A few principles for how I operate as a critic

Jun.
27

“What are the proper grounds for criticism of a program like Candy Crowley’s State of the Union on CNN, or a news story in the Washington Post, or a blog post at Gawker? The decisions I make about that are among the most important I can make as a writer on the press…”

This began as a response to a comment left at a previous post about Candy Crowley of CNN failing to ask the follow up-question.

ROBERT SCHWARTZ

Mr. Rosen writes that Ms. Crowley “isn’t doing her job well.” That assumes that Ms. Crowley is being paid to inform the American electorate as an effort towards an educated public. It seems that the corporate sponsors of the Sunday Newspin Shows might simply have a different agenda.

He is correct. I do assume that. It is a kind of baseline belief for me, as well as a lever for criticism: Candy Crowley is, yes, being paid by CNN – a division of Time Warner, third largest media company in the world – to “inform the American electorate as an effort towards an educated public.” This is the starting point for any criticism I might have of her or CNN.

But to Robert Schwartz, the “corporate sponsors of the Sunday Newspin Shows” won’t allow her to educate the public. They have a different agenda and they pay the bills. He didn’t say this but often it follows:

Even when they are on target, these piecemeal critiques of shoddy performance overlook the fact that a more systematically aggressive journalist looking deeply into wealth and power would not be hired by CNN or have her own show because that kind of journalism would drive away all the sponsors. You assume that when she’s sitting there on set she can ask anything she wants. She can’t! Anyone who would ask the really hard questions would have been weeded out a long time ago.

It is a good argument. There is another good argument made by conservatives that starts in a different place and makes different claims and isn’t really analagous, but it comes to a similar conclusion: “A deep down conservative journalist would never be in that position, Jay. They would be weeded out by the monoculture, which is liberal.” Unlike most disputes of this kind, both claims may be true.

But I want to go back to the original charge, to which I plead guilty. I do assume that….Ms. Crowley is being paid to inform the American electorate as an effort towards an educated public.

And when she fails to do that, she can be criticized. If enough people are critical of her, she may be forced to think about it and ask herself some hard questions. That is where PressThink comes in. I have to ask myself: What are the proper grounds for criticism of a program like Candy Crowley’s State of the Union on CNN, or a news story in the Washington Post, or a blog post at Gawker? The decisions I make about that are among the most important I can make as a writer on the press.

So here are some things that factor in:

1. The likelihood that Candy Crowley would share in this belief about herself – that she is being paid to inform the American electorate  – is high. Therefore we can hold her to it. For press criticism, this is good.

2. What portion of the (viewing, listening, reading, clicking) audience for journalism – the market, if you will – agrees with our statement? “Candy Crowley should understand she is being paid to inform the American electorate and contribute to an educated public.” Quite a large portion, I should think. This too is good.

3. The question of professional standards involves not only what journalists do but what the public demands of them. Ms. Crowley is being paid to inform the American electorate as an effort towards an educated public. There is a lot of public support for that idea. When it is dishonored in practice – as it often will be – people will react. They will make their voices heard. And when that happens a critic can find an audience by clarifying what is at stake or providing terms to advance the discussion. This is good.

4. PressThink, the blog, is primarily about about the legitimation of the modern press, meaning: the various justifications for it, and how they match up with actual practice– or don’t. I take these ideas seriously. I think journalists should too.

Inform the public of what it needs to know. Try to hold powerful figures accountable for what they do and say. Ask people in the public eye to explain themselves. Fight for transparency and practice it yourself. Fight against secrecy and opacity in public life. Clearly separate the trivial and entertaining from the consequential and informative. Equip the users of news to participate in their democracy and community. Speak truthfully and accurately.

In the degree that journalists by their conduct uphold these ideas, they are worthy of praise. When they fall short they are worthy of criticism. That is how I operate. I try not to know in advance that fidelity to these standards is impossible for “structural” reasons. If you do know such a thing, you are likely to be frustrated with me.

5. It is true that the corporations that own the media and provide employment to the likes of Andrea Mitchell of NBC, Bob Schieffer of CBS, Jonathan Karl of ABC, or Candy Crowley of CNN are heartless and soulless and have no real duty to anyone but their shareholders. We should not be deceived about their intentions, which usually come down to creating a safe environment for advertising. (CNN makes around $600 million a year for Time Warner precisely by creating a safe environment for advertising.) But in taking on news production and creating an editorial culture they are absorbing into themselves another ethic: public service journalism and the duties of a watchdog press. It will be trampled unless people stand up for it. I try to be one of those people. Do you?

6. A media company’s commitment to these priorities may be no more than lip service. But that is not the end of the story. Journalists hired by a huge corporation that has no intention of shaking up the status quo may still carve out a zone of autonomy in which they can operate fairly freely. Are there limits to that autonomy? Yes, there are. But these too can be pushed against. Righteous journalists who have the facts on their side can also get the audience on their side. That complicates things: in a good way. Without critics to prod them to do more and do better, they are less likely to push the zone of autonomy outward and make space for themselves to be that watchdog with an eye on power.

