Everything That’s Wrong with Political Journalism in One Washington Post Item

Aug.
5
So what is the job of a political journalist today? Is it to describe the reality of American politics, as a “straight” reporter would? Or is it to defend reality and its “base” in American politics… more like a fact checker would?

I was alerted to the find by Alec MacGillis of the New Republic. He was exasperated by this brief report in the Washington Post, which appeared at The Fix, the Post’s top political blog. If you don’t know it, The Fix is a reporting and analysis franchise built around the many talents of Chris Cillizza, a star reporter and key presence on its most important beat: national politics.

The Fix is a group blog now; the item in question carried the byline of political reporter Aaron Blake. It’s a 700-word analysis of a Mitt Romney ad that twisted some words of Obama’s into a claim that could be more easily attacked:

Context be damned: Obama’s ‘It worked’ quote should work for Republicans.

Context is dead. Long live context.

For the second time in two weeks, Mitt Romney’s campaign has an out-of-context quote it can use to bludgeon President Obama. First it was “You didn’t build that,” and now it’s two ill-fated words that Obama spoke at a fundraiser Monday: “It worked.”

As with “You didn’t build that,” the Romney campaign’s attacks on “It worked” will be criticized for being out-of-context, lowest-common-denominator politics. And as with “You didn’t build that,” “It worked” is going to … well … work.

The rest of the item runs in this vein: Scream all you want about “context” and accuracy; these ads are effective, and that’s what counts. Listen to a bit more:

Fact-checkers are great (especially our Glenn Kessler), but as long as either side has an argument to justify its attacks, the history of politics dictates that it’s all fair game.

Romney’s team is exploiting that fact — to the credit of its political acumen, if not its strict adherence to accuracy.

Some people don’t hear it, others do: the way the tone of the piece… don’t get me wrong, fact checkers are great, but… eats away at our confidence that this kind of journalism can ever be the truthelling kind. MacGillis of the New Republic heard it. “Ah yes,” he wrote. “If only there was someone whose job and calling it was to ferret out the truth of such things, to provide some context for voters. Let me think, there must be someone we can think of, a profession of some kind perhaps, sort of like a researcher but also a communicator…”

Now I ask you: What is the job of a political journalist today? Is it to describe the reality of American politics, as a “straight” reporter would? Or is it to defend reality and its “base” in American politics, more like a fact checker would? I know what you’re thinking: the press should do both! But this is exactly what’s missing in the Aaron Blake item. There is no tension in it between insisting on truth and describing what works. Truth has seemingly become irrelevant. And that alone is a reveal. MacGillis is among the amazed:

That’s part of our job, isn’t it, holding the candidates to some modicum of reality? Or we could simply sit by our screens and marvel at their “acumen.”

Here we have a dispute. But the dispute has yet to break into the open among journalists. I wish it would, because it would be fascinating to see who lines up where.

One camp, represented for the moment by Aaron Blake of The Fix, has drifted into a state of low grade nihilism in which complaining about truth, accuracy, fairness and missing context is beside the point because those very complaints have become another way of doing politics. Both sides pretend to get all worked up about it. Both sides rely on misleading claims when it’s convenient for them. Observing this, a smart reporter like Blake can’t fall for any of it. He stands between warring camps, reminding each side that they too are sinners. Here, “both sides” is a kind of magic phrase, putting partisans in their place and clearing the ground for the journalist to come in and settle matters. Thus:

The fact is that the Obama team’s hands aren’t quite clean when it comes to context, either, including its use of Romney’s “I’m not concerned about the very poor” and “I like being able to fire people” quotes.

In all of these cases, we’re dealing with a somewhat ambiguous quote.

From Blake’s point of view, the story that needs to be told is not about the granularity of deception, the misuse of words to make them mean what they did not mean when spoken, or the tricky matter of which side is relying to a greater degree on truth-busting, context-shredding claims. The real story lies in the game of it all: the daily routine of scoring points, landing blows, seizing on any little advantage and making it work for your side. “Acumen,” as he put it. There is a worldview on display here, but to my knowledge it has never been articulated or defended by a journalist who holds it.

