Interview as Train Wreck: Susan G. Komen Foundation meets Andrea Mitchell

Professionals in crisis communication will be talking about this interview for years. Watch the clip. (It's excruciating.) Read my analysis, which won't capture everything. Then add your observations in the comments.

3 Feb 2012 6:22 pm 87 Comments

Andrea Mitchell of NBC News interviews Nancy Brinker, CEO and founder of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, about the foundation’s decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood’s breast cancer screening programs:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Brinker was completely unprepared for this interview. She was placed in a situation that she seemed not to understand. Her estimation of her ability to re-describe an event that began two days earlier was wildly off base. To the degree that she had one, her message might be summarized as: “Forget what we said earlier, ignore what’s happening out there, for this is what I am saying now.” From her first words (“It’s a mischaracterization of our goals, our mission…”) Brinker communicated that she did not understand the forces that had brought her to MSNBC’s studios and put her in that chair opposite Andrea Mitchell.

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From the Expense Column to the Revenue Stream: Q & A With Tracy Samantha Schmidt

A young journalist for the Tribune Company becomes a product manager and money maker by acting entrepreneurially inside a large organization. Her big idea: Teaching the Web to the people formerly known as the advertisers.

31 Jan 2012 8:48 am 3 Comments

“Where’s the money going to come from?” has been the top question in journalism for several years now. Over the past four years, Tracy Samantha Schmidt, 27, has been on a journey into that question. She’s moved out of the expense column and into the revenue stream.
In 2008, Schmidt was a reporter with community manager duties at TribLocal, the Chicago Tribune’s hyperlocal play. (Before that she was a reporter and web producer at Time Magazine.) She became editorial director of ChicagoNow, the Tribune’s community blogging platform, in January of 2009. By November of 2010 she was brand manager and lead trainer at 435 Digital, a Tribune subsidiary. (“We help businesses grow through online marketing.”) There, she developed a series of classes in social media that made money. They also made customers for other Tribune services, which is called lead generation. In September, 2011 she was named manager of educational programs at Tribune Media Group; she is now developing classes for both Tribune readers and advertisers on a range of subjects.

A few metrics: ChicagoNow launched in August 2009. By May, 2010 it was doing 20 million page views monthly. That spring, ChicagoNow was named one of five “innovative websites that could reshape the news” by Mashable and Poynter. Today ChicagoNow is a network of more than 350 local blogs. Schmidt began doing social media classes for the Tribune in March 2011. Since then, she’s taught more than 2,000 people in classes and private seminars nationwide.

Journalism is going to need a lot more like her if it’s going to secure itself as a business. But I think they’re out there: talented young journalists who can help with the revenue puzzle, and who want to help solve it because they want journalism to survive. I was interested in how Tracy’s thinking had evolved and what she had learned by moving from a reporter’s role to a product manager’s, so I caught up with her for this interview.

PressThink: When you joined the Tribune Company you must have been aware of its perilous financial state. Thinking back to when you worked at TribLocal, what was your view then of “the business model” problem? Did it occupy your everyday thoughts? Or was it someone else’s problem?

Tracy Samantha Schmidt: Well, I didn’t think about the revenue model when I first got to Tribune. I was focused on content because that’s all I knew until then. I had been a journalist at Time Magazine in Washington and opted to take a buyout rather than transfer to New York. It was 2008 and everyone was talking about how journalism was falling apart. I moved back home to Chicago and learned about this incredible start-up at the Tribune called TribLocal and thought, that is the future of journalism– taking user generated content and integrating it into the printed newspaper.

PressThink: You were focused on the future of journalism, but that did not mean the future of the business?

Schmidt: It did not mean the future of the business to me at that point. I still didn’t understand how the media worked from a business perspective because I’d never been taught it, either as an undergrad journalism major or a graduate journalism student. I had a full understanding of being a reporter but I didn’t fully grasp how the paper was supported by a variety of revenue streams that were starting to decline.

PressThink: Well, what did you know about it?

Schmidt: I knew that circulation everywhere was in decline–both in newspapers and magazines–and that the media was now focused on making money online because that’s where advertisers were focusing. But that the challenge was most publications had given away so much content online for free, it was almost impossible to monetize it.

PressThink: The “when is online going to pay for my newsroom?” stage.

Schmidt: Yup.

PressThink: Editors at that time assumed that online revenue would somehow magically “catch-up.” They had not really reckoned with the transformation of advertising itself, the economics of abundance, or the unbundling of the newspaper product. I gather than none of those things were clear to you then, when you were at Trib Local, but all are front and center now. Would that be accurate?

Schmidt: TribLocal was actually a huge learning moment for me and was how I came up with the idea for what became ChicagoNow.

PressThink: Okay, explain that to me.

Schmidt: So essentially, my job at TribLocal was what we would today call a community manager. I went into the community and educated potential citizen journalists about our paper, about how they could post content and it might get published into the paper. And there was this one quilting bee in Downers Grove, IL where I explained to an audience of about 75 women that they could post their own stories, photos and event listings for free–and the best content would be published in a newspaper distributed with the Chicago Tribune.

Well these women just jumped at the thought and within a week, they were all posting to TribLocal and telling their friends. So I started thinking: how do we scale this across the city of Chicago and also scale it across Tribune Media Group, which owned the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, WGN TV and Radio and a few other brands.

PressThink: That’s partly a discovery of the residual power of a “print” brand, yes?

Schmidt: Oh, totally. I explained to these women that it wasn’t the Tribune, that it was a product delivered with the Tribune. But that didn’t matter. And I learned from our sales team at TribLocal that the small mom and pop stores wanted to advertise in the Chicago Tribune but couldn’t afford its rates. They wanted something also that was just for their suburb or the next suburb over. But they didn’t want to advertise online because they were either afraid of it or didn’t see the value, so the printed paper was brilliant because it provided ads to small local businesses.

PressThink: So this started you thinking about….?

Schmidt: So then I started thinking: could we create a social network for Tribune Media Group that would do three things. One, allow our readers and viewers to upload all kinds of user generated content (stories, photos, videos, events) that would be geotagged auotmatically. Two, could Tribune Media Group then use that content wherever it saw fit (in Tribune, in RedEye, in Hoy, on TV, on the radio) and Three, could we sell targeted ads based on what we know about the people posting and what they’re interested in. So that ultimately what we would have is a reinvention of how the company finds news, distributes content and ultimately monetizes it while engaging its audience. Also, a fourth point–it would bring about the customization of news, so that we could start creating custom products based on the data we have about individual readers.

PressThink: I want to present you with a quote from my friend Dan Gillmor: “I hope they’re going to find a way to reward the people who are doing the work. As I’ve said again and again, I’m not a fan of business models that say ‘You do all the work and we’ll take all the money, thank you very much.'” Did that worry you at all?

Schmidt: Absolutely.

PressThink: So…?

Schmidt: You can only get people submitting great content for so long. Usually they’re submitting it out of ego or to support a business or organization.

PressThink: What happens then?

Schmidt: They lose interest or they’re so great, they get jobs where they’re paid for their work. What’s more, contributors need to have a stake in it too. And what’s what we ultimately did at ChicagoNow.

PressThink: So how did Chicago Now propose to solve this problem?

