The debate over news and new media is too often tribal. And though it may make for lively debate, tribalism impairs judgment. Yesterday, Jeff Bercovici blamed a 21-year-old stringer for the violent deaths of 24 people, including seven United Nations workers in riots in Afghanistan, after AFP published his account of a Koran-burning in Florida by Terry Jones, the unhinged pastor. The context, according to Bercovici: the report went against an informal media consensus to ignore Jones’s antics. This has been rebutted elsewhere, so I won’t go into detail on it. But there is a basic problem in arguing that journalism – communicating information about something that happened – is by definition a provocation, or that people looking to provoke, and people susceptible to provocation, won’t find some instrument to express themselves no matter what AFP does. In addition, old media is not a cartel; media outlets cannot collectively agree to “disappear” an event any more than investment banks can all agree buy stocks in order to make the market go up. And if they could, what standards are they supposed to use?

But there’s another issue here. This post – which took shots at Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis – was also reminiscent of Bill Keller’s attack on Arianna Huffington and the Huffington Post. As Bercovici’s subject was citizen journalism – or journalism outside the old media cartel and its values and standards – Keller’s subject was aggregation. The problem here is that “aggregation” wasn’t Arianna’s idea. It is a technological and economic feature of the web as it currently exists. It’s very easy to set up a website or an app and pull in content from many sources. This is a useful service. Sometimes this occurs illegally, and/or without permission, and the HuffPo has done some things with NYT content that the NYT doesn’t appreciate. But if that’s really the problem, a magazine column isn’t the place to deal with it.

By personalizing the issue, Keller trivialized it. Aggregation is a force that that legacy media must grapple with. (Indeed, the NYT does some aggregating of its own.) Markets, technology, clicks and eyeballs aren’t personal. Attacking individuals instead of acknowledging this reality is unserious. The problem here is oversimplifying and anthropomorphizing complex forces, putting a human face on uncontrollable trends the writer disdains. This a common feature of politics – which should tell you something. It’s a terrible way to do journalism. For journalists, anecdotes can carry great power, but in each of these instances the anecdote collapses under the weight of the subject it’s supposed to exemplify. The broader problem here is viewing new media from a position that is simultaneously both defensive and dismissive. That is not a good frame of mind to bring to bear on a rapidly emerging global economic and social phenomenon. The forces being unleashed by new media and social media are formidable. And for journalists, worthy of respect and a sincere effort to understand them. Even if they piss you off.

Jay Rosen has a piece on the once-standard, but now increasingly in disfavor “he-said, she-said” approach to journalism: when some politician or interest group gets up and lies, and the journalist’s response is not to point this out but to blandly quote someone from the “other side” of the argument and stop there. The problem with this is that it implicitly assumes what everyone now knows to be wrong: that public figures make statements that can be taken at face value, and the truth can be ascertained by juxtaposing contradictory statements.

It’s been obvious for some time that this is unworkable because the public “conversation” is too splintered, its participants too practiced and manipulative. Nobody agrees on what the terms of the conversation are. Public figures aren’t merely shilling for themselves, but for multiple, layered economic and cultural interests. They are embedded in intricate communications networks. For instance, a member of Congress once had to pay attention chiefly to what was happening in his/her district, what the local Chamber of Commerce and unions thought, what kind of complaints were coming into the district office. Today, though, all issues are to some degree “nationalized.” If the member is a Republican, his public utterances will also be shaped by Fox News’s and Rush Limbaugh’s interpretation of the day’s events; by interest groups such as the Club for Growth or the Family Research Council. All of these sources are force multipliers, highly useful in political messaging. But of course they’re BS multipliers too.

As a result there are competing narratives for everything. There is also an ironic narrative that comments on the competing narratives. There are insane narratives that are popular because of their insanity. And nobody ever admits error because there is little incentive to do so – your followers, who have invested in your narrative, may desert you.

So, journalists should be ready to call BS when they see it. That capacity, after all, is an important engine of journalistic credibility. And, put simply, it goes with the territory today. It’s necessary to understand a complex and often dishonest conversation. Sometimes, it requires making value judgments that journalists aren’t comfortable (or even good at) making. But the alternative is getting left out of the conversation entirely, as Jay notes:

At a certain point in this dynamic, he said, she said journalism loses its utility and becomes one of the things dragging the news business down. But as the industry sheds people and newsrooms thin out, there could be greater reliance on a more and more bankrupt and trust-rotting practice. That’s a downward spiral.

Last night Jon Stewart tweaked Robert Gibbs for his evasive answers about Obama’s various appointment difficulties. As TDS does so devastatingly, clips of the Gibbs briefing were juxtaposed with now-classic non-responsive responses from Ari Fleischer, Dana Perino and Scott McClellan. Plus: Gibbs looks like the demon-spawn of McClellan and Rove!

