April 25, 2004

JAY ROSEN WRITES that President Bush has a new strategy on the press:

And the reporter then said: Well, how do you then know, Mr. President, what the public is thinking? And Bush, without missing a beat said: You're making a powerful assumption, young man. You're assuming that you represent the public. I don't accept that. . . .

Whoever can speak to the whole nation becomes a power. There is still a reporters gallery, and it is still speaking the language of a Fourth Estate. But perhaps its weakness is in speaking a language Americans recognize as theirs. Bush is challenging the press: you don't speak to the nation, or for it, or with it.

He cannot sustain this challenge all the time--thus, the April 13 press conference, thus the embeds--but it is a serious argument. Intellectually, it's almost a de-certification move against the press corps. There's a constituency for this, and it picks up on long-term trends that have weakened the national press, including a disconnect between Big Journalism and many Americans, and the rise of alternative media systems.

As a first step out of this trap, journalists need to ask themselves: how did we become so predictable?

The press, of course, is unrepresentative. It isn't elected, nor -- in its views, its background, and its personal characteristics -- is it reflective of the public. (If the public thought like the press, no Republican would ever be elected President.) Nor does the public feel that it is represented by the press. I don't know if it ever did, but back in the day when reporters were more like ordinary people in their habits, incomes, and backgrounds -- the Lou Grant era -- I think it was more plausible to make that claim.

UPDATE: Reader James Bourgeois emails:

I am a regular visitor to your site and my interest was really piqued by the item you posted on the president's commenting that the press doesn't represent the public.

President Bush is right. The media do not represent the people. Journalists (I hesitate to call them reporters because they are all failures at that job), whether working for electronic or print media, represent a minority of vocal holier/smarter than thou liberals who would make all important decisions for the "great, unwashed masses" that comprise the electorate in our country.

I am a former reporter. I have a journalism degree. I left the business because of its drift from real reportage to advocacy and the abandonment of journalistic standards and ethics in favor of the kind of slanting and spinning we see today on the pages of the morning paper and on the evening news broadcasts. I knew it was time to find another way to make a living when I watched Peter Jennings, on a closed circuit feed to ABC affiliates, berate the American voter for Ronald Reagan's election victory over Jimmy Carter. Jennings, who was a Canadian citizen at the time, repeated that disgraceful performance in a toned down manner thenight he ascribed the Gingrich led Republicans' takeover of the House of Representatives to a temper tantrum by the voters.

The really disturbing thing about what's going on in the media is that the effect has seeped into local newsrooms of small dailies, weeklies and small market television stations as well. The reporters in those small markets are mostly ambitious types who want to make it to the big leagues and to get there they have to show they have game. In other words, they'd damn well better subscribe to the prevailing political views or they have no shot at all at an upward career path.

Real journalism, until the advent of the internet, was a dying craft. The mainstream media is too absorbed in shilling for liberal politicians and left wing causes to have an objective view of its output. There are no opposing opinions in the newsrooms at CBS, NBC, ABC or any of the leading dailies which would give the major players enough pause to consider that perhaps the other side has a legitimate viewpoint that should, by right, be given some play without denigrating comments, asides and negative labeling affixed to it.

It is no secret why Rather, Jennings and their ilk abhor people like Matt Drudge, Charles Johnson and Glenn Reynolds. You guys have taken their audience. While they were busy evading their responsibilities to give news consumers the truth, they lost their viewers and readers to those who recognized a vacuum and stepped up to fill it.

One cannot be a realist without recognizing that no thinking person can report on events and issues today without having some opinions. Those opinions, however, are to be kept out of news stories, whether they appear on newspaper pages or on television and radio broadcasts. The mainstream media, unfortunately, in buying into the liberal line that the ordinary citizen is incapable of making rational, informed decisions, made a conscious decision to quit informing them and instead has chosen to engage in launching a daily propaganda barrage.