“First, do no harm” is supposed to be bedrock for the medical profession. First, show you’re savvy. That’s how I would sum up The Fix’s worldview. But it’s not just The Fix or Aaron Blake. This is the first commandment for a whole class of reporters and interpreters who keep the politics beat humming. Mark Halperin of Time magazine is at the head of that class, along with Chuck Todd of NBC and Cillizza of the Post. The Politico has the first newsroom that is built entirely on the savvy worldview. I have written about it many times:

Savviness! Deep down, that’s what reporters want to believe in and actually do believe in— their own savviness and the savviness of certain others (including operators like Karl Rove.) In politics, they believe, it’s 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 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—that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political—is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it.

Praising “political acumen” while putting questions of accuracy and context to one side– this is the essence of the savvy outlook.

Fight for what is true. That is how I would put the alternative to “first, show you’re savvy.” From this point of view, it is a regrettable loss for the polity, and for political journalism–and for the voters, the public–when dubious claims gain traction and quotes pulled from their context appear to “work.” What the press can do to prevent this is try to raise the costs of making false or misleading claims, which is the whole point of fact-checking.

Recognizing that there are no angels in competitive politics, recognizing also that our choices are typically binary, journalists can point out to voters (or at least the portion of voters who are users of political journalism) which candidate is stretching the truth more often or more strenuously. If it’s fair game (Blake’s term) to assess which candidate is connecting more effectively with voters or following a shrewder strategy, then it is equally fair to judge who’s being more deceptive.

But the savvy won’t do that. Instead they do this: “Obama team’s hands aren’t quite clean when it comes to context, either…” Which is another reason Blake’s item illustrates everything that’s wrong with political journalism today. Again: There are no angels in politics. We know that. Both sides mislead. But we still need to know who’s misleading us more because our choices are binary. If political reporters can’t tell us that, but they can tell us things like “the history of politics dictates that it’s all fair game…” then why do we need them?

It probably took an hour or so for Blake to draft his post. But 25 years of drift went into it. I could be wrong, but I think a growing number of Blake’s colleagues in journalism are losing patience with the kind of analysis on view in his rancid item. They are not for the most part political reporters, for whom the savvy is everything. They are journalists from other beats and other persuasions. And they’ve had it with the “who cares if it’s true? it works” attitude.

After I talked on Twitter about the Blake item, Nick Fox, an editor in the opinion section of the nytimes.com, said he could not recall an instance of more cynical reporting. Michael Powell, a columnist in the metro section of the Times, described the Blake post thusly: “In which reporter locates his brain’s off switch…” Powell’s comment was in turn picked up by ProPublica’s Jesse Eisinger.

These are small clues that a split is beginning to develop within the journalism profession. The savvy is still in charge. It is the worldview of choice in pro journalism; in the political reporting wing it wins maybe 95 to 5. But it has a potentially fatal weakness built in: it brackets questions of truth, suggesting that they have become either quaint (meaning: of interest only to the unsavvy) or irrelevant in making distinctions (because both sides do it.) The more open this attitude becomes among political reporters–and this is what distinguished Blake’s post, its baldness–the more repulsive it feels to their colleagues.

Though some might like to think so, “first, show you’re savvy” is not compatible with “fight for what is true.” It’s time we saw journalists line up behind these claims so we know who’s who.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…

The Blake Item: a debate in five links. When confronted with misleading claims that work, should journalists accept and report that, or fact check and fight back? (Supply your own framing; that’s mine.)

1.) Begin with Aaron Blake’s piece at the Washington Post’s blog, The Fix, Context be damned: Obama’s ‘It worked’ quote should work for Republicans.

This provoked 2.) “It’s All Fair Game” by Alex MacGillis in The New Republic. He wrote in exasperation about the Blake Item.

Which led to my contribution at PressThink 3.) Everything That’s Wrong with Political Journalism in One Washington Post Item.

and then to 4.) Fix-ing Aaron Blake by David S.Bernstein of the Boston Phoenix. He was not impressed with my case.

Then 5.) The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf: Should the Press Shame Presidential Candidates for Lying? digs in further on the Blake post and why it bothers some people. A lot.

