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Tougher political coverage needed – but does it mean an end to impartiality?

COMMENTARY | November 08, 2004

What were the lessons — for reporters and editors — of the 2004 campaign? In particular, we want to know your answer to this question: Where do we go from here?

By Dan Froomkin

Right-wing media critics (professional and amateur alike) contend that the big media story of the 2004 campaign was the blog-spawned exposure of the mainstream press's liberal bent and its anti-Bush fabrications.

There's also a wave of self-flagellation going on right now as some "blue-state" editors do public contrition for their alleged blindness to "red-state" values.

But many other media critics are coming to the conclusion that the most dramatic lesson of this campaign is that the impartial, unemotional postwar model of mainstream journalism simply may not be up to covering the current political climate.

The argument: Out of fear of appearing too partisan or adversarial, the press failed to sufficiently demand answers to important questions, failed to prevent outright falsehoods from gaining currency, failed to uncover deception, malfeasance and incompetence in our most powerful institutions, failed to pierce the façade of cynically stage-managed events, and failed to demand accountability from our leaders.

And now, with the second Bush administration in the offing, the mainstream press faces four more years with a president whose contempt for it is easily measured by his refusal to meet with it regularly — or directly answer its questions when he does.

An opposition press, perhaps?

NYU journalism chair Jay Rosen, writing in his influential blog, wonders if Bush's victory will lead to the rise of an "opposition press" — or at least one with a stronger spine.

"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."

One immediate problem is that, in the administration's view, "the press is weak, and almost passé," Rosen writes. "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 in plush surroundings 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."

And in a Live Online discussion on washingtonpost.com on Nov. 4, New Yorker writer Seymour Hersh wrote that "the major media have been part of the problem since 9-11, merely because they have far too often taken the president's public utterances at face value. There also is a terrific unwillingness, perhaps understandable (though not by me), to make a moral judgment about a president's policies."

These critiques join some that predate the election.

Edward Wasserman, a professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, wrote in the Miami Herald on Nov. 1 that the mainstream media, obsessed with horserace coverage, let partisans set the national agenda, and let the public believe important things that aren't true.

Los Angeles Time media columnist Tim Rutten wrote on Oct. 30 that "there's a growing sense that this race may involve tectonic shifts in the landscape of political journalism. It's still much too early to recognize clearly, let alone chart, what the new lay of the land may be."

One obvious shift: "This election year marked the end of the mainstream broadcast networks' serious participation in American political journalism and the decisive rise to influence of the cable news operations."

Howell Raines cites 'thug politics'

Former New York Times executive editor Howell Raines, writing in the St. Petersburg Times on Oct. 31, blamed the Internet and Fox news for eroding the value of facts "as shaping forces in American public life" and for destroying public trust in the traditional model of journalism. But at the same time, he recognized that what he called "thug politics" was a challenge to that model.

"The Bush-Cheney-Rove technique of treating any reasoned response as an opponent's attempt to divide America has proven so effective that momentous issues - the dismantling of federal environmental enforcement, Halliburton's war profiteering, the Vietnam-like disenchantment of professional military officers - are inadequately addressed on the stump or in campaign coverage."

Media critic David Shaw wrote in an Oct. 17 column in the Los Angeles Times about the media failure laid bare when the public was surprised by John Kerry's performance during the debates.

"What I think happened in that first debate is that Americans had the chance to see (and evaluate) both men standing and speaking on their own, without the filter of handlers or the news media. Handlers, of course, are supposed to filter, indeed to spin, to obfuscate and exaggerate — to make their candidates appear as attractive as possible and to make their opponents seem as unattractive as possible. That's what they get paid to do.

"But the news media are not supposed to obfuscate or exaggerate. They're supposed to illuminate. They're supposed to strip away the filters, counter the spin and give the voters as clear a picture as possible of who the candidates really are and what they really stand for.

" What the post-debate shift in voters' perceptions of Kerry ultimately tells me, much as I hate to say it, is that the news media have done a pretty poor job of campaign coverage. If Kerry can so dramatically change how people perceive him in just 90 minutes on television — without benefit of any real knockout punches by him or serious blunders by Bush, without a genuine, confrontational debate format — it suggests to me that the media hadn't fulfilled their responsibility to tell voters what Kerry is really like, what he stands for, what he would do, who he is."

Where does the press go from here?

Rosen wonders if a network like CNN needs to emerge as the "Democratic" alternative to the Republican-leaning Fox News, allowing it to more boldly voice a dissenting view. But there is nothing overtly partisan about questioning authority. Opposition to deception and distortion doesn't make one a Democrat; it makes one a journalist.

This is only the beginning of what is sure to be a lively, ongoing and important debate – on this Web site and elsewhere. We encourage you to post your comments below.

In particular, we want to know: Where do you think we go from here? What are the important questions we should be asking ourselves? And what role can the Nieman Watchdog Project play?


Impartial Journalism - ?
Posted by Christopher Cross - Lost In America, Org., is a new frontline discussion forum on issues of government corruption and societal indifference that is located at http://www.lostinamerica.blogs.com
11/25/2004, 09:39 AM

Dan, you raise some interesting, yet, double edged sword questions here...

On one hand journalism should idealy be impartial and should certainly be geared towards serving the best interest of society. On the other hand we must ask if this is even possible when media agencies "endorse" a politicial candidate and therein completely erode every legitimate claim they could make in being impratial. Thus, if we are going to start somewhere, it should be in applying public pressure on the media to stop endorcing political candidates at all levels of governemt.

I do not agree with this "award" system...much like rewarding a child for good behavior who then refuses to be good unless he gets an award for doing what he should be doing anyway.

Insofar as public input..great idea, but one should not hold great expectations for the public to be any more impartial than the media and certainly less civil in the discourse expressed in large groups or forums. I do however agree with the smaller and more controlled groups that we saw occurring this past election to a small degree. The smaller the group (around 10 people at the most ) and more diverse the backgrounds the more productive the conversations will be.

Unfortunately, people continue to think that America is composed of large cities and neglect to remember that there are many small towns...small towns that are frequently without a voice in both politics and the media, but no less powerful in their political capital when looking at it in the broader picture.

One of the areas that seriously needs to be studdied since there are none existing thus far that I am aware of is that of weblog's. This remains to be a grossly uncharted territory on all fronts really, but especially in way of political and watchdog weblog's. So if you are truly eager to do a study...start here as undoubtedly it will be of great interest to see what is discovered. But in doing a study, include the best methods for like minded/formatted weblogs to connect with the same. Because as it stands right now, much of it is a hit and miss trial and error method relying mostly upon unfulfilled hopes and wishful dreams.

Lost In America, Org.
http://www.lostinamerica.blogs.com ...

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