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Hoisted from Comments: On Mike Allen, Tom Ricks, Journamalism, Rumsfeld, TipFids, and Other Topics

Hoisted from Comments: Ginger Yellow:

Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: Mike Allen: Degenerating from Journamalism to Propaganda: "This post, like a number of others recently, is too hard on the journalist. Unlike, say, the UK, we don't have an adversarial or partisan tradition of press coverage in the U.S. The journalist has to report what both sides say."

He doesn't have to. He just does. It is, as you say, a tradition and traditions cease to apply when they are not observed. But it's not the fact that he reports what both sides say that is the problem. It's that having done so he (and most of his American journalistic colleagues) refuses to then take what both sides say, compare them with other evidence and come to a conclusion. It's not about being adversarial, it's about being brave enough to make explicit judgements. All journalists make value judgements when they decide who to talk to, who to quote, whose side to put at the top. All we're asking is that instead of hoping that clever/informed readers will see through the kabuki to the facts, and leaving the less sophisticated readers to flounder about in disinformation, journalists should in fact make those value judgements plain and call a spade a spade. For instance if you've spoken to "some specialists", and you agree with them, then either quote them or speak in your own (paper's) voice. It adds no value whatsoever to just cite anonymous people whose authority is completely unknown.

I don't think this article is particularly egregious, the use of "some" aside. But it's very symptomatic of the US journalistic malaise. Nearly every article in the WaPo or the NYT these days is equally impenetrable for the casual reader: dropping the interesting or important information to the bottom where nobody will read it, leaving utter nonsense unchallenged except by a partisan source, and failing to provide the necessary context. It doesn't have to be this way. The FT doesn't write like that, and nobody accuses them of raging partisanship. The news pages of the WSJ are perfectly forthright, yet they are respected as much by lefties as by righties. But from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times, US establishment papers seem petrified of taking a stand for truth. This is not healthy.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | July 27, 2006 at 11:44 AM

Jay Rosen of *NYU* writes:

Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: Dana Milbank vs. Helen Thomas: From Brad's Where Are the Heirs of Walter Lippman? Brad: Those "patterns" begin to find some explanation when you realize that categories like "hard news" rather than "analytical piece" are simultaneously serving as a reality-reporting system, and a risk-reduction method. Hard news is supposed to be lowest risk, not necessarily harder information. It's lower risk to just say what happened ("Rove said...") without saying what's true. An "analysis" piece means you can speculate about motives and what might happen from here. Slightly higher risk, but not necessarily more "analytical."

Or let's take the classic in press watcher frustration... He said this happened, she said that happened. It tries to inform you in a half-hearted way, but it secures protection from being wrong in a full-throated way. "I'm just telling you what they said." It's not truthtelling but innocence-establishing behavior-- see? no agenda.

Here's the catch: officially, journalists only engage in truthtelling. That they would the choose the more innocent account over the more truthful one contradicts the professional self-image. So it doesn't happen, even though it does. When what journalists are doing makes no sense at all to you on the reality-reporting scale, switch yourself over to the risk-reduction (or "refuge") scale and measure it there.

Why don't journalists work together and coordinate their assaults to get a better answer from the President? Might make sense on the reality-reporting front, but fry the circuits on risk reduction. They'd open themselves to "cabal" charges, or so they think.

Why didn't Leonard Downie join with Bill Keller and Dean Baquet in their joint op-ed explaining the need to report on classified programs sometimes? (He was asked.) He didn't want to risk the impression that news organizations act together to "get" something.

For we are dealing not only with the risk of being wrong, but of coming under effective attack in the culture war's politicized theatre of news. Outside actors can influence the news by raising the perception of risk.

Posted by: Jay Rosen | July 18, 2006 at 03:26 PM

John Emerson:

Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: Mike Allen: Degenerating from Journamalism to Propaganda: Blister, the idea that reporters, especially during this administration, write favorable stories in exchange for access is pretty well accepted by people who watch the scene. If you're clueless, it's not DeLong's responsibility to reinvent the wheel right in front of you. (In the context of your mooncalf understanding of journalism, your condescending last line is laughable.)

