November 10, 2004

Liberty and Security: Jay Rosen

On Day 4 of the long march of the Institute for Justice and Journalism’s conference for its 9/11 Security and Liberty fellows, Jay Rosen made public what many of the readers of his blog, Pressthink, have long suspected:

“I live a very strange life,” Rosen told the roomful of mainstream reporters and editors munching on deli platter sandwiches. “I do the same thing every day.”

And what is that thing? In the 18 years since he’s gotten his Ph.D., Rosen says he tries “to repeat the same sentence every day: Journalism is dot dot dot.” Rosen spends the day thinking about how to complete that sentence, gets as far as he can, then does it again the next day.

Rosen previewed his message to the fellows here on Pressthink, in an essay entitled “Not Up to It, which begins:

"Not mainstream journalism the practice, but the contraption it has for explaining, situating and defending itself has in 2004 finally broken down, given out after 40 years of heavy, reliable use."

The “contraption” is the framework of objectivity, which came into widespread fashion in the American press after World War II and then was elevated to canonical level during Richard Nixon’s tarnished presidency.

Ex-New York Timesman Doug Mcgill has written in depth on Pressthink about the collapse of objectivity, and you can read it yourself and decide if the logic works for you. Rosen’s version of the argument is that objectivity framework doesn’t provide journalists with the intellectual or emotional tools to handle the complexities of modern society.

It’s not up to the challenges,” he said. “It’s not up to what the Bush White House is doing to the press. It’s not up to the political situation. It’s not up to covering the war on terror. … Objectivity is not going to answer this for you. It’s not going to tell you how to respond.”

Journalists don’t have the resources to deal with the profound philosophical questions “because they wear an anti-intellectual crown,” said Rosen.

Objectivity "worked for a long time” and “its main job was to limit liability against attack” and criticism for being unfair.

“Wake up!’ Rosen said. “You’re getting attacked anyway. Wake up!”

As you might expect, this type of thinking intrigued some in the room, mostly experienced reporters with backgrounds in investigative reporter, and confounded others.

The answer, said one reporter, is better journalism and more investigative work. That’s not a bad thing, said Rosen, but that’s not the answer because in this society of political spin and concerted disregard by politicians for the value of a free press (“Lots of people in ascendance in power in this country think the press is past tense,” says Rosen.), the truth has lost its value.

“The Bush administration has taken a very radical step toward the press,” says Rosen. “It does not accept the value of the Fourth Estate. … This is by far the most confused, chaotic and threatening moment for this institution” since the red-baiting days of the McCarthy era. The administration, by saying “we won’t give out information and we won’t submit ourselves to questioning” is signaling that it “doesn’t accept the legitimacy” of the press as an institution.

Attacks on the press have diluted the impact of the journalism traditional watchdog role, says Rosen. “It seems to make no difference when you hold people accountable,” he said, adding that terrorism, and the climate of fear now hanging over the nation, “weakens people’s tolerance for the truth-telling. ... Truth-telling might seem dangerous to the average citizen.”

There was plenty more, much of which is mixed in with Rosen’s essay on Pressthink. Read that. I’m off to another day of the conference and will wend with this:

So what’s the answer? How does Rosen answer the question: What should journalism be … ?

He doesn’t. “I’m at the point,” he says, “where I’m waiting for to see who will acknowledge this.”

Journalists, he says, should begin by admitting that the system of objectivity is “overloaded” and then addressing the question of “how can people in the press preserve their power.”

“I don’t think the answer is a partisan press,” says Rosen. The “recovery starts” with the redefining the “role of journalistic storytelling.”

“Storytelling is more important than ever, more potent than ever,” he says, because the narrative can take the public behind the policy into the hearts and minds of the people creating it.

Ultimately, says Rosen, journalists need to answer the question: “How can you be useful again?”

Posted by Tim Porter at November 10, 2004 07:58 AM

Really important stuff, Marc. Damn, I wish I'd been there.

"'The Bush administration has taken a very radical step toward the press,' says Rosen. 'It does not accept the value of the Fourth Estate'"

No friggin' kidding! Yo! Conservatives in the room! You have no idea how excruciating it has been to those of us who do this for a living to find that any criticism of the current administration is viewed as "liberalism"---in other words, partisanship. Guys---IT IS THE FUCKING JOB of the journalist to afflict the comfortable, and to keep those in power in check---whether those in power be on the right or the left of center. All of our freedom depends on it. Please FUCKING understand this.

(This week I'm swearing a LOT more, and am a LOT less sorry about it than I'm sure I should be.)

BTW, Marc, I followed your link to Rosen's essay, then through to Froomkin's too. I recommend everyone captured by this subject, read all three as well.

Rosen's completely got it right. We're all combatants now.

Posted by: rosedog on November 11, 2004 12:19 AM

“how can people in the press preserve their power.”

Exactly what power is that?

The statement earlier "...the truth has lost its value" I disagree with completely. Truth never loses power.

What I suspect is behind the first statement on how the press can "preserve" their power is all about control of the truth, not the power of truth. Look at CBSgate. They tried to control the truth. Facts that didn't support the story were discounted or ignored. When I read about the press preserving it's power, I think they mean the power to control what facts make it into the news and what facts are left out since they don't "fit" the story.

With the Internet, those days are over. Controlling facts will no longer work since there are alternate means to get the facts out there.

As rosedog puts it:

"Guys---IT IS THE FUCKING JOB of the journalist to afflict the comfortable, and to keep those in power in check"

Guess what rosedog - others are now keeping journalists in check. Get used to it. Accountability should not just apply to administrations, but also to CBS News and the New York Times. It applies down to the smallest newspaper. This is not driven by the government, but by people who now can respond when a story is incorrect. Writing letters to the editor and hoping they will be printed isn't the only way to express disagreement. Now, the larger the readership, the greater the scrutiny. And the ability to immediately make visible hidden facts.

What is the answer? Stop trying to selectively control facts and report them all. Whether or not they "fit" the story. Or else properly label it as opinion and not call it news.

Above all - grow up and start realizing the world has changed. The old adage was "Don't argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel" doesn't apply anymore. We all can equally buy pixels on the Internet. The focus is again on the merits of the story, not where it is published (or broadcast). Isn't that a good thing?



Posted by: Jeffe on November 13, 2004 05:52 AM
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