7. Anyone who closely follows me on Twitter knows that the most common reply I receive on that platform is some variation on: “…and this surprises you?” There is an ambiguity in the word “expect” that helps to explain this pattern. Expect can mean a prediction: what is likely to happen is what we expect. Expect can also be a demand: I expect you to clean your room! One is a probability statement, the other sets a standard against which future behavior can be judged. These two meanings of “expect” are often confused by my readers and comment board critics, including those who say: and this surprises you? I don’t predict that Washington journalists will ask themselves if government officials who demand anonymity deserve it, for I have observed their behavior. But I do want to insist that they apply some clear and defensible standards to the grant of anonymity, and in that sense I “expect” it. This move is basic to how I do press criticism, but I have never spelled it out before. I expect what I may not predict.

8. Against the odds I continue to insist: Candy Crowley is being paid by CNN to inform the American electorate and help create an educated public. Thomas Friedman: same deal. Chuck Todd? Ditto. If we give that idea up, we relinquish any hope for recalling these people to the purpose that drove them into journalism. I’m not prepared to do that. But some of my readers are. That puts me in tension with them, which I don’t mind. But I want you to know that I am aware of the conflict and I think about it all the time. Cheers.

13 Comments

  1. Trevor Hultner says:

    I love this. It’s easy – much too easy – to lambast a Thomas Friedman or a Candy Crowley or a David Gregory for doing shoddy work because it appears as if they do shoddy work all the time; it seems like the much more difficult task would be to hold those people to the standard of journalism they say they uphold.

  2. Priceaz says:

    Thank you Mr. Rosen for all your hard work. The American People deserve the best, Journalism has to offer in the 21st Century. I’ve been a News Junkie forever and have seen the patterns of last 30-40 yrs. The world needs Justice not more injustice.

  3. Good piece. I especially like the distinction between what you might expect and what you might predict. It is one that I would have expected AND predicted from A.J. Liebling, and a useful one to keep in mind in many domains.

  4. Blevins says:

    [ “I expect what I may not predict” ]

    .

    OK, so you have some noble hopes & desires for “TV Journalism” apart from its observable reality. This noblesse oblige somehow grants you permission to criticize selected TV news personalities… ‘without surprise’ that their employers & job circumstances greatly affect their actual ‘journalistic’ performance (?)

    Seems a weak sidestep of the issue raised.

    Are there any specific national TV persons that currently meet your standards as professional journalists ?

    • Jay Rosen says:

      On noblesse oblige:

      The Oxford English Dictionary says that the term “suggests noble ancestry constrains to honorable behavior; privilege entails to responsibility.” Being a noble meant that one had responsibilities to lead, manage and so on. One was not to simply spend one’s time in idle pursuits.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noblesse_oblige

      I don’t really think that’s relevant here. My grandfather ran a dry cleaner.

      Also, one doesn’t need “permission” to criticize. This is America.

  5. Matt Storin says:

    Jay, I basically agree with your comments but I take a different angle on TV journalists (whose professionalism I generally respect). Tim Russert was widely hailed as a tough interviewer. He was, relative to his broadcast peers. But did you ever notice that after catching someone in an inconsistency (from something said six months earlier) he dropped the ball? He never went in for the kill. Why? Because then no one would come on his show. TV interrogators are prisoners of a system in which they need a warm body on the set with them. Print reporters do not. They’ll get around your swerve somehow (or they should). This is one of the hurdles that the Candy Crowleys of the world can’t get over.

    • lrh says:

      Great point Matt.

      From my time in and around the biz of journalism I’ve personally watched the effect of all three pressures: Confirmation bias (we all filter our inputs and remain blissfully ignorant of our filtering), the financial realities (creating a advertiser and viewer friendly environment and not agitating either too much), and big time access to newsmakers (the whims and demands of gatekeepers and our reputation for making our interviewees look bad will affect that access).

      You can’t underestimate the influence of any of those three pressures.

  6. Cate says:

    I think the demand to expect civic responsibility is not unreasonable, given that appeals to the civic role of professional journalism are usually the first line of attack from professional journalists against the unwashed digital masses. Moreover, it suggests that the best possible measure, then, of the value of someone’s work is not their job title, but the extent to which the person–professional journalist or engaged citizen–actually fulfill the mission to educate the electorate.

  7. Esto es realmente genial, eres un blogger muy profesional. Me he unido a tu RSS y me gustaria encontrar más cosas en este gran blog. Además, !he compartido tu sitio en mis redes sociales!

    Saludos

  8. ASK says:

    Your media criticism appears to be having some effect here in Baltimore….

    http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-pann-climate-change-20130704,0,7894280.story

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