August 06, 2004


Journalism has enough crediblity problems without a group of conventioneering editors and reporters responding to a political speech like a bunch of yahoo-ing insurance salesman at the annual Rotary meeting.

The journalists at Unity became Rotarians yesterday when they gave a standing O to John Kerry and interrupted his speech more than 50 times with applause.

What were they thinking?

Both Karen Dunlap, president of Poynter, and her colleague Bob Steele, an ethics instructor, slapped the Unitarians for, as Steele put it, being "unprofessional and unethical."

Here is Steele's most important point: "We should not be activists, we should not behave as partisans. Not only do such roles diminish our standing as professionals, but they fuel the challenges of those critics who already believe that many journalists are biased and incapable of fair reporting on political issues and candidates."

What I want to know is what is the obsession journalists have with inviting politicians to speak to their conventions. ASNE, at its joint convention with NAA in April, heard from President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. Neither said anything noteworthy and, in fact, Bush joked about how insubstantial his speech was going to be. From the convention newspaper:

Bush opened his speech by saying he wanted to outline ways to promote prosperity and secure America.

“Then I’ll be glad to duck some questions,” Bush said, eliciting laughter from the audience. “Just like my mother told me to do.”

Does it have something to do with validation? We're important because the president -- or a presidential candidate -- speaks to us? Is it an arrogant display of power? You must speak to us because we are your conduit to public opinion (or, at least, we think we are).

When the politicians hold their conventions they don't ask the journalists to share the podium and we shouldn't ask them to stand on ours. Besides, when was the last time a political speech was actually newsworthy? At Unity, the newsmaker said nothing and the journalists became the news.

Spanking the Cheerleader: Also on Unity, Jack Shafer of Slate calls the Washington Post's coverage of the convention "credulous, pandering copy only one step removed from a press release."

Hmmm. That's harsh. A certain amount of positive coverage of the convention is to be expected given the longtime desire -- and concomitant failure -- of the news industry to diversify. As I said the other day, applause is need for the effort.

Still, there is some truth to Shafer's assertion that the Post has taken bland to new limits in its coverage of the convention.

As Shafer asks: "Since when is the testimony of convention-goers that they're happy and comfortable to be among their legion considered news? Will Roberts (ed. note: a Post reporter) return to the Washington Convention Center for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (Feb. 25-26, 2005) to collect similarly affirming quotations?"

UPDATE: Andrew Cline at Rhetorica asks the same question I did: What were they thinking? He adds that he finds "the collective behavior of these journalists quite troubling" and then examines, with the academic disclipline I lack, the Unity event in the context of the "philosophical ideal of objectivity."

Posted by Tim Porter at August 6, 2004 07:42 AM

So what does a group of ethically challenged reporters hooting for Kerry have to do with honorable members of Rotary Clubs all over America? What kind of mindset caused to to make that comparison, one wonders.

Posted by: rivlax on August 6, 2004 01:40 PM

[Why have politicians as speakers at journalists' conventions?]


Because it's wise for the politician to accept the invite(fear);

Because the journalists will enjoy being addressed directly by the powerful (validation);

Because those organizing the convention chose to ask - either because this choice is, well, conventional, or because they believe that politicians-as-speakers will boost attendance (commercial success) - in which case they presumably believe that the journalists would rather (or more easily?) be validated than informed.

Interesting parallels here with the distinction between journalism-as-entertainment and journalism-as-informing...

For the record, Rumsfield did make at least one noteworthy** statement at ASNE - as blogged by Jeff Jarvis at

"[Rumsfield] says news organizations are criticized by many. 'But interestingly, my sense is that you're not regularly criticized by each other.'"

* 'noteworthy' as in 'I made a note of it'

Posted by: Anna on August 6, 2004 03:30 PM

Hey, Tim. Thanks for your response. One correction. Karen Dunlap did not slap the Unity crowd for being unprofessional. If you read her piece, it contents itself with asking questions, which she does not answer. There is no criticism in it.

It's an excellent point you make: why invite politicians to these things? Mostly, I think, it's a display of muscle.

Posted by: Jay Rosen on August 9, 2004 09:01 AM

Also for the record, John Kerry spoke at the closing luncheon at ASNE's convention in March, and received a standing ovation there as well. I did not stand, and I advised my students attending the luncheon to remain seated as well, and I explained why.

I found the standing ovations distasteful and inappropriate in both settings. I also found the "toast" given to Bush at the ASNE convention (actually, part of the AP annual meeting program, I believe), even more disturbing.

So what makes this OK at ASNE, but not OK at UNITY?

Posted by: Jesse Garnier on August 13, 2004 05:40 PM
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