activists.

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April 19, 2007

too much coverage of the Virginia Tech tragedy

The amount of coverage has been staggering--dozens of stories per day in the top national newspapers, nightly broadcast news programs that are lengthened by half an hour, 24-hour repetitions of the same information on cable news, even a blow-by-blow account in the "Kid's Post" section of the Washington Post, which my 7-year-old reads. I first found out about the Blacksburg tragedy because a student TV news crew stopped me on the street to ask my opinion. This is a global phenomenon: Le Monde and the BBC also led with Cho Seung-hui's picture when I looked.

It's a choice to devote so much space and time to those 33 deaths. Bombers killed 158 in US-occupied Baghdad on Wednesday. Nigeria, the biggest country in Africa, saw violence connected to its presidential vote. Comparisons are odious; they imply that one doesn't care about particular victims and that human lives can be counted and weighed. I do sympathize with the Blacksburg victims and their families. I sympathize because I have been told their stories in detail; but there are many other stories that I could have been told--other tragedies, or (for that matter) other narratives that are important but not tragic.

Perhaps the Virginia Tech victims deserve sympathy from all of us, but I suspect they would prefer less attention. I find it hard to see how the deserve something they don't want.

One reason to tell the Virginia Tech story in detail is to provide us with the information we might need to act as voters and members of various communities. For instance, I work at a university much like Virginia Tech and could agitate for new policies in my institution. But it is generally a bad idea to act on the basis of extremely rare events. There have been about 40 mass shootings in the USA. During the period when those crimes have occurred, something like half a billion total people have been alive in America. That means that 0.000008 percent of the population commits mass shootings. There cannot be a general circumstance that explains why someone does something so rare. The availability of weapons, mental illness, video games--none of these prevalent factors can "explain" something that in 99.999992 percent of cases does not happen. (Bayes' theorem seems relevant here, but I cannot precisely say why.)

It is foolish to use such rare events to make policy at any level--from federal laws to school rules. For instance, if lots of people carried concealed weapons, there is some chance that the next mass killer would be stopped after he had shot some of his victims. But millions of people would have to carry guns, and that would cause all kinds of other consequences. The day after the Blacksburg killings, two highly trained Secret Service officers were injured on the White House grounds because one of them accidentally discharged his gun. Imagine how many times such accidents would happen per year if most ordinary college students packed weapons in order to prevent the next Blacksburg.

The last paragraph was a rebuttal to those who want to use Cho Seung-hui as an argument for carrying concealed weapons. But it would be equally mistaken to favor gun control because it might prevent mass shootings. Maybe gun control is a good idea, but not because it would somewhat lower the probability of staggeringly rare events. Its other consequences (both positive and negative) are much more significant.

If obsessive coverage of a particular tragedy does not help us to govern ourselves or make wise policies, it does reduce our sense of security and trust. It reinforces our belief that "current events" and "public affairs" are mostly about senseless acts of violence. It plants the idea that one can become spectacularly famous by killing other people. These are not positive consequences.

It is moving that some students have started a "reach out to a loner" campaign on the Internet. They are trying to respond constructively to something that they have been told is highly important. Imagine what they might accomplish if they turned their attention to the prison population, the high-school dropout problem, or even ordinary mental illness.

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April 17, 2007

whom does a White House reporter represent?

Another person who spoke on Saturday at Penn State was David E. Sanger, the chief White House correspondent of the New York Times. After his speech, I asked him whom he thought he represented when he rode on Air Force One or sat in the White House briefing room. He replied, "You always represent your readers." I asked him who he wished his readers were. I was wondering, for instance, whether he would like to reach (and therefore "represent") a cross-section of the whole national population, if that were possible. He replied that Times readers are always going to be unusual in some respects. They have a high median level of education and tend to have especially enjoyed their own college experiences. He argued that skew was acceptable as long as everyone can get access to the Times, which is easy now via the website.

That's a plausible answer. It's better than claiming that the Times only serves the truth. Despite its slogan ("All the News that's Fit to Print"), the newspaper obviously makes choices about what stories to cover and whom to interview, based on value-judgments about what is most important. Sanger had conceded that point in earlier comments.

I can imagine a reporter saying that he represents no one, or only his employer. But that would raise questions about why he should have access to the president of the United States. I can also imagine a New York Times reporter saying that she represents "the American people." That's consistent with the Times' image as an objective source of information for any citizen (regardless of creed, region, or party) who wants to make independent decisions. I've previously quoted Adolph Ochs, who said, when he bought the Times in 1896, that he intended to "give the news, all the news, in concise and attractive form, in language that is parliamentary in good society, and give it early, if not earlier, than it can be learned through any other reliable medium; to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of any party, sect, or interest involved; to make of the columns of The New York Times a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion." That's a high ideal, and it reflects a kind of implicit contract between the whole public and the Times' reporters. That contract has come into question with recent scandals, but I don't think that tighter ethical rules would fully resolve the problem. The Times cannot represent the whole American people if the 1.1 million people who buy it are skewed by class, ideology, and region. It could struggle to make its readership nationally representative, but that would probably require a change of tone, topics, and perspective. Perhaps it is best to say, as Sanger did, that he simply represents his readers and welcomes anyone to join their company.

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July 12, 2006

box score political reporting

One of the standard clichés of journalism is the treatment of political news as if it were a sport. Each event is described as a victory or a defeat for a particular politician. For instance, here's how the two papers that I read over breakfast this morning reported the latest Administration policy on prisoners:

The New York Times: The new policy "reverses a position the White House had held since shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, and it represents a victory for those within the administration who argued that the United States' refusal to extend Geneva protections to Qaeda prisoners was harming the country's standing abroad."

The Washington Post: "The developments underscored how the administration has been forced to retreat from its long-standing position."

The Administration's change of position was a defeat: that's a fact. And it's undeniable (almost tautological) that the shift was a "victory" for those who opposed the status quo. But reporters could choose many other facts to provide: for example, information about what has been done to various prisoners. The reliance on political wins and losses has the following serious drawbacks:

1) It encourages laziness. You don't have to do any actual reporting to figure out that an event is good or bad for a politician.

2) It reinforces the notion that politics is a spectator sport, in which the important question is "Who's winning?" (not, "What's happening?").

3) It adds to the political cost that incumbents incur when they change course for good reasons. When George Bush found out that Abu Zubaydah, whom he had described as Al-Qaeda's chief of operations, was mentally ill and of no consequence, he supposedly told CIA Director George Tenet, "I said he was important. You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?" If that's true, it's evidence of almost criminal irresponsibility. But Bush also knew that if he changed his position, the press would report that as a sign of weakness--a "setback" or "defeat"--instead of allowing the president to take credit for learning. Reporting politics as a box-score only increases the odds that leaders will act like Bush.

(In fairness, I should note that after I read this morning's papers and decided to write this post, I looked around for other examples of box-score journalism on the prisoner issue. The AP, Reuters, and L.A. Times stories really did not use that frame.)

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July 10, 2006

the press and civic engagement

Below the fold, I have pasted a longish draft essay on the evolution of the news media and its impact on democracy. (A revised version will go into a book on civic engagement that is due next month.) In essence, I argue that we had a particular model of the news business between 1900 and 2000 that became increasingly dysfunctional for citizens. It offered limited opportunities to write the news--that's a well-known flaw. It also assumed an audience of people who were interested in public issues and who trusted professional reporters to be objective, balanced, reliable, and independent. That audience encompassed the most active citizens, as surveys show. But it shrank rapidly in the last quarter of the 1900s. Resurrecting the twentieth-century press now seems impossible, but the new digital media have promise.

Until the Progressive Era (ca. 1900-1914), most American newspapers and magazines reflected the positions of a party, church, or association and aimed to persuade readers or motivate the persuaded. The exceptions, beginning with the New York Sun in 1833, were independent businesses that sought mass audiences in big cities. All 19th-century newspapers freely combined opinion and news. They printed fiction and poetry along with factual reporting. They often ran whole speeches by favored politicians or clergymen. Standards of evidence were generally low. However, publications were relatively cheap to launch, so they proliferated; 2,226 daily newspapers were in business in 1899.[1] A small voluntary association or independent entrepreneur could break into the news business, hoping to make money or to push a particular ideology, or both.

The nineteenth century was also an age of partisan citizenship, in which people were expected to show loyalty to a party, a union, a church, a town or state, and sometimes a race or ethnic group. Often such loyalties were ascribed from birth; they were matters of affiliation rather than assent, as Michael Schudson writes.[2] Voting was a public act, an expression of loyalty, not a private choice. Politics involved torchlight parades and popular songs; the essence of civic life was boosterism; and newspapers were written in a similarly rousing, communitarian spirit.

As Schudson has shown, the new model citizen of the Progressive Era--an independent, well-informed, judicious decision-maker--needed a different kind of newspaper, one that provided reliable information clearly distinguished from opinion, exhortation, and fiction. Leading newspapers were separated from parties and religious denominations and began to claim objectivity and independence. Their intended audience became all good citizens, not just members of particular groups. When they introduced opinion columns and letters pages, they often strove for ideological balance. As Adolph Ochs announced when he bought The New York Times in 1896, his intention was to “give the news, all the news, in concise and attractive form, in language that is parliamentary in good society, and give it early, if not earlier, than it can be learned through any other reliable medium; to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of any party, sect, or interest involved; to make of the columns of The New York Times a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.”[3]

The transformation of the American press coincided with the ascendance of logical positivism, which sharply distinguished verifiable facts from subjective opinions.[4] Furthermore, the independent newspaper arose along with the modern research university, whose mission was to create independent, judicious decision-makers instead of loyal members of a community. Finally, the new press reflected an ideal of a trained, professional journalist that took shape when many other occupations were also striving to professionalize.[5]

At about the time when journalists developed ideals of objectivity, independence, and neutrality, the news business consolidated. For example, the number of daily newspapers in New York City fell from 20 in the late 1800s to eight in 1940. Meanwhile, the first newspaper chains were established.[6] Most people began to obtain news from a daily publication with a mass circulation, and they had relatively little choice. Consolidation of the news business and journalistic professionalism could be justified together with one theory. An excellent newspaper--and later, an excellent evening news show on television--was supposed to provide all the objective facts that a citizen needed in order to make up his or her own mind. The citizen did not need much choice among sources, because any truly professional and independent news organ would provide the same array of facts. Some competition might be valuable to encourage efficiency and rigor, but all credible journals would compete for the same stories. Choice was a private matter to be exercised after one had read the newspaper or watched TV. One was to be guided not by an ascribed identity but by making informed selections among policy options.

This new model had idealistic defenders, but it also had several serious drawbacks that became increasingly clear as the century progressed. First, the new journalism was probably not as effective at mobilizing citizens as the old partisan press had been. Although we lack data on individuals’ newspaper use and civic engagement from before the 1950s, we know that overall turnout and other measures of participation fell as the press consolidated and aimed at professionalism. It seems likely that the new journalism was less motivating.

Second, it became harder to break into the news business once newspapers needed not only printing presses, ink, and paper, but also credentialed journalists, editors and fact-checkers, and a staff large enough to provide comprehensive coverage (“all the news that’s fit to print”). Thus the telling of news became the province of a few professionals employed by large businesses, not an activity open to many citizens. That problem worsened once radio and television arrived.

Third, journalistic professionalism often seemed to introduce its own biases. For example, journalists were trained not to editorialize in news stories. That meant that they often simply quoted other people’s controversial views, usually aiming for as much balance as possible between voices on either side of a debate. To call the president a liar is to editorialize; to quote someone who holds that view is to report a fact. But one still has to choose whom to quote, and the tendency is to interview famous, powerful, or credentialed sources--often those with talents or budgets for public relations and axes to grind. In 1999, 78 percent of respondents to a national survey agreed: “powerful people can get stories into the paper--or keep them out.”[7] Sometimes the norm of “balance” created a bias in favor of the mainstream left and mainstream right, marginalizing other views. On occasion, it meant that reporters gave excessive space to demonstrably false opinions, because they saw their job as reporting what prominent people said, not what was right.