Schmidt: I developed this social network idea in December 2008 and ended up emailing it to Bill Adee, then the digital editor of the Chicago Tribune. Within two minutes of my email, he wrote back and asked if I could meet him that day. I did and it turns out he had very similar ideas to my own

PressThink: That’s encouraging!

Schmidt: It was so surreal. We both had sketches of how our ideas would work and they practically matched. So within a month of our meeting, I moved downtown to Tribune Tower to work on ChicagoNow with Bill and the team he was putting together. Bill and Clark Bender, then the executive producer of ChicagoTribune.com, and I worked out the business model and the editorial policy of ChicagoNow. In a nutshell, we decided to start with recruiting bloggers to build an online community and ultimately, the site would grow into a social network over a year or two.

PressThink: What’s the difference between “an online community” and “a social network?”

Schmidt: I think a social network is where users have a lot of functionality–they can have full profile pages, they can friend each other or follow each other, etc. An online community is more a classic blog structure, where one person is leading the conversation by posts and everyone else can login to post comments to the original post.

PressThink: Okay, so you began with that aspiration at Chicago Now, and what did you learn?

Schmidt: So much. My job was to find and recruit bloggers to join the network. In the first three months, I personally interviewed over 100 bloggers. Bill and I did this together, actually, and what we learned was that the bloggers wanted full ownership of their content, they wanted to be paid, they didn’t want to be censored and they wanted to be published in the Chicago Tribune.

PressThink: Important lessons.

Schmidt: Very. So Bill and Clark put together a great contract with our lawyers that essentially gave the bloggers these things. The bloggers would be paid based on pageviews, but only local pageviews. That was key because from a business perspective, ChicagoNow was being created by Tribune to reach local audiences.

PressThink: Because there is traffic and there is traffic that has value.

Schmidt: Yes. And we had enough national traffic to provide our advertisers, but we needed content that was both local and by vertical. So we incentivized the bloggers to build local audience however they saw fit.

PressThink: Did it work?

Schmidt: It did. As in, the bloggers did a good job of creating local content and building a following here in Chicago.

PressThink: But…?

Schmidt: Well–

PressThink: What I have seen (I am involved in a hyper-local product, The Local East Village) is that the advertisers in that model need a lot of hand holding. And they may not be users of online news and information themselves. This presents special difficulties. Does your experience match that?

Schmidt: Yes, absolutely. And that’s what ultimately led me to my next position with 435 Digital.

PressThink: So explain how that happened.

Schmidt: At ChicagoNow, we saw that advertisers were very interested in a product that was so cutting edge. But they didn’t understand how it would help them get more customers. In several cases, advertisers didn’t even have websites to point customers to. How could they advertise on ChicagoNow? So Bill and another colleague, Bob McDonald, ended up creating a new business, 435 Digital, which is an in-house agency that provides websites, SEO and social media consulting for businesses.

PressThink: You realized you needed to teach the people formerly known as the advertisers. Correct?

Schmidt: Yes. So Bill asked me to move over to 435 Digital in October 2010 to work on its marketing campaign. He wanted me to write a blog about best practices for small business in the areas of SEO and social media. The blog was rolling along great. Meanwhile, I had been teaching several graduate classes at DePaul University on the intersection of social media and journalism. And on occasion, I would do a workshop for business people about understanding and using social media. So Bill asked me to test the concept of holding a class at Tribune Tower for our clients. Well, the classes started selling out.

PressThink: At how much a pop?

Schmidt: I started with very basic classes–like Intro to Facebook and Intro to Twitter. At the beginning, it was $50 for a 2 hour class held in a conference room at Tribune Tower. I literally brought the coffee in from Starbucks across the street and plugged my computer into a projector and put up Facebook and we walked through the site. Attendees asked for more classes on advanced topics– specifically using it for their businesses. We had no idea if it would work, or what it was, but by May, two months after I started, I was teaching two or three classes a week.

Tracy Schmidt teaches Facebook

PressThink: So you just began somewhere and iterated, correct? Which is the definition of a start-up.

Schmidt: It wasn’t quite a start-up, though. Again, I had the credibility of Tribune, and could run ads in our paper to promote the classes. I use that example to explain that print is not dead; 95 percent of people came to class because they saw an ad in the newspaper. So by May, I had developed four different classes: Intro to Facebook and Twitter, Facebook for Business, Social Media for Business, and Create Your Own Blog.

PresThink: And they were all making money?

Schmidt: Yes, each class was making about $800-$1500. Bill then sent me to other Tribune markets to teach those classes for their readers and clients. What’s more, each class acted as lead generation for 435 Digital.

PressThink: Other markets like…. where?

Schmidt: Baltimore for the Baltimore Sun and Ft. Lauderdale for the Orlando Sentinel.

PressThink: How did the classes turn into lead generation?

Schmidt: Well, business owners came to the classes because they knew that they had to understand what social media was. After taking a class, they would come up to me and say they needed more help: could they hire someone to set up their accounts or actually do the work of running a profile for them? So then I connected them to our sales team and the team took it from there.

PressThink: That’s a great discovery. Then you knew you had something, yes?

Schmidt: Yes. I also started getting asked to do private seminars for businesses that I would customize to their needs and deliver. So I did that throughout the summer of 2011, including for the National Association of Realtors and the National Association of Broadcasters.

PressThink: One part I want to zero in on is not only that these classes were a hit, and generated revenue and developed into lead generation, and also a second business providing private seminars, all of which is interesting and relevant, but also… how is it that you, Tracy, former reporter, knew enough about social media or Facebook to teach these classes? Where did that come from?

Schmidt: Well, I grew up with Facebook. It came to campus when I was in my third year of college. And as a reporter at Time in 2006, I used Facebook to find story ideas and promote my stories once they were published. I ended up even writing a few stories about social media and Facebook’s rise for Time, and I also used Facebook as a tool to find sources during breaking news stories, most notably the shootings at Virignia Tech in April 2007. I had also designed graduate classes around using social media as a reporter.

PressThink: It seems to me that if other news organizations are going to follow this model, and find a new source of revenue (one of many that they will need) then the key to it is to find an operating style, a way of doing business, a way of doing news and information, that teaches people in the organization skills that can then be sold to the people formerly known as the advertisers.

Schmidt: Yes! And that’s my current role. We realized that the social media classes were a hit at the Tribune. And then we said: well certainly there are a lot of experts in our company with knowledge to share on everything: market research, mobile development, graphic design, photography, writing and editing. Could we create a program that would deliver classes to the public–both readers and advertisers of the Tribune–on what are our “core competencies.”

PressThink: And could you?

Schmidt: So now my job as Educational Programs Manager at Tribune Media Group is identifying and executing classes on a range of subjects using our employees as the experts. Ultimately, we’d like to deliver the majority of these classes online.

PressThink: Right, so the question there is: does the Tribune Company, by operating as a 21st century media company, build up domain knowledge that is valuable to the people formerly known as the advertisers, as well as the public? And your guesstimate is…. that it does?

