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jay rosen

A press critic and an associate professor in New York University's Department of Journalism, Jay Rosen is also the author of the PressThink blog. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on April 23, 2006.

How would you describe the Bush administration's relationship with the press?

[From] 2003, when [White House Press Secretary] Scott McClellan was appointed, to when he resigned [in 2006] was a period when the White House decided that it would manage the press by completely disengaging from it and refuting it and embarrassing it on the world stage. This represented a radical break with the past. ...

In what way?

In the age of what I call news management -- [from] 1963, when the networks first went to a 30-minute broadcast and they became national institutions, to 2003 -- during that period, White Houses, Republican and Democratic, had the same basic assumptions: that it was key for the White House to engage with the media, certainly to be mindful of its power, and to try and answer reporters' questions. ...

What we saw in this new interval -- 2003 through 2006 -- was the total overturn of that idea and basically the withdrawal from a consensus that had prevailed for four decades. The key to it was McClellan. He was completely inept in every single skill a press secretary has to have. He wasn't good on camera. He wasn't quick on his feet. He wasn't particularly eloquent. He didn't have superior command of the issues. He wasn't good at spin. He wasn't artful in his evasions. He made people mad. He basically went out there with nothing to say and produced a kind of informational emptiness that would have been thought, in the age of news management, to be suicidal, to be totally uncool -- I mean, not what a competent White House would ever allow itself to do. ...

Before, it would have been thought, well, if you're not making news every day, you're missing out on this big microphone you have to speak to the nation. If you're not trying to manage the White House press by releasing information to it carefully, they're going to go and dig up their own information. You can't do that. This is what I call the Gergen consensus, the [commentator and adviser to several presidents] David Gergen consensus. ...

... What is that?

The Gergen consensus was that look, there might be struggles and tensions in the relationship, and there are times when one side is totally frustrated at the other, and most of the time they go around grumbling about each other. But in the end, the White House and the White House press need each other and will cooperate, and so it's our job to understand them and still get our message out, get our agenda through by dealing intelligently with the Washington press. And people, [not only] Gergen but many others, strove to tell the White House how you did that.

“I don't want the main source of news about the presidency to be the presidency. And when the White House ceases to deal with independent providers of news and becomes itself the provider, we are certainly entitled to worry about that.”

This was the era in which people like [President Reagan's adviser] Michael Deaver were said to be media wizards, not because they shut out the press, but because they arranged for it to transmit a pretty picture that would be effective in communicating the charisma of the Reagan machine. Well, that's a strategy. It's totally about manipulation and using the press to your advantage, but it takes for granted that the cameras and what they're showing are extremely important. There was this atmosphere [not] of competition but cooperation, which ... basically described what successive White Houses did from Kennedy through Nixon through Reagan to Bush. ...

Somehow the [George W.] Bush White House overthrew that wisdom and put a whole new system in place, which is: We don't have to answer your questions. We don't care if you find us in contradiction of norms or facts. We're just going to go on as if you don't exist. That's a new idea. ... It's also a very risky strategy.

Is this what you mean by rollback?

Yeah. Rollback is just the word I used to describe a certain pattern that I see in the Bush White House treatment of the press.

Give me a specific example.

... Well, we saw it in the conversion of the White House briefing into an empty ritual. We saw it in the president vastly cutting back his encounters with an unscripted press. We saw it when, in public occasions where the press might be watching, the Bush White House decided not to allow any unfriendly questions from journalists or citizens.

We saw it in the way Dick Cheney basically made himself uncoverable as vice president. ... The White House press doesn't even know where Dick Cheney is much of the time. He doesn't have a daily schedule that would allow you to see what he is doing. That whole idea -- that you put more power into the vice president than almost any president in recent memory, and simultaneously take this person out of the public realm entirely, into a shadow world -- that itself is an amazing transformation, because it says, "This portion of what we're doing, you don't look at; you don't watch; you don't monitor."

No reporters travel with Cheney. Did you know that? That's amazing. How can that be when he has such an important role in our government? …

Let me read to you what [former Bush Chief of Staff] Andrew Card said at one point: "The press don't represent the public any more than other people do. I don't believe you have a check-and-balance function in the press." ... Does the press have a check-and-balance function? ...

Every single person who's gone into that room as a reporter believes in a check-and-balance function. If you ask them, they'll tell you that. What Card is saying is the very premise of sending you to the White House to ask us questions, we [don't agree with that] at all.

Bush has said that "we don't think you represent the American people." That's another thing every single person in that room believes. They think they're there asking the questions that the American people would ask, could ask, should ask. The White House is saying: "We don't agree with that either. You don't represent anybody. In fact, you're more like a special interest. ... We reject you as a representative of other Americans. And in fact, we kind of like it that there are people out there in the culture, in the culture war, who are discrediting you all the time, because you deserve to be discredited."

Another thing the White House did: It provided aid, comfort and ideological soulmate-ship with forces in the culture who are attacking the press, seeking to destroy and discredit it.

But how is this different than the [Pat] Buchanan/Nixon/[Vice President Spiro] Agnew/[Nixon Chief of Staff H.R.] Haldeman attitude toward the press?