While professional reporters felt bound not to promote policy positions, those who closely covered campaigns and administrations believed they could say who was winning and losing and why politicians had adopted their current positions. Similarities between candidates’ views and public opinion (as measured by the newspaper’s own polls) were taken as evidence that politicians were simply trying to attract votes. Thus readers were offered a relentlessly cynical view of politicians’ motives, plus an interminable policy debate among experts who were equally balanced between the right and left, plus polls showing that one side or the other was bound to win. It is no wonder that many lost interest in politics. None of this coverage helped citizens to play a role of their own.

Modern professional journalism placed a tremendous emphasis on politics as a “horse race.” Three quarters of broadcast news stories during the 2000 campaign were devoted to tactics and polls; only one quarter, to issues.[8] As CNN political director Mark Hannon explained in 1996, his network conducted daily polls because they “happen to be the most authoritative way to answer the most basic question about the election, which is who is going to win.”[9] In fact, during a campaign, the most basic question for a citizen is not who will win, but which candidate to support. But reporters reflexively see that question as one for the editorial pages, whereas they can cover polls as simple empirical facts. Yet the depiction of politics as a horse race suggests that a campaign is a spectator sport (and not a particularly elegant or entertaining one). Controlled experiments have found that such coverage raises cynicism and lowers engagement.[10]

Finally, the ideal news organ of the Progressive Era demanded a lot of trust from its readers. Perhaps objectivity, independence, and balance are possible in theory; in practice, however, any news source is a fallible human product. Major newspapers, magazines, and broadcast news have powerful effects on politics and public opinion. The newspaper that claims to be objective, independent, and nonpartisan asks us to believe that the consequences of its reporting are involuntary, caused by the facts and not by any political agenda. That defense can be hard to swallow. In 2004, two thirds of all Americans thought they detected at least a “fair amount” of bias.[11]

The most glorious chapter in the history of the modern American press was written between 1965 and 1975, when The Washington Post and The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, broke the Watergate scandal, and had their constitutional role as independent watchdogs upheld by the Supreme Court. Their reporting certainly had consequences, helping to end a war and bring down a president. That was all very well if one opposed the Vietnam War and President Nixon. But the same power could also be used against President Clinton or against the welfare state. Anyone whose political goals were frustrated by the press might find it difficult to trust reporters as objective and independent. One’s skepticism might be reinforced by the fact that each newspaper has owners, investors, and advertisers with economic interests. Writers and editors, too, form a definable interest group.

The debate about corporate power in the news media is at least a century old and is perennially important. In the 1990s, a new discussion began that concerned reporters’ professional norms. Some reporters, editors, and academics argued that the newsroom ideals developed during the Progressive Era no longer served democracy and civic engagement. A newspaper like The New York Times, as Ochs had envisioned it, presumed a public that was interested in current events and ready to act on the information it read. But that public was shrinking, and it could be argued that the prevailing style of news reporting was actually making it smaller by increasing cynicism. Adversarial, “watchdog” journalists still played an important role in periodically uncovering scandals, but it was not clear why an individual citizen should spend money and time reading such information every day. When a big scandal broke, the opposition party or law enforcement was supposed to address it. Why should individuals pay for independent oversight as a public good? Only those who were already civically engaged would choose to subscribe to the watchdog press. Their numbers were falling, and they could find ever less information in the newspaper that could inform for their own civic activities.

In the 1990s, under the labels of “public journalism” or “civic journalism,” news organs experimented with new forms of reporting that might better serve active citizens and enhance civic engagement. For example, instead of reporting the 1992 North Carolina Senate campaign as a horse race (with frequent polls and numerous articles about the candidates’ strategies), the Charlotte Observer convened a representative group of citizens to deliberate about issues of their choice and to write questions for the major contenders. The newspaper offered to publish the questions and responses verbatim. Meanwhile, its beat reporters were assigned to provide factual reporting on each of the topics that the citizens chose to explore. When Senator Jesse Helms refused to complete the questionnaire that the citizens had written, the Observer published blank spaces under his name.[12]

Careful evaluations have found positive effects from this and other such experiments. But public journalism faltered as a movement by the end of the decade.[13] One of the reasons was the sudden rise of the Internet. The newspaper business, panicked by independent websites and bloggers, lost interest in civic experimentation. Meanwhile, many of proponents of public journalism began to see the Internet as more promising than reforms within conventional newsrooms.

After all, blogs, podcasts, and other digital media make possible a return to the press that existed before the Progressive Era--for better and, for worse. The barriers to publication have fallen, not only because websites are cheaper than printing presses, but also because a mass audience has returned to products created by individuals and amateurs. Blogs are endlessly various. Some are specialized sites devoted to careful, factual reporting on particular topics, but most are motivational, ideological, and opinionated, with comparatively low standards of evidence and no trained reporters, fact-checkers, or editors. However, there are millions of them and they often check one another’s facts. Young people are heavily represented and have better opportunities to enter the fray than at any time since 1900.

Twentieth century news media claimed to separate fact from fiction--not always successfully. Then the audience for straight news reporting shrank, along with the rate of civic engagement. But fiction can promote civic participation, as long as it is of high quality. For example, it appears that watching and discussing the fictional world of The West Wing (an NBC television drama) has positive civic effects, whereas watching sitcoms is bad for civic engagement.[14] Unfortunately, the balance of material that major entertainment businesses provide is not good for democracy. But barriers to making films have fallen: artists and other citizens have growing opportunities to create and promote work in all genres that helps people to engage.

Blogs, short videos and audios, and other innovative news media should help to many people to mobilize and organize their fellow citizens. Until recently, trust in journalists, consumption of newspapers, and civic engagement were strongly correlated, but the links may be weakened if people can gain the information they need to participate from other sources. Those who are not inclined to trust the mainstream press will still be able to participate.

Clearly, there are also dangers. An online audience can screen out uncomfortable ideas, thereby splitting into ideologically homogeneous “echo chambers.” There is a relative scarcity of online content devoted to local communities. It can be difficult to distinguish the source and reliability of online information. And the web provides a sometimes confusing mix of fact, opinion, error, deliberate falsification, and overt fiction.

Each of these dangers can be addressed by citizens working online, and sometimes software can help. For example, Wikipedia provides surprisingly reliable information through a system of peer review involving many thousands of volunteers. Technorati’s software increases the chance that bloggers will engage in conversations with their critics, by alerting them whenever their writing has been linked from elsewhere. Social networking software like MySpace (which is currently very popular among the young) can be tweaked so that it helps people identify neighbors with similar political interests.

If there is hope that citizens can address the drawbacks of the new online media through voluntary action, then it would be unwise to enact policies to shape what should be a free space. We should, however, act to prevent two pressing problems. First, it is possible to make handsome profits by limiting customers’ access to material produced by ordinary citizens and driving them to corporate content. Internet service providers may be tempted to provide quicker access to websites that pay them for that advantage; cable companies may charge higher fees for uploading data than for downloading corporate material; and most search engines already sell preferential treatment. Legislation is needed to keep the Internet neutral and open.[15]

Second the “blogosphere” still depends on daily news journalism. Therefore, cuts in newsroom staff and attempts to replace hard news with entertainment are still damaging, even in the Internet era.


1. Bruce M. Owen, Economics and Freedom of Expression: Media Structure and the First Amendment (Cambridge, MA, 1975), table 2A-1.
2. Michael Schudson, The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life (New York: The Free Press, 1998), p. 6.
3. Quoted by Schudson, p. 178, who notes that Ochs also pledged to promote “right-doing” and to maintain a commitment to political principles, such as “sound money and tariff reform.” But it was the section I quote that was most influential,
4. An influential defense in English was A.J. Ayer’s 1936 book Language, Truth, and Logic. However, the prestige of logical positivism owed more to the apparently unambiguous progress of science before World War II than to any theoretical defense.
5. Burton J. Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism: the Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., l976); Schudson, pp. 179-182.
6. Mitchell Stephens, “Newspaper,” Collier’s Encyclopedia, 1994, available via
7. American Association of Newspaper Editors, “Examining Our Credibility,” August 4, 1999, available via
8. Annenberg Public Policy Center, “Networks Only Aired About One Minute of Candidate-Centered Discourse a Night in the Days Leading to the Election: More Stories Focused on Horse-Race & Strategy
than Issues & Substance,” press release, Dec. 20, 2000.
9. James Bennet, “Polling Provoking Debate in News Media on its Use,” The New York Times, Oct. 4, 1996, p. A24.
10. Joseph N. Cappella and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Spiral of Cynicism: The Press and the Public Good. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)
11. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Cable and Internet Loom Large in Fragmented Political News Universe: Perceptions of Partisan Bias Seen as Growing, Especially by Democrats,” January 11, 2004.
12. Peter Levine, The New Progressive Era (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), pp. 156-7
13. Lewis A. Friedland, Public Journalism: Past and Future (Dayton, Ohio: Kettering Foundation Press, 2003 {P???}
14. Dhavan V. Shah, Jack M. Mcleod, and So-Hyang Yoon, “Communication, Context, and Community An Exploration of Print, Broadcast, and Internet Influences,” Communication Research, Vol. 28, No. 4, 464-506 (2001)
15. Jeffrey Chester, “The Death Of The Internet : How Industry Intends To Kill The 'Net As We Know It,”, October 24, 2002.

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July 5, 2006

newspapers and civic engagement

Almost two centuries ago, Tocqueville detected a close relationship between journalism and civic engagement. Newspapers were the main news organs of his day, and he wrote that "hardly any democratic association can do without" them. "There is a necessary connection between public associations and newspapers: newspapers make associations and associations make newspapers; and if it has been correctly advanced that associations will increase in number as the conditions of men become more equal, it is not less certain that the number of newspapers increases in proportion to that of associations. Thus it is in America that we find at the same time the greatest number of associations and of newspapers."

I wanted to see whether the relationship that Tocqueville observed impressionistically remains true. Yesterday, using the 2000 American National Election Study, I found strong, statistically significant relationships between people's frequency of reading a newspaper, on one hand, and their likelihood of volunteering, working on a community issue, attending a community meeting, contacting public officials, belonging to organizations, and belonging to organizations that influence the schools (but not protesting or belonging to an organization that influences the government). To illustrate these relationships with an example: 42.4 percent of daily newspaper readers belonged to at least one association, compared to 19.4 percent of people who read no issues of a newspaper in a typical week.

I did not control for other factors, such as education. Nevertheless, it appears that residents who engage in their communities also seek information from a high-quality source--and vice-versa. Having information about current events gives one relevant facts and motives to participate; and participation leads one to seek information.

Rates of newspaper reading have fallen sharply. I realize there is nothing sacrosanct about the printed daily newspaper; websites or radio and television broadcasts could, in theory, be just as good for civic engagement. But there is no evidence that the electronic media have yet compensated for the decline in newspaper consumption.

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February 16, 2006

Cheney and the press

Jay Rosen has the best commentary on how Dick Cheney has handled the press after the shooting accident. As a foil, Jay quotes former White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater: "If [Cheney’s] press secretary had any sense about it at all, she would have gotten the story together and put it out. Calling AP, UPI, and all of the press services. That would have gotten the story out and it would have been the right thing to do, recognizing his responsibility to the people as a nationally elected official, to tell the country what happened."

Jay replies: "But Cheney figures he told the country 'what happened.' What he did not do is tell the national press, which he does not trust to inform the country anyway. ... He treated the shooting as a private matter between private persons on private land that should be disclosed at the property owner's discretion to the townsfolk (who understand hunting accidents, and who know the Armstrongs) via their local newspaper, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times."

Note the synecdoche in Fitzwater's statement: API and UPI stand for the people and the country. Cheney doesn't accept that, and neither do I--not in the age of blogs and other peer-to-peer media. A few national news organs do not have a right to be informed about anything in particular--especially since the news will get out anyway. However, Jay also argues that the old relationship between the national press corps and the White House served as a check on the latter, and that something must be able to challenge the presidency.

For my part, I have two incompatible reactions to this affair:

1. I wish Americans paid less attention to the private behavior of public officials. Private acts are easier to understand than policy, but they give poor insight into public leadership. (For instance, the accidental shooting makes a nice metaphor for Cheney's handling of the Iraq war, but anyone could have done the same thing. The connection is symbolic and basically meaningless.) Furthermore, the emphasis on private behavior distracts attention from more serious matters; it adds an unecessary element of randomness to national affairs; and it puts officials in a fishbowl, thereby persuading some good people not to enter public life in the first place.

