Why Political Coverage is Broken

My keynote address at New News 2011, part of the Melbourne Writers Festival, co-sponsored by the Public Interest Journalism Foundation at Swinburne University of Technology. (Melbourne, Australia, August 26, 2011.)

26 Aug 2011 3:21 am 66 Comments

This talk had its origins in my appearance about a year ago on the ABC’s Lateline with Leigh Sales. We were discussing election coverage that looks at the campaign as a kind of sporting event. Every day journalists can ask, “who’s ahead” and “what is the strategy for winning?”  A perspective that appeals to political reporters, I said, because it puts them “on the inside, looking at the campaign the way the operatives do.”

I then mentioned the ABC’s Sunday morning program, The Insiders. And I asked Leigh Sales if it was true that the insiders were, on that program, the journalists. She said: “That is right.” I said: “That’s remarkable.” She… well, she changed the subject. And let me add right away that Leigh Sales is one of the most intelligent journalists I have ever had the pleasure to meet.

So this is my theme tonight: how did we get to the point where it seems entirely natural for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to describe political journalists appearing on its air as “the insiders?”  Don’t you think that’s a little strange? I do. Promoting journalists as insiders in front of the outsiders, the viewers, the electorate…. this is a clue to what’s broken about political coverage in the U.S. and Australia. Here’s how I would summarize it: Things are out of alignment. Journalists are identifying with the wrong people. Therefore the kind of work they are doing is not as useful as we need it to be.



“CNN Leaves it There” is Now Officially a Problem at CNN

You can't have a "he said, she said" brand and yet stand out as the only real news network. There are signs that the new boss at CNN understands this.

3 Jul 2011 11:05 am 21 Comments

Shocking developments in a story I have been following for a long time. It’s the CNN Leaves it There problem, which is illustrated to comic perfection in this Jon Stewart clip.

Watch it:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
CNN Leaves It There
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The problem is this: CNN thinks of itself as the “straight down the middle” network, the non-partisan alternative, the one that isn’t Left and isn’t Right. But defining itself as “not MSNBC” and “not Fox” begs the question of what CNN actually is. To the people who run it, the answer is obvious: real journalism! That’s what CNN is. Or as they used to say, “the news is the star.”

Right. But too often, on-air hosts for the network will let someone from one side of a dispute describe the world their way, then let the other side describe the world their way, and when the two worlds, so described, turn out to be incommensurate or even polar opposites, what happens?… CNN leaves it there. Viewers are left stranded and helpless. The network appears to inform them that there is no truth, only partisan bull. Is that real journalism? No. But it is tantalizingly close to the opposite of real journalism. Repeat it enough, and this pattern threatens to become the network’s brand, which is exactly what Stewart was pointing out.


From “write us a post” to “fill out this form:” Progress in pro-am journalism.

"We're not as far along as we should be. I'd give us a C-minus." My talk to the Personal Democracy Forum, June 7, 2011. You can watch it here.

7 Jun 2011 12:36 pm 22 Comments

I address you today in a mood of frustration. For in the development of pro-am journalism, we are not as far along as we should be. I’d give us a C-minus.

By “pro-am” I mean exactly that: a hybrid form in which pro journalists and their users work together in the production of high quality editorial goods.

My plan of attack: First, I am going to explain this miserable grade, the C-minus. Then I will identify the progress we have made. And I will close with what we need to do to move ahead.

It took me a while to understand this myself, but I want to isolate an important fact at the outset. Professional journalism has been optimized for low participation. Up until a few years ago, the “job” of the user was simply to receive the news and maybe send a letter to the editor. There was a logic to this. Journalists built their practices on top of a one-way, one-to-many, broadcasting system. Most of us understand that by now. What we haven’t quite appreciated is how the logic of the one way, one-to-many pipes sunk deeply, not only into professional practice, but into professional selves.

And so when I talk to journalists about the Internet I try to get them to picture something that they had long ago naturalized: the arrangement of the audience in space under conditions of mass media. At the deepest roots of their thinking they had accepted an image of the people “out there” as connected up to big media, but disconnected or atomized from one another, as well silent and inert, and powerless to make media.