Schmidt: Yes. But then again, any company that has a strong brand and credibility has the capacity to offer these classes to the public. What is unique about the Tribune is we can reach massive audiences easily. What I can tell you, too, is that this model also can act as a lead generation for our entire company, in that someone might walk in the door and learn something, i.e. social media, and realize they first need a website to execute their social media strategy. And the Tribune can build that website for them. So you could apply that to all kinds of things and it has a big potential to scale. Also, another revenue model is attaching corporate sponsors to these classes. And that’s an avenue we’re exploring with lots of interest from advertisers.

PressThink: How does that work?

Schmidt: Well, an advertiser wants to reach 100 small local business owners, they can sponsor the class and have their brand attached to signage and handouts. And maybe get 5 minutes during break to tell the audience about their company.

PressThink: An advertiser like… who?

Schmidt: In Ft. Lauderdale, we did a six-seminar series over the course of three days for readers and advertisers of the Orlando Sentinel. Our colleagues at that paper secured a sponsorship from Comcast Business Class for all six seminars.

PressThink: Have you been watching what other media companies have been doing in these areas? The New York Times has classes, and others like The Economist are trying to generate revenue from events.

Schmidt: Yes, the New York Times is a leader in the space. And we’ve been offering classes like that for almost a year now with some of our columnists. Part of my new role is also scaling that program and offering it online as well.

PressThink: Where the costs are lower?

Schmidt: A bit lower but probably not by too much since we hope to allow participants to ask questions in real time. I should add, though, that I see big demand for social media classes in person. It’s hard enough to learn social media in person; through a computer it’s even harder.

PressThink: “Presence” counts. That is one thing we have learned.

Schmidt: Absolutely. I’m interested in how media companies can take advantage of the “experience economy” and create live experiences that educate or entertain their readers. In the last two years, the Chicago Tribune has created an entire live events program. One about policy issues, one about sports, and another a live radio show done in conjunction with Second City.

PressThink: Taking all of this in, what does a news brand turn out to be? What have you learned about the “hidden” value of a news brand?

Schmidt: A news brand is about credibility and trust. When readers, contributors or advertisers hear that the Chicago Tribune is attached to a new product, they know that it will have integrity. And they at least consider the product, even if ultimately they decide it’s not for them.

PressThink: Well, that’s the way we have always thought about brands.

Schmidt: I think that it’s important to still put out the product the brand is known for. In our case the Chicago Tribune is our anchor, and it gives us the freedom to explore other ways of distributing the news and monetizing it.

PressThink: Looking back now over the whole story, from when you were a reporter for Time living “off” the business model without worrying about it, to the present, where you are directly involved in generating revenue, how has your view of journalism changed as you have moved from one responsibility to another?

Schmidt: I still think like a reporter wherever I go. I ask hard questions and look at things from different angles. That helps a lot in thinking up new ways of doing things. But it also makes me think about integrity and ethics in business. As in, if we made a business decision and it was a bad one, how would that affect the integrity of the work our colleagues are doing in the newsroom? I still don’t disclose my political beliefs on Facebook, for example. I suppose I could now that I’m no longer a practicing journalist, but I don’t think I will.

PressThink: That’s an argument for sending more journalists over to what used to be called “the business side.” Isn’t it?

Schmidt: Absolutely. One idea I’ve toyed a lot with lately is how do we reinvent journalism schools.

PressThink: They need it!

Schmidt: We could we create an apprenticeship program within media companies wherein college students learn the trade and they teach older employees about technology and social media. So it’s like a generational exchange. Journalism students absolutely need to learn about the business side of the media. I wish I had learned it in school myself.

PressThink: Some of my own graduate students in Studio 20 gravitate to these management puzzles. They want to learn how to sustain journalism by being responsible for the business. Tracy, thanks for taking the time.

Schmidt: Thank you, Jay.

Agnew’s Resentment Machine: Six Data Points About Culture War and The Campaign Press

The conservative movement's warmaking around the "liberal media" is a joke to the people who are actually running for president as conservatives.

23 Jan 2012 10:03 am 16 Comments

Data point 1. Vice President Spiro Agnew, speech delivered at Des Moines, Iowa, November 13, 1969

A raised eyebrow, an inflection of the voice, a caustic remark dropped in the middle of a broadcast can raise doubts in a million minds about the veracity of a public official, or the wisdom of a government policy. One Federal Communications Commissioner considers the power of the networks to equal that of local, state, and federal governments combined. Certainly, it represents a concentration of power over American public opinion unknown in history.

What do Americans know of the men who wield this power? Of the men who produce and direct the network news, the nation knows practically nothing. Of the commentators, most Americans know little, other than that they reflect an urbane and assured presence, seemingly well informed on every important matter.

We do know that, to a man, these commentators and producers live and work in the geographical and intellectual confines of Washington, D.C. or New York City–the latter of which James Reston terms the “most unrepresentative community in the entire United States.” Both communities bask in their own provincialism, their own parochialism. We can deduce that these men thus read the same newspapers, and draw their political and social views from the same sources. Worse, they talk constantly to one another, thereby providing artificial reinforcement to their shared viewpoints.

… The views of this fraternity do not represent the views of America. That is why such a great gulf existed between how the nation received the President’s address–and how the networks reviewed it.

Agnew’s speech is one of the founding documents for the conservative movement’s mighty resentment machine. The most telling words are “they reflect an urbane and assured presence, seemingly well informed on every important matter.” They being the journalists and pundits one sees on television: unelected, unaccountable, unrepresentative know-it-alls. Therefore suitable for despising and generating resentment, but also a standing reason why the rest of the country remains unpersuaded: “A raised eyebrow, an inflection of the voice, a caustic remark dropped in the middle of a broadcast can raise doubts in a million minds.” You can explain almost any defeat that way… and generate more resentment.

Data point 2. New Gingrich, speaking Saturday night in South Carolina after his victory in the primary:

So many people [feel] that The elites in Washington and New York have no understanding, no care, no concern, no reliability and in fact do not represent them at all. In the two debates we had here, in Myrtle Beach and in Charleston, where people reacted so strongly to the news media, I think it was something very fundamental that I wish the powers that be in the news media would take seriously. The American people feel that they have elites who have been trying for a half century to force us to quit being American and become some other kind of other system.

Notice how Gingrich goes beyond Agnew. “They” are not only unelected, unaccountable and unrepresentative, but un-American. And not only that, they’re trying to force America to change into something other than itself.

Data point 3. Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt interviewing Ryan Lizza, campaign reporter for The New Yorker.

HH: …Here’s the absurdity. The Republicans are selecting their nominee on the basis of debates moderated by George Stephanopoulos and David Gregory, who are very left wing guys, and on the votes of independents in Iowa, and independents and Democrats who reregistered in New Hampshire, all as mediated through the very conservative electorate of South Carolina. It doesn’t make any sense at all.

RL: Now first of all, I would disagree that Stephanopoulos and Gregory are very left wing guys. I mean, Michael Moore is a very left wing guy. David Gregory is not a very left wing guy.

HH: No, Hugo Chavez is a very left wing guy.

RL: (laughing)

HH: When you’ve got guns, you’re very left wing.

RL: Look, the Republican Party is extremely skeptical of the mainstream media. I won’t argue there. So it is a little strange that they’ve become, in this campaign, so reliant. I think probably, I don’t know this for sure, but I’ve been trying to figure out why is it that all these candidates agreed to do so many debates. You know, you don’t have to show up.