Therefore, I wish that Bill Clinton had gotten in trouble (with his wife and perhaps with the law) for having extramarital sex with an intern in his own office. But I wish that the press and the public hadn't cared. I wish that the Lewinsky story had appeared on page A23 and attracted no notice. Likewise, in a country of active, thoughtful, and responsible citizens, no one would care about Cheney's shooting accident. They'd be too busy thinking about earmarks, FISA, and Iraq.

2. On the other hand, it is obvious that people use the private behavior of politicians as heuristics to assess their public behavior. It's easier to understand hunting accidents and sexual harrassment than energy policy and deficits. According to Robert Wuthnow, people not only judge politicians and administrations on the basis of their private behavior; they actually draw conclusions about human nature based on what they observe politicians doing.

If this is true (and impossible to change), then public officials are publicly accountable for their private behavior, just because it can affect the administration, the party, the institution, and even the nation that they serve. Then I think the following logic holds: Dick Cheney can affect public trust by how he acts in private. A proportion of the public strongly distrusts him. Therefore, he'd better try to increase their trust by going straight to the national press corps as soon as he has a problem and tearfully confessing his deepest thoughts on evening TV. It isn't dignified, but it's the way things work in a celebrity culture with low levels of serious civic engagement.

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October 18, 2005

on overestimating the impact of the press

Paul Krugman wrote in last Friday's New York Times:

Many people in the news media do claim, at least implicitly, to be experts at discerning character -- and their judgments play a large, sometimes decisive role in our political life. The 2000 election would have ended in a chad-proof victory for Al Gore if many reporters hadn't taken a dislike to Mr. Gore, while portraying Mr. Bush as an honest, likable guy. The 2004 election was largely decided by the image of Mr. Bush as a strong, effective leader. (Article now available by subscription only.)

Many people on both the left and right agree with Krugman's causal hypothesis. They assume that journalists have some choice about how to portray the characters of politicians, and their choices affect voting decisions. It is because people buy this theory that they expend enormous energy looking for bias in the major news media and trying to influence mainstream coverage. A belief in the power of journalists' implicit judgments raises the temperature; it encourages people to be highly critical readers who focus on the "spin" in news stories.

Of course there must be something to the theory. (And the 2000 election was so close that anything could have changed the outcome, including a rain storm or fewer earth tones in Al Gore's wardrobe.) However, I believe the importance of journalists' implicit character judgments is often overstated. Most surveys find that average voters are quite inattentive to the news, to start with. News coverage is always diverse, even when there seems to be an overall tilt like the one that Krugman detects in 2000. Moreover, the spirit of news coverage is not completely under the control of journalists. Al Gore, for example, had some potential influence on the way Al Gore was covered in 2000; this wasn't simply a discretionary call by reporters.

Finally, we can almost always explain a presidential election as a result of economic indicators, leaving news coverage aside. Larry Bartels has argued that 2000, like most US national elections, was determined by the change in disposable per capita personal income (dpi) over the twelve months prior to the election. It follows that Al Gore would have won in 2000 if the Clinton administration had decided to cut taxes, thereby raising people's dpi. Instead, they decided to pay down the national debt, thereby increasing the odds that Bush would win. If anything, it is surprising that Gore got more popular votes than Bush.

If I'm troubled by anything, it's not anti-Gore (or pro-Bush) spin, but rather the way that our democratic system seems to reward borrowing and punish fiscal responsibility. By the way, Bush's popularity until now may have a lot to do with the billions he has borrowed and spent.

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October 7, 2005

all the news that's fit to print

Jay Rosen captures one's attention with the lead to his latest post: "Just one man's opinion, but now is a good time to say it: The New York Times is not any longer--in my mind--the greatest newspaper in the land. Nor is it the base line for the public narrative that it once was. Some time in the least year or so I moved the Washington Post into that position." (And this from a quintessential New Yorker!)

Here is what I take away from Jay's argument. First, the Times represents a traditional conception of the daily newspaper as an institution that tries to extract significant information from politically powerful people and present it to a judicious public. This is not the only valid conception of a newspaper's role; I have defended a rival view (that journalism exists to promote public participation). However, if the Times has a claim to excellence, it is the conventional one.

Jay cites a series of disturbing recent cases in which the accuracy of the Times' news coverage has been found wanting: the "breakdown in controls in reporting Weapons of Mass Destruction, ... Jayson Blair, Wen Ho Lee, Paul Krugman's correction trauma." But everyone makes mistakes, and an outsider could imagine that the Times must now be tightening its internal controls.

The Judith Miller story reflects a deeper problem than mere error. As she investigated the Valerie Plame case and faced a subpoena for her information, Miller became part of a classic Washington story about the secret behavior of powerful people. The extraordinary list of her visitors in jail (John Bolton, Bob Dole, Tom Brokaw) illustrates how close she has come to power, and how tightly linked are our media leaders and politicos. Jay notes that "Miller is a longtime friend of the [Times] publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. They socialize. It's not a scandal, but it is a fact." Indeed, it is the Times' traditional role to get close to the powerful; to offer coveted space in its news columns in return for information. Thus Sulzberger, Brokaw, Bolton, Dole, and others like them move in similar circles, as do reporters like Judith Miller. Readers potentially benefit from those connections, when the Times presses to reveal as much as possible from its exalted sources. That, after all, is the heroic story of the Pentagon Papers and Times v Sullivan.

Miller, however, became a newsmaker, a decision-maker, someone with information that she could deploy strategically. She did not choose that role: a subpoena dragged her into it. However, her contacts, her friendships, and all of her tactical choices underlined her close connections to insiders and "newsmakers." This impression presented a challenge to the Times, whose role is to explain what decision-makers are up to. We want to assume that some have power and others gather independent knowledge about them; the state and the press do not mix. But here, through no deliberate choice of Miller's, the lines were blended.

It was then the responsibility of the Times to show that it was a trustworthy explainer. Every instinct should have pressed the newspaper's editors and staff to extract information about its own reporter and to explain what she had done. Instead, the Times' coverage of Miller's legal predicament has been confusing, low-key, half-hearted, and passive. Its columnists have been virtually silent. And it is has issued no meaningful public statements or press releases.

The implicit deal that the Times offers is this: We will cozy up to the power-brokers, but we will do it in your interests, so that we can keep you informed about their wheeling and dealing. When the Times becomes a power-broker itself, the deal comes into question. At that moment, the editors should understand that their whole justification is at stake, and they should rush to serve the public's "right to know." Failure to do so raises fundamental questions about the value of the New York Times that go far beyond any cases of misreporting or run-of-the-mill bias.

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October 4, 2005

the "inverted pyramid" and other barriers to comprehension

I worked yesterday with a small group of undergrads who wanted me to help them follow current events. I asked them to read the lead article in the New York Times, because I thought it exemplified certain journalistic conventions that make it difficult for novices to understand the news.

The lead story was entitled "Macabre Clues Advance Inquiry in Bali Attacks." It began with the gruesome discovery of three heads widely separated from their feet and without extant torsos--evidence of suicide bombers. The story then mentioned the bombing in Bali that had occurred two days earlier. Next came a body count and a mention of the seven wounded Americans. The story gradually widened to include some discussion of the Indonesian group Jemaah Islamiyah, a splinter of which may be associated with Al Qaeda. After that reference came some discussion of the previous attacks in Indonesia in 2002, mixed with detailed descriptions of the wounded Americans. And finally the article explained that Bali is a Hindu island in predominantly Moslem Indonesia.

Using a version of the "inverted pyramid" style, the writers had begun with the latest facts and then widened to provide context, with the most general information saved for the very end. However, they never explained anything about Indonesia's history, politics, economy, or religious culture, or the structure and goals of Al Qaeda.

Daily newspapers are written for daily readers. I don't want an article to start with facts about Indonesian history and end with the latest from the Balinese forensic investigation. I read the news on Sunday and already know what happened then. But for a newcomer, the Times' lead story, like most of its coverage, is perplexing. The necessary factual base is either withheld until the very end or never provided at all; and the narrative logic of the story is completely shattered.

I asked the students whether the story belonged in the newspaper at all. Every day, about 153,000 human beings die. Thus it's not immediately obvious why we should all read about the 19 people murdered in Bali (or the 21 drowned on Sunday on Lake George). Publicity is just what Al Qaeda wants, and that's reason enough to question whether the bombing should be an international lead story.

By the time I had explained that it is difficult to read a standard breaking news article, and I had raised questions about whether the story was appropriate in the first place, I'm afraid I had driven these young people away from newspapers. I tried to explain why I read the Post and Times every day, but I'm afraid I wasn't too convincing (because I wasn't too convinced). I said that we each possess a general view of the world. We may see it as threatening, or divided between Islam and the West, or full of needless suffering, or stricken by Western imperialism, or united by a common humanity. Each significant news story helps us to shape, revise, and develop that worldview. In turn, our attitude guides our daily actions and choices. This is what I said, but none of it proves that the Times should have led with gruesome facts about the bodies of suicide bombers.

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September 12, 2005

"expert" voices

I'm quoted in a recent story on Yahoo News (provided by Agence France Presse), entitled, "Katrina: US TV swings from deference to outrage towards government." The lead is, "In the emotional aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, US television's often deferential treatment of government officials has been replaced by fiercely combative interviews and scathing commentary." Some examples follow, and then I am quoted near the end:

Media expert* Peter Levine, of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, said the shift in stance of American television was a return to normal following four years of toeing the government line following the September 11 attacks.

"After 9/11 those who publicly dissented from support of the president and the government were rounded on from all sides," he told AFP.

"The political calculation of (opposition) Democratic politicans was that it was best to support the president and so no one wanted to be seen dissenting, giving the media little to base any criticism on," he said.

But with local officials, including Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin openly slamming the government response to the New Orleans catastrophe, usually reserved media feel free to do the same, he said.

Added to that, the horror played out on live television belied the government's claims that its preparations for the storm and subsequent rescue effort had been sufficient.

"(Television stations) have people on the ground and are seeing a huge difference between what they are being told by officials and what they are actually seeing," Levine said.

None of this is profound or original, but it exemplifies the phenomenon I meant to describe. The reporter probably had the thoughts that he attributed to me before I said them. But he could not simply write those ideas down in his own words, because that would be editorializing, interpreting, or analyzing, and he couldn't do that as a reporter. His assignment was to record facts, such as what a "media expert" had said. So he called around until he found someone who told him something that he wanted to say himself, and then he quoted that person--in this case, me.

Between Sept. 11, 2001 and the Iraq invasion, relatively few of the people whom reporters quote were willing to say anything bad about US foreign policy, and that is why critical perspectives were so rare.

*My media "expertise" comes solely from regular reading of The New York Times, including the news, arts, op-ed, NY region, and business sections and the obituaries, but rarely the sports and never the new "style" section, which I condemn unequivocally.

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August 30, 2005

the press and political power (thoughts on Jay Rosen/Austin Bay)

Recently, Jay Rosen asked Austin Bay ("Weekly Standard writer, NPR commentator, Iraq War vet, Colonel in the Army Reserve, Republican, conservative, blogger with a lit PhD") to guest-blog about the press, the Bush administration, and the war. Bay's long post provoked a total of 441 comments on Jay's site and 45 on Bay's blog (so far). I haven't read all the comments, but it appears that they generated more heat than light. In particular, there was a lot of passionate discussion of the media's alleged bias against Republicans, little of which--on either side--seemed particularly illuminating. But Bay's original essay was interesting, and I would like to address his thesis from a different angle.

Bay proposes that the United States is locked in an "information war waged by an enemy that is itself a strategic information power," namely, Al Qaeda. The American press has an influence on that war. How it presents the American military, Guantanamo, the Iraqi election, and other key matters will help determine whether people around the world embrace Bin Laden, Bush, or some alternative. And what ideology people adopt is the key question in this "war."