Bonus link: CJR, Another factchecking fiasco. Journalistic failure in coverage of Harry Reid and his mysterious source. Also about “confronted with misleading claims, what do journalists do?”

If there is more, I will add it.

Obama as press critic: It was amusing for me to read that President Obama’s critique of the press corps resembles my own in that he’s disgusted with “false balance” and “he said, she said” journalism. But far more significant is this quote in the same article from Paul Steiger:

“I think sometimes we in the media — particularly under the crunch of deadlines — don’t have time to work through all the issues of discerning what is fact,” said Paul E. Steiger, chief executive of ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative news organization, and a former Wall Street Journal managing editor, “and so we say ‘he said, she said.’ ”

Here is the shift to watch for. From… our job is not to take sides, and that upsets partisans who of course think they’re right, which had been the standard reply, to… we fall back on “he said, she said” when we don’t have time to do a better job. If a mainstream heavyweight like Steiger is opting for the latter, that could be a sign that professional opinion is starting to shift against the church of the savvy and its ways.

The Economist comments on the Obama’s critique of the press: The Balance Trap.

A reaction to all this at US News by opinion editor Robert Schlesinger.

The Romney campaign’s gambit plays on two things: One is the instinct on the part of the press to treat such disputes as he-said-he-said in the name of objectivity (hence much coverage of the welfare ad as being Team Romney charge followed by Team Obama retort with little discussion of the facts).

But underlying the cynical belief that they can game the press is an even more contemptuous and condescending belief in the basic laziness and stupidity of the American people.

If Mitt Romney were running a “post-truth” campaign, would the political press report it? No, they would not. This falls under: too big to tell.

How interesting: Aaron Blake comes back at it with this passage at The Fix:

We’ve argued recently on this blog that out-of-context ads tend to work, provided there is a modicum of believable justification and the media don’t call them out. It may not be right or just, but most keen observers recognize that fact.

Actually that part about “…provided that the media don’t call them out” was not in the original, which is part of what led to the criticism Blake got.

Truth vigilantes? That was the question earlier at PressThink: “Somewhere along the way, telling truth from falsehood was surpassed by other priorities to which the press felt a stronger duty. Arthur Brisbane, public editor of the New York Times, was unaware of this history when he asked users of the Times whether reporters should call out false statements.”

57 Comments

  1. Dave LaFontaine says:

    I think that a lot of what you are objecting to here has indeed arisen in the past 25 years. I think it dates back at least to when one of Reagan’s political consultants famously said, after a TV newsman asked if they were mad about a very critical report, “You don’t get it. It doesn’t matter what you say. What matters are the images – all in front of the American flag.” [paraphrase]

    This has caused the growing conviction (certainly fanned by political blogs on both sides-usually after an electoral defeat) that the American public is a bunch of brain-dead mouth-breathers, that 1) is incapable of understanding politics and 2) doesn’t care.

  2. Jay Rosen says:

    I wrote a post about the episode you refer to.

    “Nobody heard what you said.” Lesley Stahl’s Fable About Reagan and the Press.

    http://archive.pressthink.org/2004/06/09/reagan_words.html

  3. Brian B says:

    I always feel torn by this sort of analysis. On the one hand, yes, the journalist should be much more willing to call a lie a lie, and draw distinctions between the obscuring of context and flat-out falsehoods without straining for false balance. That’s not the Post’s style and it probably won’t be anytime soon.

    But then, we TPFKATA also want to know: What’s the outcome? Will eventual voters turn away from Mitt Romney because of his almost reflexive deceptions, or are they more likely to take the bait? What moves the political operatives to take this approach? Are they fooling the voters or themselves?

    Someone has to answer those questions, and I actually hope it’s someone with political reporting experience and analytical prowess. Sure, Aaron Blake took a fairly weak approach, but he was trying to address important questions.

    I hope we don’t react so strongly to Blake and other “insiders” that we scare other good reporters away from this sort of analysis. We might end up with an overabundance of a tendency I’ve observed among some journalists, to shout “You can’t do that!” at people who are, in fact, doing that.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      I get what you’re saying, Brian. We don’t want to create a kind of journalism PC were it is verbotten to observe with a cool eye what the outcome of such tactics is.

