Questions and Answers About PressThink
(Originally published April 29, 2004)
Some of these questions are asked frequently by readers or seen in comments. Others I ask myself. My point is to explain how a site like this works, according to the person who thought it up and does it. This is a transparency post.
Why are PressThink posts so long?
In 2002 I started asking around about how to do a blog. I got many kinds of answers. The one advisory every informant gave was: you must write in short bursts. That’s the style, some said. That’s what works, said others. And, most suspicious of all, that’s what busy, web-cruising readers expect. They don’t have time for your leisurely thesis, I was told. By almost everyone.
So you decided to be contrarian and go the other way?
No, contrarians are annoying. I didn’t set out to write long essays; it happened as I tried to turn my ideas into posts that said something others weren’t saying, and got some notice. (And I can do short, sometimes.) I set out to be unrestricted: free to figure out for myself what works, what PressThink wants to be.
“People don’t have time for…” reasoning was meaningless to me, and I didn’t trust it. It wanted to restrict my freedom to write what I think, but the whole purpose in starting PressThink was liberation: “Wow, my own magazine. Now I can write what I think.” It’s the same for most bloggers, I would guess. My interest was users who did have time for depth, in whatever number they may prove to exist.
But it’s more like: this is my one-person magazine, PressThink… If you like it, return. In a tiny and abstract way, perhaps, my blog is part of the media marketplace, competing for eyeballs with re-runs of Law and Order. But not really. PressThink, a free citizen in a voluntary nation, doesn’t have to behave like a market actor. Thus my experiment in long form.
Fine, but weren’t your advisors just making a simple point about the nature of the Web medium?
Yes, and I thanked them. But the Web is good for many opposite things. For quick hitting information. For clicking across a field. For talk and interaction. It’s also a depth finder, a memory device, a library, an editor. Not to use a blog for extended analysis because most users won’t pick that option… is Web dumb but media smart. What’s strange is that I try to write short, snappy things, but they turn into long ones. A certain number of readers show up to complain about it (“too many words spent on the wrong subject!” would be typical) and that gets amusing after a while.
I probably should learn the more classical blogger form— title, link, quick comment. But there are many doing it that way, and many who do it well. Every good blog asks the Web a question at the start: is there any demand out there for an original… for a me? You have to do the actual blog for a while to find out.
So what does PressThink, the title, mean?
Part if it derives from terms like “group think,” but the group is the press. The title is also short for press thinking or doctrine, the philosophy journalists live by, the “religion” of the press. If I wanted to risk a more academic term, I’d call it “journalism’s imaginary.” These are subjects that interest me, especially when they can be read into the headlines. (I’ve done scholarly work, including a Ph.D thesis, on parts of them.) Press think is what I do myself, as a critic and writer. I’m engaged in it when I operate this blog.
I write about the press think of others— like Geneva Overholser or John Carroll or Paul Krugman. I also interview journalists about their own press think, scholars about what they know, bloggers about what they’re up to with this form. Or I might examine the press think built into a weblog (like Front Line Voices) or evidenced by a blogger (Patterico) or found in a report (Harvard study on Trent Lott, the blogs and the press).
A blogger ransacks. If the managing editor of the LA Times gives a “don’t kill the messenger” speech about his newspaper’s bitterly-contested coverage of the California recall election in 2003—and he is defending that coverage with self-evident pride despite the attacks—chances are that some live press think will be in his remarks. Ideas about the kind of journalism worth doing today, about the job the LA Times actually is doing, about the defense of journalism from critics— that’s material. When, in order to get away from the press pack, a Pulitizer Prize winning reporter goes off on a listening tour of California, I may write in praise of her thinking, as I did here.
The idea is to lift the press think part from passing events that involve the press. And then examine it, or get others to do the same. You asked what the title means. It means that. If you had asked me what the title does, it’s the source code for all the writing and linking that goes on here. The blog is “about” press think; it’s also a contraption for making more press think.
What about this other phrase, your subtitle: “Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine.” What is that about?
