August 30, 2006

Journalism and Mr. Authenticity

Do (some) journalists like John McCain. Apparently they do.

My students can tell you why this is wrong. They can tell you what the proper attitude should be toward McCain or any other politician, source, or civic actor.

Why is it these professionals don’t understand what my students understand?

The purpose of journalism is to give people the information they need to be free and self-governing (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2001). It’s not possible to do that if a journalist approaches the coverage of politics from the stance that s/he “likes” a particular candidate.

Further, what’s all this nonsense about “authenticity”? Do these journalists have degrees in psychology or rhetoric? No. All they have is chutzpah and a stunning lack of humility (and knowledge) in the face of the awesome power of words.

August 29, 2006

Karr frenzy existed only in journalism’s fevered mind

This AP story by Adam Geller illustrates much that is wrong with journalism today. Consider the lead and two paragraphs from the middle of the story:

Just as before, law enforcement appeared overeager and bumbling. Just as before, a hyperactive press went into overdrive, eager to pronounce guilt. And just as before, a nation of voyeurs proved only too ready to play pundit.

Pressed, he would not, or could not, describe just what had happened. But there was enough about his persona – a creepy narrative that included Karr’s flight from child pornography charges in California — to whip the media and the public into a frenzy.

“Solved!,” The Daily News of New York proclaimed across its front page on the morning after Karr’s arrest. Its competitor, The New York Post, described Karr as a “pasty-faced, peripatetic kiddie-porn collector.”

Where was Geller when all of this hype was going on? Perhaps participating in it? And just where does he get the idea that the public was in a “frenzy” about anything at all regarding Karr? Did the AP poll its readers? Did any news organization poll its readers? Of course not.

The press assumes that anything that interests it also interests the public, or it assumes the worst about the audiences’ interests and delivers the lowest common denominator (without really know what that might be). There is, in fact, on a day-to-day basis, very little done to discover what it is readers and viewers–especially distinct discourse communities–want and/or need from journalism (a contributing problem: treating citizens as consumers). One bit of proof: The idea that a general public exists. The general public is a fiction driven by the myth of objectivity.

The reality: Ratings and circulations are so low as a percentage of the population that it is far more likely that the average Joe knew little and cared little about Karr. Do you suppose that may be true for other types of coverage?

August 28, 2006 How you can help

Jay Rosen is looking for story ideas:

I need PressThink readers to help me out by thinking about stories that would be right for a New Assignment test run later this fall. By “right” for a NewAssignment.Net test I mean something that:

  • is under-covered, poorly covered or not covered at all by the major news media;
  • lends itself to “distributed reporting,” where a bunch of people—dispersed but connected by the Net—could contribute knowledge in a manner that would be hard for a reporter or even two or three to duplicate;
  • is a story of national, international or regional importance— newsworthy, in other words;
  • is doable in about six weeks time;

This isn’t a specific story idea, but it should lead in the right direction. I have said (here and here) that journalists should tell a different story about politics: the story of citizens’ experience with policy and governance more than the story of politicians’ political wrangling. I think this concept fits the four bullet points–especially the second. Distributed reporting would enable the network to uncover the most illustrative and contextually accurate citizen experiences of the stuff that really matters in politics.

The press often ignores such stories in favor of “horse-race” and “inside baseball” models of coverage–interesting for journalists but of little political use for citizens.

It seems to me that would be in a perfect position to choose a close race in an important House or Senate election and cover it throughout the fall (misses on the fourth bullet point, IOW) by closely examining 1) the effects of the candidates’ earlier policies on citizens, and 2) cogent analysis of the likely effects of proposed policy (lots of potential source development here, especially non-expert). Such coverage may be more politically useful. It will certainly be more ethical (re: that second “here” above).

August 28, 2006

Update on

Jay Rosen’s has launched a temporary space while he “gets his act together.” From the first entry:

New Assignment.Net is a non-profit site that tries to spark innovation in journalism by showing that open collaboration over the Internet among reporters, editors and large groups of users can produce high-quality work that serves the public interest, holds up under scrutiny, and builds trust.

You’ll find more details on PressThink.

Also, news from my own little citizen journalism project called the Springfield Citizen-Press: I have one reporter preparing a local election story and another who has expressed interest in reporting. That’s two more than I thought I’d have at this point. Hoo-ray!

August 27, 2006

Can we know what voters want; can we deliver?

I promised more anon. This is just a little bit more.

What would happen if journalists approached the coverage of a political campaign from the standpoint of what citizens want to know about politics? (I’m suggesting something quite different from the civic journalism experiments of the past.)

Two thing: 1) When given the opportunity to question candidates, citizens very often ask different than do journalists, and 2) According to recent polling, citizens say they find debates more useful in making voting decisions than journalistic coverage of the campaigns.

