Fixing The Ideology Problem in Our Political Press: A Reply to The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder

"If your job is to make the case, win the negotiations, decide what the community should do, or maintain morale, that is one kind of work. If your job is to tell people what's going on, and equip them to participate without illusions, that is a very different kind of work."

22 Jun 2010 1:02 am Comments Off on Fixing The Ideology Problem in Our Political Press: A Reply to The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder

After I published my last post, Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right: On the Actual Ideology of the American Press, the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder, a political journalist who consults for CBS News in addition to his reporting and writing for the Atlantic, said my piece was provocative and worth reading but it left some important questions unanswered:

If the ideologies he identifies — the pathologies, actually — are the sum total of the media, what would Jay Rosen, if he were running the world, have us do? Is there a distinction between journalism and ideological argument? Is it methodological? Are there times when, given the difficulty of discovering a truth, journalists can and should adopt a disinterested or disembodied stance? His criticism applies largely to political journalism, and so I anticipate his answer.

I am going to answer his specific questions and then I will have a general reply to what I take to be the spirit of this inquiry. (UPDATE, July 20, 2010: Marc Ambinder responds at The Atlantic site: The Ideology Of Journalists: A Response To Jay Rosen. A very interesting essay.)

If the ideologies he identifies — the pathologies, actually — are the sum total of the media what would Jay Rosen, if he were running the world, have us do?

I didn’t say anything about the “sum total of the media.” I identified a number of beliefs that prevail among the political reporters, editors and producers who work at such places as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, the Associated Press, Time, Newsweek, National Journal, The Politico, The Hill, Roll Call, ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, CNN, PBS and NPR. I sometimes call this group the national press, or the political press, and its familiar practices and tendencies I call political journalism.

They are not the “sum total of the media,” but an important part of the national news system. Nor are the practices I identified the whole of political journalism, just a striking feature of it. I didn’t talk about accuracy in my post, but that is something the national press certainly believes in. I didn’t talk about personality-driven journalism (as in covering Russia by covering Yeltsin) but that is a characteristic feature, as well. So I freely admit I left many things out in order to highlight a few worth critcizing.

Is there a distinction between journalism and ideological argument?

Yes, there is. Or to put it another way: journalism is not just “politics by other means.” The simplest way to illustrate this is to picture a journalistic situation like a labor union newspaper, where the reporter and editors are likely to share with members and leaders a strong commitment to the labor movement and a general suspicion of its traditional adversaries— companies like Wal Mart, legislation like right-to-work laws, and politicians like Mitch McConnell. If they were in dramatic philosophical conflict with the union publishing the newspaper, they probably wouldn’t get the job. Shared ideology is a condition of employment.

Once hired as journalists, however, their job—if they are real journalists—is to tell the members what is happening and cover the issues union people care about and ought to know about, regardless of whether the news so reported supports the arguments leadership is making at the time. If, say, Walmart, aware of its poor reputation, has recently shown some openness to union organizers or dealt fairly with them, a good union newspaper would report that (in proportion) even if it makes for some cognitive dissonance among the membership.

If your job is lobbying for the union, representing it in negotiations, or acting as its spokesman, then ideological argument is what you do. You make the case for the union. If your job is editing the news section of the newspaper, you inform people of what is going on in the world of their union. You equip them to understand it without illusions, and to participate in it— including participation in argument. So, yes, there is a difference between journalism and ideological argument, and this difference would show up even when there is broad agreement on ideology and no hint of a View from Nowhere, as in my example of the union newspaper.

Is [this difference] methodological?

No, it’s larger than that. If your job is to make the case, win the negotiations, decide what the community should do, or maintain morale, that is one kind of work. If your job is to tell people what’s going on, and equip them to participate without illusions, that is a very different kind of work. To put it a little more sharply, power-seeking and truth-seeking are different behaviors, and this is what creates the distinction between politics and journalism. The work of the journalist cannot be done without a commitment to the act of reporting, which means gathering information, talking to people who know, trying to verify and clarify what actually happened and to portray the range of views as they emerge from events.

