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26 August 2011
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Why Political Coverage is Broken

By Jay Rosen

My keynote address at  New News 2011, presented by the Melbourne Writers Festival and the Public Interest Journalism Foundation at Swinburne University of Technology, August 26, 2011.

This talk had its origins in my appearance about a year ago on the ABC’s Lateline with Leigh Sales. We were discussing election coverage that looks at the campaign as a kind of sporting event. Every day journalists can ask, “who’s ahead” and “what is the strategy for winning?”  This perspective appeals to political reporters, I said, because it puts them “on the inside, looking at the campaign the way the operatives do.”

I then mentioned the ABC’s Sunday morning program, The Insiders. And I asked Leigh Sales if it was true that the insiders were, on that program, the journalists. She said: “That is right.” I said: “That’s remarkable.” She… well, she changed the subject. And let me add right away that Leigh Sales is one of the most intelligent journalists I have ever had the pleasure to meet.

So this is my theme tonight: how did we get to the point where it seems entirely natural for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to describe political journalists appearing on its air as… “the insiders?”  Don’t think you think that’s a little strange? I do. Promoting journalists as insiders in front of the outsiders, that is to us, the viewers, the electorate…. this is a clue to what’s broken about political coverage in the U.S. and Australia. Here’s the way I would summarize it: Things are out of alignment. Journalists are identifying with the wrong people. Therefore the kind of work they are doing is not as useful as we need it to be.

Part of the problem was identified by Lindsay Tanner in his book, Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy. He points out how often the Australian press reframes politics as entertainment, seizing on trivial episodes that amuse or titillate and then blowing them up until they start to seem important. I’m not going to dwell on this because Tanner has it well covered. So did my mentor in graduate school, Neil Postman, in his 1985 classic, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

From a TV programmer’s point of view the advantage of politics-as-entertainment is that the main characters, the politicians themselves, work for free! The media doesn’t have to pay the main characters the because taxpayers do. The sets are provided by the government, the plots by the party leaders, back benchers and spin doctors. Politics as problem-solving or consensus-building would be more expensive to cover. Politics as entertainment is simply a low cost alternative.

Tanner points out how the term “yarn” is often used by journalists here to describe the sort of stories they love to cover, as in: “it’s a good yarn.” A yarn used to refer to stories that were semi-fictionalized to make them more entertaining. That echo is still there, but Australian journalists don’t seem to realize this when they use the term to describe their work.

Politics presented as entertainment charges the press with a failure to treat the serious stuff seriously. And that is a valid critique. But here’s an even trickier problem: even when the press is trying to be serious, to provide, say, “analysis” instead of a good yarn, it increasingly relies on an impoverished notion of politics, a cluster of bad ideas that together form the common sense of the craft in the United States, and in Australia.

I was here during the election campaign last year, and saw enough to see strong similarities between my country’s press and yours on most of the points I will raise. If I get something wrong, if I over-draw the comparison, I’m sure someone will tell me during the question period.

I’m going to concentrate on three impoverished and interrelated ideas that (I say) have too much influence in political coverage.  Then I will present a few alternative ideas that might improve the situation.

Three impoverished ideas:

1. Politics as an inside game.

2. The cult of savviness.

3. The production of innocence.

Politics as an inside game.

The first idea we could do without is the one I presented to Leigh Sales. When journalists define politics as a game played by the insiders, their job description becomes: find out what the insiders are doing to “win” the game. Reveal those tactics to the public because then the public can… well, this is where it gets dodgy. As my friend Todd Gitlin once wrote, news coverage that treats politics as an insiders’ game invites the public to become “cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement,” which is a strange. Or it lavishes attention of media performances, because the insiders are supposed to be good at that: manipulating the media.

Here’s a simple example from an article a few days ago in The Australian. There was nothing especially obnoxious about this piece. I picked it because it was typical in presenting politics as an inside game. The headline was: Labor looks at conscience vote to defuse same-sex marriage split. It told us how insiders in the Labor Party were afraid that a divisive debate on same-sex marriage would “dominate media coverage” of the party conference, creating the impression” that the Greens are dictating the agenda. “The last thing we need is for the big story of our conference being about same-sex marriage,” a senior party source told The Australian. “We need it to be about a mainstream issue – a Labor issue – not an issue that it looks like Bob Brown thrust upon us.”

See what I mean? The insiders are worried about how their conference is going to “play” in the media. They are trying to make the story come out a certain way. Reporters grant them anonymity so these struggles can be publicized. But if today’s media report about politics is about how the media will be reporting a political event tomorrow, there’s obviously something circular in that. And this how it begins to make sense to call the journalists “insiders.” Everyone is engaged in the production of media narratives. Journalists and politicians are both “inside” the story making machinery.