Today of course all these things have changed: people are connected “across” to each other, as effectively as they are connected “up” to big media. This I call The Great Horizontal. People can talk back to the news system and make their own media. That’s a power shift. Most people in journalism are far enough along in confronting these changes to accept that social media is here to stay, that blogging is a normal and useful activity, that amateurs have a part to play in the news system.


What I Think I Know About Journalism

Next month I will have taught journalism at New York University for 25 years, an occasion that has led me to reflect on what I have tried to profess in that time.

26 Apr 2011 1:42 am 71 Comments

Or, to put it another way, what I think I know about journalism.

It comes down to these four ideas.

1. The more people who participate in the press the stronger it will be.

2. The profession of journalism went awry when it began to adopt the View from Nowhere.

3. The news system will improve when it is made more useful to people.

4. Making facts public does not a public make; information alone will not inform us.

Shall we take them in order?


The Twisted Psychology of Bloggers vs. Journalists: My Talk at South By Southwest

This is what I said at South by Southwest in Austin, March 12, 2011. It went well.

12 Mar 2011 10:13 pm 54 Comments

Many thanks to Lisa Williams for helping with the tech and the backchannel. You can find a live blog of my presentation here. The audio is posted here. It’s an MP3 and plays on contact. The Guardian’s summary is here. Photo by Rebecca Ambrose.

There’s an old rule among sportswriters: no cheering in the press box. In fact, a few weeks ago a young journalist lost his gig with Sports Illustrated for just that reason: cheering at the conclusion of a thrilling race. Sportswriters could allow themselves to cheer occasionally without it affecting their work, but they don’t. And this rule gets handed down from older to younger members of the group.

So this is a little example of the psychology, not of individual journalists, but of the profession itself. We don’t often talk this way, but we could: “No cheering in the press box” is the superego at work. It’s a psychological thing within the sportswriter’s tribe. You learn to wear the mask if you want to join the club.

Six years ago I wrote an essay called Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over. It was my most well read piece at the time. And it made the points you would expect: This distinction is eroding. This war is absurd. Get over it. Move on. There’s bigger work to be done.

But since then I’ve noticed that while the division–-bloggers as one type, journalists as another–-makes less and less sense, the conflict continues to surface. Why? Well, something must be happening under the surface that expresses itself through bloggers vs. journalists. But what is that subterranean thing? This is my real subject today.


They Brought a Tote Bag to a Knife Fight: The Resignation of NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller

I feel compelled to share my view of the events that led yesterday to the resignation of Vivian Schiller as CEO of NPR. I don't know if they add up to a coherent response. Maybe not. In these notes I make no attempt to conceal my feelings on the matter, or to neuter myself politically.

10 Mar 2011 12:25 pm 89 Comments

1. As I said at PressThink four months ago: Wake up, public media people! You have no magic exemption from the requirements of political maturity. There are people out there who seek your destruction, and they are not evenly distributed. They reside among culture warriors on the political right. That is a fact, and you are in the business of reporting facts.

2. Among them is James O’Keefe, the trickster who secretly taped NPR executive Ron Schiller ranting about the Tea Party and saying other incendiary things. Like his patron, Andrew Breitbart, who has said he’s “committed to the destruction of the old media guard” (adding, “it’s a very good business model…”) O’Keefe is a performance artist who profits from the public wreckage and institutional panic his media stunts seek to create.

3. To give in to that panic is to cooperate in your own demise. Which is exactly what the NPR board did by demanding that Schiller–a visionary leader who knew where NPR had to go in the digital age–resign immediately, and without a fight. This was a stupid and cowardly act, which will be justified as institutional realism, the price for one too many slip-ups. It is not realism. The decision to let Schiller go originates in a delusion, captured so well by Jon Stewart during the Juan Williams controversy when he told NPR: you brought a tote bag to a knife fight! The delusion is that you can keep doing that and somehow it will all work out in the end.