Here we have one of the most under-covered stories of the 2012 campaign. If the Republican candidates believed the culture war wing of their own party, if they credited it with any genuine insight, if they respected its critique of the journalistic profession, if they thought there was a solid core of truth there, they would not have agreed to participate in debates where the questions are asked by such ideological opponents as Wolf Blitzer and John King of CNN, Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos of ABC, David Gregory and Brian Williams of NBC, John Harwood of CNBC and the New York Times and on and on. As Hewitt said: Hey, these guys are left wing! It doesn’t make any sense!

Unless… the candidates see the culture war wing of their party as a useful idiot– wrong about what journalists are up to, but valuable for keeping the press in line. Then the debate thing does make sense. The candidates participate because they can predict the questions. They know they’ll be able to get their message out and reach people who don’t watch Fox. And the resentment machine is right there at their fingertips: just attack the questioner and score some points. Notice, then, how conservative culture warriors wail about it, but don’t try to explain this basic weirdness: candidates vying for the title of head conservative voluntarily submit themselves to questioning from the enemies of the conservative state!

My view: even Newsbusters knows their critique is a joke. They’re just working the refs, and raising money off their Agnewisms. And it’s a pretty sweet gig. Brent Bozell’s 2010 salary: $423,000. He should be raging at the Republican candidates for legitimizing the David Gregorys and John Harwoods of the world. That’s what a real activist would do. Instead we have Hugh Hewitt whining to a New Yorker writer: It’s absurd!!

Don’t you see the comedy? This is why I say it’s a great story going uncovered. Conservative candidates treat their culture warriors as know-nothings: fools and tools.

Data point 4. New York magazine political correspondent John Heilemann on MSNBC Saturday night. (Hat tip, Balllon Juice.)

“This is the first big unexpected, kind of dramatic victory. And Gingrich is going to get so much free media attention in the next few days, it is going to be wall to wall Gingrich, and I think it is fair to say, that the “liberal media,” as Gingrich would put it, is rooting for Gingrich right now. They want this ra.. they/we, want this race to go on, so he is gonna have, he is gonna get more attention and in some ways more favorable coverage, at least for the next couple days than he would ordinarily from people who normally would give him tougher scrutiny… He’s going to ride a big wave out of here.”

Right. Because the press is a political actor whose moves are constrained by an official prohibition on acting politically. I want you to read the sentence in italics again. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

Now that we know what kind of actor the press is (one whose moves are constrained by an official prohibition on acting politically…) we can agree with John Heilemann: Gingrich will benefit from a wave of momentum-izing press attention, which could seriously affect his numbers. But it’s not that journalists have made a political judgment that Gingrich is a plausible president or bought the arguments for his candidacy. Rather, they feel fine boosting his chances–and providing him with free mind share that his competition will have to buy–because they have a sufficiently non-political reason for doing it: A surprising turn in the narrative, or as Heilman put it, “the first big unexpected, kind of dramatic victory.”

That makes it okay to root for Newt from the press box because what you’re expressing is only your love of a good story. That’s not political. It’s story logic. Therefore you can act, and tell everyone watching MSNBC that you and your colleagues are going to act in a way that could affect the race. Get it? (Update: Heilemann expanded on his observation in this piece.) To understand political journalism, American style, you need the production of innocence or your calculations will go wrong. The producers of political news need to constantly reproduce their own innocence, and a lot of what they do can be explained by this dual demand.

Data point 5. Newt Gingrich and the press: Secret pals, a story that ran Sunday on Politico.

The same candidate who on Thursday decried “the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media” shows another face to the cadre of reporters who follow his campaign day-to-day. He jokes with them, publicly celebrates their birthdays, teases them about the early hour they are often forced out of bed to cover his events.

It’s not unusual for Gingrich to chat with reporters, off-the-record, in the hotel restaurant at the end of a long day on the campaign trail — and he engages them to a degree that’s unheard of on the other campaigns.

…Gingrich acknowledged to ABC News in December that he appreciates the crew that chronicles his every move and follows the same grueling schedule.

“I actually identify with the people who are the embeds,” Gingrich said. “Also, we have really nice people. I mean all the guys who are hanging out with me are nice. I don’t know about the other campaigns.”

“I’ve just been struck with the good humor of the group,” Gingrich told ABC.

See what I mean? The conservative movement’s warmaking around the liberal media is a joke to the people actually running for president as conservatives. Yes, it brings supporters to their feet. It permits a skilled candidate ready access to Agnew’s resentment machine. It works the refs. It raises money for the cause. But to actually live by the logic of that critique on the campaign trail? That would be too costly and kind of dumb.

For these people are not adversaries. (“I’ve just been struck with the good humor of the group.”) And they are not going to be forcing any confrontations along the lines of: “Mister Speaker, do you really think that we and our colleagues in the national media are trying to force the country to become something un-American? On what grounds do you make this charge? How would we even accomplish that?” This would sound unsavvy. It would show the political world that the questioner does not know how the game is played.

Data point 6. Chuck Todd commenting on Stephen Colbert’s SuperPac. (For the background, see this.)

“Is it fair to the process? Yes, the process is a mess, but he’s doing it in a way that it feels as if he’s trying to influence it with his own agenda, that may be anti-Republican. And we in the media are covering it as a schtick and a satire, but it’s like, ‘Well wait a minute here…’ he’s also trying to do his best to marginalize the Republican candidates, in a way, and we’re participating in that marginalization. We in the mainstream media need to be careful and wonder: what is he up to? What is his real agenda here? Is it to educate the public about the dangers of money in politics and what’s going on? Or is it simply to marginalize the Republican party?

Chuck Todd, NBC’s lead guy in analyzing the 2012 campaign, is concerned that he and his colleagues are helping to legitimize Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. These men, according to Todd, aren’t just trying to win laughs, expose stupidity and educate their viewers about the absurdity of campaign finance. (You gotta watch these two clips…) No, says Chuck, the two comedians also have an agenda–he would never say that about a fellow journalist, would he?–and that agenda is to “marginalize the Republican candidates.”

We in the news media shouldn’t help them do that, says Todd. We should be more careful. And we should try to hold Colbert and Stewart accountable for their attempts to weaken the Republican field. No more free pass! Todd goes on to say that he “idolizes” the United States Senate and he didn’t appreciate Colbert making a mockery of the Congress by appearing before a committee in character.

So is Chuck Todd one of those “elites who have been trying for a half century to force us to quit being American and become some other kind of other system?” (Gingrich’s words.) I somehow doubt it.

So whaddaya think: should we put truthtelling back up there at number one?

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.

12 Jan 2012 2:05 pm 126 Comments

Brisbane’s post, Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante? exploded onto the web today, startling user after user, and journalist after journalist, all of whom reacted with some version of: Why is this even a question? Alright, I’ll tell you why.

Brisbane wrote: “I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” For example:

On the campaign trail, Mitt Romney often says President Obama has made speeches “apologizing for America,” a phrase to which Paul Krugman objected in a December 23 column arguing that politics has advanced to the “post-truth” stage.

As an Op-Ed columnist, Mr. Krugman clearly has the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie. My question for readers is: should news reporters do the same?