It's not different at all. It's the gradual building of what started 35 years ago, until it took over the White House itself. That philosophy that the press is out to get us and is a liberal wing of the country -- just like the universities are captive to a small elite -- that notion, which started out in the political fringes, built over 30 and 40 years, and it came to occupy a central notion. ...

So if you have broken that mold, then how do you get your message out?

... You get your message out directly, through the president himself. He gives tons of speeches. He didn't stop communicating with the people in that sense, right?

What he stopped was any situation in which he could be questioned. What he stopped was explaining himself. This whole idea that part of the president's power comes from his ability to tell the story of his policy to the American people, … the Bush White House dissented from that and decided that less is more and that we shouldn't explain ourselves too much, because it dims the authority of the presidency. ...

A lot of what they did, besides rolling back the press, was try and set up their own media system or recognize the alternative one that was already there. But yes, part of it was broadcasting themselves. And you have to admit, in a day when you have whitehouse.gov, that's a perfectly good way to communicate to people, right? "Go to our Web site, and we'll tell you." Just that ability alone certainly changes the picture. And they have been very aggressive in using a whole bunch of alternative ways of becoming a media producer themselves.

One of the shifts in power going on today, beyond the White House, is that a lot of power is shifting to sources, because sources find it much easier to become media broadcasters themselves. ...

What do you mean, "sources"?

Well, let's take Mark Cuban, who owns the Dallas Mavericks and is a technology entrepreneur and businessman. He once had to deal with the beat writers for the Dallas Mavericks when he wanted to talk to the fans or address an issue in the team, and now he has his own blog, Blog Maverick. He doesn't even answer the questions of the beat writers anymore, who he's very impatient with. He's a source, somebody who would be quoted a lot in coverage of the team, who just doesn't deal with the reporters anymore. ...

And the Bush administration does the same thing?

Right. They're adapting to that. ...

... Besides whitehouse.gov, what other examples are there about how the White House gets its message out?

Well, Armstrong Williams: Pay him $240,000, and he broadcasts your message in the guise of being a television host and questioner on the same show.

And write columns.

Write columns for you, yeah, and all of it friendly to the basic message that "No Child Left Behind" is a great idea and the Department of Education is charging ahead. I describe that as [going] from Meet the Press to Be the Press.

Produce video releases to local TV stations?

Yes, which were inherently deceptive, where you had a PR person saying, "This is Karen Ryan reporting," as if a government-paid employee, in effect, could be a reporter. That was a serious thing, and that was distributed by the Bush administration. ...

So what's wrong with that? ...

Well, when the executive branch, with the immense powers of the presidency, becomes also producer of news about the presidency and the main source of information that we as Americans have about it, we have just slipped into a dangerous situation if that ever happened. I don't want the main source of news about the presidency to be the presidency. And when the White House ceases to deal with independent providers of news and becomes itself the provider, we are certainly entitled to worry about that. ...

So the press is basically not as powerful as it used to be.

Exactly, exactly. ... It's not as much of a monopoly as it once was. It doesn't have anywhere near the same kind of cultural authority it once did, and I think the Bush people recognized all of those things.

What you're describing has also taken place because of all this multitude of new outlets, with a rise of what some people call "partisan journalism" or "opinionated journalism," which has put into question the tradition of objective journalism. What do you think about objective journalism? ...

What American journalists actually mean when they say "objectivity" is about 12 or 15 different things, but they're all similar. It's the idea of neutrality. It's the idea of backing up and being detached. It's the idea of not choosing sides. It's an idea of getting all perspectives. But it's also [that] we're professionals, and we're kind of trained not to react. It's caught up with the idea of being a crap detector and being a good skeptic. But fundamentally, objectivity in the American journalism was a way of generating trust and maintaining [it] over time in a particular group of people and their practices. ... But it is, in many ways, breaking down. ...

[How?]

... By being adversarial, we perform a kind of a watchdog role. And if you have completely failed the country in your watchdog role and a war resulted, then it's beyond a misplayed story; it's an evacuation of your role.

The way that the press was sold and spun and just fooled by the White House in the run-up to the [Iraq] war represents more than just a missed story. How can one say that we have a watchdog press after a performance like that? There have been many other lapses like that, but this one was so systematic, and it involved such a critical question of, should we do this as a country. …

What should [journalists] do about this situation with the White House, with this rollback?

Ultimately it becomes incumbent on the serious press to quit their relationship, to stop going [to briefings] and start reporting completely from the outside. ... They're already on the outside. They should just quit entirely and go to work on reporting the White House from the outside. ...

Are bloggers journalists?

My opinion is that people who write blogs do things that are journalistic all the time, and lots of it isn't. We really shouldn't oppose these things to one another. They are actually going to end up working together much more than they are going to be at loggerheads. I've tried to follow those principles myself in exploring the blog revolution as a blogger. But I think this bloggers-versus-journalists drama is way overdone. It's just kind of the way professional journalists react to things. ...

It doesn't mean that professionals are going away or they're going to be replaced by troops of citizen journalists. I've never said that; I don't believe it. But the picture has changed a lot. The monopoly that they once had, they don't have anymore. They just have to change and adjust to new conditions that are coming about every day.