      But let me ask you something: do you think Blake had any idea whether these out-of-context claims will work with the voters, as he put it? He’s pretty confident that he knows they will work but I don’t see how he could know. I mean in an empirical sense.

      What he probably means by “work” is that the class of operatives and interpreters and politicians and talk show hosts who kinda sorta set the limits of the acceptable will see this as within those limits. But that is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      • Brian B says:

        Thanks, Jay. I can’t read Aaron Blake’s mind, either, so I don’t know where he gets his assertions, and like too many DCjournos (especially at the WaPo) he doesn’t support what he says. I think I may just be a bit more charitable (gullible?) than you are in giving people who cover a topic some space to operate. Maybe the DC press corps should have its own set of rules (not the set it thinks it has).

    • Anna Tarkov says:

      How can you address important issues without, you know, addressing them? Blake didn’t do any of the things you’re saying you would like political reporters to do. What’s more, you’re asking for the voters to be treated as passive dummies, as they often are already by this type of journalism. What will voters eventually do, you ask. Blake probably doesn’t have the first clue. Has he talked to any voters who have seen these ads? Is it relevant to voters’ decision-making process why political operatives do these things?

  4. Jay Rosen says:

    I couldn’t figure out how to work this into the post but I should mention that on Twitter Blake took some heat after The New Republic item came out. This reply he gave to one complaint is significant:

    “How many other publications will say straight-up that the quote is out of context? At least we do that. Others won’t.”

    https://twitter.com/FixAaron/status/228582429261180929

    In his mind The Fix is bolder than others.

    • Taylor says:

      1) Does Blake or anyone like him have actual objective proof that these ads “are working?” To me, it seems like he’s just assuming it and then asserting it. That’s the opposite of savvy. That’s ign’ant.

      2) I actually do want my political journalists to be savvy, but I want them to employ that in writing about policies rather than politics (or about politics insofar as they affect policies).

      The bottom line is I don’t need a journalist to tell me that saying bad things about someone will make me dislike him, whether or not those bad things are true. It takes a journalist to put those bad things into their original context and let me know what IS true so I can adjust my opinions about the person accordingly.

      Also, shameless self-promotion: http://dailytaylor.blogspot.com/2012/08/out-of-context-attack-ads-and-what.html

  5. William Ockham says:

    The most irritating part of this is the refusal of poltical journalists to take responsibilty for the fact that this strategy works. If the political press treated misrepresentations as gaffes, the politicians wouldn’t use the strategy nearly as much.

    • Dave Wakeman says:

      I think that is absolutely correct. The journalists keep trying to play the everything is a straight line game, but in fact it isn’t. If you are a reporter, its your job to call BS what it is.

  6. […] McGillis, smart New Republic editor and pride of Pittsfield, got really annoyed about it, followed by Rosen, with supportive Tweets from others. The great Greg Mitchell has recapped.I don't know what […]

  7. Michael Powell says:

    Jay
    I agree with much of this. Reporters too often take refuge in cynical insider appreciation as opposed reporting and analyzing, and trying to get at something like the truth. In this case, the reporter fell down a rabbit hole. And it’s not remotely sufficient to argue that, well, I’ve off-loaded thinking to my political fact-checking department. Objectivity is part of the problem, I’d argue, as the cult of the same encourages reporters to disconnect their cerebellums. But whatever.
    My quibble here is that these sort of disagreemets stretch back at least three or four decades. I remember as a kid reading these arguments in MORE magazine. And, more recently, I and others at the Times and the Washington Post (where I once work very happily) have for many years argued against too easy cynicism and applying what’s left of our brains to political reporting.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Hi Michael.You are very right that critique of, and reaction against, excessive insider-ism and breezy cynicism has been there for a long time, since well before Mark Halperin reigned and The Politico existed.

      I think of “the savvy” as a style in political reporting. It has long roots and many previous expressions. What interests me is when it becomes the dominant, baseline, or default style. My PressThimk posts are usually about a situation like that.

  8. Albanius says:

    Objectivity vs neutrality, in calling balls and strikes:
    an objective ump calls a strike if it is in the strike zone, a ball if it isn’t;
    a neutered ump calls one ball, one strike, one ball, one strike, w/o regard to where the ball actually went.