If so, then perhaps the next time Mr. Romney says the president has a habit of apologizing for his country, the reporter should insert a paragraph saying, more or less:

“The president has never used the word ‘apologize’ in a speech about U.S. policy or history. Any assertion that he has apologized for U.S. actions rests on a misleading interpretation of the president’s words.”

Brisbane said he gets a lot of mail from “readers who, fed up with the distortions and evasions that are common in public life, look to The Times to set the record straight. They worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.” Then he got to the meat of his question, which was to us, the users.

Is that the prevailing view? And if so, how can The Times do this in a way that is objective and fair? Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another? Are there other problems that The Times would face that I haven’t mentioned here?

The comments at Brisbane’s blog post are blistering. They reveal the deep divide between “traditionalists” in the press, of which is Brisbane is one, and current users. I will just quote one to give you the tone. Matt Talbot in California: “That this should even be an open question is a sign that our supposedly independent press is a cowed and timid shadow of its former self.”

There will be plenty more said about this column because a lot led up to it. For now I want make one observation, and let that stand as my reaction.

Something happened in our press over the last 40 years or so that never got acknowledged and to this day would be denied by a majority of newsroom professionals. Somewhere along the way, truthtelling was surpassed by other priorities the mainstream press felt a stronger duty to. These include such things as “maintaining objectivity,” “not imposing a judgment,” “refusing to take sides” and sticking to what I have called the View from Nowhere.

No one knows exactly how it happened, for it’s not like a policy decision came down at some point. Rather, the drift of professional practice over time was to bracket or suspend sharp questions of truth and falsehood in order to avoid charges of bias, or excessive editorializing. Journalists felt better, safer, on firmer professional ground–more like pros–when they stopped short of reporting substantially untrue statements as false. One way to describe it (and I believe this is the correct way) is that truthtelling moved down the list of newsroom priorities. Other things now ranked ahead of it.

But wait a minute: how can telling the truth ever take a back seat in the serious business of reporting the news? That’s like saying medical doctors no longer put “saving lives” or “the health of the patient” ahead of securing payment from insurance companies. It puts the lie to the entire contraption. It devastates journalism as a public service and honorable profession.

And so officially, this event (“truthtelling moved down the list of newsroom priorities”) never occurred, even though in reality it did. Because no one was ready for that devastation. Therefore no reckoning (wait: how could this happen?) ever took place. Denial was successfully maintained, even as criticism built and journalists inside the fraternity announced what was happening. Professional practice even shifted to take account of the drift.

Arthur Brisbane, public editor of the New York Times, skipped onto this scene seemingly unaware of these events. And he basically blurted out what I just explained to you when he asked the users of the New York Times: so whaaddaya think… should we put truthtelling back up there at number one?

Yes, that is what he said. Look at his post again. He tells us that readers are “fed up with the distortions and evasions” and they “look to The Times to set the record straight.” This seems to be their number one priority, he muses. “They worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.” (Which is what always stopped us before.) And so Brisbane wants to know: should we run with that? It would mean changing our practices, but we could do it. Hey, what do you guys think?

And then came the reply, which was… devastating.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…

UPDATE: September 16, 2012: Margaret Sullivan, the new public editor at the New York Times writes a landmark column: He Said, She Said, and the Truth. “The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership — and the democracy — will be,” she writes. But some of the Times editors have a very different view.

Arthur Brisbane reacts to the reactions to his post. “I often get very well-reasoned complaints and questions from readers, but in this case a lot of people responded to a question I was not asking…”

I have to say I did not expect that so many people would interpret me to have asked only: should The Times print the truth and fact-check? Of course, The Times should print the truth, when it can be found, and fact-check.

What I was trying to ask was whether reporters should always rebut dubious facts in the body of the stories they are writing. I was hoping for diverse and even nuanced responses to what I think is a difficult question.

And Jason Linkins reacts to him:

Brisbane seems to think that this should force everyone to rethink their original response, somehow. In addition, he apparently had the expectation that readers would provide “diverse” and “nuanced” responses to a question that basically boils down to, “Should the stuff we put in the body of our stories be, like, true and junk?”

My colleague Clay Shirky, writing in The Guardian:

[Brisbane] is evidently so steeped in newsroom culture that he does not understand – literally, does not understand, as we know from his subsequent clarifications – that this is not a hard question at all, considered from the readers’ perspective. Readers do not care about the epistemological differences between lies and weasel words; we want newspapers to limit the ability of politicians to make dubious assertions without penalty. Judging from the reactions to his post, most of us never understood that this wasn’t the newspapers’ self-conceived mission in the first place.

Glenn Greenwald’s point is that the failure to challenge dubious assertions isn’t random. There’s a pattern to it.

The Atlantic rounds up stunned reactions and includes a brief interview with me: Yes, The New York Times Should Definitely Be a Truth Vigilante.

A blogger at National Review conforms to type. Machine could have written it.

Amusing: Should Vanity Fair Be a Spelling Vigilante?

At Poynter: Incredulity meets the public editor’s column.

Climate change blogger Joe Romm: “If the NYT actually thinks that a newsmaker has made a false or misleading statement, then it has two easy options: debunk it or not print it in the first place! This second point is apparently something that never dawns on Brisbane at all.” (Link.)

James Fallows says we should look on the bright side. “Apparently naive questions can often be the start of quite penetrating and profound explorations.”

Bill Keller, until recently the executive editor of the New York Times, reacts to Brisbane’s column. “I wonder if Art hasn’t confused matters a bit by his choice of examples…” He draws a good distinction.

Jill Ambramson, current executive editor of the Times, responds to Brisbane:

In your blog, you ask “whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” Of course we should and we do. The kind of rigorous fact-checking and truth-testing you describe is a fundamental part of our job as journalists.

We do it every day, in a variety of ways. On the most ambitious level, we sometimes do entire stories that delve into campaigns to distort the truth. On a day to day basis, we explore the candidates’ actions to see if what they’ve done squares with what they are saying now…

Crikey wishes this debate would come to Australia. “It’s merely to state the bleeding obvious that he-said-she-said is deeply embedded in our journalistic culture.”

Metafilter’s post: Duh. The comments, as always, are great.

David Westphal, former head of the McClatchy Washington bureau, says in the comments that “the pendulum is now swinging the other way.”

I’m guessing most journalists now believe (or soon will) that it’s their sworn duty to baldly call out false and misleading statements. You see reporters writing a lot more sentences like this in their stories: “This is not true.”

But is this sort of thing sufficient? Or should there be a quantum shift in news organizations’ resources to the identification of bogus assertions and errant beliefs? You can imagine an edition of the Times replete with stories, fact-checking features, etc., where that was the main point.

Maybe this is what Art Brisbane was getting at: Where does calling out lies and distortions rank among news organizations’ many roles? It’s obviously very low now. Is that where it should be?

My guess, now that we’re coming to our senses about the stupidity of claiming neutral ground while the BS flies, is that we’ll find it needs to rank much higher.

“Our mission is to find the truth, report it and defend it,” writes Robert Niles. “Don’t like the results? Challenge us with your own data. We’ll shoot it out and see who’s left standing.”

Related: PressThink, The production of innocence.

Greg Sargent at the Washingtonpost.com responds: What are newspapers for?

