Fellow IdeaLabber Jay Rosen, an NYU journalism professor and PressThinker, mounted a campaign this weekend to encourage the political press to grow a spine.

Rosen and others are calling for journalists of all stripes (professionals, amateurs, citizens, bloggers, etc.) to use a #spinewatch tag on Twitter and elsewhere to call attention to whether or not the professional press covering the home stretch of the 2008 presidential election is standing up to stonewalling candidates or sitting back and repeating their talking points.

In an IM interview today, Jay said:

“The premise behind spinewatch is more this: It’s hard for me to see how you can have a more legitimate or consensus practice in campaign journalism than fact-checking the empirical claims candidates make — in ads, speeches, interviews — as they compete for votes. In other words, if the press cannot at least do that, what is it good for?”

The full IM transcript after the jump…

Ryan Sholin: Let’s start with the givens: Your professional and political opinion is that the professional press has been lax in calling out campaign lies, half-truths, and general BS, right?

Jay Rosen: Yes, but this has been true for some time, long before the 2008 campaign started. There are some signs of a shift. And of course the situation has reached something close to emergency status ever since this interview McCain did with Time magazine on Aug. 28.

RS: Do you see that interview as a milestone for the press “growing a pair” or as a sign of the turn to come in the home stretch of this election?

JR: No, it was where McCain began to signal that the culture war strategy, including beating up on the press and refusing to answer questions, was on the way.

He let Jay Carney know that not only was the Straight Talk Express closed down, but the fact that he had shifted gears and was not running an “always open” campaign could itself be denied. To Carney, nothing could be firmer, more empirical than the “fact” that McCain wasn’t running the kind of campaign where he would answer questions all day long — or at all. (He hasn’t had a press conference in more than a month.)

McCain’s staff did not try to deny it, all the reporters knew it, anyone who had covered McCain in the past could see it in a second, and yet when Carney asked, why the change? do you miss the old way? McCain literally said to him, “I don’t know what you are talking about.” Carney has since said he was astonished, taken back by this.

But it was a sign. McCain was going to defy the press, refuse to answer questions, and even deny things reporters knew from their own eyes and ears. He was declaring independence from the Straight Talk Express, yes, but far more from the loose conventions that had prevailed in campaign discourse setting acceptable limits on truth stretching. He was going to go to war with the press, and try to override facts in the way of his message.

RS: So the premise behind spinewatch then, is that as the candidates shift into a gear that involves more of their own message and less open dialogue with the press, and thus (theoretically at least) the American people, we need to keep our eyes on the political press, and point out when they succeed at having a spine or not?

JR: The premise behind spinewatch is more this: It’s hard for me to see how you can have a more legitimate or consensus practice in campaign journalism than fact-checking the empirical claims candidates make — in ads, speeches, interviews — as they compete for votes. In other words, if the press cannot at least do that, what is it good for? Can we even use words like “watchdog” or “check on power” if it cannot fact check the candidates?

But in developing this practice—with sites like Politifact.com and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker column — journalists were working with an assumption that if they cried foul loudly enough, it would rein in the candidates because “negative” coverage in what the campaign pros call “free media” hurts the campaign.

But the rules and assumptions underlying the fact checking regime are vulnerable to challenge from any campaign that a) doesn’t care if it’s called out, b) is willing to deny in a flat, affectless way realities as plain as the nose on Jay Carney’s shellshocked face, and c) has incorporated attacks on the news media into the heart of its appeal to voters.

In response to this extraordinary challenge to one of the most legitimate “checking” functions they have, journalists need a stronger spine; they have to call out the strategic use of deception and the amazing retreat from empiricism that we have seen from the McCain camp. And if Obama starts doing the same thing, they need a stiff spine for that too.

RS: So, if Politifact and similar efforts don’t get the attention of voters, how can spinewatch?

JR: Spinewatch is unlikely to have much impact with voters. If it has any effects at all — and I am not sure it will, really — it would be to convince more people in the press to “show spine” in the sense that I have described it here.

