My keynote address at New News 2011, part of the Melbourne Writers Festival, co-sponsored by the Public Interest Journalism Foundation at Swinburne University of Technology. (Melbourne, Australia, August 26, 2011.)
This talk had its origins in my appearance about a year ago on the ABC’s Lateline with Leigh Sales. We were discussing election coverage that looks at the campaign as a kind of sporting event. Every day journalists can ask, “who’s ahead” and “what is the strategy for winning?” A perspective that appeals to political reporters, I said, because it puts them “on the inside, looking at the campaign the way the operatives do.”
I then mentioned the ABC’s Sunday morning program, The Insiders. And I asked Leigh Sales if it was true that the insiders were, on that program, the journalists. She said: “That is right.” I said: “That’s remarkable.” She… well, she changed the subject. And let me add right away that Leigh Sales is one of the most intelligent journalists I have ever had the pleasure to meet.
So this is my theme tonight: how did we get to the point where it seems entirely natural for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to describe political journalists appearing on its air as “the insiders?” Don’t you think that’s a little strange? I do. Promoting journalists as insiders in front of the outsiders, the viewers, the electorate…. this is a clue to what’s broken about political coverage in the U.S. and Australia. Here’s how I would summarize it: Things are out of alignment. Journalists are identifying with the wrong people. Therefore the kind of work they are doing is not as useful as we need it to be.
Part of the problem was identified by Lindsay Tanner in his book, Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy. He points out how often the Australian press reframes politics as entertainment, seizing on trivial episodes that amuse or titillate and then blowing them up until they start to seem important. I’m not going to dwell on this because Tanner has it well covered. So did my mentor in graduate school, Neil Postman, in his 1985 classic, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
From a TV programmer’s point of view the advantage of politics-as-entertainment is that the main characters, the politicians themselves, work for free! The media doesn’t have to pay them because taxpayers do. The sets are provided by the government, the plots by the party leaders, back benchers and spin doctors. Politics as problem-solving or consensus-building would be more expensive to cover. Politics as entertainment is simply a low cost alternative.
Tanner points out how the term “yarn” is often used by journalists here to describe the sort of stories they love to cover, as in: “it’s a good yarn.” A yarn used to refer to stories that were semi-fictionalized to make them more entertaining. That echo is still there, but Australian journalists don’t seem to realize this when they use the term to describe their work.
Politics presented as entertainment charges the press with a failure to treat the serious stuff seriously. And that is a valid critique. But here’s a trickier problem: even when the press is trying to be serious, to provide, say, “analysis” instead of a good yarn, it increasingly relies on an impoverished notion of politics, a cluster of bad ideas that together form the common sense of the craft in the United States, and in Australia.
I was here during the election campaign last year, and saw enough to see strong similarities between my country’s press and yours on most of the points I will raise. If I get something wrong, if I over-draw the comparison, I’m sure someone will tell me during the question period.
I’m going to concentrate on three impoverished and interrelated ideas that (I say) have too much influence in political coverage. Then I will present an alternative scheme that might improve the situation.
Three impoverished ideas:
1. Politics as an inside game.
2. The cult of savviness.
3. The production of innocence.
Politics as an inside game.
The first idea we could do without is the one I presented to Leigh Sales. When journalists define politics as a game played by the insiders, their job description becomes: find out what the insiders are doing to “win.” Reveal those tactics to the public because then the public can… well, this is where it gets dodgy. As my friend Todd Gitlin once wrote, news coverage that treats politics as an insiders’ game invites the public to become “cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement,” which is strange. Or it lavishes attention on media performances, because the insiders are supposed to be good at that: manipulating the media.
Here’s a simple example from an article a few days ago in The Australian. There was nothing especially obnoxious about this piece. I picked it because it was typical in presenting politics as an insider’s game. The headline was: Labor looks at conscience vote to defuse same-sex marriage split. It told us how insiders in the Labor Party were afraid that a divisive debate on same-sex marriage would “dominate media coverage” of the party conference, creating an impression that the Greens are dictating the agenda. “The last thing we need is for the big story of our conference being about same-sex marriage,” a senior party source told The Australian. “We need it to be about a mainstream issue – a Labor issue – not an issue that it looks like Bob Brown thrust upon us.”