But there are some people who are advocates for blogging, if you will, but they call it "citizen journalism." They believe that the wisdom of the crowd is superior to what has traditionally gone on [in the mainstream media].

That's not really what they're saying, no. That's what a professional journalist might hear them saying. The wisdom of the crowd is more like this: Have you ever noticed that the most e-mailed articles on the site can be interesting and cause you to discover stuff that are kind of fresh and new? It's like what a lot of people do actually has some information in it, and it's a lot easier for us today to record the choices of what lots of people do. And if we look at that and say, "What is there?" that's what people mean by the wisdom of the crowd.

Now, what a professional journalist hears when they say that is they immediately add 10 reflex reactions where they associate that to market research and giving people what they want, and all of the sudden you've lost all professional autonomy, and you're just catering to people's whims and desires. ... That's what it seems like, but it's not. ... There are certain situations in which group intelligence can be tapped. It's not a replacement for this or that; it's just a new development.

… [An example would be something like] the blog that notices something significant in the case of [Sen.] Trent Lott talking about [Sen.] Strom Thurmond and saying, "It would have been better if he had been president back in '48." The general press reported that story as, "Oh, there was a tribute to Strom Thurmond." They didn't analyze the inner meaning of that statement in terms of segregation and Thurmond and so on. …

Well, what happened with Trent Lott was very interesting. He gave these remarks at a birthday party that was covered, and [ABC] sent some young producers who were low on the totem pole to this routine event. One of the producers who thought what Lott said could be newsworthy wrote it down, but a senior producer said, "Nah, that's nothing." But it ended up in a short report on ABC, and it made it to the Web.

What happened then is that the bloggers, representing a kind of a second jury of newsworthiness, looked at it carefully and said, "You know, he really said something amazing here." Then it reverberated from the bloggers back to the traditional press, who then made a story of it, and that is when Lott had to resign [as Senate majority leader].

Now, the interesting part was the chance of your average young [ABC] producer not knowing very much about the 1948 presidential campaign and therefore not really hearing much in what Trent Lott [said], those chances were pretty high. But the chances of the blog world, interconnected the way it is, not knowing that relevant background -- zero. So the blog system was actually more likely to catch the significance of what Lott said than an individual producer or a reporter would be.

Is that why 60 Minutes II wound up with "Rathergate"?

Oh, definitely. Another big reason why 60 Minutes II wound up with Rathergate was that [CBS News] didn't have the Web literacy that they should have had. ... They didn't know what was happening to their story on the Web. They went into a defensive crouch and said, "We stand by our story." But nobody in power, nobody with any decision-making influence actually was monitoring what was happening to that story online, and they didn't know how weak their story was. They persisted for at least seven or eight days in something that many other people knew was going to fall. ... It was a case of a news organization that was not actually current with knowledge of its own story. It was extraordinary. ...

Conservative bloggers that we've talked to say, "How many times has this sort of shoddy journalism happened in the past and nobody ever found out about it?" Is that fair?

I guess it would be a fair question, yeah. Their assumption that it goes on all the time is not fair. I actually think this was an extraordinary situation, extraordinary lapse that is not necessarily typical, but nonetheless extremely disturbing. I don't agree with CBS, and I don't agree with the right-wing bloggers, either, about what happened in this story. ...

[How important is Fox News in terms of the changes that have happened in the media landscape?]

Having a news network organized on different principles is important because it breaks the monopoly. It shows that there are other ways of doing things. It says there's an alternative. It generates a new audience. Fox demonstrated that there was a market for another formula in news, and that's significant.

[Do] you like it, partisan journalism and Fox News?

I don't like Fox News, but not because it's partisan-inflected. I don't like it because it's unreliable. It's very sensationalized. It's low-cost news that puts entertainment ahead of actual news gathering. So I don't like it for those reasons. I think a conservative network that had high professional standards and was also well financed and had a large, active newsroom would be interesting. I don't think that would be necessarily a terrible thing. ...

Is the Lott case an example of partisan journalism doing good?

Well, first of all, journalists are the ones who think that opinion disqualifies someone from giving good information. In reality, lots of people connect to the public world and the political world through opinion and argument and controversy and belief and conviction. Certainly rooting [for] our side against them, that's normal. It's not abnormal. There's not something defective about it. That's the way most people participate in politics.

It turns out that getting people engaged through argument is a good way of getting them to go look for information and get interested in [something] and want more. That's the genius of the lobbying the way [Talking Points Memo blogger] Josh Marshall does it. He engages people through argument, political conviction, what you'd call partisanship, if you want to. It's his membership in the community of liberal left thinkers, and it's through the intensity of that relationship that he leads his users and readers to be interested in lots of information, new information, recently unearthed information, information buried in documents and hearings and lots of other places that he digs around in.

Now he's hired people who are investigative reporters to dig around in that. And if mainstream journalists keep looking down their nose at anything that they can label partisan, they're just going to miss what's going on in the larger world, and they're going to make themselves increasingly irrelevant.

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posted feb. 13, 2007

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