Regarding #1, here’s what I wrote in my blog essay about the primary instability paradox (you’ll find an academic treatment here):

I saw an interesting moment on Hardball with Chris Matthews on Friday, 23 May. MSNBC pollster Frank Luntz was questioning a panel of voters. His opening question: “Regardless of who you’re voting for, what characteristic do you want in a Democratic nominee?” After several people responded, Luntz said (with my clarifying remarks):

We’ll [the press] talk about personalities for the Democrats and you [the panel] all keep bringing it back to policy. That’s an interesting dynamic. Up until now, people [who?] were looking for, as you used, bold leadership, honesty, a vision for the future. [Luntz turns to the camera] And yet they’re all talking policy. [To the panel] Is that where the Democratic nominee is going to go, rather than focusing on attributes, they’re going to focus on policy?

Luntz continues to mention, with a sense of wonder, the panel’s interest in policy. Matthews and his guests ignore it. Here is Luntz’s concluding remark that Matthews cuts off to return to his guests:

I asked them to talk about candidates, talk about attributes and they kept coming back to issues. That says to me that there’s no Democrat out there that’s really captured the hearts and mind of the public as an alternative to George Bush. It is early, but there’s no one out there that’s got a clear…

In other words, the panel’s interest in policy, the day-to-day stuff of governance that affects peoples’ lives, is proof that no candidate has a convincing presidential image or master narrative. And the logic in that would be what? I would say this is proof that, at the moment, no narrative created by the campaigns or the press has completely usurped the voters’ abilities to comprehend their own political interests.

Luntz wants them bow to the press’ master narratives. But these citizens realize there is another narrative to be told, a narrative largely ignored during campaign coverage: The story of how policy affects the lives of average Americans.

The panel clearly wanted to know something about policy. What would happen if journalism gave it to them and did it in a way that citizens recognized as useful? How can this be accomplished? Those are questions I’d like to try to answer. I have no idea what the answers are. But I think we have come up with a way to find out.

I’ll deal with #2 tomorrow. 

August 27, 2006

Talk radio, talk TV = STUPID

I don’t listen to talk radio, and I don’t watch talk-TV–not much, anyway. Just enough–every once in a long while–to confirm that nothing has changed. To confirm that the vast majority of it–left and right–is abjectly stupid (although for different reasons from left to right). Watching and listening to stupid stuff makes you stupid. So I avoid too much contact with it, really, because I prefer to live a healthy mental life.

(We have a local example that demonstrates talk TV can be good TV–due back on air soon after a summer hiatus.)

One might think that I should watch and listen to more since I’m a media critic. Well, I’m more a critic of journalism. And if these shows ever start practicing journalism, I’ll pay more attention.

I think Steve Young gets it (rather stereotypically) right:

Liberal listeners don’t want an ideological hole drilled into their skulls. They just aren’t angry enough to buy that. They’re political weakness is they’re willingness to be analytical. Being analytical necessitates taking both sides into account. Right wing radio’s success comes from angrily demonizing the other side as completely utterly uneffective. Liberal radio needs to be far more innovative to draw their audience.

Young offers advice to save left-wing radio from itself (i.e. be funny like The Daily Show). I’m not so sure he should be trying. Throw it an anchor instead of a life-buoy. But, then, (I’m using “but, then” constructions a lot these days) I suppose liberals ought to have some dog in this fight–even if it is a dandified lap-dog.

Let me know if it gets any better. I won’t be listening–much.

August 26, 2006

A mid-silly-season night’s dream

Do cows moo in regional dialects? That is the silly question. Whether ’tis nobler in the craft to cover or avoid PR nonsense is a no-brainer. But, then, the silly season is a special time when we observe what fools these mortals be.

But wait! What light through yonder Ivory Tower breaks. ‘Tis four eggheads from Missouri State who propose, pending funding, to create a laboratory for teaching journalists how to seek (disciplinary) information from sources –with citizen needs in mind– without abusing facts and knowledge. More anon.

August 26, 2006

Political ads "work"; is that good?

Let me offer American voters a little unsolicited advice: When a political ad appears on television, that’s the time to run to the kitchen to make yourself a sandwich or refresh whatever it is you’re drinking. Back away. Pay no attention. There is no substance there–only smoke and mirrors.

Political advertising is not about helping you make informed choices. Political ads offer only pathetic appeals, i.e. the purpose is to create an emotion and to suppress thinking.

David Catanese runs an excellent political blog for KY3 in Springfield. This morning he tells us about a voter who’s paying attention to political advertising:

He said he really liked what Talent was saying on television, about bipartisanship, working with the other side, putting people before politics. For the last few weeks the Talent campaign has bombarded television markets with a variety of ads touting Talent as a Senator who is just that. It’s just a small example of why political ads matter. This man inferred that a lot of what he was hearing about the race came from the advertisements. He said Talent seemed likeable in the ads and he therefore wasn’t ready to commit one way or the other. He also said he’s excited about the race and wanted to learn more.