Meanwhile, the Bush Administration and conservatives have a very bad relationship with the mainstream American news media. To a large extent, Bay blames journalists for the poor state of that relationship, arguing that they are biased in liberal, urban, and civilian directions. Nevertheless, he argues, the Bush people need the press to support the long-term struggle against Al Qaeda and Islamic extremism, or else we will fail:

America must win the War On Terror, and the poisoned White House—national press relationship harms that effort. History will judge the Bush Administration’s prosecution of the War On Terror. A key strategic issue for the current White House–perhaps a determinative issue for historians–will be its success or failure in getting subsequent administrations to sustain the political and economic development policies that truly winning the War On Terror will entail.

Bay, a conservative pundit who is angry at the "liberal media" and presents a long bill of specific grievances, nevertheless recommends that the Bush Administration try to improve its relationship with journalists.

Now, here's my response. First, the press powerfully helps or hinders American presidents and administrations in achieving their policy goals. It is not neutral, although it can be diverse. Second, the relationship between the press and the White House has changed dramatically, in ways that make life more difficult for presidents.

The period from 1945-1965 remains a benchmark for those who want the press to be more supportive of the US military and presidency. But it is important to note that the stars were then aligned to the benefit of presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. There was virtual consensus about foreign policy and national economic policy (which everyone wanted to be Keynsian). To be sure, there were wrenching national debates about Jim Crow and McCarthyism/Communism, but the leaders of the two national parties tended to adopt similar positions on these matters, positions that were also shared by the editors of The New York Times and like publications. All these people knew each other: they were white men who tended to graduate from the same schools and colleges. Reporters were aware of, but left completely unreported, politicians' personal problems and faults. The national press also imposed on itself a set of norms that were then only about 50 years old: nonpartisanship, a separation of news from opinion and fact from fiction, and objectivity (epitomized by the suppression of first-person reporting). Reporters tended to take leaders at face value and report their explicit arguments; they did not reflexively interpret everything a politician said as a ploy to obtain votes. Perhaps most important, the American people trusted the government, as the following trend lines show.

Trust in government correlates with trust in other human beings (r=.17 in the National Election Studies); and many people did trust their neighbors in an age of prosperity, high associational membership, clear memories of World War II, and relatively low crime and divorce. (Note the huge increase in per capita crime after 1963, shown above.) I don't mean to romanticize America ca. 1960, when gross inequalities were papered over. I only want to argue that life was relatively easy for political leaders, because the press and public alike tended to support them and overlook their foibles.

All of this changed after 1965. Public trust in the government fell. The parties became more ideologically consistent and polarized. Public consensus on foreign policy crumbled. As Dan Yankelovich writes in Foreign Affairs, "Americans are at least as polarized on issues of foreign affairs as they are on domestic politics. They seem to have left behind, at least for the time being, the unity over foreign policy that characterized the World War II era and much of the Cold War period. As might be expected, Americans today are split most sharply along partisan lines on many (though not all) aspects of U.S. foreign policy." Particularly interesting is the 43-point gap between Republicans and Democrats on whether the US is "generally doing the right thing with plenty to be proud of" in foreign policy.

After 1965, the press chalked up what Bay calls two "great gotcha successes": Vietnam and Watergate. Perhaps those powerful exposes lowered public trust and helped turn journalists into skeptics of government. Or perhaps--as I suspect--journalists belong to our culture, and America as a whole was turning anti-authoritarian, skeptical of power, and less trusting of human beings in general. The modern journalistic "frame" which interprets all political behavior as strategic and self-interested comes, I think, out of our broader culture and not just out of J-schools and news rooms.

Bay argues this is how the press now operates:

Rule One: Presume the U.S. government is lying–especially when the president is a Republican. Rule Two: Presume the worst about the U.S. military–even when the president is a Democrat. Rule Three: Allegations by 'Third World victims' are presumptively true, while U.S. statements are met with arrogant contempt.

Reflecting on how the national press treated Bill Clinton, or how the Washington Post covers local political leaders (who are mostly African American and Democratic), I would say that the rules are:

Rule One: Presume all powerful people are self-interested, and everything they say and do is calculated to win them votes. Rule Two: Look for scandal and failure in all public institutions: schools, the military, welfare systems, the police. Rule Three: Always report allegations against political leaders (followed by their denials) on the assumption that conflict between potentially victimized citizens and potentially crooked politicians is a major form of "news." Don't pay as much attention when citizens agree with one another or work together to address problems.

Evidently, my take is somewhat different from Bay's, but the difference doesn't matter much. There is little doubt that the modern press makes life more difficult for any American president than it once was. It has not become more difficult to be elected or re-elected. After all, someone has to win, and one side will beat the other at the media game. But it is more difficult to realize an ambitious agenda. I'm not sure that Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy could have built the interstate highway system, desegregated schools, conducted large-scale, undeclared "police actions," and imposed 90% marginal income tax rates without a supportive and gentle press. Those days are gone.

So what lesson should we draw? I suspect that many of my readers are glad that trust has fallen, recognizing that the U.S. government has done many bad things when not overseen by a skeptical, watchdog press. If anything, many people wish that the press had been much more skeptical of the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq war. (Note that public confidence in government and social trust were relatively high in 2002, just when the press was being deferential.) Many people are glad to see the president's approval ratings fall and the press get tougher.

I fully accept that argument, and yet it strikes me that liberal presidents also have a harder time governing when the press is antagonistic to power. In fact, it isn't because Bush has pursued conservative policies that he has tangled with the press. His tax cuts get relatively little coverage, positive or negative. It was when he embarked on a radical, state-led social experiment by invading Iraq that the press pounced, because journalists are always ready to expose the weaknesses of government. I'm against the war in Iraq, but I'm afraid that the attitudes of the mainstream press that Bay dislikes are actually worse for liberals than for conservatives.

Besides, we do need to win an information war against Bin Ladenism, and journalists ought to figure out what their role is going to be in that struggle.
Their coverage will affect international opinion--as well as domestic opinion about matters like civil liberties. They are not innocent or politically powerless. So where do they intend to stand?

Above all, we might ask whether the big decline in public trust is a good thing. Hamilton proposed as a "general rule" that people's "confidence in and obedience to a government will commonly be proportioned to the goodness or badness of its administration." If that is true, then the decline in trust since 1960 was merely a measure of the falling trustworthiness of government. Perhaps--but again, a failure of government is worse news for liberals than for small-government conservatives.

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July 18, 2005

moral standing

Like many news stories, this one began when an influential local figure made remarks that were seen as offensive. Willie F. Wilson, former mayoral candidate and current pastor of a Southeast Washington Baptist church, said in a taped sermon that "lesbianism is about to take over our community. ... Sisters making more money than brothers and it's creating problems in families ... that's one of the reasons many of our women are becoming lesbians. ... I ain't homophobic because everybody here got something wrong with him. But --" and he proceeded to make disparaging remarks about gay sex which I'd rather not paste on this PG-rated website.

By the following Sunday, according to the Washington Post, "TV trucks were in front of the church and reporters were in the pews," waiting for Rev. Wilson's apology. But he said, "I ain't got nothing to say to you. You don't know us. You don't care about us. Get off this phone. Don't call me no more."

Let me stipulate: a) I don't condone the Reverend's comments, and b) reporters and other people have a legal right to ask questions about what he said and to request an apology--the First Amendment covers their speech and allows them to stand outside the church. But these are my questions: Is the content of a sermon anyone else's business? Is it appropriate for those TV trucks to park outside the church, demanding a public response? When does speech become "public" in the sense that the speaker owes an apology if what he says is wrong or offensive?

On the one hand ... There is a lot of violence and discrimination against gays. While Rev. Wilson's sermon did not explicitly incite mistreatment of lesbians, the minister used his religious authority to denigrate gays, which surely increases their vulnerability. Since the clergy have a First Amendment right to say bad things about gays, the only possible response is for gay people--and their straight supporters--to intervene rhetorically. Thus it's appropriate to quote Rev. Wilson's speech, to criticize it, to ask him to apologize, and to stick TV microphones in his face.

On the other hand ... I am moved by Rev. Wilson's statement about the media: "You don't know us. You don't care about us." Even if what he said was completely wrong (factually and morally), that doesn't mean that reporters have standing to make an issue out of it. It's not as if the daily work of the Union Temple Baptist Church gets much coverage in the Washington Post. (There have been 443 mentions of the church since 1987, but most appear to be very incidental.) The whole neighborhood tends not to be covered unless murders occur there. The Post has no ongoing relationships with the congregation.

When reporters decide to quote a statement, and then call other people who may be offended to get their responses, they are making a choice. They are claiming an oversight or "watchdog" role with respect to the person who spoke. If they heard a teenager making an anti-gay slur while walking down the street, they would not write an article about it. They surely should tell us if an elected official utters a slur, even in private. Their decision to quote the Rev. Wilson's sermon shows that they believe that what goes on inside his church is public business. But on other occasions, they don't treat his congregration as if it had public importance.

I confess that I am protective of Union Temple Baptist Church and its privacy because I generally feel that the press is unfair and unhelpful to poor, African American urban communities. They only show up at the embarrassing moments. However, what Rev. Wilson said--"You don't know us. You don't care about us"--could also be said by a white fundamentalist preacher in the suburbs.

permanent link | comments (3) | category: press criticism

July 13, 2005

why I don't care about Karl Rove

If Karl Rove committed a crime, then he should face the consequences, and it's a matter for the criminal justice system. It's a different question whether the rest of us--the press, the political parties, and the public--should focus attention on this case. I say no, for the following reasons:

First, the public consequences are unlikely to be good. If Rove is forced to resign in disgrace, voters will not be one ounce more likely to favor progressive policies or to trust the Democrats as the party of solutions. The President will lose Rove's daily presence, but no one's advice is all that valuable--and even if Bush fires Rove, he will still be able to consult his consigliere privately. One clear consequence will be the continued impression that Washington careers end with criminal prosecutions on obscure statutes. That impression is not helpful if we hope to attract good people to public service. Rove may be at fault for bringing an investigation on himself. But that doesn't make the investigation a good thing, nor should we all follow the case intently and try to milk it for political purposes. The political "milking" of scandals is unsightly.

Second, Rove's alleged leak, if it occurred, was wrong. However, there are vital public issues that should provoke our outrage, and I don't see why we should focus any of our limited emotional energies on a classic case of Beltway Hardball. I'm trying to save my own attention and energy for our high school graduation rate (which is about 68%), the 5.6 million Americans who are in jail or have been released from prison, the global AIDS epidemic, our reliance on foreign oil, the pending fiscal crunch as the Boomers begin to retire, and Iraq. What Karl Rove said to whom is just a diversion.

Third, if we spend time thinking about Rove, then we must have decided that we are a virtual jury. Our job is to decide whether powerful celebrities are guilty or innocent and register our verdicts in opinion polls (if anyone happens to poll us). Or perhaps we think of politics as a contact sport, played by two relatively small teams of national pros. Then the question is whether Rove can play the second half--or was his foul so bad that he has to sit it out? Whether we're a bunch of spectators or a virtual jury, we have no serious responsibilities or opportunities. But if we were focused, for example, on the high school graduation rate, then there would be much for us to do--starting in the schools of our own communities.

Fourth, despite claims by Frank Rich and others that the Rove case is "worse than Watergate," I see it as a perfect cliche. With the heat and humidity of a Washington July, we almost always see criminal investigations of high officials in the incumbent administration, especially during a second term. This is not so much the tragedy of Watergate repeating as farce; it's the annual ritual, replayed without conviction or intensity. I'm ready to change the channel.

Finally, the Rove case raises interesting issues (about the press, confidentiality agreements, the Supreme Court, the legal system, etc.) Like any national scandal, it can have an educative purpose for adults as well as kids. However, if we're not careful, most of the "lessons" will be harmful. We will reinforce the proposition that "politics" involves a few powerful people in Washington--mostly in the executive branch--rather than a million decisions made throughout society. We will confirm people's sense that politics is a nasty game, and the endgame is usually prosecution. And we will continue to teach journalists that their heroes ought to be Woodward and Bernstein. As Jay Rosen writes:

Watergate has been treated by journalists as a consensus narrative, with an agreed-upon lesson for all Americans. The Fourth Estate model not only works, it can save us. The press shall know the truth and the truth shall check the powers that be, whether Democrat or Republican. Chasing stories, exposing corruption, giving voice to the downtrodden: that's what we in journalism do, the myth says. We do it for the American people. And they understand because they know from legend--from the movies--how it was when the country was in the dark about Nixon and Watergate.