That’s about trying to introduce a visual connected to the idea of the blog. I wanted the original designers—William Drentell and Ruby Studios—to have some image to work with, and “ghost of…” did that. Once upon a time, the press was the media. But then the media grew up and it surrounded, absorbed and even overwhelmed the press. When the media grew so big it “swallowed” journalism, it took into its machinery the flickering spirit of a free press, a very old flame. Even where extinguished it hangs around. The subtitle points to that.
My views on issues would be standard Upper West Side Liberal Jewish babyboomer— even though I don’t live in that neighborhood. I am a registered Democrat. I supported John Kerry in 2004. I supported Rudy Giuliani, a Republican, over David Dinkins (D) and I was a fan of the job Bloomberg did as mayor. I’ve written for the Nation, Columbia Journalism Review, Chronicle of Higher Education, New York Times, Washington Post, Salon, to list a few, but not the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard or the Washington Examiner. I was media editor at Tikkun magazine for a while. That should be enough to place me on your spectrum.
Update: April 2008. As I mentioned here, I am a supporter of Barack Obama for president and I hope he wins. I haven’t given money, or donated time, or been in contact with the campaign, but I voted for him in the primary and intend to do so again in November, 2008. Just thought I should make that clear in this space.
August 2012: I remain a registered Democrat and plan to vote for Barack Obama in 2012.
February 2015: Now a disillusioned Obama supporter (I differ with him over the surveillance state) but still a supporter. Don’t know who I will vote for in 2016. Still a liberal and a Democrat, as well as a critic of Israel, and someone who thinks that climate change is happening.
Summer 2016. I will be voting for Hillary Clinton. I am strongly opposed to Donald Trump and consider him a menace to democracy.
Winter 2018 No change in my estimate of President Trump: strongly opposed to him and consider him a menace to American democracy. See my post, Winter is coming: prospects for the American press under Trump.
March 2021. Still a registered Democrat in New York City. Voted for Joe Biden. Wrote quite a bit in 2020-21 about problems created in political journalism by Donald Trump as a threat to American democracy, and by the Republican Party becoming an anti-democratic force.
Ever been active in politics?
Not really, except for an over-active mind. Never worked for a candidate. I began my political life watching the Watergate hearings in the summer of 1973, so my first sentient experience with government was naive amazement at how well it worked, as day by day the scandal was revealed and the Constitution came to life in those unforgettable people— Butterfield, Baker, Dean. Politics since then has been a slow unwinding of that moment by reality. I was lucky that I began as a believer in what government could do, that I first saw politics at a moment when it worked. It was a two-month illusion, but my “political views” are bound up with that as much as party identification.
Your blog is about the press. So what’s your perspective on journalism? Where is PressThink coming from?
I try to leave ideologically-charged press critique to others—individuals and organizations—that do it eagerly, do it well, although the polarization of everything with the election of Donald Trump has made that untenable. PressThink is not a media watch site, although I have written about watch blogs. PressThink is not a bias hunter, in the usual sense, but I have written about bias hunting. It’s not an “inside” look at the press, either, but I’ve written about inside baseball in press coverage. I don’t support George Bush; I do write about his press think. I never became a Howard Dean supporter, but I was a follower of the Dean movement and wrote a lot about its entanglements with the press. Getting the picture? From an Introduction in August, 2003: “I try to discover the consequences in the world that result from having the kind of press we do.”
Another answer to where I am coming from: From 1989 to 2000 or so, I was devoting much of my energies to the public journalism movement, also known as civic journalism. (Click here for a book chapter, here for a Google search to get started, here for the Public Journalism Network blog, here for a PressThink post.) Of course, I don’t see everything the same way now.
So are you a journalist?
If we speak of credentials, then no. I have never worked for a mainstream news organization or been a professional reporter— outside a brief summer fling in college. (I wrote about that here.) The press “tribe,” as I sometimes call it, is not my tribe, although I know and admire the work of many people in it. My background is in press scholarship and criticism, so I am really an observer and student of the press. However, I have written for numerous newspapers and magazines and I suppose it could be said that I’m an opinion journalist. But that’s stretching it.
Do you have a blogging method?