  9. A lot of the points of this post are valid and fair. But it’s too easy to blame the reporters when there is a more systemic problem that nurtures this kind of journalism: It is cheap. If a reporter were to fact check political claims, he couldn’t file two stories, 3 blog posts and 15 tweets a day. Due to the economic pressures on newsrooms, I wonder if they could do a better job even if they wanted to.

    It is much easier to simply, as I think Jay has termed it, be a stenographer. And I would add, be a prognosticator. After all, how many reporters are ever called out for the analysis they gave that turned out to be wrong?

    Finally, quotes that have no basis in fact pollute many stories and are, in fact, indispensable to newspapers and news shows. After all, what easier way to fill up newsprint and air time?

    Leaning over far more backward than my aging spine can take, let’s give Aaron Blake credit: He at least admits that his job is wading thru the pig pen.

  10. Jay Rosen says:

    “Leaning over far more backward than my aging spine can take, let’s give Aaron Blake credit: He at least admits that his job is wading thru the pig pen.”

    What else should we give him credit for? You, or I mean anyone in the thread.

    Over at the Boston Phoenix, David S.Bernstein isn’t buying what this post is saying.

    Fix-ing Aaron Blake: “At the risk of entering another flame war with NYU professor Jay Rosen, I’d like to suggest that Aaron Blake is not the apotheosis of all that is wrong with political journalism…”

    Read why he thinks the case weak.

    http://blog.thephoenix.com/BLOGS/talkingpolitics/archive/2012/08/06/fix-ing-aaron-blake.aspx

    • Brian B says:

      You can just about replace my comment up above with “What David Bernstein said.” I think both he and you, Jay, are making solid points from your respective viewpoints, and I’m glad to see this is becoming a conversation. More like these, please.

      • One more question to ask: Shouldn’t the stations that accept misleading ads be held to account? They have been known to reject ads based on some moral objection. Isn’t lying immoral?

    • And this to my point above:
      Rolling Stone: “While TV stations are required by law to offer discounted airtime to politicians, Super PACs have to pay market rates… In essence, broadcasters are now profiteering from a vicious circle of corruption: Politicians are beholden to big donors because campaigns are so expensive, and campaigns are so expensive because they’re fought through television ads. The more cash that chases limited airtime, the more the ads will cost, and the more politicians must lean on deep-pocketed patrons. In short, the dirtier the system, the better for the bottom line at TV stations and cable systems.”

      h/t Political Wire

      • Dave LaFontaine says:

        Yeah, that thought had occurred to me as well. We’re focusing a lot on the bloodshed taking place in the arena, and whether the descriptions of the bloodshed are accurate, without paying quite enough attention to the fact that the owners of said arena may be chuckling contentedly at the growing numbers on the lower-right corner of the Excel spreadsheet.

        From that point of view, a lie that provokes a response (when said response involves buying a buttload more expensive airtime to respond with) is a feature, not a bug.

        If 94% (Politifact number – if you Google the subject yourself, be prepared to see the word “sheeple” a lot) of the candidates who raise the most money wind up winning the election, then what is it that we are pretending not to notice anyway?

  11. […] hat-tip to the wonderful Sam Gunsch) is about “savviness” in political reporting.  Jay Rosen, over at his “Press Think: the ghost of democracy in the media machine”; Savviness! Deep down, that’s what reporters want to believe in and actually do believe in— […]

  12. […] The Washington Post piece that vividly demonstrates what’s wrong with political journalism. […]

  13. Wehrburg says:

    | ” So what is the job of a political journalist today ? ” |

    .

    Well, sounds like you’re on another standard rant about political reporting. So it’s easy to toss in some of your many, many previous comments on this constant topic.
    (It would be very helpful if someday you condensed all these observations into a well-edited paragraph or two)

    Some previous comments on political journalism:

    – election coverage 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 because it puts them “on the inside, looking at the campaign the way the operatives 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. … 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.

    – 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.

    – 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…

    Three impoverished ideas:
    1. Politics as an inside game.
    2. The cult of savviness.
    3. The production of innocence.

    – 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.