See what I mean? The insiders are worried about how their conference is going to “play” in the media. They are trying to make the story come out a certain way. Reporters grant them anonymity so these struggles can be publicized. But if today’s media report about politics is about how the media will be reporting a political event tomorrow, there’s obviously something circular in that. And this is how it begins to make sense to call the journalists “insiders.” Everyone is engaged in the production of media narratives. Journalists and politicians are both “inside” the story making machinery.
Now I’m going to teach you a little press critic’s trick: One way to detect the dominant ideas at play in any familiar form of journalism is to ask how that form positions the users. Politics as a game played by the insiders positions us as connoisseurs of our own bamboozlement. Or, alternatively, we can feel like insiders ourselves. Which brings me to a second idea we could do without…
The cult of savviness.
In the United States, most of the people who report on politics aren’t trying to advance an ideology. But I think they have an ideology, a belief system that holds their world together and tells them what to report about. It’s not left, or right, or center, really. It’s trickier than that. The name I’ve given to the ideology of our political press is savviness. And I see it in Australia too. When you watch political journalists on a roundtable program summing up the week and looking ahead, what they are usually performing for us is… their savviness.
So let me explain what I mean by that term. In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane. Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.)
Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political. And what is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Or knowing who the winners are.
To the people inside it, savviness is not a cult. It is not a professional church or “belief system.” They would probably reject my terms. But they would say that journalists need to be savvy observers because in politics the unsavvy are hapless, clueless, deluded, clownish, or in some cases extreme. The unsavvy get run over: easily. They get disappointed: needlessly. They get angry–fruitlessly–because they don’t know how things really work.
Prohibited from joining in political struggles, dedicated to observing what is, regardless of whether it ought to be, the savvy believe that these disciplines afford them a special view of the arena, cured of excess sentiment, useless passion, ideological certitude and other defects of vision that players in the system routinely exhibit. Therefore the savvy don’t say: I have a better argument than you. They say: I am closer to reality than you. Especially if you are active in politics yourself.
Now in order for this belief system to operate effectively, it has to continually position the journalist and his observations not as right where others are wrong, or virtuous where others are corrupt, or visionary where others are short-sighted, but as mature, practical, hardheaded, unsentimental, and shrewd where others are didactic, ideological, child-like and dreamy. This is part of what’s so insidious about press savviness: it tries to hog political realism to itself.
But even more insidious than that is the positioning effect. Remember what I taught you: to understand the ideas in play, ask how a given form of journalism positions us, the users of it. What’s so weird about savviness is that it tries to position us as insiders, invited to speculate along with journalists and other players on how the mass public will react to the latest maneuverings. But the public is us. We are the public. But we are also the customers for the savviness product. Don’t you see how strange that is?
Take the most generic “savviness question” there is. One journalist asks another: how will this play with the voters? Listening to that, how will this play with the voters, haven’t you ever wanted to shout at your television set, “hey buddy, I’m a voter! Don’t talk about me like I’m not in the room when I’m sitting right here watching you.” This is what’s so odd about savviness as a political style performed for the public. It tries to split the attentive public off from the rest of the electorate, and get us to join up with the insiders. Under its gaze, other people become objects of political technique. In this sense savviness is an attack on our solidarity with strangers who share the same political space.
In campaign coverage, for example, nothing is more common that a good lesson in candidate strategy: how Mitt Romney plans to capture the nomination by skipping the Iowa caucuses. Or: Julia Gillard’s plan for taking Sydney’s western suburbs. That’s what fascinates the pros, the insiders. But think about it for moment: should we give our votes to the candidate with the best strategy for capturing our votes? Something is off there, or as I said earlier: circular. Misaligned.
A third idea we could do without helps explain why the first two–politics as a strategic game, the cult of savviness–are so common in the political press…
The production of innocence.
This isn’t preached in journalism school or discussed in newsrooms; and it forms no conscious part of the journalist’s self-image. But it is real, a major factor in the news we get about politics.
By the production of innocence I mean ways of reporting the news that try to advertise or “prove” to us that the press is neutral in its descriptions, a non-partisan presenter of facts, a non-factor and non-actor in events. Innocence means reporters are mere recorders, without stake or interest in the matter at hand. They aren’t responsible for what happens, only for telling you about it. When you hear, “don’t shoot the messenger” you are hearing a journalist declare his or her innocence.
