Are We Headed for an Opposition Press?
"Big Journalism cannot respond as it would in previous years: with bland vows to cover the Administration fairly and a firm intention to make no changes whatsoever in its basic approach to politics and news. The situation is too unstable, the world is changing too rapidly, and the press has been pretending for too long that its old operating system will last forever. It won't."
Back before the 2004 campaign began, before the emergence of Howard Dean, Democrats shocked at the weakness of their party in Congress would commonly say that the only one "taking on" Bush and putting up a real fight was Paul Krugman, the columnist for the New York Times.
John Kerry's defeat is only hours old. One of the first questions to occur to me is: will we see the fuller emergence of an opposition press, given that George W. Bush and the Republicans are to remain in office another four years? Will we find instead that an intimidation factor, already apparent before the election, will intensify as a result of Bush's victory?
I believe Big Journalism cannot respond as it would in previous years: with bland vows to cover the Adminstration fairly and a firm intention to make no changes whatsoever in its basic approach to politics and news. The situation is too unstable, the world is changing too rapidly, and political journalism has been pretending for too long that an old operating system will last forever. It won't. It can't. Particularly in the face of an innovative Bush team and its bold thesis about the fading powers of the press.
This election, says
Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times, "sharpened the cultural divides that have increasingly defined American politics over the last generation." With Bush's majority-of-the-vote win, this dynamic is likely to intensify, but it's only one thing causing an intellectual crack-up in the press. Here are some developments to watch for:
At some point between now and 2008, either MSNBC or CNN may break off from the pack and decide to become the liberal alternative to Fox, thus freeing Fox to find a more frankly ideological formula, as well. During the conventions the logic of this move became evident. The single most shocking moment for television news people came in late summer when Fox won the ratings for the Republican convention, the first time a cable channel had defeated the broadcast networks in that competition. Everyone realized at once the power of GOP-TV and how much sense that system--the more partisan system--made. (Like a political party, FOX has a base and it reaches out for other viewers, knowing it cannot alienate the base.) If one of the other cable channels goes left, will the remaining networks that are "unaligned" stand pat, go left, or hook right? Big question.
Which seems more plausible: the "cultural divides that have increasingly defined American politics," as Brownstein put it, will also begin to define American media, or... Big Media will successfully hold itself back from politics, and the major news sources will remain non-aligned, officially neutral? The first prospect means a radical restructuring is due (or maybe it is already underway.) Certainly leaders in Big Journalism will try to remain non-aligned, but do they even have that power? As we know from politics, if you don't watch out you can be defined by your opponents. Opponents want to define the national press as the liberal media, and they are well along in their cultural project, which does not require the participation of journalists.
The campaign year had many high points and subplots involving the media: confessions of failure on WMD's, Michael Moore's success with agitprop, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and their effect on Kerry, the disaster that Dan Rather and Sixty Minutes brought upon themselves at CBS, the he said she said, we said furor involving who lies more, the rise of the bloggers and the tensions this caused with Big Media (which also absorbed them), Jon Stewart's showdown with Crossfire and his impact overall with "fake" news, the Sinclair Broadcast Group's plans for Stolen Honor. Such episodes we still see as "distractions." Some day we may realize that this is one way Americans "do" their politics today: they attack and defend the media, or start their own media, or use new media against old media, or mount a claim that the media is the opposition.
So what remains after all that? The cultural right, in its struggle with the liberal media, feels that it is on the ascendant
. Participants there are primed for more action. News and editorial decision-making are thrust into the political arena itself as potentially explosive "issues." This expansion of the political
into the realm of "news" and commentary coincides with greater transparency for the big news combines, which are more successfully scrutinized than they have ever been. Various layers of protection once kept journalists from the knowledge the public had of their mistakes. That layering seems gone now.
The Bush White House and the Republican Party have the national press in a box. As with so many other situations, they have changed the world and allowed the language of the old world to keep running while exploring unchallenged the fact of the new. The old world was the Fourth Estate, and the watchdog role of the press, the magic of the White House press conference. It was a feeling that, though locked in struggle much of the time, journalists and presidents needed each other. Although it was never put this way, they glamourized Washington politics together, and this helped both.
In Bushworld, all is different. There is no fourth estate; an invalid theory, says Team Bush. The press is not a watchdog for the public, but another interest group that wants something. (Or, they say, it's an arm of our opponents' operation.) But the press is weak, and almost passe, in the Administration's view. There is no need to deal with it most of the time. It can be denied access with impunity. It can be attacked for bias relentlessly, which charges up Bush supporters. It can be fed gruel and will come back the next day. The Bush crowd has completely changed the game
on journalists, knowing that journalists are unlikely to respond with action nearly as bold. For example, would the press ever pull out of Iraq as a signal to the Bush White House? Never, and this is why it is seen as weak.
Washington journalism likes to imagine itself the Administration's great adversary, but most of the time it relies on access journalism-- not the adversarial kind. "Sources make news" is the first tenet in that system, and that gives sources power. But access journalism makes less and less sense when there is no access, and sources rarely deviate
from the party line. The White House press corps has always been based on access, so much so that the alternatives to it have almost been forgotten. I think there will be pressure to abandon the whole dream of press access under Bush, and re-position some forces accordingly.