A primary commitment to reporting therefore distinguishes the work of the journalist. Declining to express a view does not. Refusing to vote does not. Pretending to be ideology-free or “objective” on everything does not. Getting attacked from both sides? Nope. But a commitment to reporting does. Watch what happens when Tucker Carlson tries to explain this to union members— the American Conservative Union, that is. “The New York Times is a liberal newspaper,” said Carlson.

The catcalls started in. “They go out, and they get the facts.” More boos. “Conservatives need to copy that— they need to get out find out what’s going on, and not just analyze things based on what the mainstream media has reported.”

If we’re going to have conservative journalism, Carlson was trying to say, we need a commitment to original reporting. (See this post, along the same lines.) The reaction he got suggests that the act of informing people actually requires the cooperation of those people, the would-be inform-ees. Absent that, there can be journalists, but no real journalism.

Are there times when, given the difficulty of discovering a truth, journalists can and should adopt a disinterested or disembodied stance?

I take your point, Marc. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell what happened, to know whom to believe, or to decide who’s right. Disputes can be so impenetrable, accounts so fragmentary, issues so complicated that it’s hard to locate where truth is. In situations like that—which I agree are common—what should journalists committed to truthtelling do? Is it incumbent on them to decide who’s right, even though it’s hard to decide who’s right?

I would say no. It’s incumbent on them to level with the users. If that means backing up to say, “Actually, it’s hard to tell what happened here,” or, “I’ll share with you what I know, but I don’t know who’s right,” this may be unsatisfying to some, but it may also be the best an honest reporter can do. Portraying conflicting accounts or clashing interpretations is an exacting skill, which does require a certain detachment. But there is no necessary connection between that skill, or that kind of detachment, and the ritualized avoidance of all conclusions, such as we find in He Said, She Said and the View from Nowhere.

Detachment is not an evil in journalism. To say so makes no sense. To stand back and look at a situation dispassionately is vital to accuracy, and in a sense to intellect itself. My almost foolproof measure of intellectual honesty is the ability to paraphrase the arguments of another such that the other recognizes his or her view in the paraphrase. That takes a certain kind detachment, and political reporters are often called upon to do exactly this: summarize the views of others. I have no quarrel with these practical uses of detachment. It’s the theatrical ones I mistrust.

If what Ambinder had in mind is some plea for common sense like, sometimes, a “he said, she said” account is the best we can do… yeah, I agree. But where it is possible to tell who’s misleading us more, journalists should say so. Dan Froomkin wrote a post about this: On calling bullshit. puts his point it into practice, as with this “pants on fire” rating for Sarah Palin.

Finally, I want to address what I think Marc Ambinder was really asking:

What ought to be the ideology of the political press and how should they handle this trickiest of problems in professional practice?

I go back to the theme of my Clowns and Jokers post: “this is complicated.” I don’t think there is one answer. I would not trust any magic solution or single device. Nor do I think my answers exclusively correct. It certainly isn’t possible to pick a point on the political spectrum and say: Journalists should be Scoop Jackson Democrats or Jim Leach Republicans. But there are some things they can do.

Transition from the institutional voice to the individual journalist with a voice. This is already happening. The “voice of god,” a disembodied language in which the news came to be presented, is slowly being phased out while the opportunities for journalists to speak with voice and interact as human beings are on the rise. The symbol of this shift is the reporter who also blogs, but an even better marker is the blogger who is hired to do a job that a “straight” reporter might have done before, as with Ezra Klein covering health care reform and other wonkish subjects for the Washington Post. During the dramatic battles of 2009-10, Klein had no trouble making his views known on health care reform and reporting with credibility on the issue, a combination once thought impossible.

Gradually replace the view from nowhere with “here’s where I’m coming from.” The weakening of the institutional voice is good news for those who would like to find a better solution to the (tricky) problem of ideology in political journalism. The discovery that users want to make a connection to the people who bring them the news is also useful. These developments prepare the ground for the bigger and harder shift that awaits political journalists, which is to abandon the View from Nowhere as a means for generating trust and replace it with “here’s where I’m coming from,” which is a different—and, increasingly, a more plausible—way of generating trust.