Now I’m going to teach you a little press critic’s trick: One way to detect the dominant ideas at play in any familiar form of journalism is to ask how that form positions the users. Politics as a game played by the insiders positions us as connoisseurs of our own bamboozlement. Or, alternatively, we can feel like insiders ourselves. Which brings me to a second idea we could do without…

The cult of savviness.

In the United States, most of the people who report on politics aren’t trying to advance an ideology. But I think they have an ideology, a belief system that holds their world together and tells them what to report about. It’s not left, or right, or center, really. It’s trickier than that. The name I’ve given to the ideology of our political press is savviness. And I see it in Australia too. When you watch political journalists on a roundtable program summing up the week and looking ahead, what they are usually performing for us is… their savviness.

So let me explain what I mean by that term.  In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane.  Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.)

Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political. And what is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Or knowing who the winners are.

To the people inside it, savviness is not a cult. It is not a professional church or “belief system.” They would probably reject my terms. But they would say that journalists need to be savvy observers because in politics the unsavvy are hapless, clueless, deluded, clownish, or in some cases extreme.  The unsavvy get run over: easily. They get disappointed: needlessly. They get angry–fruitlessly–because they don’t know how things really work.

Prohibited from joining in political struggles, dedicated to observing what is, regardless of whether it ought to be, the savvy believe that these disciplines afford them a special view of the arena, cured of excess sentiment, useless passon, ideological certitude and other defects of vision that players in the system routinely exhibit.  Therefore the savvy don’t say: I have a better argument than you. They say: I am closer to reality than you. Especially if you are active in politics yourself.

Now in order for this belief system to operate effectively, it has to continually position the journalist and his observations not as right where others are wrong, or virtuous where others are corrupt, or visionary where others are short-sghted, but as practical, hardheaded, unsentimental, and shrewd where others are didactic, ideological, and dreamy.  This is part of what’s so insidious about press savviness: it tries to hog political realism to itself.

But even more insidious than that is the positioning effect. Remember what I taught you: to understand the ideas in play, ask how a given form of journalism positions us, the users of it. What’s so weird about savviness is that it tries to position us as insiders, invited to speculate along with journalists and other players on how the mass public will react to the latest maneuverings. But the public is us.  We are the public. But we are also the customers for the savviness product. Don’t you see how strange that is?

Take the most generic “savviness question” there is. One journalist asks another: how will this play with the voters? Listening to that, how will this play with the voters, haven’t you ever wanted to shout at your television set, “hey buddy… (sorry, hey mate) I’m a voter! Don’t talk about me like I’m not in the room when I’m sitting right here watching you.” This is what’s so odd about savviness as a political style performed for the public. It tries to split the attentive public off from the rest of the electorate, and get us to join up with the insiders. Under its gaze, other people become objects of political technique.

In campaign coverage, for example, nothing is more common that a good lesson in candidate strategy: how Mitt Romney plans to capture the nomination by skipping the Iowa caucuses. Or: Julia Gillard’s plan for taking Sydney’s western suburbs. That’s what fascinates the pros, the insiders. But think about it for moment: should we give our votes to the candidate with the best strategy for capturing our votes? Something is off there, or as I said earlier: circular. Misaligned.

A third idea we could do without helps explain why the first two–politics as a strategic game, the cult of savviness–are so common in the political press…

The production of innocence. 

This isn’t preached in journalism school or discussed in newsrooms; and it forms no conscious part of the journalist’s self-image. But it is real, a major factor in the news we get about politics.

By the production of innocence I mean ways of reporting the news that try to advertise or “prove” to us that the press is neutral in its descriptions, a non-partisan presenter of facts, a non-factor and non-actor in events. Innocence means reporters are mere recorders, without stake or interest in the matter at hand. They aren’t responsible for what happens, only for telling you about it. When you hear, “don’t shoot the messenger” you are hearing a journalist declare his or innocence.

This basic message—we’re innocent because we’re uninvolved—isn’t something to be stated once, in a professional code of conduct or an “about” page. It has to be said many times a day in the course of writing and reporting the news. The genre known as He said, she said journalism is perhaps the most familiar example. But so is horse race journalism, in which the master narrative for covering an election is: who’s ahead?  Journalists will tend to favor descriptions of political life that are a.) true, in that verifiable facts support the story; and b.) convenient for the continuous production of their own innocence.