This basic message—we’re innocent because we’re uninvolved—isn’t something to be stated once, in a professional code of conduct or an “about” page. It has to be said many times a day in the course of writing and reporting the news. The genre known as He said, she said journalism is perhaps the most familiar example. But so is horse race journalism, in which the master narrative for covering an election is: who’s ahead? Journalists will tend to favor descriptions of political life that are a.) true, in that verifiable facts support the story; and b.) convenient for the continuous production of their own innocence.
One of the great attractions to horse-race journalism is that it permits reporters and pundits to play up their detachment. Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because “who’s gonna win?” is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession. This is experienced as pleasure by a lot of mainstream journalists. Innocence is bliss.
The quest for innocence in political reporting means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus “prove” in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade. Which can get in the way of describing things. He said, she said doesn’t tell us who’s distorting the picture more. It is neutral on where the reality is, but reality is not something journalists can afford to be neutral about!
Political journalism should help us get our bearings in a world of confusing claims and counter-claims. But instead we have savviness, the dialect of insiders bringing us into their games. Nothing is more characteristic of the savvy style than statements like “in politics, perception is reality.” Doesn’t that statement make you mad? Whenever I hear it, I want to interrupt and say, “No, no, no. You have it wrong. In politics, perception isn’t reality. Reality is reality!”
But then I stop myself. Because I realize I sound like a lunatic.
Verification in reverse.
I have to read to you this famous passage from American journalist Ron Suskind’s account of the Bush White House in 2004. It was called “Beyond a Doubt” and it told of a retreat from empiricism in the Bush government. You’ll probably recognize parts of it. Here’s Suskind, who had a lot of sources within the Bush government.
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
I had a chance to meet Suskind once, to look into his eyes and judge for myself whether this chilling story was something that actually happened, or just a good yarn. I think it actually happened. And we can see the evidence in our politics.
The leading contender for the Republican nomination for president, Rick Perry, is emerging as a climate change denialist. We might call this “verification in reverse.” Verification, which is crucial to journalism, means nailing down assertions with verifiable facts. Verification in reverse is taking established facts and manufacturing doubt about them, which creates political friction, and the friction then becomes an energy source you can tap for campaigning. It’s a political technique. (Hmmm.)
Now: how should political journalists stand toward this technique? As savvy insiders who know how the game is played and need to maintain their innocence? If they do that, and verification in reverse grows and succeeds, it will be the equivalent of running over the press with a truck. Journalism will become superflous. “When we act, we create our own reality” wasn’t so much a boast as a taunt. It was an operative telling a journalist, “you don’t count.” We can create our own reality and you guys can’t stop us.
What is to be done: A thought experiment.
I know what you’re thinking. Yes, Jay, but what do we do about all this? Do you have a better idea?
I do. But I have to admit, it’s only an idea. A thousand things stand in its way. The savvy would tell me: this is not practical. So let’s call it a thought experiment. Its purpose is just to loosen up our imaginations, and point the way to something better. Imagine the entirety of the political reporting and commentary produced by the New York Times or the political staff of the ABC and plot it on a grid. On the left side of the page: appearances. On the right side: realities. On the top of the page: arguments. On the bottom: facts. Appearances, realities, arguments and facts. All political news should be divided into these categories, and journalists should organize their daily report into my four quadrants.
Under appearances we find everything that is just that: the attempt to make things appear a certain way. All media stunts. Everything that fits under the management of impressions. Or politics as entertainment. The photo ops. The press releases issued in lieu of doing something. Lindsay Tanner’s book is full of examples from the day to day life of a government minister.
I once visited Townsville for about six hours when I was a shadow minister, but my itinerary consisted entirely of media interviews. I met with no local organizations, visited no local institutions, and inspected no local facilities. In each interview I had to pretend that I was visiting the city for a legitimate reason. Each time I was asked, “why are you in Townsville today?” I had to resist the urge to reply, “To speak to you, actually.”
My suggestion is to report appearances as just that: mere appearances. Which would be a way of jeering at them, labeling them as not quite real. So the appearances section would be heavy on satire and simple quotation. In the U.S., Jon Stewart has become a huge star by satirizing the world of appearances. This would be a way to get in on some of that action. Appearances, then, means downgrading or penalizing politicians who deal in the fake, the trivial, the merely sensational. In other words: “watch out or you’ll wind up in the appearances column.”