(On this point see The Case for Full Disclosure by James Poniewozik of Time and my own post from two years ago: Getting the Politics of the Press Right: Walter Pincus Rips into Newsroom Neutrality. For a more philosophical treatment see David Weinberger, Transparency is the New Objectivity. And if you’re really interested in these issues, watch my exchange with Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute.)

Let me explain how it might work for Marc Ambinder, who has already started in on the project of disclosure. Instead of saying in his bio, “I report on politics for the Atlantic and I’m chief political consultant for CBS News” and leaving it at that, he would say something like… I report on politics for the Atlantic and I’m chief political consultant for CBS News. Accuracy, fairness, doing the reporting before coming to a conclusion and trying to see all sides of an issue are first principles with me, but I am not without a perspective on politics. So here is where I’m coming from…

And then he would proceed to summarize as clearly and honestly as he can what that perspective is. This wouldn’t require him to declare his “position” on every issue that might come up in reporting on politics, as if he were a candidate for public office. I doubt he has such positions. The purpose is to provide enough transparency that readers of Ambinder’s work can understand where he’s coming from and apply whatever discount rate they want. That way he doesn’t have to pretend to viewlessness— an advantage in writing about politics! (My own such statement is found in this FAQ post at PressThink.)

A possible alternative route to “here’s where I’m coming from” would be for Ambinder to create a kind of heroes and villains list and link to it off the front page of his blog. It might feature, say, 40 visible people in politics he genuinely admires (with a careful explanation of why) and ten he has major problems with (and why.) Done well and kept current, it would probably tell me a lot about his perspective on things. I can think of many instant objections a reporter might have to this method (“what happens to my credibility when one of my so-called heroes is shown to be a liar or a cheat…?”) but that shouldn’t stop one of them from trying it. Reporters in the mainstream press have instant objections to everything you ask them to do that they’re not doing now. They’re rather good at that.

Kill the phony mean before it kills you. That the truth is probably somewhere in the middle… that if both sides think you are biased against them it probably means you’re playing it straight… that the extremes on both sides are equally extreme, deluded and irresponsible— these practices have rotted out, and the sooner they are done away with, the better footing political journalism will be on. Just as it should be routine for reporters to ask themselves, “am I showing undue favoritism here, am I slanting my account?” it should be routine to ask, “am I creating a false symmetry here, am I positing a phony mean?”

Fact checking is good journalism. Journalists should take a lesson from the success of the fact-checking site, I have already written extensively about this one, so there is no need to repeat myself.

But don’t do it unless you are willing to do what Politifact does: tell us when a political actor is lying, or speaking falsely. Drop the pretense that there must be deception in equal measure on both sides of the partisan ledger—a lie for a lie, and untruth for an untruth—just because we, the journalists, need to show how even handed we are. The AP has started doing it, and as Greg Sargent reported, “Their fact-checking efforts are almost uniformly the most clicked and most linked pieces they produce. Journalistic fact-checking with authority, it turns out, is popular.”

This is telling us something.

So those are four things I would have political journalists do to break free from some of the pathologies I wrote about last week. Let me conclude by listing a few things journalists should be strongly for or against. In the same way they are strongly for and often take action on freedom of information issues, they should…

Be strongly for transparency, which means our ability to see into the house of power. It is part of a commitment to transparency that one respects what is genuinely private, distinguishing it from what is truly public.

Be strongly against opacity as a tool of power.

Be strongly for accountability in government and civil society, especially where public money, human lives and people’s livelihoods are at stake. (Does David Gregory of NBC News understand what accountability is? I don’t think so.)

Be strongly against demagoguery (that’s when a leader makes use of common prejudices, false claims and false promises in order to win power…) which means trying to raise the cost of participating in it.

I mention these things because to pretend to neutrality when they’re afoot or at stake is malpractice.