    – 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 ! “

  14. […] Lex @ 7:23 pm Tags: Aaron Blake, Jay Rosen, Pressthink, The Fix, Washington Post J-prof Jay Rosen finds the biggest problem in American political “journalism” in one short blog post at The Washington […]

  15. […] Accountability journalism is populated by fewer reporters working more hours on more stories produced on right now deadlines for less money. In politics, at least one observer — PressThink blogger and prof Jay Rosen — concludes accountability journalism in politics has hit a new low. […]

  16. […] Accountability journalism is populated by fewer reporters working more hours on more stories produced on right now deadlines for less money. In politics, at least one observer — PressThink blogger and prof Jay Rosen — concludes accountability journalism in politics has hit a new low. […]

  17. Richard Van Noorden says:

    James Fallows wrote a great piece that touched on this issue and more in 1996. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1996/02/why-americans-hate-the-media/5060/?single_page=true

  18. jayackroyd says:

    What makes this particularly interesting is that the Romney campaign is exploiting the media’s unwillingness to call out a lie at an incredible level of commitment. I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that 90 percent of what they say, whether it is an attack on Obama or a description of Romney’s policy positions are false–obviously false.

    Now, they’re wary–they won’t let Romney do interviews or answer questions (and why the media stands for that is another interesting question), but that seems to be more because they can’t keep him on message than because it will open up the floodgates on exposing just how deeply, and cynically, dishonest this campaign has been.

    This isn’t new, of course. Reagan’s people were adept at the Big Lie. But the Romney campaign is taking it to new heights, recognizing that the media is powerless to deal with it.

    Oops, I just remembered that Jay’s last post was in the same vein. Read that post!

  19. Apparently, POTUS agrees w/ the “false equivalency” argument. Re my earlier point about cost & time working against “calling out lies.” From an NYT article http://nyti.ms/O45YMH

    “I think sometimes we in the media — particularly under the crunch of deadlines — don’t have time to work through all the issues of discerning what is fact,” said Paul E. Steiger, chief executive of ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative news organization, and a former Wall Street Journal managing editor, “and so we say ‘he said, she said.’ ”

  20. Chris Boese says:

    I’d add one more possible explanation for why the “Church of the Savvy” put their meta-analysis into the public sphere, as if to make the unspoken and often invisible visible (I am not condoning or agreeing with it, but just saying, “Here is one possible justification.”):

    In the time of the Roman rhetorician Quintilian, unlike during the time of Cicero, rhetoric had ceased to matter. Rome was an empire. Cicero pissed people off because his rhetoric had teeth. They exiled him.

    By the time Quintilian came around, Rome was an Empire, not a republic, not open to discussion and debate. Quintilian could have said things on the same magnitude as Cicero and it would have generated little more than a collective yawn. Rhetoric was toothless. Power was held elsewhere, by despots. The accuracy and effectiveness of words and their contexts had ceased to matter. Quintilian was an impotent parchment tiger, a teacher of rhetoric to people for whom the use of rhetoric was little more than a finger exercise, like doing scales on the piano.

    So in the context of our current crop of political ads, all campaigns are “post-truth.” Not equal offenders, to be sure, and not even by design. They are “post-truth” (one might claim) because truth has been removed as a criteria of their effectiveness, long before the Church of the Savvy OR the Truth-Seekers ever got around to making their judgments of it.

    The broader culture and its most powerful players may have moved away from those silly literate fools who demand accountability and accuracy in language and argumentative claims, into a post-truth goldfish bowl where “what works” is merely sounds coming from mouths, word salad of sorts, perhaps poll-tested, perhaps not, embellished with swelling or scary music, completely and totally disconnected from any REAL caring about irrelevant pronouncements from the Quintilians of our world who still think rhetorical actions (even crassly sophistic ones) have definable meanings.

    Perhaps we are the irrelevant paper tigers. We can carry on and stamp our feet, but in a world where the powerful reach out for semi-approval from the powerless, we are a buzzing fly, a mild irritant. Our analysis does not impact the “effectiveness” of the rhetorical packages put forth for audiences that are not us, nor does it any longer have an influence on the outcome.

