Jay Rosen offers a preview of the chapter he’s writing for our book… which I suspect is, in part, a preview of the book he’s working on. He explains that, historically, much of the literature about journalism focuses on “the sociology of the newsroom”, looking at how news actually gets made by journalists. Something that becomes abundantly clear from these works is that “mainstream journalists work under vastly imperfect conditions” – under tight deadlines, often with little background knowledge of a story, frequently with difficult editorial constraints.
Jay believes that the overwhelming emotion most journalists feel is “the fear of getting it wrong.” As a response to the perpetual fear of being wrong, journalists have stopped taking responsibility for the truth claims of their reports, just that they’ve followed the rituals correctly: “We called you for your reaction on the story. We followed our rules.” These rituals – many of which focus on reporting what a person said without an analysis of whether it’s factually correct – are designed to prove “the political innocence of the press”.
Jay contends that all political journalists work basically the same way. This results in “he said, she said” coverage, and “horserace coverage” of political races. It also leads to an “inside baseball” mentality , which doesn’t claim to tell people what’s true, what’s important or what they care about… but what the inside players are saying and doing.
Jay believes that mainstream journalists have their own ideology. It’s not left or right, but “savvy”. The “savvy ideology” includes the beliefs that surfaces are always misleading, that one needs to dig to find the actual stories, that the public is manipulable, and therefore polling and campaigning are important and worth explaining. Savviness allows journalists to be knowledgable but politically innocent, staying within their rituals of objectivity.
Jay feels that several factors have recently make the constraints on mainstream political journalism untenable. One is the fact that some journalists became pundits, making it clear that they were not, in fact, politically neutral. Another is the fact that political operatives understand the rituals of journalism and manipulate them, releasing bad news on Fridays, for instance – this has made political journalism even less effective in communicating realities, and more a tool of communicating manufactured perceptions.
Jay believes that blogs became such a powerful force in political discourse because because political journalism is so constrained. Journalists can’t evaluate truth claims – bloggers can. Journalists aren’t permitted (or don’t permit themselves) to go beyond the usual suspects – bloggers can and do. Journalists have to represent themselves as free of political bias – bloggers don’t and are transparent about their biases.
Jay believes that by 2000, political journalists were incapable of truth telling. Bloggers could tell the truth, and therefore become powerful. It’s not that journalists don’t know the truth, Jay believes – they simply can’t deal with the implications of speaking that truth.
Another reason Jay thinks political bloggers are powerful is that they serve as a “court of appeals” regarding media attention. If a story doesn’t make it big within 24 hours, it traditionally dies in mainstream media. Blogs can overturn the judgement of the lower court of mainstream media and give new life to a spiked story.
(I like this analogy a great deal, in no small part because it implies that there are other stories that never get a hearing in lower court. We can’t blame bloggers for failing to amplify news from some parts of Africa if those stories are never reported in the first place.)
Daniel Drezner observes that blogs are only one of several responses to the sclerosis of political journalism Jay is describing, including talk radio and opinion journalism. Are blogs unusually successful as compared to these other reactions?
Jay suggests that bloggers are skilled in the new medium of writing on the web. Writing on the web requires writing with hyperlinks, which is a surprisingly difficult art – bloggers are more skilled at this new technique than offline writers, wich implies they’ll be more effective communicators in this new medium.
The question that I’d love Jay to answer, but I don’t think I can ask in this setting: is there an optimistic vision for political journalism that involves truth-telling, in the way that blogs tell the truth? Can journalism survive this revolution, or does the rise of the blog signify the death of political journalism?