Yes, political ads matter. But I’m torn. On the one hand, it’s good that this fellow is now engaged. On the other hand, it’s bad that he appears to believe that a political ad (by any candidate of any party) represents something other than an attempt to manipulate his emotions.

Catanese says the undecided vote in the senate race between Jim Talent and Claire McCaskill hovers around 5 percent. And they are deadlocked in the polls. So he’s correct that voters such as this fellow will probably decide the outcome. It’s frightening to think how many among those 5 percent might be paying attention to political advertising as if it conveyed politically useful information. But, it’s encouraging that this guy is looking for more information.

Do political ads have a place in campaigns? Of course they do. The pathos stokes party fervor–as it should. But independents and undecided voters need to look elsewhere for political information (assuming, of course, that a balance of information from a variety rhetorical appeals leads to a well-informed decision–not necessarily a safe assumption).

But this situation has set me to wondering: Does the pathetic appeal have the effect of lighting the civic fire more than manipulating the vote? If the answer to that is ‘yes,’ then I need an attitude adjustment. Hmmmmmmmmm…

August 24, 2006

Anderson Cooper: A tear drop in your eye

Here’s a problem I have: On the one hand, I understand the kind of medium television is (re: Postman). On the other hand, there’s a part of me that still wants journalism on television to be what it is (or should be) in print. Postman would pat my naive head and tell me to continue thinking and watch the feeling.

And here’s something else he might say: The change that Anderson Cooper represents is simply the natural evolution of the pathos of television now that the ethos of print is in retreat.

To the pathos of television — a medium that encourages us to feel more than think — add the power (?) of (manufactured) stardom. Consider this from Salon:

This is a defining change in news because, among other things, stars do not behave as anchors have traditionally behaved. Indeed, when Geraldo Rivera tried the same gambit, making himself into a personality larger than the news, he was laughed off the stage and into syndication purgatory. An anchor intones impersonally, solemnly and objectively. While he may be a performer — Cronkite was avuncular, David Brinkley wry, Jennings dashing, Rather alternately folksy and intense — no anchor has exactly been movie star material because none has done what movie stars are paid to do: create identification between themselves and the audience by tapping their audience’s emotions. The news was an oasis from emotion, and the great anchors were stoics. When Cronkite’s eyes began to mist ever so slightly as he announced President Kennedy’s death, it became a signature moment in our culture. One felt the magnitude of the event by the fact that Cronkite had to fight to keep his composure. Not so, Anderson Cooper, the new model of anchor. He is a professional emoter — the “conscience of the nation,” Vanity Fair called him. His job is to feel.

I suppose I can take some solace in the fact that so few people watch cable TV news in general or Anderson Cooper in particular. But, then, I want…but so few…

UPDATE (3:00 p.m. CDT): It appears Katie Couric is better known that Brian williams or Charles Gibson. And when survey respondents asked to describe the three network anchors (Couric takes over at CBS on 5 September) in a single word, well, the results were less than encouraging (assuming a curmudgeonly and stubborn acceptance of certain journalistic values):

While the word most often associated with all three journalists was good, the list of adjectives for Couric included perky, cute, nice, energetic, bubbly and fluffy — words no one raised for Gibson or Williams.

August 22, 2006

Fordist thinking hurts journalism

I once had a job as editor of small magazine. It didn’t last long. And the magazine has long since folded. My job didn’t require me to be in the main office. The editorial content was written 100 percent by freelancers. The job was going just fine for a few months until some industrial suit (he was an executive with a coal company) bought the magazine.

He insisted that I move to the headquarters so I could work in the office. The reason: “I want to make sure I’m getting 40 hours of work out of you every week.”


Now you know why it folded. He thought I should be working on an assembly line rather than sitting at home goofing off. I tried to explain that I have one job: put out a top-quality magazine on time each month. That usually required more than 40 hours per week, but he wouldn’t believe it unless he was at my side, whip in hand, watching me.

In the news this morning, another fellow who doesn’t get it:

“I don’t really believe that quality of a newspaper is a direct function of body count in the newsroom,” said Black, who also owns the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in Hawaii. “I walk through way too many newsrooms where I see people just talking or looking on the Internet and having fun.”


I wonder what they might be talking about? I wonder what they might be researching on the internet? And heaven forbid anyone should have fun practicing journalism.

Part of what’s killing professional journalism is its roots in industrial production, i.e. it was handicapped at birth. It is an industrial product–has been since the 1800s. It works, for the most part, on a modified Fordist model of production. The problem with that, of course, is that it is difficult to practice proper journalism when corporate owners think it can be constructed by the manufacture and assembly of replaceable parts.

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