Hmm. I read the press, watch the news, click around, and hunt for something juicy, current, interesting. Then I collect links, and start writing. Or someone emails me something and it leads to a post. That’s it, method-wise. What I have instead of method is a kind of style sheet, which has self-imposed instructions for how to do a PressThink post.
In this example, The Tipping Point, there are five fields that get filled in: the title, the subtitle, the essay, the “after matter” (with notes, reactions and links) and the comments. Each requires of me a different kind of writing. The title condenses what the post is about, and arrests attention. The subheading explains the argument, previewing the “story” in the essay. The essay is an essay, but with links— a gesture unto themselves. The “after” section edits and tracks the wider discussion in the blog sphere. The comments begin the dialogue.
A successful post is when all five parts talk to each other as they are read against one another. A PressThink entry is not “done” until the after matter, trackbacks and comments come in, which sometimes takes more than a week. That’s one cycle in the turning of a weblog. When it works (always a hit and miss thing) the post at some point turns into a forum on the subject that occasioned the post— and the fourm is what “thinks.” Of course, I didn’t know about this stylesheet and the posting logic it enforces until after I had stumbled on it through trial and error.
If you’re not a member of the tribe, then what is your connection to the press? Just as a critic, a watcher?
No. For one thing I love journalism, and devour the product. Professional journalists I find to be interesting and, on the whole, very dedicated people with a demanding job, hard to do well. They are far more scrupulous—concerned with getting things right—than many of their critics believe. (They also love to explain things to non-specialists, an attractive quality.)
The press is an important institution; and it has power, although its power is changing today— at the source, which is a free and alert citizenry. That means the errors and excesses of the press are important too. There is a lot of cynicism, even hostility out there about beliefs like these. I identify with some of that disgust, but react with disgust against much of it, because so much of it is cheap, ill-reasoned, flagrantly politicized— a circuit closed.
To me it is entirely possible that the press is failing the body politic, but a lot of the criticism heaped upon the news media is failing badly too. That’s a puzzle worth blogging about— and I have.
You’re a professor of it. Is journalism an academic discpline?
Journalism is not a discipline the way history or psychology are, but the practice of it takes discipline, and its virtues are things I find virtuous in a writer, any writer, including citizens who may take up their pens. Accuracy, for example. If it’s getting a street address right, that’s a fairly simple matter. Accurately portrating how someone else thinks when it’s not your experience, your world, your argument— way harder. And there’s no method for that; it’s a virtue, a discipline. Try it sometime, if the point seems unclear.
Then there 09/11 and everything after. The more serious events around us get, the clearer the virtues of honest journalism and of high standards in reporting the world. I don’t want to live in a country with a shitty press, or a discouraged tribe of journalists. It’s dangerous. So I’m not just a critic. I have a stake in the subject. But then so do you. Maybe that’s what PressThink is “about”— that stake.
Of course I see it. To me, any work of journalism is saturated with bias from the moment the reporter leaves the office—and probably before that—to the edited and finished product.
There’s bias in the conversation our biased reporter has with his biased editor, bias in the call list he develops for his story, bias in his choice of events to go out and cover, bias in the details he writes down at the event, bias in his lead paragraph, bias in the last paragraph, bias when his editor cuts a graph. The headline someone else writes for him— that has bias. There’s bias in the placement of the story. (No bias in the pixels or printer’s ink, though.)
Bias, bias, bias. Yes, I see it. I see it everywhere. I often disagree with those who see it only somewhere in the press. Bias against Bush or McCain or Romney— or Hillary or Trump! Bias against the anti-war Left or Occupy Wall Street. Bias against believing Christians. They don’t go far enough, in my opinion.
“Bias, bias, bias.” Isn’t that a way of trivializing the question?
No, I don’t think it is. Mine is just another way of saying that human judgment tells you what to do in journalism— not god or the rule book or the facts. That’s not a trivial point: journalism is saturated with judgment. Some of that judgment belongs to the individual journalist, some to the particular news organization, and some to the profession of journalism, American-style.