The Times itself has amplified the assertion — made by Romney and Rick Perry — that Obama has apologized for America, without any rebuttal, at least three times: Here, here, and here. I urge Brisbane to check them out. If he does, he’ll see that any Times customer reading them comes away misled. He or she is left with the mistaken impression that Obama may have, in fact, apologized for America, when he never did any such thing.

In other words, in all those three cases, the Times helped the GOP candidate mislead its own readers — with an assertion that has become absolutely central to the Republican case against Obama. Whatever the practical difficulties of changing this, surely we can all agree that this is not a role newspapers should be playing, particularly at a time when voters are choosing their next president.

Anthony Moor, director of editorial operations at Yahoo and formerly deputy managing editor at the Dallas Morning News, in the comments:

As a journalist myself, I lament our profession’s decades-long somnolence as members of the political and business class employ ever more crafty polemical and propaganda techniques to sway public opinion… In the face of reckless attacks on our credibility and mission, journalists have retreated into a defensive, hide-bound embrace of “objectivity” at the expense of authority and truth. We’ve gazed at our collective navels, wondering, “who are we to question?” and “don’t they have a right to respond?” rather than striking back with what should be our unassailable weapon: Seek truth and report it.

Jack Shafer for Reuters:

Because editors and reporters generally don’t have the guts to take abuse directly from readers, they employ ombudsmen and public editors like Brisbane as their shields: The ombudsman exists primarily to take in the face whatever rotten fruit, bean balls and shards of broken glass that angry readers want to heave at the editors and reporters who produce the newspaper. The ombudsman is a safety valve that prevents reader fury from exploding, a way for the newspaper to say “we listen.” And today, as the gashes on his face prove, Brisbane is earning his pay.

It’s time to completely change the way the ombudsmen do their job, says Dan Gillmor.

Voice of San Diego makes clear where it stands: Why We Consider Ourselves Truth Vigilantes.

We really don’t like “he said, she said” journalism. We don’t consider ourselves stenographers for public officials or the powerful. We have an active responsibility to you to not pass along junk information. So we make it a priority to write with authority and determine, as best we can, what is true.

The NPR ombudsman supports Brisbane, referencing an earlier exchange I had with him about the same issue in NPR reporting. See: We Have No Idea Who’s Right.

Finally, Art Brisbane, the Times public editor, in a follow-up column tells us where he comes down on reporters fact checking the claims they are reporting: an abundance of caution is required. Also, the furor over his earlier item was not worth addressing, except in the most superficial way.

Too Much Innovation at the Washington Post? My Q & A with the Post’s Ombudsman

"I am not a person who thinks the fundamentals of journalism have changed that much, despite social media. Of course it's more conversational, engaging. And the online world has changed reporting somewhat, but not fundamentally."

10 Jan 2012 2:02 pm 13 Comments

This week the ombudsman of the Washington Post wrote: Is The Post innovating too fast? The column wonders if the Post newsroom is trying too many new things at too great a rate. The kind of people who read PressThink, Poynter.org and Nieman Lab didn’t know what to make of it.

Rob Curley did. He said on Twitter. “I adore the WaPo, but this is foolish and possibly even irresponsible.” Curley is the new media editor at the Las Vegas Sun, and he used to be the Post’s Vice President of Product Development in the interactive division.

“As someone who has led Post’s digital content initiatives over the past three years, I actually wish it were true that we have too much innovation at the Post,” said the Post’s managing editor for digital, Raju Narisetti. But it is not true, he added.

Over at GigaOm, Mathew Ingram said the Post should be going faster, not easing up.

I felt that Patrick Pexton’s column didn’t really explain what he was getting at, so I asked for an interview. Today I caught up with him by gchat; this is our exchange.

PressThink: You wondered aloud in your recent column whether the Post might be trying too much innovation and exhausting the staff, along with the patience of its readers. You quoted a couple of readers saying things to that effect, but I’m guessing that a series of observations over time led up to that column. So what were those observations?

Pexton: Yes, good guess. I think No. 1 is the lack of progress at The Post in getting the Web site to download faster for readers. This has been, and is, such a technological challenge, that readers probably mistakenly blame the new innovations for that, when in fact it’s the technological infrastructure, and the tremendous addition of ad plug-ins, etc. that make the site slow to load.

But I think that the innovations, many of which I support, should be done more selectively, and maybe slow down a little until they get the Web site problems fixed. The @mention machine was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back, for me, and for readers.

PressThink: So your point is that the innovation is coming on top of a “base” that isn’t functioning well, symbolized by the agonizingly slow load times on the site (which I have groaned about myself.) Is that correct?

Pexton: Yes.

PressThink: As you know, Managing editor Raju Narisetti replied to your column. He said: “The Post’s future is going to play out at the intersection of technology and content because we have to continue to build loyalty and engagement on the Web, on mobile devices and in social media, the only places where readership will grow. Because of that, our newsroom — both in its thinking and structure — needs to be in a relatively permanent ‘beta’ mode as we learn, adapt and lead. This isn’t change for change sake.” He is essentially saying: get used to it, this is the way it’s going to be and has to be, if the Post is to survive and thrive. It may well be exhausting but there is no alternative.

I know from reading you that you’re not a reflexive defender of the old ways. And I think we can stipulate that no one knows how much innovation is enough. So can we pinpoint where your views and Raju’s diverge?

Pexton: Good question. I am much more a modernist than traditionalist, yes, and I agree with Raju that a lot of innovation needs to happen, and I don’t mind experimentation to see what works and what does not. That’s admirable. I just think there’s a bit too little thought to the kind of innovation that is being done and for what purpose.

I had a conversation with an editor this week, who attended a story planning meeting, and the editor said that three fourths of the discussion was on what kind of videos, photo galleries, and online polls to do and almost no discussion of the story’s written focus and direction. It’s all distracting. Some of it is absolutely necessary, but I think a bit more focus on the reporting first, then come in with the add ons later.

PressThink: So maybe what you’re really saying is not that there’s too much innovation being tried but too weak a narrative for how The Post can innovate at the center of its mission and strengths. After all, if innovation means adds ons–bells and whistles–that threaten to detract from the core strengths, that won’t get it done, either… right?

Pexton: Correct. I think, and I’ve commented on this in other columns, that the journalistic direction is not well laid out here, or at least not sufficiently to put the innovations in a framework.

PressThink: “Do everything” is a weak narrative about what needs to change.

Pexton: Yes. What’s the Post’s narrative? I know what the official strategy is, but that’s more of a business strategy than a journalistic one.

PressThink: This is why I like working for John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media, a combine of Journal Register Company and Media News newspapers. He has a simple narrative for this transition period newspapers have to undergo: Digital First. It sounds like a buzzword to some, but it isn’t. It means shifting away from print as the production god, the giver of laws, so that the printed edition becomes an outcome of what you are doing digitally, including interactions with users. Is there any over-arching concept like that at the Post?

Pexton: Well, that’s interesting. But 80 percent of the Post’s revenue still comes from print circulation (home subscriptions, newsstand sales, and print advertising) and the rest from online ads and such. Traffic to the Post’s Web site is steadily climbing–great, we all want to see that–but online revenue isn’t. Some of these innovations are alienating print readers.