Under realities we find everything that is actually about real problems, real solutions, real proposals, consequential plans and of course events that have an integrity beyond their fitness as media provocations. This is the political news proper, cured of what Tanner calls the sideshow.
But then there’s my other axis. Arguments and facts. Both are important, both are a valid part of politics.
So imagine my four quadrants.
Bottom left: Appearances rendered as fact. Example: the media stunt.
Top left: Phony arguments. Manufactured controversies. Sideshows.
Bottom right: Today’s new realities: get the facts. The actual news of politics.
Top right. Real arguments: Debates, legitimate controversies, important speeches.
Now imagine all of today’s political news and commentary sorted into these four quadrants. This becomes the new portal to political news. Appearances and realities, arguments and facts. To render the political world that way, journalists would have to exercise their judgment about what is real and what is not. And this is exactly what would bring them into proper alignment with our needs as citizens.
After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…
I was on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Lateline to discuss many of these themes with host Tony Jones. Watch it here.
On Twitter, the ABC’s Helen Tzarimas gave a bizarre summary of what I said: “In this Lateline interview (from 1.13 to 3.05) the media is blamed for lack of govt policy.” I have no idea how she got there.
Another ABC journalist, Wendy Carlisle, said on Twitter that Rosen is “arguing journalism broke politics. Not that simple.” This is fatuous. And quite wrong. Watch the interview I did with Tony Jones (or read the transcript) and you will hear me describe the situation as an interaction between the two. One example of several:
TONY JONES: … Let me put that to you, though, an alternative theory. It is not coverage that’s broken, rather it is the politicians themselves that are broken and what’s broken in them is their ever-increasing use and reliance on spin.
JAY ROSEN: Well, that’s true, they are doing that, and it is not just spin, it’s focus groups, it’s consultants, the notion of the permanent campaign, as I said before – but I think we’re mature enough to recognise that political actors and the producers of news are interdependent at this point.
David Bernstein, a political reporter for the Boston Phoenix, said on Twitter. “If anyone cares, I’ve read Jay Rosen’s big politijourno speech and I think it’s idiotic crap.” I asked him to explain what he meant and he produced this post: Jay Squawking. His main point is that I’m not really talking about journalism at all. I just don’t like the way politics is done, and I am displacing my dissatisfaction onto the press. So that’s why this speech is crap and I’m an idiot for writing it.
One of Rosen’s big problems is the “impoverished idea” that “politics is an inside game.” Again, I think that Rosen’s disgust is with politics, not the coverage; politics is largely an inside game. You might not like the insidery things that affect the selection of our next President, or the writing of the health care reform bill, or (to give an example I just posted today) which congressman Massachusetts will lose through redistricting. But your distaste is all the more reason to report them.
Definitely worth reading to get a glimpse inside the mind of the political press. Bernstein also pointed me to this earlier piece making a similar point: Basically, academics get it all wrong because they don’t know how things really work, though here and there they make some valid points. (Update: Bernstein objects to that summary.)
At my Tumblr I redrew the chart showing my four quadrants. I also added more description to it. I flipped the sides so that “Today’s new realities: The actual news of politics” is in the upper left, which is where the eye scanning a news page typically begins. I think this version is better.
The video of my speech is now available.
If you watch that clip, you will see that in introducing this talk I said that part of what “writers have to do is take things that are very, very familiar to us and make them seem strange.” That’s what I try to do here. So if your natural reaction is, “this is nothing new, really,” please understand: I agree with that.
To see how Australians reacted to this speech, go to this comment thread at the Drum.
A journalism student, Kristen Ream, sent me this example of a front page story that illustrates many of the themes in my talk. See: Observers debate Williams’ chances.
Not clear on what I mean by “horse race journalism?” This.
For a good example of what I mean by “today’s new realities… the actual news of politics,” see this terrific post by Greg Jericho, focusing on a major development in Australian politics that was virtually ignored.
Good example of the kind of news that would appear under “appearances.” An alternative title for it might be “fluff.”