But if our problems are incarceration, high school dropout rates, oil dependence, and Iraq, then the press certainly cannot "save us" by revealing who said what about Valerie Plame.

permanent link | comments (3) | category: press criticism

June 14, 2005

profound in their superficiality

While I was waiting for take-out food yesterday, I heard a talking head on what appeared to be a news show announce that the Michael Jackson trial was "without question the trial of the decade so far, and therefore of the century." I can actually think of some other contenders for that title. For example:

  • The trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, billionaire chairman of Yukos, which marked the transition in Russia from a kleptocratic market system to a quasi-fascist regime run by spies.

  • The trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, accused of 66 counts of war crimes during a conflict that lasted eight years and directly involved the US as well as many other countries; those charges include genocide and crimes against humanity.

  • Multiple trials before the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda, leading so far to verdicts in the cases of one Prime Minister, four Ministers, one Prefect, and five Bourgmestres (among others)--all alleged to have committed genocide in 1994.

  • Bush v. Gore, 531 US 98 (2000), which gave us the president we have today.

  • The United States v. Philip Morris, Inc. et al., originally a $280 billion lawsuit against the whole tobacco industry, reduced last week to a $10 billion suit after the Justice Department suddenly lowered its requested penalty by about 92%.

  • Arthur Andersen, LLP v US, the Enron-related criminal case that destroyed the major accounting firm, only to be overturned by the Supreme Court last week.
  • Any other suggestions for the top ten?

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: press criticism

    April 20, 2005

    youth protest and media bias

    Yesterday, I heard Sarah A. Soule, an Arizona sociologist, present a paper on "Student Protest and Youth Collective Action in the United States, 1960-1990." She and her colleagues have coded thousands of stories from The New York Times that mention a wide range of collective political actions, from riots and "melees" to lawsuits and petitions. Their huge dataset allows them to observe the frequency of youth protests over time, the rate of collective action on any particular topic (e.g., civil rights), the percentage of protests that involve violence, and many other matters. I won't "scoop" Soule by describing her results in any detail, but they are deeply interesting. One unsurprising result is a substantial decline in student protest between 1970 and 1990, partly offset by a rise in campus events that favored White supremacy during the 1980s.

    Reliance on The New York Times raises methodological issues. It's certainly possible that The Times has a consistent bias--or worse, has changed its bias over time, thus giving an inaccurate impression of trends in actual political behavior. Soule is something of an expert on media bias, so she is well equipped to handle the methodological problems. Nevertheless, most of the questions from the floor yesterday pressed her hard on the potential for bias. I may be reading too much into these questions, but I thought I detected the following implicit idea: The Times (a representative of what one person called the "corporate media") avoids reporting on leftist protests, especially those led by students and youth. In reality, youth opinion is further to the left than we think, but the press overlooks the evidence, thereby making elites feel that they can move to the right.

    All I can say is, I wish it were so. If anything, I suspect that The Times is biased in favor of reporting certain types of liberal student protest. For example, it gave very intensive coverage to the anti-Apartheid student movement that developed at Yale while I was an undergrad there. (After all, there's a Times stringer on campus.) It gives hardly any attention to campuses of comparable size and location whose students are more likely to be mainstream conservatives. Quinnipiac University, Albertus Magnus College, and Southern Connecticut State are all very near Yale but never make The Times. Meanwhile, The Times has mentioned the Campus Crusade for Christ just 76 times in the last 33 years, according to Nexis; and most of those mentions were incidental. Campus Crusade for Christ claims 110,000 staff and trained volunteers.

    I mention these factoids not because I am conservative or angry at the "liberal media," but only because I believe good strategy begins by facing reality. Soule's data, major opinion surveys, and personal observations all tell us that committed young leftists are relatively rare today, and there is a groundswell of genuine grassroots support for conservative causes. That should be the beginning of the conversation.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: press criticism , revitalizing the left

    December 14, 2004

    micro-local news

    Free advice ... Today I met with the Washington Center for Internships to discuss possible ways to evaluate their program, and then went to Streetlaw, Inc. for their winter Board meeting. (Streetlaw provides a textbook, training, institutes, and other support for teaching about law and politics in schools.) Finally, I joined my colleagues on the Advisory Board of the J-Lab New Voices Project . Thanks to the Knight Foundation, New Voices will be able to fund "20 micro-local news projects" in which citizens generate information, commentary, and discussion for their communities. J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism, will also collect or create software and other support that anyone will be able to use for interactive or community news.

    We discussed some existing projects and products that exemplify community news on the Web. Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine was the source for most of these references. (On his blog, he says that he was in DC to meet with his CIA handlers, but they must have got to him later in the day.)

  • In Bakersfield, CA, residents of the northwestern part of the city produce all the content for an online newspaper that is also printed and distributed (with paid advertising). Essentially, everyone in the community can post blog entries with news, announcements, and opinions. However, thanks to clever use of iupload software, individual posts are classified in appropriate ways, producing a site that looks more like a newspaper than a blog. Simple announcements appear on a calendar. Crime reports go on a map. Sports news would be classified under "sports." Anything that an individual writes is also saved under her or his name, thus producing a traditional blog for each contributor. And a chief blogger puts the best posts on the main page.

  • Journalism students at Northwestern University quickly built an impressive community news site for Skokie, Il (GoSkokie), for which they and citizens produce content.

  • A "wiki" is a webpage that anyone can edit online. Wikipedia has turned into an amazing repository of information, thanks to untold thousands of volunteer contributors. Apparently, the same folks are working on a "newswiki" that could be used to describe events in a community. Anyone could add (or delete) text.

  • MIT hosts three community news sites for and by retirees, known as "silver stringers." The same format has been borrowed by groups abroad and by youth groups.
  • (See also Leslie Walker's recent Washington Post story on Bakersfield and GoSkokie.)

    permanent link | comments (3) | category: Internet and public issues , press criticism

    December 9, 2004

    the campus newspaper and civil society

    "There is a necessary connection between public associations and newspapers: newspapers make associations, and associations make newspapers"--Alexis de Tocqueville.

    This week, some colleagues and I have been conducting focus groups with politically and socially active Maryland undergraduates, in order to identify opportunities for leadership, service, and civic participation on campus. We hope to publicize the full range of opportunities to other students; we will also think about how to fill any gaps in the array of student associations and programs.

    In both groups of student leaders that I moderated last night, there was tremendous antipathy to the campus newspaper, the Diamondback. Some participants acknowledged that it's a student product, published daily in color, and free--which is an impressive achievement. Nevertheless, they felt that the newspaper relentlessly criticizes the student organizations that it covers, while utterly ignoring many other groups. Thus, they said, it fails to inform students about opportunities for participation and instead tends to reduce trust and respect for the civic work that students do.

    I am not a regular reader of the Diamondback, nor have I asked its editors and writers for their side of the story. But the important questions go far beyond the performance of a particular campus newspaper. In the 1990s, under the heading of "public journalism," many reporters and editors began to re-consider their role in civil society. They asked whether some of their reflexive assumptions (for example, that good news is never newsworthy; or that all newsmakers are powerful people or criminals) were good or bad for civil society. Those questions prompted deeper ones about the role of the press in a democracy. Is a newspaper a watchdog, a gadfly, a dispassionate truth-teller, the "schoolhouse of the common man," a forum for debate, or a gateway to civic participation? Each of these roles is problematic in different ways.

    Unfortunately, public journalism (seen as a dialogue, not as a batch of projects and programs) has faltered in the mainstream press. Although I haven't analyzed the Diamondback itself, I suspect that student journalists copy what they take to be professional norms and roles (especially the notion that they are "watchdogs"); and they see student organizations as potential tyrants or malefactors, much as reporters view the state and corporations. Student journalists do not ask whether these roles make sense or are useful on a campus.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: press criticism

    December 2, 2004

    why does the quality of journalism matter?

    I have an article in the Fall 2004 National Civic Review entitled "Journalism and Democracy: Does it Matter How Well the Press Covers Iraq?" It's not online yet, but I've posted a .pdf of the final draft that I submitted to NCR. The same issue of the Review also contains articles by my friends Cole Campbell, Rich Harwood, and Lew Friedland on various aspects of journalism and public life. Many similar themes are evident in all three pieces.

    My article mostly appeared first in this blog, in short segments. I submitted it many months ago, so it describes the 2004 election as a future event and Andrew Sullivan as a pro-war blogger (no longer true). I think I pose a fairly difficult question about why the quality of press coverage matters. I am not persuaded that we merely need good reporting to help us decide whom to support in the next presidential election; so I consider some alternative rationales. Unfortunately, my piece does a better job of raising questions than answering them.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Iraq and democratic theory , press criticism

    October 20, 2004

    bias at the Times

    Last Friday, Daniel Okrent, the "public editor" of The New York Times, asked a conservative and a lefty to address charges of bias at his newspaper (link). From the left, Todd Gitlin argued that The Times is biased against Kerry because it insists on treating Republicans and Democrats as if they were equally dishonest and corrupt. Gitlin thinks that the Bush Administration is far worse, and the apparent even-handedness of the coverage actually gives the incumbents a free pass and encourages bad behavior: "The Times's decorous approach to the news has often helped President Bush in three significant ways: by equating his gross deceptions with Mr. Kerry's minor lapses; by omitting or burying news of administration activities and their consequences; and by missing the deep pattern of Mr. Bush's prejudices and malfeasances."

    From the right, Bob Kohn argued that The Times is biased against Bush because its news coverage assumes the liberal answer to social issues. Kohn lists "same-sex marriage, abortion, stem-cell research, gun control, environmental regulation, capital punishment and faith-based initiatives" as topics on which news stories in The Times always assume the liberal perspective. For example, Okrent had earlier described the tone of news articles on same-sex marriage as "cheerleading." But Republicans are strongly against same-sex marriage. Thus "the president's views fly in the face of what are being presented as objective facts. No technique of bias is more powerful--more useful as a means of influence--than presenting a candidate's unadulterated views through a prism of advocacy passed off as hard news."

    A blog is for sharing what its author thinks, so here are some of my responses:

  • As I argued in an earlier post, the Bush campaign has behaved worse than the Kerry campaign, but Kerry and Edwards could have avoided headlines of the "both-sides-twist-the-truth" variety if they had been scrupulously accurate.

  • However, the bigger problem is not spurious even-handedness. It's a relentless focus on the behavior of candidates on the campaign trail. We have plenty of ways, nowadays, to find out what candidates are saying, how they look in the field, what strategies they're using, who is funding them, and who's currently ahead. These issues are of limited importance to citizens. It would be much more useful for a well-staffed and well-funded institution like The Times to give us information about issues and policies. What does the federal budget consist of? If one wanted to cut it, what could be cut? What is the empirical evidence about the effectiveness of gun control? What would likely happen if the minimum wage went up? In what ways does the federal government currently regulate industry to preserve the environment? Which of these ways are thought to work? What ideas have been proposed for addressing the loss of manufacturing jobs? If reporters concentrated on these questions, they would not have to be referees in the campaign scrum.

  • Bob Kohn is correct that The Times' news coverage often presumes a positive attitude toward gay marriage, gun control, and environmental protection, and a negative attitude toward Christian fundamentalism. This "bias" (if you want to call it that) probably reflects the attitudes of the social class that reads The Times (see yesterday on social class and tolerance for homosexuality). Likewise, The Times' news coverage assumes that GNP growth is intrinsically good; that the business of America is business; and that people should consume lots of expensive items, including foreign travel and electrical gadgets. Compared to the huge amount of space that The Times devotes to Wall Street, it hardly covers labor unions. Thus its "bias" is consistent with upper-income, urban, East-coast liberalism, and inconsistent both with religious conservatism and with radical leftism.
  • But I don't think it's helpful to shout "bias." One could strive for even-handedness on every issue, but to what purpose? Who said that The New York Times should to represent the median voter's opinion on every topic? I think a complaint about bad coverage should always be accompanied by a moral argument about the issue being covered. For example, assuming that The Times really is a "cheerleader" for same-sex marriage, the issue is not whether this represents "bias." The issue is whether same-sex marriage is good or bad. Since I think it's good, I have no problem with The Times' coverage. If someone wants me to object to the coverage, he will have to argue that same-sex marriage is wrong.
  • permanent link | comments (0) | category: press criticism

    August 30, 2004

    reading polls

    I don't pay too much attention to "point-estimates" in surveys (for example, Kerry is at 46% or Bush is at 47%). These results involve the usual margin of error, as in any random sample. To make matters worse, telephone surveys are becoming less reliable because many people have no land line or refuse to talk to pollsters. The unreliability is then literally multiplied because the point-estimate is a function of two questions, not one. Pollsters ask: "Are you a registered voter?" and then "Do you intend to vote for Bush or Kerry?" (They phrase both questions more carefully than this, of course.) Thus their bottom line is a crosstab based on two questions; and we know that the voter registration data are always quite inaccurate. Given these layers of bias, it's no surprise that even national polls conducted a few days before an election often fail to predict the popular vote.