    I’m not saying I believe this, but I do know that that is how we look back on Quintilian to this day. Perhaps it is how the future will look back on us as well. Stamp our feet! Demand literal and contextual accountability. Piss off the powerful! Assert with the greatest of force that accurate facts and the truth still matter. Because, by god, they do.

    But the powerful have moved on without us. For what lip service they pay to our forums and words and media commons, we are not the final judges of the effectiveness of their sophistic and manipulative rhetorical actions, neither as “savvy” observers or as those who would hold their feet to the fire. Their center of gravity is elsewhere, and our real influence on it may be negligible.

    Do we own up to this, acknowledge it? Or pretend it is not so? Which approach is more honest and true? I’m not a nihilist, nor a relativist. But I do believe our largest obligation is to call things as they REALLY are, even if that means identifying our own impotence as truth-tellers.

    Which came first, the irrelevance of the Third Estate, or the nihilism of the Church of the Savvy?

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Chris: From that point of view, which I do not deny the forcefulness of, a honest political journalist would have to folds its tent, with a final report: “None of this matters, journalism itself is powerless. Worse than a sideshow, it can only conceal the fact that consent of the governed has become a cruel fiction.”

      • Chris Boese says:

        I agree, Jay, but it does fall in line with the journalistic obligation to be truth-tellers, of ALL the truth.

        It is also, to a large degree, my frustration with postmodern theory and the condition of postmodernity (and the relativism that comes with it)– that it is ultimately an intellectual retreat from engagement, when what we need is greater engagement and effort to make a real difference.

        Would it have made any difference for Quintilian? No, but he is locked into unchanging history. We exist in a dynamic present.

        If the people, trumped into irrelevancy by power and wealth used by an oligarchy that disregarded them, had just folded their tents and gone home in the late 1770s, something unthinkable would not have happened, the direct unseating of the old oligarchies in a spreading movement for (a new oligarchy of representative) democracy and self-rule.

        Who really would have ever thought the power of the Aristocracy and the Church could have been unseated, back in those days? What a radical idea! And perhaps one only those naive enough would pursue. And a long and difficult process, with as many steps backward as forward.

        Kind of like how the most learned people never take the kinds of deep risks to start transformative start-up businesses, because they’ve read too much of the research that says (definitively) that it can’t be done.

        I’m not a relativist nor a nihilist. I am a realist. And a dreamer. I’d rather tilt at impossible windmills than fold my tent and go home. But I won’t pretend that the odds aren’t extremely high that the windmills are going to win.

  21. Brambo says:

    The problem isn’t that a piece like this appeared in the WaPo at The Fix. The problem is that ads like these aren’t exposed as disingenuous much anywhere else.

    The web is a big place. There should be places to go and read cold, practical analyses of the effectiveness of telling the perfect kind of lie — the one with a shred of truth and a lot of room for fudge — and to congratulate the Romney team on having discovered it. A lot of us are political junkies who are interested in just that, and interested in reading no less than 40 different takes on the incident just to see “how it’s playing”.

    The problem is, the Washington Post is also a newspaper and, like all newspapers and broadcasts, it doesn’t do enough truth-telling and highlighting of falsehoods besides. That is, of course, because it is NOT a reporter’s job to tell the truth, it is the job of a reporter to amuse the greatest number of eyeballs long enough to slip some ads for Saks Fifth Avenue in front of them as well. Tell the truth too clearly, too often, and you lose at least 50% of those eyeballs. I’m surprised nobody has mentioned that yet…

  22. […] New York Times | U.S. News & World Report | PressThink | Tech President | TVNewsCheck | National Press Photographers Association President […]

  23. Lee J Rickard says:

    To adapt Gandhian terminology to the case: What we have here is the eternal conflict between satyagraha (commitment to the truth) and avidyagraha (commitment to ignorance). Alas, what passes for journalism these days is not Sanskrit but sand-scratching, an insistence on ‘communicating’ in the confidence that what is said today will be covered by the winds tomorrow.

    Or, in the more classic American tradition, it’s all fishwrap.