One of the great attractions to horse-race journalism is that it permits reporters and pundits to play up their detachment. Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because “who’s gonna win?” is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession. This is experienced as pleasure by a lot of mainstream journalists. Innocence is bliss.

The quest for innocence in political journalism means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus “prove” in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade. But this can get in the way of describing things!  He said, she said journalism doesn’t tell us who’s distorting the picture more. It is neutral on where the reality is, but reality is not something journalists can afford to be neutral about!

Political journalism should help us get our bearings in a world of confusing claims and counter-claims. But instead we have savviness, the dialect of insiders bringing us into their games. Nothing is more characteristic of the savvy style than statements like “in politics, perception is reality.” Doesn’t that statement make you mad? Whenever I hear it, I want to interrupt and say, “No, no, no. You have it wrong. In politics, perception isn’t reality. Reality is reality!”

But then I stop myself. Because I realize I sound like a lunatic.

I want to read you a famous from American journalist Ron Suskind’s account of the Bush White House in 2004. It was called “Beyond a Doubt” and it told of a “retreat from empiricism” in the Bush White House. You’ll probably recognize parts of it. Here’s journalist Ron Suskind, who had a lot of sources within the Bush government.

“In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush,” Suskind wrote, introducing his characters. “He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.”

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

I had a chance to meet Suskind once, to look into his eyes and judge for myself whether this chilling story was something that actually happened, or just a good yarn. I think it actually happened. And we can see the evidence in our politics.

The leading contender for the Republican nomination for president, Rick Perry, is emerging as a climate change denialist. We might call this verification in reverse. Verification, which is crucial to journalism, means nailing down assertions with verifiable facts. Verification in reverse is taking established facts and manufacturing doubt about them, which creates political friction, and the friction then becomes an energy source you can use for campaigning. It’s a political technique.

Now: how should political journalists stand toward this technique? As savvy insiders who know how the game is played and need to maintain their innocence? If they do that, and verification in reverse grows and succeeds, it will be the equivalent of running over the press with a truck. Journalism will become superflous. “When we act, we create our own reality” wasn’t so much boast as a taunt. It was an operative telling a journalist, “you don’t count.” We can create our own reality and you guys can’t stop us.

What is to be done: A thought experiment

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: Yes, Jay, but what do we do about all this? Do you have a better idea?

I do. But I have to admit, it’s only an idea. A thousand things stand in its way. The savvy would tell me: this is not practical. So let’s call it a thought experiment. Its purpose its just to loosen up our imaginations, and point the way to something better. Imagine the entirety of the political reporting and commentary produced by the Washington bureau of the New York Times or the political staff of the ABC and plot it on a grid. On the left side of the page: appearances. On the right side: realities. On the top of the page arguments. On the bottom facts. Appearances, realities, arguments and facts. All political news should be divided into these categories, and journalists should organize their daily report into my four quadrants.

Under appearances we find everything that is just that: the attempt to make things appear a certain way. All media stunts. Everything that fits under the management of impressions. Or politics as entertainment. The photo ops. The press releases issued in lieu of doing something. Lindsay Tanner’s book is full of examples from the day to day life of a minister of government. My suggestion is report appearances as just that: mere appearances. Which would be a way of jeering at them, and labeling them not quite real. So the appearances section would be heavy on satire and simple quotation. In the U.S., Jon Stewart has become a huge star by satirizing the world of appearances. This would be a way to get in on some of that action. Appearances, then, is a way of downgrading or penalizing politicians who deal in the fake, the trivial, the merely sensation. In other words: watch out or you’ll wind up in the appearances column.

Under realities we find everything that is actually about real problems, real solutions, real proposals, consequential plans and of course events that deserve the title: political events.  This is the political news proper, cured of what Tanner calls the sideshow.

But then there’s my other axis. Arguments and facts. Both are important, both are a valid part of politics.

So imagine my four quadrants.

The bottom left: Appearances rendered as fact. Example: the media stunt.

Top left: Phony arguments. Manufactured controversies. Sideshows.

Bottom right. Today’s new realities: get the facts. The actual news of politics.

Top right: Real arguments: Debates, legitimate controversies, important speeches.

Now imagine all of today’s political news and commentary sorted into these four quadrants. This becomes the new portal to political news. Appearances and realities, arguments and facts. To render the political world that way, journalists would have to exercise their judgment about what is real and what is not. And this is exactly what would bring them into proper alignment with our needs as citizens.

Draft post. Uncorrected. Likely to be revised a bit after I give this talk.

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