As for that "days of Lou Grant" comment, the Mary Tyler Moore show didn't come close to depicting the reality of a newsroom. The newsroom is a place of sniping and backbiting, populated by cheap shot artists fighting for inches and minutes by taking sensational angles on stories that, when presented honestly and objectively, tell themselves to willing audiences. I've been there, and sometimes a reporter gets sent out on an assignment that turns out to be a dog or a non-story. When that happens, a real professional doesn't tart it up to get air time or page space. He moves on the next one. We don't see that today and its effects are easily detected in the shrinking readership and viewership
of mainstream media outlets.

Well, that's perhaps a bit overstated. But the White House press corps certainly isn't reflective of America, nor is it elected. Nor, in light of shrinking viewerships and readerships, can it claim that it's giving the people what they want. As ABC's The Note admitted a while back:

Like every other institution, the Washington and political press corps operate with a good number of biases and predilections.

They include, but are not limited to, a near-universal shared sense that liberal political positions on social issues like gun control, homosexuality, abortion, and religion are the default, while more conservative positions are "conservative positions."

They include a belief that government is a mechanism to solve the nation's problems; that more taxes on corporations and the wealthy are good ways to cut the deficit and raise money for social spending and don't have a negative affect on economic growth; and that emotional examples of suffering (provided by unions or consumer groups) are good ways to illustrate economic statistic stories.

None of these shared beliefs make the press "representative" of Americans at large, though it does tend to share the views of the academic/professional class to which it belongs.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Julie Cleevely emails:

Your reader James Bourgeois has just summed up the media in Britain perfectly. A couple of honourable exceptions, but in the main our media is no more than propaganda and lies. The BBC is a serious problem- Al Jazeera for middle class snobs.

Well, I think that these criticisms are a bit strong. Media bias is more like unconscious racism, most of the time, than it is like deliberate misrepresentation. While there are certainly cases of deliberate misrepresentation, most of the time I think it stems from a worldview so deep-rooted that they're unaware of it.

But it's certainly true that the notion of the professional press as a check on the government has no foundation. The Constitution envisions freedom of speech and of the press as checks -- not the institution of the press as one. That's a key difference, I think.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Mike Hammer emails:

Glenn: As a former print journalist I'd like to make a brief comment about the non-representative press. Journalists may be out of step with mainstream America, but for the vast majority of them it is because they are woefully underpaid, not overpaid. I suspect that many more newsrooms would swing to the middle if reporters were paid enough to live above the poverty line.

As a current college professor I could say the same thing about academia. If assistant professors were paid enough to live in middle class neighborhoods, then more of them might actually consider themselves middle class.

Mike Hammer
Assistant Professor of Spanish
San Francisco State University

I'd be the last to disagree that academics are underpaid. By definition! But the White House press corps makes a lot more money than most Americans, I imagine. It's true that reporters at run-of-the-mill newspapers don't make a lot of money. But I think that the analogy with academics demonstrates that there's more to being "mainstream" than income. In fact, I don't think the salary difference accounts for it, as higher-paid academics and journalists don't seem to be any less aligned with the overwhelming ideologies in their fields. Indeed, as James Bourgeois suggests, they seem to be the opinion leaders for the less well-paid among them.

Newzilla, meanwhile, thinks I'm too generous to the press. But small publisher Brian Kuhn emails:

Though I often feel I'm fighting a losing battle and throw my hands up in disgust over the obvious bias displayed by the national media, I must say that I'm pretty durn proud of the small weekly and daily newspapers across this great land of ours. We (small town newspapers) are like a bunch of mini-blogs, printing everything from who visited who over the past week, to, yes, cute little cat and dog pictures. When news happens we of course print it, but with the very real knowledge that HOW we report it effects real people . . . often our friends and neighbors. Spin just does not work in small communities. Any fool publisher/editor/reporter who does try something like that wouldn't last a year. That's a fact.