Is this fair? Well, yes and no. (On Twitter, Jay Rosen and Ana Marie Cox have been tweaking each other on this topic, Cox having written a piece likening the Obama press strategy – such as it is – to Bush’s, Rosen disagreeing. Today, the Daily Show video became exhibit A for Cox.) Yes, because it is a press secretary’s job to BS the press. Always has been, always will be. And the White House press briefing is almost always a deep font of BS, some of it coming from the White House, some from the media. Jon Stewart should be pointing out that these basic conditions are unchanged even in the new Golden Age of Obama.

But on another level, it’s not a fair comparison. Gibbs’s basic approach (no hypotheticals, repeat talking points to get around embarrassing questions, et al) has been the default approach of press secretaries since at least the Nixon era. But that doesn’t mean that all press secretaries are equal. Each presidency has different ambient levels of BS, influenced by events and political strategies, that shape what happens in those briefings. In the case of George W. Bush, the BS levels were stratospheric. The idea was to to deny that anything even remotely off-message, um, existed.

While Obama has no great love for the White House press corps, he seems to recognize that taking spin to such absurd lengths is counterproductive. As Stewart pointed out, he did multiple interviews with network anchors Tuesday and said he made a mistake trying to push Daschle through. Next week he’s got a prime-time press conference. That said, nobody knows how his relationship with the establishment press will play out. No doubt, at some point Gibbs will be forced to scale the heights of Fleischer-esque mendacity. But I sort of doubt he’ll be able to keep it up.

Once, the media could unilaterally shape the political debate – a legacy of the (short-lived) postwar political consensus and the media’s monolithic dominance of airwaves, newsprint, etc. Jay Rosen has mapped out the arbitrary ways this consensus-generating machine worked, and why it’s now breaking down:

Now we can see why blogging and the Net matter so greatly in political journalism. In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized— meaning they were connected “up” to Big Media but not across to each other. But today one of the biggest factors changing our world is the falling cost for like-minded people to locate each other, share information, trade impressions and realize their number. Among the first things they may do is establish that the “sphere of legitimate debate” as defined by journalists doesn’t match up with their own definition.

It’s good to have a million voices calling BS on big media’s persistent, strange, Reagan-era take on American politics. I wonder, though, what effects the combination of declining cultural relevance and the implosion of the media business will have on the relationship between media and government. One virtue of having big media institutions is that, sometimes, their clout and claim to represent a consensus view could be brought to bear on serious government transgressions – the classic examples being Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, and more recently, the New York Times’s exposure of the Bush warrantless eavesdropping program.

Obviously, you can’t turn back the clock. You can’t leverage authority that no longer exists. A new configuration of old/new media is still taking shape. So: will a vastly more diverse but also more diffuse media ecosystem still have the ability (via individual media outlet, or via a swarm) to bring pressure to bear on the upper levels of government?

Jay Rosen has written an interesting exegesis of Scott McClellan and his book – specifically, on the peculiar nature of McClellan-as-press-secretary. Why, Rosen asks, did the White House choose such a lousy, fumbling communicator for this job, which had been regarded as the public face of the modern, media-driven presidency? The answer is that it was part and parcel of a White House strategy to marginalize and delegitimize the mainstream media, embedded in a larger project of aggrandizing presidential power by systematically making the presidency less open, less publicly accountable:

For Bush and Cheney greater opacity in government signifies the president’s unchallenged power. Don’t answer questions; it encourages people to think that you can be questioned. Give up on persuasion; propaganda gets the job done more efficiently. Reason-giving only shows weakness; when the real reasons are elsewhere that shows strength.

Rosen goes on to note that this approach has obviously failed, by leading more or less directly to the collapse of the White House’s credibility on Iraq and, well, everything else, and with that, its public support. (Nowhere was this more immediately apparent than during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when upbeat White House statements and the terrible realities unfolding live on TV screens were so jarringly at odds that it caused a brief upwelling of outrage from the normally more credulous MSM.)

It’s not surprising that the Bush-Cheney White House wanted to avoid and denigrate the mainstream media to the extent possible, given its likely hostility to so many aspects of the Bush presidency. In this context, what is surprising is how accommodating the media have been to all the BS they were fed, not just in the runup to the Iraq war, but in other areas as well, where a default “respect the Great Man of History” ethos still rules – as Jay notes, something that started with Teddy Roosevelt.

I’m wondering, though, if he gives Bush and Cheney too much credit for evil genius here. Remember, this White House isn’t actually good at much of anything except the electoral black arts and turning out hardcore Republican votes on election day 2004. It simply doesn’t do domestic policy, foreign affairs, or war, at least not in any strategic sense. The same is true of White House communications, where choices on which media outlets to favor were shaped more by crude hostility and ideological conformity than anything else. It’s easier to see the McClellan appointment as something merely desultory (like so much else with Bush), a reward to a hack for loyalty, rather than the crux of a considered anti-media strategy.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.