    While point-estimates are unreliable, trends in the same survey should be more meaningful. That's why I pay virtually no attention to anything except the Rasmussen Tracking Poll, which is the only public source of its kind. According to Rasmussen, the trend since August 1 is 2-3 points down for Kerry and 2-3 points up for Bush.

    Why? Of course, no one knows. The only way to pursue this question seriously would be to find a random group of citizens who had changed their mind recently, and then ask them in-depth questions about why. In the absence of such information, we can only speculate. Some will claim that the shift is the fault of the Swift Vote Group--so Kerry should hit back hard. I think Ruy Teixeira has rebutted that theory. It's also unlikely that Bush has gained from the general news environment. On the contrary, the economic data, the situation in Iraq, and the fallout from Abu Ghraib have all been awful. Nor has the president said or done anything very impressive since August 1.

    Rejecting those alternatives leads me to the theory that I want to believe anyway, for reasons of principle. I think the Kerry campaign has failed to look forward sufficiently. They have done an inadequate job of showing why the Bush policies for the next four years will be harmful, and--most importantly--they have failed to offer new policy ideas that are both plausible and inspiring. Tomorrow, I'll throw out some potential ideas.

    Update: This is exactly the kind of backward-looking and negative message that I do not think Americans will swallow:

    The Democrats do have a message but it's been submerged for most of the last three weeks. And that is the main reason why they've lost traction over that period.

    The message is straightforward and explainable in ascending levels of specificity.

    At its simplest: President Bush has screwed everything up.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: press criticism

    August 3, 2004

    "News for a New Generation"

    Susan Sherr has written an important paper by that title, which is on the CIRCLE website. She interviewed producers of newspapers, magazines, tv shows, and websites that are specifically aimed at youth. She also conducted focus groups of the youth themselves.

    The producers believe that young people have very short attention spans, are easily impressed by fancy visual presentations, and are mainly interested in practical news about local issues--things that may affect them directly. One said, "So for instance while most papers might lead with something really important that happened in the UN that day, we're more likely to focus on, you know, a rapist caught in a neighborhood where a lot of our readers live." Another said, "like on the money page, it's not going to be about stock, company mergers, and you know the New York Stock Exchange guy resigning, it's going to be about how to keep a job, how to get a job, what to do if your boss is a jerk, are they reading your e-mail, things like that."

    Participants in the focus groups suggested that the producers are largely but not completely correct. The young adults claimed that they want more local news and more positive news. "I'll pay attention more to the things that pertain to New Jersey or New York. ... Anything that is global, I don't really pay attention to, I don't know why. If it has anything to do with the president I don't listen to it. It just doesn't interest me."

    However, these young people despise tricks, such as visual effects designed to exaggerate the importance of stories or "teasers" that promise a topic that is then delayed. They claim to be turned off by elaborate graphics. They have a low tolerance for statements that they believe they have heard before (for example, that the "war on terrorism" will go on for a long time).

    Many of the young adults in these focus groups could not identify Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings, but they reacted extremely negatively to both men. "He looked, like, constipated all the time. He wasn't moving his mouth, he didn't seem like, it kind of is like when you call up and you need help and they don't help you. And they act like they hate their job, that is what he sounded like."

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: press criticism

    May 28, 2004

    "media literacy" means believing some things

    I'm back from a conference on the reliability of information on the Internet. The motivation for the meeting was a concern about false information and people's excessive credulity. There was a lot of talk about the need to educate young people not to believe everything they read online.

    I'm beginning to think that credulity may not be our biggest problem. Every belief deserves to be tested. But what can you test a belief or claim against? Answer: other beliefs. In principle, science can proceed like that forever, testing each proposition and each method. But in practice, you can't make any progress at all unless you treat much of what you know as reliable. If you doubt everything, you can say and do nothing. To borrow Otto Neurath's metaphor, we are at sea, and we can repair our boat, but only one plank at a time. If we reject the whole thing, we sink.

    I mention this because I suspect that some Americans--especially younger ones--suffer from a blanket skepticism. They doubt everything that politicians say, so they tune politics out. They doubt everything that journalists write, so they don't use the press. And they note the prevalence of disagreement and uncertaintly in medicine, so they allow themselves to ignore all medical advice (especially the painful parts, like "eat your broccoli"). Thus I'm not as concerned about teaching young people to doubt what they read. I'm more interested in helping them to develop some sources on which they can rely.

    The graph shows young Americans' confidence in the press since 1972. (Source: General Social Survey; sample: ages 18-30). The dramatic drop in trust coincides with a steep decline in readership. Alternative news sources such as the Internet and talk radio have not come anywhere close to replacing newspapers as a source of information for young people.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: press criticism

    May 3, 2004

    Iraq and the press: discussion

    I chaired a public discussion today about the media and Iraq. The speakers were:

  • Susan Moeller, a former photo-journalist and now a Journalism professor at Maryland who has written a fine paper on media coverage of weapons of mass destruction. Susan has also taught at Harvard, Princeton, Islamabad, and elsewhere and has published two highly relevant books, Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death, and Shooting War: Photography and the American Experience of Combat; and

  • Christopher Hanson, also a Journalism professor at Maryland and a former reporter who covered the first Gulf War and the civil war in Rwanda from the field. Chris is interviewed here.
  • I talked about why the quality of press coverage matters, in the first place.

    It's hard to summarize a wide-ranging and serious conversation, other than to say that everyone is deeply critical of reporting about Iraq. Everyone would like to read broader and more substantive stories, not about the daily body-count but rather about the status of Iraq's infrastructure, or about Iraqi culture and history, or about the reasons for the diverse opinions that Arabs hold. We would at least like to know: how many Iraqis have working electricity today?

    Here are some additional points that struck me as particularly useful:

  • The policy of "embedding" reporters with military units has made them reliant on their sources, but this is nothing new--it's the problem that usually afflicts "beat" reporters, who become close to the experts and officials in their area of coverage.

  • All the critical questions that should have been asked about the War were asked before the invasion began, but not conspicuously. They appeared once on p. 18 or p. 25, while the Administration's line apppeared daily on the front page.

  • Reporters take their cues from conflicts among political elites. When there's little dissent among elected leaders, the press cannot (or doesn't know how to) create stories that are independent of the official line. Thus the lack of Democratic dissent before the War prevented the press from developing critical articles. Howard Kurtz makes the same point to the BBC today

  • When editors and reporters learn that the public is misinformed about a topic that they are covering, some reply (explicitly): "We don't educate. Our job is to uncover new information." They don't take responsibility for the public's failure to understand the "big picture."
  • Whenever I hear that there is a lack of substantive news coverage (for instance, about the state of the Iraqi infrastructure today), I always wonder what factors are to blame: the cost of researching such stories; the (perceived) lack of audience demand for substantive news; a lack of skills in the press corps; or some kind of editorial bias among editors and publishers.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Iraq and democratic theory , press criticism

    April 29, 2004

    why do we care about press coverage of Iraq?

    There's a very hot debate about the quality of news about Iraq. Some colleagues and students and I have created a special website with a lot of relevant information on that topic. I think the first step is to ask what's the purpose of press coverage. Here are some answers that seem to be implicit in the current debate:

    1. A citizen's main responsibility is to decide whether the Bush Administration has done a good job so far, and to vote accordingly this November.

    Some people feel passionately that the Bush Administration has been awful--either wicked or incompetent--and that the election results in November should reflect this verdict. For them, it is very disturbing that a majority of Americans still believe that Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (or a major WMD program) on the eve of the invasion, and that world opinion is largely favorable toward the war. (See this PIPA report.) They believe that each of these beliefs is false, that the contrary positions make the case against Bush, and that the press is responsible for failing to convey the truth.

    Other people (for example, these folks) have the same view of the press' function (to inform citizens who are going to vote yea or nay on the Administration's performance to date), but they believe that Bush is a decisive, visionary leader. To them, it is deeply frustrating that the press emphasizes casualties and conflicts in Iraq, rather than America's work in rebuilding the country. Many of them were incensed when the press reported setbacks in the initial ground war, which quickly turned into a rout of Saddam's forces.

    In my own view, citizens need to do much more than vote retrospectively on a president, once every four years. I agree that a president's performance in his first term provides some evidence about how he would behave in the next four years, although this evidence is very imperfect. But if all I'm supposed to do is make a retrospective judgment of competence, and it takes a lot of my time to get adequately informed, and there are many other important issues besides Iraq, and 100 million other adults will also vote, I'm not sure it's worth my trouble to follow the war closely. Furthermore, I don't see a reason to care about the quality of news coverage if each citizen's role is so limited.

    2. We are morally complicit in what our government does, so we should understand the results and feel appropriate emotions.

    People who implicitly hold this view believe that we are part of a democratic community, so we are morally required to associate ourselves with the actions of the US Government. If Americans are brutally killed by terrorists, we should know all the details and feel a desire for vengeance. If American soldiers are killed, we should grieve for them and their families (and perhaps vent anger against the leaders who sent them into danger, if we think that the war was unnecessary). If our bombs kill Iraqis or Afghans, then we should see pictures and read accounts of what has been done. If people rage against the US in Baghdad, Athens, or New York, we should read what they say so that we can either take patriotic offense or come to share their judgment. Looking away from any of these events is a dereliction of our moral duty.

    For their part, news organizations have an obligation to describe events in all their emotional power. Thus it was right to show the bodies of American contractors in Falluja; and we should all view the coffins of the American dead.

    There are potential criticisms of this position, although I haven't seen anyone argue against it explicitly. Perhaps we shouldn't engage too emotionally with current events, because our job is to be sober and judicious judges of policy. Or perhaps we have no obligation to read upsetting news or see upsetting pictures, since we aren't very complicit in this war. We are not intentional participants in the group that's fighting. I might say: I didn't vote for Bush, nobody consulted me before they decided to invade, and I don't need to wallow in the bad news that has resulted. Finally, one could argue that the focus of our emotional engagement shouldn't be Iraq. Sadness about deaths thousands of miles away is cheap; we should spend our time worrying about the local homeless, because we can help them.

    3. Policymakers will respond to polls, so poll results should reflect good judgment.

    This is actually a variant of #1 (above), but it adds an important wrinkle. We don't just vote in November; in addition, we are polled at frequent intervals. Perhaps poll results shouldn't matter, but they do influence policy. If 90% of the public wanted us out of Iraq, we'd probably be heading out. Thus it's important that people pay attention and base their opinions on good evidence and careful consideration of alternative views. Unfortunately, the American people deserve no better than a "B" for knowledge and effort, according to this study.

    It's undeniable that surveys matter. But it's not clear that they should. Nor do I have a very strong obligation to inform myself and to participate in discussions about Iraq just in case a pollster decides to call me. It would be better to draw a random sample of Americans, tell them that their opinions will really count, and demand that they do their homework so that everyone else can get on with their private business. This is the Deliberative Polling idea--somewhat utopian, but worth thinking about as an alternative to our current system.

    4. The press is a watchdog or whistle-blower.

    According to this thesis, it doesn't much matter what average Americans think or know about Iraq. The purpose of the press is to "blow the whistle" when the government really messes up or does something unethical. The audience for such stories need not be especially large. It may be various elites. In extreme cases, the only people who have to read an investigative news report are Members of Congress and officials in the Justice Department, who will use the data in their legal actions against the administration.

