January 23, 2004

Politics, "The Press" and Servant Journalism

Somebody's always getting slammed in a political campaign. If it isn't one of the candidates, it's often the press - and deservedly so in most cases.

Yesterday, I pointed out a New York Times story in which political reporters defensively tried to explain their misread of the Iowa primary.

Jay Rosen and Cole Campbell expand on that theme in explanations of how the press is a political player and how campaign reporters create - and then dash - their own expectations of candidate performance.

Rosen, writing on Tom Paine.com and then reposting on his own PressThink, outlines "seven interlocking parts in a kind of contraption political journalists operate for us every four years-campaign coverage." They are The Gaffe, The Expectations Game ("when a candidate "wins" by losing but doing better than the press expected, or "loses" by winning but doing worse"), The Horse Race, The Ad Watch, Inside Baseball, Electability News, and Spin Alley.

The "campaign coverage contraption makes it easier to report on a presidential campaign," writes Rosen. "And safer. With everyone using the same 'instructions,' competition among journalists is reduced. Risk is spread. This makes it possible for journalists to stand back from the ritual, and comment on its absurdities, knowing that other journalists will continue the ritual, and thus continue the absurdities." (Emphasis added.)

In Cole Campbell's piece, also on PressThink, the former editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch points out that "just about everything you heard and read about the Iowa caucuses in November and December was wrong. Particularly those endless pieces about the importance of strong grass-roots organizations. The press would have done better if all the reporters had taken a long vacation."

He goes on to chastise the campaign press for failing to concede error and instead spinning its own journalistic shortcomings as a political defeat for Dean, whom reporters had capriciously anointed as frontrunner. Campbell asks:

"Who enthroned Dean and named him the front-runner? By what criteria can journalists claim he has been dealt a serious blow or dethroned? Who vaunted his grass-roots movement, and who characterized his position as 'near-invincible'?"

Read both pieces, and then think about the question Leonard Witt of the Public Journalism Network asks in a comment to Campbell's piece: "What can the press do differently to help us get the real story?"

I don't know what the answer is, but I do know where to start looking - outside the "campaign coverage contraption," as Rosen puts it, or, in my view, outside the normal newsroom hierarchy that operates the contraption and whose decision-making is too often driven by an ingrained fear of missing the news rather than by an emboldened desire to make some news.

What does that mean? It means breaking away from the pack. It means not being the 110th reporter in New Hampshire. It means throwing out the political playbook of chestnut stories - folksy chats in coffee shops, poll stories, reaction to poll stories, etc.

For newspapers, it means listening to their readers - to their audience, to their customers - and hearing their political concerns and their community agenda, and then going after focused, well-reported news stories that fulfill those needs.

Ultimately, it means independence, each newspaper defining its political coverage through the filter of its own community - something it should be doing for all its reporting to escape the journalistic generica found on front page after front page. Independence breeds freedom [ Read: Josh Marshall's comments in Public Journalism, Privately Funded ], and those accustomed to group think fear the untethered mind.

Newspapers must break free of the self-important institutional mindset of "the press" and pursue individual identities that establish them not as political players, a role that looks inward to the makers of news, but as servants of the community, a role that faces outward to the readers of news.

Links
 Tom Paine.com: Jay Rosen Press Think
 PressThink: Cole Campbell The Day After Iowa

Posted by Tim Porter at January 23, 2004 09:10 AM
Comments

Thanks Tim for the mentions. Tomorrow, Sunday, January 25 marks the first anniversary of the Public Journalism Network, and I am composing a state of the network post for tomorrow at PJNet.org. In essence I am going to say that public journalism has new DNA thanks to the influence of weblogs. And what you have been writing about the last two days is direct evidence of the power of that DNA. Thanks again and keep up the good work.

Posted by: Leonard Witt on January 24, 2004 08:41 AM
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