As far as political affiliations within this large community of small publications, I'd say it's 50/50, much along the lines of the famous "red/blue" map of 2000. We tend to reflect the communities we serve. I know of two small weeklies in our neck of the woods that were bought out by young pups fresh out of journalism school, who started running editorials that didn't reflect the general conservatism of our area. They were about as liberal as you can get, repeating the usual liberal mantras. . . and they didn't last a year. They just lost their readership, and had to sell. Democracy at work.

I wrote a column for our state's press association for nearly a decade about technology issues facing our industry -- from around 1990 to mid 2002. I strayed from my usual field in my last column to beg my fellow publishers across our state to read Bernard Goldberg's "Bias," and to do everything we could to counter the failings of our national media by remaining true to our commitment of fair and balanced reporting at the local level, and a commitment to serving, not dictating to, our readership.

Many of the older generation of publishers (including my father) grew up with complete faith in national media , believing anything that makes it into print or on the airwaves had to be true -- especially from such organizations as the NYT, TIME, Newsweek, and other print media. So, I didn't know how that last column of mine would play.

To my surprise, I didn't hear one argument against that column. Not one. From the many people who e-mailed me to comment on it . . . only agreement.

So, yes, the national media is blowing it big time in ways obvious to those both in and outside the industry. And the disgust of the public is justified.

But to the reader you posted in your update, Glenn, who quit journalism out of similar disgust . . . don't give up hope on those of us with small circulations and viewership. We're still ticking, and providing a positive difference within the communities we serve.

Brian K.
. . . and proud of it.

Hey, that's my job description here at InstaPundit!

MORE: Ryan Pitts disagrees with me, but it seems to me that his points are already answered in the updates to this post. I will say, though, that Pitts' "we're just plain folks" response rings false to me and, I suspect, a whole lot of other people. Including media guys like Gerard Van der Leun, who's a lot harder on the press than I have been.

And at any rate, it's clear -- going back to the original point of this post -- that whatever the divorced, go-fishin' guys in Pitts' newsroom think, the national media in general and the White House press corps in particular think that they are not just plain folks, but that they have a special, institutional role of a quasi-governmental nature. Hence the "Fourth Estate" claims. The problem is, that they don't. As I said earlier, the Constitution sees the activities of speech and publication as checks on government. There's no special role for the institution of the press. Which is a good thing since the Internet, talk radio, etc., are blurring that line beyond recognition and letting the rest of us get in on the act.

There are, by the way, quite a few very interesting comments to Rosen's post now, and I highly recommend that you read them if this incredibly long post hasn't totally exhausted your interest in the subject.

Finally, Roger Simon:

I will add, however, before I rush off to the Book Festival, that the press is often their own worst enemy.

The recent Presidential Press Conference, referred to by Rosen and others he cities, is a strong case in point. If one of the goals of free journalism is to make clear presidential policy they did a particularly poor job of it that day. Four questions were devoted to asking Bush to make an apology for 9/11 because Richard Clarke had. Leaving aside whether Clarke was being disingenuous, the answer has no real meaning . It's devoid of factual content and is essentially a posture, no matter what the reply. It doesn't lead to transparency, because it's only "attitude."

If the press wanted to ask something legitimately hard of Bush, how about this: "Mr. President, why didn't you fire George Tenet on September 12?" Now there's a question I'd like to hear answered, not the puerile pabulum asked by these veteran journos. I didn't need Bush to dismiss them. I was perfectly capable of doing it by myself.

Ouch. Yes, if the press were better at its actual job, people might cut it more slack on its self-described role. Here are some other unasked tough questions for Bush that I noted shortly after the press conference. Most of them, unfortunately, would have required actual knowledge that the press either lacks, or assumes that its readers and viewers aren't up to comprehending. Either way, the "special role" seems dubious.

And read this and this while you're at it.

Jay Reding: "What we're seeing now is a struggle between what the media thinks it is and what it has actually become."