    It's clear that the press has played this watchdog role well, from time to time. Watergate is the classic case. However, there are several drawbacks to the idea of press as watchdog. First, the only tribunal that should really judge a president is the people. So unless the people pay attention to the full range of news (good as well as bad), a president will not be fairly judged at the polls. If congressional committees, special prosecutors, and bipartisan commissions become the bodies that assess presidential performance, democracy is weaker--and we risk criminalizing policy mistakes.

    Second, the press has a legitimacy problem. No one elects the White House press corps to be Tribunes of the People. If we don't approve of their performance, we can't remove them. A skillful populist can discredit reporters precisely by making this point. Indeed, Bush's approval ratings rose when reporters began to hammer him on Iraq, presumably because a lot of Americans view the president as more their representative than the networks and major newspapers. Jay Rosen considers this phenomenon in a subtle essay.

    Finally, it really doesn't make much business sense to imagine printing a national newspaper or running a cable news network for the benefit of, 300 powerful policymakers. The news that appears on TV and in print must interest masses of people. This tends to distort any effort to investigate the details and complexities of alleged government misbehavior.

    5. Citizens Can Do More than Vote.

    People who know me have been waiting for this answer. We don't just observe policy and render occasional judgments. We can also do "public work." In relation to Iraq, we can choose to: organize political movements for or against the war; debate and try to develop policy alternatives for our government to adopt; follow the reconstruction effort closely to learn lessons for our own local work in battered American communities; develop relationships with individuals abroad and with immigrants in the US (in order to strengthen America's "soft power" and make us more responsive); raise money for NGOs like the International Rescue Committee; and even enlist in the US Military.

    I like this position best, for philosophical reasons. But we need to be realistic. A lot of these forms of engagement are very hard or cannot reasonably be undertaken by most Americans. For instance, approximately 0.04% of the American population is serving in Iraq. If we increased that number tenfold, we would still only be able to include four tenths of one percent of the American people in direct work "on the ground" in Iraq.

    Getting good information about Iraq is difficult, since much of the most important data is classified or inaccessible to Americans.

    Also, a lot of movement-building, advocacy, and deliberation work really aims to change other Americans' opinions. But what's the point of that, other than to help them cast the correct vote next November (see #1 above)? If voting is a weak form of citizenship, then trying to change other people's votes is not much better.

    As a personal matter, I feel compelled to watch the Iraq situation very closely and to express my views to anyone who wants to hear them. I try to be a responsible observer. I think this is because of #2 (above), a sense of moral association with the US Government. Perhaps my emotional response contains a dose of bad faith or self-indulgence or moral convenience, since I'm far from the suffering and have nothing to do about it. In any case, we need to decide what obligations we have as citizens, in order to decide what role our press should play, in order to assess the performance of the press in the Iraq war.

    [Two more answers to my original question ("Why should we care about press coverage of Iraq?"), added on May 1:]

    6. This war and occupation is a tremendous opportunity for us all to learn about profound and perennial issues.

    What better way to examine democracy, power, tyranny, military force, cultural differences, law, civil liberties, Islam, Christianity, economic development, and even human nature than to study the dramatic events taking place in Iraq? We ought to understand these issues, because they arise in our own lives and communities; because they are intrinsically interesting and morally serious; and because the views that we form in response to the Iraq war will not only influence next November's vote--they will shape every decision we ever make about national politics. If this is true, then we should expect the press to be an excellent educator, providing diverse opinions and useful information relevant to profound and lasting issues. We shouldn't much care why George W. Bush ordered the invasion, but we should ask what are the necessary conditions for democracy to take root. We should also be interested in such perennial questions as: Should societies use the talents of people who have committed wrongs in the past (e.g., former Baathists in Iraq)? What potential for good and evil do we see in Americans under stress, and how can we strengthen our best instincts as a people? How can a government respond when the popular press is fomenting hatred and violence?

    7. The "few-to-many" press is not important; it's the "many-to-many" dialogue that matters.

    All my previous answers focused on the mass media: the broadcast networks and major newspapers. But today there are said to be three million blogs, not to mention countless Listservs and printed newsletters. Most of this communication is not focused on Iraq, but a substantial portion is. There may be one million people who have created public, accessible commentary about the war and related issues. Perhaps we should prize this conversation. It is intrinsically interesting, it may shape broad public opinion, and it's so international that it may increase cross-cultural understanding. The paid, professional press still has a major role to play, providing most (although not all) of the basic information that feeds into these informal, public debates. But if we care most about the informal discussion, then we should ask whether the professional press is doing a good job in providing raw material. (I would say that it probably is.)

    permanent link | comments (3) | category: Iraq and democratic theory , press criticism

    April 14, 2004

    the White House press corps

    Jay Rosen wrote an essay yesterday asking why George W. Bush, at a difficult moment in his presidency, would choose to hold a press conference instead of giving a speech. Jay suggests that maybe the White House counts on the press corps to look like a special-interest group, arrogant and hostile to the president and Republicans generally. Thus the administration expects that hard questions from this particular group will make the president look good. They rely on "the idea of press as foil, the useful idiot, so outrageously biased or pedantic, so carping and clueless, that by comparison Bush appears in a flattering light, and gets the people at home cheering when he handles the situation with ease. The President re-connects this way with the audience, which also detests the press."

    Jay concluded his essay, however, by arguing that this strategy would be "folly." The president actually needs a "legitimate" and "representative" press to talk to. If reporters look like a special interest group, then there is no point in addressing them in a press conference; but if they look intelligent and ask the questions that people want them to ask, then the president is in trouble.

    As it turned out, the White House press corps acted exactly like "idiots," "outrageously biased or pedantic," and "carping and clueless" to boot--or so I strongly felt as I watched the live performance last night. The president was asked: "Do you feel a personal sense of responsibility for Sept. 11?" "Do you believe the American people deserve [an] apology from you ...?" "Will [the Iraq war] have been worth it, even if you lose your job for it?" "One of the biggest criticisms of you is that ... you never admit a mistake. Is that a fair criticism?" "After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be?" "I guess I wonder if you feel you have failed in any way?"

    Reporters basically asked the president, over and over again, "Do you feel bad for what you thought or did in the past? Do you feel that you are competent?" That kind of question makes reporters look like adversaries (the "liberal media"), but it's actually a total softball. What can the president say except, "No, I am not a failure"? There was virtually no chance that such questions would illicit interesting news.

    So why didn't reporters ask more forward-looking questions? For instance, in whom will sovereignty be vested on June 30? Does Mr Brahimi get to decide? Can we negotiate with al-Sadr, or must he be destroyed? Will the Iraqi government have veto power over US military deployments? What changes do you anticipate making in US intelligence agencies? How will democracy be restored in Pakistan?

    And why didn't they ask a few deep strategic questions? For instance, do terrorist groups still rely heavily on state sponsors? What is our policy toward repressive governments (such as Uzbekistan) that help us fight al Qaeda? Is terror a tactic or an ideology? Does Iraq need a multi-party democracy, and if so, what kinds of parties are acceptable? Is a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians a precondition for mideast peace?

    A serious president would have no problem with these questions, which would be part of any decent administration's daily deliberations. I suspect that our fearless leader would have some trouble answering cogently, but that would be his fault, not the responsibility of a hostile press.

    So why did reporters pose so few substantial questions? One answer is that they are thoroughly immersed in the campaign horse race. The way the current campaign is shaping up, it's a contest to see which individual gets to occupy the Oval Office. One contestant is reliable, passionate, but maybe arrogant, stubborn, and not too bright. The other is smarter and personally courageous, but he flip-flops a lot. Given this framework, the press mindlessly asks the first contestant, "Are you stubborn?" He says no, and they report that this proves the point.

    I don't believe that bias against Bush or the Republicans explains these poor questions. If John Kerry were the incumbent, reporters would ask him, "Do you flip-flop too much? Your opponents say that you change your mind too often. Polls show that people are beginning to agree with this charge. How do you react? Does the fact that people call you a 'flip-flopper' show that you have failed to communicate your message effectively?" And Kerry's answers would be as weak as Bush's.

    Another explanation of the bad questions is simpler, but I'm afraid I tend to believe it. Namely: White House reporters simply aren't very smart. They can grasp the story of the stubborn mule versus the liberal flip-flopper, but they cannot understand geopolitics.

    I have been very hard on reporters and have passed over the president's own performance, which would certainly get no better than a B in a respectable undergraduate course. But we know what to do if we want to replace the president; there's an election in November. If Bush wins, the people have spoken--and so be it. Meanwhile, a small group of reporters will continue to monopolize the right to put direct questions to the Chief Executive--an enormous power. What can we do if we find them completely inadequate? I honestly have no idea, and this is a chilling thought.

    Update (4/27): Jay has now posted a longer and more detailed essay on the White House versus the press that's worth reading carefully.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: press criticism

    April 12, 2004

    trying to be a responsible observer of Iraq

    As citizens (of the United States or the world) we want to understand what is going on in Iraq--not just the daily body count, but deeper questions like: How much needs to be done before the US can leave the country in Iraqi hands? Some percentage of the infrastructure that must be created before we can leave Iraq has been built, and some percentage was destroyed during the last week. ("Infrastructure" means buildings, power plants, army and police units, political parties, newspapers, etc.) From reading various observers, one might conclude that 10%--or 80%--of the infrastructure is now ready. It all depends on whether one looks at an aggregator of news stories who has an anti-war stance, like Juan Cole; a major news organ like the Washington Post or the BBC; a collection of Iraqi blogs; or a news-aggregator who supports the war, like Andrew Sullivan.

    The truth is not just in the eye of the beholder; there is a reality to be understood. But we face extraordinary disadvantages in trying to understand it. Much of the important information is classified or otherwise secret. It is too dangerous for reporters to go everywhere and to talk to everyone. Eye-witnesses have narrow perspectives, and those with a bird's-eye view don't know enough details. The culture of Iraq is distant, complex, and internally diverse. There are also practical and logistical problems. For instance, I found this BBC poll of Iraqis interesting. (The results were mixed and complex, belying what many pro- and anti-war partisans might believe.) However, as someone who's involved in polling Americans, I know that survey samples are usually unrepresentative even when we can reach most people by dialing random phone numbers. In 2001, there were only 2.9 telephone lines per 1,000 Iraqis, so random-digit dialing is out of the question, and I have no idea how reliable any survey is.

    All this leaves us with primitive methods for assessing information. We assume that eye-witnesses know something, so we hang on their words. (Yet eye-witnesses can be especially unreliable, over-influenced by the concrete sights they have seen). We prefer named sources to unnamed ones, even though people may speak the truth off the record. We discount positive news from officials and proponents of the war, even though they could be correct. (By the way, I spend a lot of time on the pro-war sites, because I desperately want things to work out OK, and the conservatives collect all the good news.) We believe those sources whose values most closely approximate our own, even though one can have the right values and be wrong about the facts.

    As a general rule, I think citizens should avoid such shortcuts and try to use solid information. For example, you don't have to listen to Democrats and Republicans argue about the federal budget and discount each side because all politicians have selfish agendas; instead, you can actually look at federal budget data and make up your own mind. But the "fog of war" makes that kind of analysis impossible in Iraq.

    In the absence of reliable information, we are especially likely to take refuge in ideology, to use ad hominem arguments (calling our opponents traitors or war-criminals), to deploy easy analogies, or to withdraw altogether from citizenship into spectatorship. Or, despairing about our ability to understand (let alone influence) this foreign war, we may concentrate on matters that we can understand, like the US election. But imagine what an Iraqi would think if she knew that Americans were following the uprising in her country because of its effect on their own electoral politics--this would seem the height of callous self-indulgence.

    I don't really know the solution, but I think that all of us should be somewhat cautious about our own judgments and open to arguments from the other side. We should look for constructive opportunities rather than wish that our domestic political opponents are damaged by the war. And we should hold onto hope, even if we believe that the invasion and occupation were grave errors in the first place. (Incidentally, because the Vietnam analogy forecloses all hope, I oppose it.)