Reading between the lines is a responsibility of all readers of journalism, and the worse the journalism, the more important that responsibility is. How close is the American press to the Pravda standard by now? (Under the Czarist regime a whole new "Aesopian" genre of journalistic writing was developed to slip ideas past the censors, and under the Soviet regime this method was adapted to the new, even worse conditions.)

The interesting thing here, as in other similiar statements by journalists, is that American journalists are now writing so that sophisticated readers will understand the truth, whereas careless readers will miss the point and remain ignorant. This is pretty much the Aesopian method. It allows the elite to feel superior and sneer at the mass, but it doesn't bother Karl Rove at all, because he relies on mass votes.

One negative consequences of this style of journalism is that the well-informed citizens tend to end up powerlessly in opposition, while the ill-informed people give the government blind support right up until the point when everything collapses.

The censorship we are talking about is not government censorship. For whatever reason, the high management of the Post, the Times, Time, and most of the broadcast media have chosen to publsih weak journalism that doesn't harm Bush much. (My guess is that they are motivated mostly by tax incentives, their investments outside journalism, advertiser pressure, and fear of rightwing zombie media critics.)

Why do BOTH the right and the left complain? Because the right knows that if it quits complaining, everyone whill understand that they won. And it still could get worse. A major faction of the right doesn't want a free press at all, but an uncritical, patriotic, team-player press fully cooperating with the unitary executive.

Posted by: John Emerson | July 27, 2006 at 07:33 AM

And an anonymous lurker who works in a remarkably senior position , in email:


Did you see Tom Ricks's response, in his Washington Post chat, to the gnawing criticism of the weblogs? It was quite a defense of "he said, she said" journalism:

Tom Ricks: FIASCO: The American Military Adventure in Iraq: Tom Ricks: This is an interesting question because it brings home to me how polarized the country is by this war. It especially bothers me that there seems to be little room for "loyal dissent." People who try to make honest criticisms are attacked instantly. I am seeing this on the left as well as the right, by the way. I sometimes think that the left would only be happy if we started labelling all their enemies liars. I noticed that one leftish blogger criticized me for quoting generals who said in 2003 that we were winning the war. I don't think he understands that part of my job is to quote people accurately--even if I don't agree with what they are saying. Next!

I think Ricks is quite alarmed, or he would be more coherent. Back when he was writing softball profiles of Paul Wolfowitz for the front page of the Washington Post December 23, 2003 Style section, it never crossed his mind that in two and a half years there would be angry people in bathrobes with computers accessing his clippings file and calling for him to explain himself. It would never have crossed his mind in a million years that anybody would ever see a highly complimentary profile of a Deputy Defense Secretary on the front of a soft-news section as a violation of journalistic ethics, or of duty to readers.

Read through the first chapters of Fiasco again. You will find Ricks complaining that the media fell down in the run-up to the war, that the media was incapable of finding speakers putting forth an alternative point of view to the Bush administration, that it was Congress's fault for not having prominent Doves willing to make strong quotable statements. "The Silence of the Lambs" is the way he puts it.

Yet the opposition to Bush's war plans contained Scowcroft, Baker, Zinni, Schwarzkopf, the leaders and high officials of all our major allies (including Britain), and a lot of very smart people at State, at CIA, and at the Pentagon. (As soon as the war started, publications like the National Journal had no trouble finding sources to say that Rumsfeld's interference with force planning and logistics had the potential to cause great trouble. Inside-baseball sentences like "A lot of people around here can get very emotional talking about the lack of a TipFid for this operation" carry a very powerful message for those who think about logistics. And it was because of Rumsfeld's misunderstanding of modern war that the camoaign required V Corps to resort to such stopgaps as pulling the 101 Air Assault Division back from the spearhead to use as LOC troops.)

In large part the media fell down because elite reporters like Ricks decided to go along with Cheney, Rumsfeld, and company, even though they believed they were highly ideological and disconnected from reality--good inside the Pentagon and in the AEI conference rooms, but noplace else. They didn't want to elevate the critics, because they thought that would have meant "taking sides," and taking sides against the USA.