As a critic of political journalism I work at various distances from the text: sometimes I zoom in on a single article. Sometimes I fix on a genre in journalism, a middle distance. And sometimes I pull back, as in this speech, to write about tendencies I see in political coverage as a whole. When I do that, the examples are really supplied by the readers, via their own familiarity with political news and commentary. What I am saying either resonates with the many instances they have seen themselves… or it doesn’t. It it does, the post succeeds. It it doesn’t, the post fails.
James Joyner at Outside the Beltway has a review of this post. His opinion is mixed. About the part where I say that savvy analysis of how the voters will react splits the attentive public off from the rest of the electorate, he says:
This may just be a function of my personality type but I’ve been an avid consumer of this stuff for three decades and never had that reaction. From the standpoint of a college student in Alabama, the talking heads on the Fox News or This Week roundtable actually are “insiders” with a unique perspective. I always felt like I was getting a glimpse behind the curtain. And, indeed, I was.
Voters are bombarded with information about which contender has “what it takes” to be the best candidate. Who can deliver the most stirring rhetoric? Who can build the most attractive facade? Who can mount the wiliest counterattack? Whose life makes for the neatest story? Our political and media culture reflects and drives an obsession with who is going to win, rather than who should win.
Halperin says he regrets focusing so much on what it takes to win. But of course four years later he hasn’t changed his approach. Why is that? Halperin hasn’t changed his approach because the three bad ideas I described here are constitutive of his identity as a journalist.
I also did this radio interview with the ABC’s Phillip Adams on his program Late Night Live. He is one of the most relaxed, and conversational interviewers I’ve had the pleasure to engage with.
Turns out the culture war conservatives in Australia work the same way as culture war conservatives in America. (Scroll down a bit.)
It seems that Jay Rosen is in Melbourne for the taxpayer subsidised Melbourne Writers’ Festival. He is part of that literary festival tradition in Australia where a group of leftie-luvvies get a bucket load of taxpayers’ money and invite a group of left-luvvies to come along and talk about themselves and advocate left-wing causes, in a leftie luvvie kind of way – and get lotsa interviews by leftie-luvvie presenters on the ABC.
My 2008 essay: Why Campaign Coverage Sucks. This piece is a kind of successor to that one from ’08.
Greg Marx at Columbia Journalism Review has a critique of one part of this post… “Absolutely, let’s have less journalism that’s nothing more than prognostication or armchair strategizing. But let’s have more reporting that explores the process by which our political leaders are selected, and makes it intelligible to ordinary people. That’s coverage of the ‘horse race’—and it’s valuable, democracy-sustaining work.”
Jeff Sparrow, an Australian writer and editor, posted an interesting response. He said my analysis was accurate as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. ”Yes, the political media is dysfunctional and, yes, it seems to be getting worse. But what’s behind that degeneration?” He then links to an earlier post of his that is well worth your time. The gist of it is that people used to experience politics through intermediate associations that helped them identify their interests and know whom to trust. (Unions and the churches are classic examples.)
But Australians have “seen a remarkable collapse in the array of identities through which we once filtered politics,” Sparrow writes. Now it’s just individuals in the marketplace of democracy. The media has to assemble audiences and politicians have to pull together a winning coalition from these atomized bits. That’s how we get politics as entertainment and some of the other distortions I mentioned.
Digby, one of the ablest bloggers on the American left, says that the production of innocence is “the result of years of hardcore right wing public relations.”
They spent decades relentlessly attacking the media for being liberally biased and the result has been an aversion to any kind of reporting that might betray a point of view. Liberals have failed to properly combat this and the press is now so thoroughly indoctrinated that it might not work anyway.But this one is, in my view, the consequence of a concerted propaganda effort. Lessons learned.
I mostly agree with that. And it prepared the ground for what I have called “verification in reverse
In this essay for The Conversation, an Australian journal that gets academics to comment on public matters, John Keene says a great many sensible things about politicians and journalists. He also says I am too timid, or perhaps unsophisticated, in calling for a reality-based journalism:
Correspondence theories of truth and “reality” were long ago discredited philosophically; any thinking person knows that “truth” has many faces, as Kafka said.
Look: Sports stories written by a computer program. I think the same thing could be done with horse race coverage during political campaigns. Don’t you?
Good lord. Being put on the campaign bus these days sounds like a ticket to prison.