  24. […] of the answer will have to do with how the press views and does its job (and Jay Rosen has a smart take on that question here). But part of it will also have to do with the voters. The Romney […]

  25. […] reporter or a “fact checker?” NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) considers this question in a recent piece about Washington Post Aaron Blake and a recent blog post he reported on political advertising. […]

  26. brian gulino says:

    Aaron Blake wrote an article about the media. H quoted Romney’s ads, fairly, if briefly, stated the case for them being untrue, then went on the argue the case that such misleading ads are effective.

    I can’t find fault with this. He is not uncritically accepting Romney’s version of the truth, which is what usually gets you angry. What he is doing, is proferring his view of the American media and the American electorate. These are things which your are known to write about, treading on your “patch”, so to speak. Oh, and he disagrees with you – he thinks that lying is effective politics.

    I think you are shooting the messenger because you don’t like the message.

  27. […] (International) Jay Rosen: Everything that’s wrong with political journalism in one Washington Post item […]

  28. Richard Aubrey says:

    One incident of getting to the truth: Even CNN and MSNBC are calling the Obama campaign on the Soptic ad.
    So the opportunity is there, and some folks grabbed it.
    Worth a shout.

  29. […] Jay Rosen: Now I ask you: What is the job of a political journalist today? Is it to describe the reality of American politics, as a “straight” reporter would? Or is it to defend reality and its “base” in American politics, more like a fact checker would? I know what you’re thinking: the press should do both! But this is exactly what’s missing in the [same reporter as above link, different piece] Aaron Blake item. There is no tension in it between insisting on truth and describing what works. Truth has seemingly become irrelevant […]

  30. […] Everything That s Wrong with Political Journalism in One Washington Post Item by Jay Rosen […]

  31. […] Everything That s Wrong with Political Journalism in One Washington Post Item by Jay Rosen […]

  32. […] Jay Rosen: Now I ask you: What is the job of a political journalist today? Is it to describe the reality of American politics, as a “straight” reporter would? Or is it to defend reality and its “base” in American politics, more like a fact checker would? I know what you’re thinking: the press should do both! But this is exactly what’s missing in the [same reporter as above link, different piece] Aaron Blake item. There is no tension in it between insisting on truth and describing what works. Truth has seemingly become irrelevant […]

  33. […] (The Hill) • Everything That’s Wrong with Political Journalism in One Washington Post Item (Press Think) • Apple vs. Samsung: complete coverage of tech’s biggest trial (The Verge) • NSFW: The […]

  34. […] always-on Jay Rosen has a great post on this at his website. Can you believe the debate in journalism is whether or not calling people out is a good thing? […]

  35. TheraP says:

    Ok, I’m not a journalist. But the issue raised in this post seems very similar to how torture was dealt with a few years back. When many people asserted that torture “works” and therefore it’s ok to torture. Then people get caught up in whether or not a questionable tactic “succeeds” or “works” rather than what this says about our society or what we permit in the public square.

    Truth-telling relates to sanity. And a whole lot more!

  36. Jeffrey Pierce says:

    These discussions make it sound as though “truth” were easy to know, and defending it in the media is an act of courage. As a practical matter, the truth is unknowable, simply because there isn’t enough time to find and verify all sources. Best you can do is assemble a subset of purported facts that you like, from documented sources. Defending that as if it were true is logically flawed, inherently biased and potentially misleading. And the quality of this “truth” you defend depends on your professional savvy, does it not? Journalists should stay out of the truth-telling game. Your noblest work has nothing to do with truth-telling or fact-checking: it’s pointing out the fallacies of rhetoric and fallibility of sources.

  37. […] lack of honesty. And, maybe for the first time, this was roundly condemned within the profession. Jay Rosen’s post is a good entry point to the […]

  38. […] An excellent recent item by Jay Rosen, at Pressthink, working from the same MacGillis article andthis follow-up. These […]

  39. […] Magazine speculates why Washington isn’t worried about high unemployment. •A journalist asserts that fact-checking is all very nice, but who really cares if politicians lie? And AP identifies a […]

  40. […] where does the “who cares if it’s true, it works“ attitude, as journalism professor Jay Rosen calls it, leave voters? And, as Rosen wonders […]

  41. […] A recent Jay Rosen Press Think article explores the media ethic of savviness: a focus on whether a rhetorical gambit succeeds, regardless […]