JR: As you know there’s a strong “herd” element in the campaign press. If people can see that others have a response to this challenge, it makes them think about their own response.

I want to highlight something Tom Edsall said at Huff Post. He had a long career as a political reporter with the Washington Post including many campaigns. He said the McCain campaign is “gambling that the traditional rules governing what is permissible in presidential contests — as defined by the mainstream media — can safely be discarded this year.”

Can it work? We don’t know. But it is certainly a challenge to the authority of the press and its ability to “check” the powerful. It’s also part of a larger and even more disturbing trend that developed under Bush.

It’s what I call (after Ron Suskind’s use of the term) the retreat from empiricism. That’s not an electioneering tactic; it’s a philosophy of government that requires running over the press in the same way that McCain did with Jay Carney — who still hasn’t figured out what hit him, by the way.

RS: Let’s talk about the toolset you’re using. There’s a #spinewatch tag on Twitter (and I suppose that should go for technorati, delciious, and everywhere on the live Web), and a Publish2 tag that professional journalists can use to point to links that show the press doing it right (or wrong?). Why did you choose these tools, and what others might be used to bring these links to a wider audience?

JR: There’s a publish2 tag but also a Publish2 newsgroup where links are collected and framed to highlight why each one is a spinewatch story.

Why these tools? Well, the hashtag is simple, it’s a known method I have seen used before, and it spreads easily via Twitter. Scott Karp had demo’d Publish2.com for me and I wanted to help him test it, as well as learn it myself, since it really was made for what I do in my Twitter feed. Other methods? Well, this started with a Tweet of mine to Craig Newmark saying it would make for a good blog: spinewatch.org

And in fact it did spread quickly via Twitter, so that within an hour or two we had operatives who sympathize with McCain sending Tweets to the hashtag of a “both sides do it” nature.

Interesting that they understood their task: Describe as symmetrical a situation where the asymmetry in it compels a response from journalists. In other words, they knew what they were doing: sow confusion.

RS: So in an ideal world, who should be participating in spinewatch? Professional journalists using new tools to aggregate links? Individual bloggers commenting on the news? Partisans? Independents?

JR: Well, on Twitter, everyone on Twitter should be participating if they believe the press should call out campaign lies, resist the retreat from empiricism, and try to make its fact-checking verdicts stick. The potential coalition — at least in theory — is everyone who thinks that’s an important thing to do.

At publish2.com, Karp’s idea is a community of journalists who share links, so that is where journalists who think spine should be shown can contribute. (You have to register for publish2.com and be invited to join the newsgroup by me or Scott.)

I want to point something else out. The American political system and the professionals who operate it, study it, make the rules for it, and report on it cannot create a more “consensus” institution than something like FactCheck.org, which is non-partisan, independent, university-based and rigorously factual.

It’s not a perfect institution, just the best we can do in providing some court of appeal, some barrier in the way of those who would turn lying into a universal principle of election-year politics.

And so it was of immense significance (and proves Edsall’s point) when Karl Rove said on Fox this weekend that the fact checking institutions could not be trusted because they too were biased.

What is the message there? There is no court of appeal. There is no check. There are no agreed-upon limits. There is nothing to prevent lying to voters and falsifying the record from becoming a norm, just a part of how you win. It was an amazing statement, and a gesture the press should read carefully.

In Biden’s acceptance speech he said McCain had voted with Bush 95 percent of the time. He was fact checked on that by the press. It was pointed out that if you take the 7 years Bush has been in office, McCain voted with the president 90 percent of the time— not 95.

When Biden went on Meet the Press after the convention, he used the 90 percent figure. That’s the way the system is supposed to work, right? But what if one candidate challenges that system? What is the press supposed to do then? This is what led me to spinewatch.

Further reading:

Scott Karp: Can Link Journalism Change How the Media Covers the Presidential Election Campaign?

Steve Outing: Can Twitter influence press behavior?

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