In terms of an overarching concept– the Post should be the indispensable guide to Washington is the official strategy. I don’t quibble with that. But how does the journalism fit into that? Too many things in Washington that would be of concern to national, even worldwide readers, of the Post are not covered well. Other things are covered too much.

PressThink: One sees the problem. As a print product, the Post is a local newspaper. As a digital product, it should be national and international. Only a powerful and creative story can bring those things together. “The indispensable guide to Washington…” may not be it. But I want to challenge you about something you just said.

Pexton: Sure.

PressThink: I get that the revenue is still coming from print and the print readers are feeling less well-served, and that’s a problem. But no one that I know of has any data saying that the born-on-the-web generation will be print subscribers. And print advertising continues to decline, so… Isn’t the heart of the challenge here to leverage those remaining revenues into a digital future?

Pexton: Yes, I agree. But the pace of that conversion needs to be monitored very closely. Some of the Post’s financial base, for the next decade, maybe two, will be the print subscribers–we’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue there, whereas web ads are tens of millions. To keep this a solid regional newspaper, where a lot of revenue still is and will remain, the Post I think has to cover local news better. If a Web innovation adds another million unique visitors per month, but that’s done at the expense of five fewer local reporters, then the net effect on the Post’s revenue, for now, is negative.

PressThink: Melanie Sill, former editor of the Sacramento Bee, also replied to your column at her blog:

“Most newspapers are stuck in the late 20th century formulas, scarcely varied across the country, for section concepts (even names) and types of coverage. These conventions, moreover, carry over into digital forms, and only in the past couple of years have we begun to see new forms made only for digital channels… As someone who spent too much time reassuring readers that newspapers weren’t really changing, I wish now that I’d invested that energy instead in discussing the goals of change and enlisting readers as advisers with a stake in the paper’s future…. I’ve spoken with eight or 10 former top editors in the course of the last few months, some retired and others working in new jobs in media. From each I heard a version of the same regrets: looking back, they wished they’d pushed harder, focused more on the world outside newsrooms and responded more boldly to the opportunities and challenges of digital shift.”

Her argument interests me. She’s saying that newspaper journalists who came up during the age of print have the wrong metric; what seems dramatic to them isn’t nearly enough. And she’s warning that reader complaints are inherently conservative because no one who has developed the newspaper habit wants her newspaper to change. That’s why she says: instead of heeding their complaints about change, enlist them in the planning for a different product. Is she wrong?

Pexton: I read her post. The Post internally is actually talking about this problem of sections and such right now. They’re finding that the landing pages for sections (Style, Local, Entertainment, business etc) aren’t working very well, except for the home page, and politics. So some thought is going into how to do this online better. Perhaps that might lead to different printed sections later too. That’s good thinking, and smart thinking.

Yes, readers are conservative, I listen to them all day long, but not as conservative as people think. They’re ready for change, most of them, but smart change. But all this thinking about a digital future has to be kept in the context of what is a good news story, what do people want to know. Involving readers in that more is absolutely appropriate.

PressThink: Ombudsman often annoy or grate on the newsrooms they monitor, but my guess–and it’s just that, a guess–is that your column on innovation got a lot of warm responses from the Post staff. Am I wrong?

Pexton: You are absolutely correct. I was a bit surprised how many Post staffers complimented me on it. And some of them are not traditionalists, but modernists.

PressThink: I have been wanting to ask you this for a while: What is a print journalist?

Pexton: I think we should not talk about print or digital journalists. I think we’re all journalists. We should all use the modern technologies to convey our reporting, our analysis, our quick hit news, our deeper thoughts. Writers and editors, in an ideal world, should shift back and forth and be both.

I am not a person who thinks the fundamentals of journalism have changed that much, despite social media. Of course it’s more conversational, engaging, and such. And the online world has changed reporting, somewhat, but not fundamentally. A journalists jobs is to report and write on the things that affect people’s lives. I really think we need to integrate better the training of young reporters and editors so there is not a print/digital divide. Web reporters should go off and cover county council meetings just as print reporters should.

PressThink: Ever considered the counter-argument? The users position, in an online world, is fundamentally different, and because of that, the journalist’s job has to change and may even change in some ways that are radically disruptive.

Pexton: How is the user’s position fundamentally different? I don’t see it.

PressThink: Because on the web every page is within reach of every user, and that condition has absolutely no parallel in the age of print.

Pexton: But they’ll come to the sources they trust. Competition is tougher, yes, all the more reason to be solid in your reporting and elegant in your writing.

PressThink: Okay, final question: Have you ever thought that maybe the ombudsman job itself needs innovation? I don’t mean adding a blog or starting a podcast but something more akin to reconstructive surgery?

Pexton: I’m open to suggestions. I do a lot of troubleshooting that I never write about, maybe I should write about some of these internal struggles more. But I think you’re thinking bigger.

PressThink: Well, one of the revolutions we’ve seen is in the reader’s ability to reach the Post. By pushing on that, the reader’s representative, or ombudsman, could wield a lot more data, and out of that data might come new ways of “representing” readers and fighting on their behalf. That’s one direction to go in. But it is not a fully formed thought.

Pexton: Yes, I concur. Then The Post must agree to share with me all of its internal data on traffic, hits, what kinds of stories do well, and what don’t. And so far, with the exception of limited access, I don’t have that.

PressThink: That’s a shame. Patrick, thanks very much.

Pexton: You’re welcome, Jay. Happy to do it.

A Viewer’s Guide to Iowa Caucus Coverage

"The Iowa Caucuses are presented as a news event, a mini-election with an informational outcome, a winner. But what they really are is a ritual, the gathering of a tribe, which affirms itself and its place in our political system by staging this thing every four years."

3 Jan 2012 6:53 pm 10 Comments

I have been observing and commenting on campaign coverage for 24 years, ever since I read Joan Didion’s world-beating essay, Insider Baseball, which I recommend to you as preparation for tonight’s coverage of the Iowa Caucuses.

Here I want to offer you two different ways of thinking about what campaign coverage is. The distinction I unfold in this post will, I hope, prove useful as you take in the Caucus chatter tonight. And do keep in mind that no delegates for the Republican nomination are at stake. That’s right! The correct number is zero: “The Iowa caucuses will award no delegates to any candidate.”

So here is my distinction: The Iowa Caucuses are presented as a news event, a mini-election with an informational outcome, a winner. But what they really are is a ritual, the gathering of a professional tribe, which affirms itself and its place in our political system by staging this thing every four years. The tribe I have in mind is this one:

At the zoo that is the Iowa Caucus, the lobby bar in the downtown Des Moines Marriott is like a communal watering hole where roving packs of reporters, political hacks, and even candidates assemble nightly to drain drinks and exchange political gossip. New arrivals can cause heads to turn, like when Jill Abramson and Maureen Dowd entered the bar around 7:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve before hosting a dinner for New York Times staffers. A few moments later, Mitt Romney sparked chatter when he hustled by the front desk pulling his own roller bag, looking like the Bain consultant road warrior he once was.

Last night, it was Buzzfeed’s new editor-in-chief Ben Smith who occupied the room’s attention as he mingled through the lobby, talking with Esquire writer Charlie Pierce and Drudge’s deputy Charlie Hurt, among others…

The Caucuses are primarily about that. But they’re presented as opening day in a season that belongs to the voters.