The trouble arises (and this is the whole reason we have the bias debate) because American journalists some time ago took refuge in objectivity, and began to base their authority on a claim to have removed bias from the news. This claim was not just hot air. It corresponded to things journalism did.
Things like what?
Well, to give you the compressed version… First journalism removed the political party from influence in the newsroom. Then it removed, as much as possible, the publisher and his pro-business mentality. Then it removed the political opinions of its own people, or tried to. Then it removed the community— local bias, if you will. Then it removed the public because it had polls instead, and they were more objective.
At each step in these strategic removals, the justification was objectivity: producing more unbiased news. And in this way the press wound up basing its authority—the professional journalist’s bid for public trust—on the claim to have mastered the removal of bias. When actually, they just kicked everyone else out.
Well, you can be better at it than anyone else—total bias removal—and still be pretty bad. Why? Because journalism is saturated with judgment. Good journalism is.
So sometimes the press claims to be dependable because it is said to have mastered something it is actually very bad at— “curing” the news of bias. But then anyone would be terrible at that. So the reason I leave bias criticism to others is that I don’t think “unbiased journalism” is a particularly noble or desirable thing. It’s not my ideal. Nor do I see it as humanly possible.
That it’s not possible to be totally objective— we get that. But still: don’t we want journalists who are as unbiased as possible? Don’t you?
People say that. I almost never believe them. The appetite for factual truth when it conflicts with fixed views is extremely small when compared to other appetites.
In any case, if we do want unbiased journalism we should not. We should want journalists who are honest and truthful and who show good judgment. In the long run I think “trust us because we’re professionally unbiased” will decline in effectiveness and “here’s where we’re coming from” will rise, but both will persist. In both systems accuracy and intellectual honesty will matter more.
About “objectivity,” well, people mean many things by that term. Some of these I have no quarrel with.
For example, if objectivity means trying to ground truth claims in verifiable facts, I am definitely for that. If it means there’s a “hard” reality out there that exists beyond any of our descriptions of it, sign me up. If objectivity is the requirement to acknowledge what is, regardless of whether we want it to be that way, then I want journalists who can be objective in that sense. Don’t you? If it means the struggle to get beyond the limited perspective that our experience and upbringing afford us… yeah, we need more of that, not less. I think there is value in acts of description that do not attempt to say whether the thing described is good or bad. Is that objectivity? If so, I’m all for it.
I was a member of the digital advisory board at Digital First Media, an owner of newspapers, from 2011 to 2014. I am also a consultant to Post Media in Canada, another newspaper company. I was a paid consultant to the Huffington Post Investigative Fund from April to September, 2010. I no longer have any official role with the Fund or the Huffington Post. In November, 2011 I joined the corporate board of The Gazette Company, based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In November 2013 I announced that was taking a paid (part time) position as an adviser in a new company founded by Pierre Omidyar, First Look Media. By October 2014, I was no longer involved with First Look.
I have no investments in any media company and no other ties.
Best blogs follow the same form as best writing in a magazine or novel. Whether the posts are brief, a la Cory, or long-winded, a la Kevin, they use only as many words as are absolutely neccesary for the task at hand. It’s not about whether posts are short or long. It’s about the fact that wasted words are obstacles.
In lampoon mode, Stephen Waters writes a post of 1,231 words to “spare readers the tens of thousands of words piled up by academics, journalists, and itinerant bloggers” in my post on Bush’s PressThink. (I told you it gets amusing sometimes.) A savage critique, so check it out. Meanwhile, Dave Winer, master of the concise, writes: “Jay Rosen gazes at his navel.”
Bob Stepno, Blog Reporting Questions: Who Said What and in What Voice? “Just by reflex, shifting ‘writing style” is my preferred way of differentiating between kinds of content in this weblog. For example, I started the year playing journalist with a blog entry written in a newspaper style, even avoiding the first person with the awkward construction ‘this blogger.’”
PressThink: Blogging is About Making and Changing Minds (a short post, Oct. 23, 2003)
George Packer, an agile political writer, in Mother Jones: “First, a confession: I hate blogs. I’m also addicted to them.”