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: Iraq and democratic theory , press criticism

    March 12, 2004

    Media Coverage of WMD

    Susan Moeller has written an excellent paper about press coverage of weapons of mass destruction. (Short version; long version.) It's based on detailed analysis of major US and British news reporting during both the Clinton and G.W. Bush administrations. Moeller finds: "Poor coverage of WMD resulted less from political bias on the part of journalists, editors, and producers than from tired journalistic conventions."

    More specifically, she argues that:

  • In the "inverted pyramid" style, an announcement by a major figure is reported in the lead, and critics are quoted much lower down. This convention allows the administration to dominate news coverage, even when critics are more credible.
  • The White House has consistently set the agenda, determining what issues are prominent at any given time. When administration officials are not talking about WMDs, there is little coverage. Furthermore, heavy reliance on quotations allows officials to slip highly controversial and weighted terms (such as "terrorist state") into news stories.
  • National security issues involving highly technical matters are especially subject to distortion, because reporters have few well-informed sources other than political officials. Nevertheless, reporters need to rely less on off-the-record comments and be more alert to spin.
  • The press personalizes issues, treating Saddam or Osama bin Laden as the problem and speculating about their personal motives. This approach overlooks the role of scientists, bureaucrats, international rules, and popular opinion overseas.
  • Journalists are uncomfortable reporting uncertainty, e.g., that we don't know whether al Qaeda has chemical weapons. Instead, they often report statistics, even if those are irrelevant or uncertain. (This is also my experience in the much less important field of youth voting, where reporters always try to say how many young people voted, even though our only sources are polls, which are inaccurate.)
  • The US media covers the world from the US, with decreasing space and attention to foreign perspectives. This means that WMDs are described as potential threats to the US, when often the gravest dangers are in places like South Asia. Since neither administration wanted to emphasize the threat from WMD's stored in Russia, this story was underplayed, compared to stories about Iraq
  • The worst stories were filed by reporters who covered WMDs as part of US politics (e.g., as the subject of fights between Powell and Rumsfeld, or between the President and the Democrats); when reporters used anonymous sources; and when they signed "nondisclosure agreements" in order to get access to the Iraq battlefield.
  • (These are not necessarily the points that Moeller emphasizes most, but they struck me as especially insightful

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: Iraq and democratic theory , press criticism

    February 26, 2004

    the press and respect (Part II)

    If reporters showed more respect for democratic institutions (see yesterday's post), they might also think about "balance" in a different way. Journalistic "balance" usually means quoting an equal number of people on both sides of an issue--an approach that's sometimes mindless or even misleading. But if reporters and editors tried to respect public institutions, they might ask instead:

  • Are we providing the right balance between campaign news and other news about issues and government? After all, campaigns do not necessarily affect many parts of the government, let alone other public institutions--nor are they the only opportunities for citizens to influence the system. What about (for example) the federal administrative agencies, which are enormously powerful, largely immune to changes in party control, and yet subject to citizens' influence?

  • Do we balance scandalous news and news about the day-to-day work of public institutions? Or do we only tell the public about certain federal and state agencies, political leaders, and major nonprofits when they are accused of misbehavior?

  • Do we offer the right balance between news about powerful leaders and news about ordinary Americans who address public problems?

  • Do we give an accurate impression of the balance of power among the branches of government; among local, state, and federal governments; between the public and the private sectors; and between the United States and global institutions? Or do we focus unduly on the US presidency, partly because it is glamorous and easy to cover?
  • permanent link | comments (0) | category: press criticism

    February 25, 2004

    the press and respect for democracy

    Jay Rosen has posted a brilliant and comprehensive essay about the poverty of political coverage in America. He ends with a long list of proposals for different attitudes and methods that reporters might adopt. Along similar lines, I've been asking myself, "What would happen if reporters showed more respect for our democratic institutions?"

    There's a big debate about whether reporters are too solicitous, or too critical, of various major figures, especially the President of the United States. But that's not what I mean. In fact, to respect democratic institutions might mean paying less attention to individuals and their motives and fortunes. For example, who cares whether George W. Bush supports the anti-gay-marriage amendment in order to appease his conservative base, as the Times explains in its front page "news analysis" today? (By the way, we can't know his motives, and the only people who possibly have insight are Administration insiders, who aren't trustworthy sources.) Imagine, instead, that the Times explained that a struggle between majoritarian institutions and courts has arisen because the fourteenth amendment requires "equal protection under the law," yet many voters see marriage as a sacrament that can only apply to heterosexual couples. Citizens need to wrestle with what the fourteenth amendment means and how it can coexist with one-person, one-vote. Respectful coverage might demonstrate that this is not an easy issue--not for those of us who strongly favor gay marriage but also believe in democracy; not for those who oppose gay marriage but also believe in equality. Hence those decision-makers in Washington are not just playing games for political advantage. They are in a tough spot morally and they are doing their jobs.

    The 14th amendment is a "civic ed" kind of issue--perhaps too dry and procedural. But respect for democratic institutions would mean more frequent and illuminating coverage of a wide range of organizations: not just courts and the Congress, but also unions, evangelical churches that are politically engaged, state legislatures, military units, regulatory agencies, community meetings. It would mean attending and observing these institutions day-to-day, not just when a scandal is unfolding.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: press criticism

    January 22, 2004

    Cole Campbell in Press Think

    I'm with Cole Campbell at a Kettering Foundation event in Ohio. Cole is the former editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and a consistently interesting thinker about the media. It so happens that he is also the current "guest blogger" on PressThink. I strongly recommend his piece, which is about the way that the press has created the Democratic primary story line so far. Howard Dean is now the almost-dead-former-front-runner. His "goose is cooked," according to the latest punditry. But why was Dean the front-runner--indeed, the presumptive nominee--and why is he now on the ropes? All that voters have done is to participate in the overlooked Washington primary and the Iowa caucuses (where just 61,000 people participated). The rest of the epic of dramatic rises and collapses is all a media construction. Cole is able to call the press on this because they were wrong; Dean lost when they predicted that he would win. In the typical case, they are equally or more influential, but their predictions come true, so hardly anyone complains.

    Cole adds that reporters refused to take any blame for their mistaken predictions, instead treating Dean as responsible for failing to live up to their expectations of him. Cole concludes:

    Conventional wisdom was turned on its head tonight,' NBC's Tim Russert said during Monday night’s broadcast coverage of the Iowa caucus. Russert never owned up to who the keepers of conventional wisdom are-- he and his colleagues. The press tells itself that it is not implicated in the politics it molds and shapes. It presents itself as a campaign innocent. But everyone involved knows better.

    It occurs to me that Dean's infamous scream during his "concession speech" gave the press some cover. They should have been saying: "We're sorry that we called the election wrong." Instead, they were able to say: "Dean's really a loser. Who knew?"

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: press criticism

    January 19, 2004

    What stories are worth reporting

    Christopher Dickey, who covers Iraq for Newsweek, has decided against carrying a gun when he's in Baghdad. He doesn't think it would make him any safer. But he recognizes that reporters are in danger there; 19 have died so far. And he's increasingly unsure that it's worth risking journalists' lives to report the news from Iraq to an indifferent public. The TV networks have already cut their daily Iraq report to just over five minutes a day; and the public also seems to be losing interest. Dickey writes: "As my friend the newspaperman told me on a brief visit back to the States, 'You talk to people here about what's happening in Iraq and their eyes glaze over after two seconds. I mean, even members of your own family!'"

    Dickey mentions deaths (of American military personnel and Iraqis) as topics that reporters do and should cover. But do we need such directly observed reports of violence in Iraq? Perhaps--failure to report casualties might give the impression that things were going better than they are, and it would prevent the public from mourning the dead. On the other hand, some might say that Americans are rightly somewhat inured to such stories. Perhaps we need a different kind of reporting: journalism that discusses deeper and more lasting issues.

    I personally am not interested in detailed accounts of the latest car-bombings, but I do want to know how well Americans are doing at nation-buildng. If our soldiers and officers are doing a great job "on the ground," that is a story that should be celebrated as a model for civic work at home. If things are not going well, we should learn from their mistakes. Journalism about nation-building would be dangerous, and it might be overlooked by many Americans; but perhaps it would be more valuable than blow-by-blow descriptions of violence.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: Iraq and democratic theory , press criticism

    January 16, 2004

    the publicity game

    We succeeded in getting some publicity for the survey that we released yesterday: articles in Reuters, Yahoo News,, UPI, and USA Today, and an interview on CBS radio news. I was glad, because we wanted to publicize the survey so that people would be aware of it. Besides, we are held accountable for getting press coverage. That is why we spend significant amounts of money on a professional public relations firm.

    I recently posted several critical comments about the pursuit of fame. I am well aware of the irony that days after I wrote those posts, I struggled to craft press releases that would maximize attention.

    I'm not in imminent danger of actually becoming famous; but this behavior is just what troubles me. My colleagues and I sorted through miscellaneous data, looking for items that might interest particular kinds of reporters at this precise moment (i.e., days before the Iowa caucuses). Then we tried to write releases and other materials that would catch their attention. I believe that what we said was true, and that it is genuinely worthwhile to seek publicity. (Otherwise, what's the purpose of collecting information on a public issue?) Yet I see numerous snares and pitfalls.

    First of all, the word "spin" applies, since we accentuated particular findings that we thought would capture attention. Second, it is not especially fair that we got media attention--however limited--for our survey, when thousands of academics labor in greater obscurity because they don't have p.r. budgets. In the intellectual marketplace, the best idea is supposed to win. In fact, the best funded idea has big advantages.

    You may be reading this blog in small part because of the influence of money and its ability to attract attention. My website would score lower on Google search results if it weren't linked from my employers' elaborate and well-trafficked websites (see CIRCLE and the Maryland School of Public Affairs). These organizations, in turn, boost their profiles by spending money on p.r. We like to think of the "blogosphere" as a commons, as a free space in which one can acquire influence only by writing in ways that other bloggers find persuasive or inherently interesting. That is true to a degree. But my blog is surely not the only one that benefits from advantages stockpiled in the offline world.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: press criticism

    December 31, 2003

    finally, campaign coverage with substance

    During a campaign, our job as citizens is to decide whom to vote for. Two questions are relevant: What do the candidates propose? And what kind of people are they? The job of the press is to help us answer these two questions. As James Madison wrote, the purpose of the press is "canvassing the merits and measures of public men."

    Instead, we mainly see (even in the best newspapers, and even after 15 years of criticism) a steady stream of stories about campaign tactics, voters' opinions, the electoral process, and comments that candidates make about one another. I suppose politicians' tactics and remarks can shed some light on their personal "merits," but not much. (Even a great potential president could campaign badly or say something inappropriate on the campaign trail). Worse than irrelevant, these stories are harmful, because they suggest that we should not vote for those candidates who currently appear to be doing badly in the horse race. This makes political news a self-fulfilling prophesy; it denies voters the power to choose for themselves. Witness, for example, Elizabeth Rosenthal's recent front-page story on Senator John Edwards, which is all about how poor his chances are. Rosenthal says nothing that helps us assess Edwards' "merits" or his "measures."

    Today, at last, the Times runs an article succinctly comparing the economic plans of the nine Democratic presidential contenders.

    I'm a policy wonk and a news junkie, but I still found this simple story uniquely illuminating. For instance, Sen. Lieberman would collect $135 billion less in taxes each year than Gov. Dean, and spend proportionately less. That's a $1,393 difference per US household per year--something to think about. The difference between Dean and Gephardt is more about spending priorities: Gephardt budgets more than twice as much for health care, but Dean offers more support to states. On trade, Gephardt is unique among the major candidates, for he alone would renegotiate NAFTA and the WTO agreements.

    I like today's article, but there's so much more that could be written along the same lines. For instance, what would states likely do with the $100 billion/year that Howard Dean proposes to give them? (See my budget pie charts for part of the answer.) What would a typical family's tax bill look like under Lieberman's plan, versus Dean's or Gephardt's? How would one go about renegotiating NAFTA, and what would the Canadian and Mexican negotiating positions be? Addressing these vital questions is the first responsibility of our best newspapers. Instead, they all send their top reporters to Iowa and New Hampshire to record politicians' gaffes, count heads at campaign events, and describe the primary results before anyone votes.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: press criticism

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