Interesting, then, what Daniel Weintraub of the Sacramento Bee said
at PressThink this week: "When my colleagues complain about a lack of access to Schwarzenegger at his media events, I ask, is that kind of access really critical to our doing our jobs? Is it our job to get close enough to describe the color of his tie, or his interaction with a voter, or is it our job to deconstruct the governor's (or president's) policies and proposals, their effect or potential effect on the public, their cost and consequences? Sure it's great to have an interview with the man, or fire away questions at a press conference, but I think good journalists are capable of informing the public without the benefit of these tools." He's thinking of alternatives to access because he's already realized it: Arnold is post-press in his political style.
I expect some news organizations to begin dealing with these pressures by essentially giving in on several counts-- for example, that newsrooms are populated by liberals and conservative voices are too few. Coming to terms with "liberal bias" could be seen as a way of recognizing the reality of the election and responding to continued anger at the press. The most likely place for those efforts to begin is with the supposed finding that "moral values" (read religion
) were the top concern of voters, yet this is not a strength of the liberal, secular press; therefore we need to change-- or something like that. After the Republican sweep, I expect some major initiatives on the bias front.
Keep your eye on Sinclair Broadcasting, in my view
a new kind of media company-- a political empire with television stations. It was built to prosper in the conditions I have described. It already has a self-conscious political identity. It is already steeped in culture war. And it admires and imitates the Bush method of changing the world, but keeping the same language for the new situation.
The years 2004 to 2008 will be an intense and creative period for left wing journalism, which is oppositional
, and for opinion journalism generally.
Journalists who have been paying attention know that something big in their world changed in 2004. (See my list of stuff happening
.) But will they go through the kind of agonizing re-appraisal the Democrats will soon be undertaking? (It's already been called
a "battle for the soul of the Democratic Party.") Or will they let that old weary operating system grind on?
PressThink believes the re-appraisal starts now. So hit the comment button and speak. (Comments closed for the time being.)
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links
Call for Writers: This is a call to professional journalists (people employed in the press) who have something to say to their colleagues in the wake of the 2004 election and in light of bigger developments around us. Over the next few weeks, I would like to invite some guest writers to continue the examination of old think in the press, begun by ex-New York Timesman Doug McGill (The Fading Mystique of an Objective Press
) and Sacramento Bee columnist Daniel Weintraub (No Longer Do the Newsies Decide
.) Background to those pieces was my post, Too Much Reality
, which featured a list of twenty puzzles and problems, such as:
Political attacks seeking to discredit the press and why they're intensifying
Scandals in the news business and the damage they are sowing
The era of greater transparency and what it's doing to modern journalism
Why the culture war keeps going, this year reaching the mainstream press
Why argument journalism is more involving than the informational kind
What has to change in journalism? What was learned in 2004? Send me your press think--in the form of a personal essay with examples and ideas, stories and insights--and if it's good, I will run it. Or e-mail me with an idea. Other guest writers: Ernest Sotomayor
of Unity, Juan Gonzalez
of the Daily News.
Earlier speculations at PressThink (Sep. 2) "Turn to Fox News for Exclusive Coverage of the Republican National Convention."
By 2008 we may see something different emerge: The Republican and Democratic parties negotiate deals with a single network to carry exclusive coverage of the event-- like the Academy Awards, or the Olympics.
, Ernest Miller responds to this post: Whither the Press?
In politics we have opposition parties. Those in each party express one position when it is their party in charge, and castigate the same position when it is championed by the other party in charge. How expected. And how sad. Is this the future we want the press to adopt?
Why not a press that is the permanent party of skepticism and contingent thinking? How about a press, not without bias, certainly, but with a commitment to exposing the facts and a humble recognition of the possibility for error? Why not a press firmly on the side of transparency? Such a position is hardly apolitical. In fact, it is radically engaged with and opposed to "politics" as well as the "view from nowhere
Read the rest
. It is all forward looking.
in her morning-after column for Wall Street Journal (Nov. 4, 2004):
Who was the biggest loser of the 2004 election? It is easy to say Mr. Kerry: he was a poor candidate with a poor campaign. But I do think the biggest loser was the mainstream media, the famous MSM, the initials that became popular in this election cycle. Every time the big networks and big broadsheet national newspapers tried to pull off a bit of pro-liberal mischief--CBS and the fabricated Bush National Guard documents, the New York Times and bombgate, CBS's "60 Minutes" attempting to coordinate the breaking of bombgate on the Sunday before the election--the yeomen of the blogosphere and AM radio and the Internet took them down. It was to me a great historical development in the history of politics in America... God bless the pajama-clad yeomen of America. Some day, when America is hit again, and lines go down, and media are hard to get, these bloggers and site runners and independent Internetters of all sorts will find a way to file, and get their word out, and it will be part of the saving of our country.
Former Newsweek reporter Robert Parry: Too Little, Too Late
Yet, even as conservative foundations were pouring tens of millions of dollars into building hard-edged conservative media outlets, liberal foundations kept repeating the refrain: “We don’t do media.” One key liberal foundation explicitly forbade even submitting funding requests that related to media projects.
What I saw on the Left during this pivotal period was an ostrich-like avoidance of the growing threat from the Right’s rapidly developing news media infrastructure.
President Bush's press conference after victory, from Dan Froomkim's White House Briefing
After Associated Press reporter Terence Hunt opened the questioning with a three-parter, Bush said: "Now that I've got the will of the people at my back, I'm going to start enforcing the one-question rule. That was three."
For mourners only: The election hangover of a lifetime
Latest installment in Big Journalists bravely debunking
bloggers: Frank Barnako, CBS Marketwatch, Bloggers blew it: Much posting, little impact. Here's
Jarvis on it. (Who expected big things from bloggers on election night? I didn't.)