Let’s get right to my distinction. It is between a “transmission” and a “ritual” model of news and communication. My guide in these matters is the media scholar James W. Carey, who died in 2006. He was our greatest journalism professor ever, though few of his countrymen know anything about him.

In his most famous essay, “A Cultural Approach to Communication,” Carey identifies “two alternative conceptions of communication” that have influenced American thought since the term entered our discourse in the nineteenth century. One he calls a “transmission view,” so common as to almost be common sense. Here, communication means the delivery of “messages” or “news” across distance. Typically, the messages are of an informational sort, and they are assumed to be important for making decisions (like whom to vote for) or controlling action. At the “deepest roots of our thinking,” Carey observes, “we picture the act of communication as the transmittal of information across space.” Like, say… from Iowa to your living room.

In contrast to the transmission metaphor stands the “ritual” view.

Here, communication is linked to terms such as “sharing,””participation,” “association,” “fellowship,” and the “possession of a common faith.” This definition exploits the ancient identity and common roots of the terms “commonness,” “communion,””community,” and “communication.”

A ritual view directs our attention not to the movement of messages in space but to the “maintenance of society in time;” not to “the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs.” Perhaps the simplest example of a ritual act of communication is a church sermon, which typically serves not to “send a message” or convey fresh facts, but to draw the congregation together in the celebration and contemplation of a shared faith, which is meant to endure.

My suggestion is that it would be more profitable to treat the Iowa Caucuses as a “ritual,” rather than an informational or news event. There may be a modicum of information emerging from the caucuses themselves; they may tell us something–a little bit–about the relative standing of Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Michelle Bachmann. But caucus coverage is more profitably viewed as a campaign ritual, in which the tribe of political reporters (like Chuck Todd or Mark Halperin) and pundits (an E.J. Dionne or a David Brooks) and pollsters (like, say, Frank Luntz) and operatives (or former operatives like James Carville or Donna Brazille) claim interpretive rights over the election of 2012.

Every four years they gather in Iowa to affirm that their way of seeing is the way to see a presidential campaign. They say they are bringing you news of what happened in Iowa. But what they’re really doing is maintaining their little society of insiders across yet another election cycle. That is what rituals do. They preserve community over time. About these insiders Joan Didion observed…

They tend to speak a language common in Washington but not specifically shared by the rest of us. They talk about “programs,” and “policy,” and how to “implement” them or it, about “trade-offs” and constituencies and positioning the candidate and distancing the candidate, about the “story,” and how it will “play.” They speak of a candidate’s performance, by which they usually mean his skill at circumventing questions, not as citizens but as professional insiders, attuned to signals pitched beyond the range of normal hearing: “I hear he did all right this afternoon,” they were saying to one another in the press section of the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans on the evening Dan Quayle was or was not to be nominated for the vice-presidency. “I hear he did OK with Brinkley.” By the time the balloons fell that night the narrative had changed: “Quayle, zip,” the professionals were saying as they brushed the confetti off their laptops. These are people who speak of the process as an end in itself, connected only nominally, and vestigially, to the electorate and its possible concerns.

Didion continues:

When we talk about the process, then, we are talking, increasingly, not about “the democratic process,” or the general mechanism affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs, but the reverse: a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals, to those who manage policy and those who report on it, to those who run the polls and those who quote them, to those who ask and those who answer the questions on the Sunday shows, to the media consultants, to the columnists, to the issues advisers, to those who give the off-the-record breakfasts and to those who attend them; to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life. “I didn’t realize you were a political junkie,” Marty Kaplan, the former Washington Post reporter and Mondale speechwriter who is now married to Susan Estrich, the manager of the Dukakis campaign, said when I mentioned that I planned to write about the campaign; the assumption here, that the narrative should be not just written only by its own specialists but also legible only to its own specialists, is why, finally, an American presidential campaign raises questions that go so vertiginously to the heart of the structure.

Then she goes in for the kill. “What strikes one most vividly about such a campaign is precisely its remoteness from the actual life of the country.” Yes! That is something else I want you to watch for tonight. That remoteness.

Important for my purposes is James Carey’s description of the news media in a transmission view, as compared to what it looks like under a ritual understanding. A transmission perspective sees the media as a vehicle for disseminating news and knowledge. It also leads us to ask about the “effects” of this act on audiences. We see news “as enlightening or obscuring reality, as changing or hardening attitudes, as breeding credibility or doubt.”

A ritual view treats news reading as a different sort of act, concerned not with the conveyance of facts but with our placement in an imaginative space– one that is interesting, dramatic, satisfying to the imagination. And so Carey writes:

What is arrayed before the reader is not pure information but a portrayal of contending forces in the world. Moreover, as readers make their way through the paper, they engage in a continual shift of roles or of dramatic focus. A story on the monetary crisis salutes them as American patriots fighting those ancient enemies Germany and Japan; a story on the meeting of the women’s political caucus casts them into the liberation movement as supporter or opponent; a tale of violence on the campus evokes their class antagonisms and resentments. The model here is not that of information acquisition, though such acquisition occurs, but of dramatic action in which the reader joins a world of contending forces as an observer at a play.

Carey‘s point in “A Cultural Approach to Communication” is not that the transmission view is “wrong,” but that it cannot illuminate much of what is happening when we encounter the news. A feature on the candidate’s media adviser invites us behind the scenes, where appearances are contrived for an unwitting audience from whom we are now separated by our superior knowledge of the mechanics of manipulation. A television report puts us inside the cockpit of a fighter jet, zeroing in on an enemy target with high-tech precision. We might call this the “positioning effect.” It occurs regardless of whether the journalist-as-author takes a position or produces a neutral, “objective” account. Something else I want you to watch for tonight. How are we–the users, the viewers–being positioned by the reporting and commentary we are given?

If positioning is part of what journalists do, then it is reasonable to ask how they should do it. But this is only one in a class of novel questions illuminated by Carey’s ritual view. As soon as journalists are no longer seen as information providers, they emerge in a variety of more interesting and ambiguous guises: as dramatists, model makers, timekeepers, scene-setters, script-writers. They build public stages, people them with actors, and frame the action in a certain way. But none of these acts appear in their job description.

Finally, there is the weird fact that journalists are reporting on an event they have largely created, but the rules they operate under prevent them from fully acknowledging this fact. As Brendan Nyhan observes in CJR:

The “meaning” of the caucus results is not always clear. These rough edges are typically sanded away in post-Iowa reporting and commentary, however, which tends to emphasize the order of the finish (even when the margins between candidates are small) as well as unexpectedly weak or strong results. Media outlets then shift energy and resources toward candidates who performed well under the prevailing interpretation, while ignoring or providing negative coverage of those who were believed to have done poorly. These shifts in coverage, which themselves become part of the information party leaders are responding to, can help create massive post-Iowa swings in a candidate’s chances.

The result is a refraction effect in which journalists help make Iowa influential and then report on its “effects” without acknowledging their role in the process or the often arbitrary nature of the distinctions that are made among the candidates.

But that’s part of the ritual: Yeah, we created this thing but we bring it to you as if it would happen without us.