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Walter Pincus of the Post: Our Neutered Newsrooms are a Poor Example to the Rest of the World

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It is rare that a single article advances American press think. In fact, it is rare for American press think to advance at all, which is one of the reasons our press is so vexed these days. Take this column by Clark Hoyt, the New York Times public editor. Goes like this:

Many readers have complained to me that the Times is not "shooting down the middle" in its coverage of the 2008 campaign. But I've been monitoring and grading the coverage myself, and I have a surprise for some of you. "The Times has not been systematically biased in its news coverage, even if it has occasionally given ammunition to those who claim otherwise."

Ta-da... An unbiased press! Now I do not doubt his word. Clark wouldn't cook the books. But this is a conversation that's savagely stuck, gamed not to go anywhere -- for all sides. Professional journalists do not improve the situation when they double down on their neutrality and present objectivity as a truth claim about their own work. It is this kind of claim that compels people to furnish -- furiously -- more chapter and verse in the very bad and very long book of media bias. Which then causes Hoyt to speak lines like, "Bias is a tricky thing to measure, because we all bring our biases to the task."

The only exit from this system is for people in the press to start recognizing: there is a politics to what they do. They have to get that part right. And they have to be more transparent about it.

But this recognition is circuit-frying for the press we inherited from the Watergate era, and from the long arc of professionalization before that. For it means that political argument isn't really "separate" from news at all, even though the priesthood wants it to be, and still preaches that. There's a reason Daniel Okrent considered his most important column as public editor this one. (Is the New York Times a liberal newspaper? "Of course it is," he said -- on social issues at least. It reflects the city where it is made.)

The informed display of political conviction

Josh Marshall's TPM Media operation is a new media newsroom that does political reporting in the same space as the big providers. Marshall believes in accountability journalism, sticking with stories, digging into public records for information, getting to the bottom of things, verifying what you think you know, correcting the record when you get it wrong.

TPM marries these traditional virtues to open expressions of outrage, incredulity marking certain political figures as ridiculous or beyond the pale, and the informed display of political conviction. These make it obvious to any reader of Talking Points Memo that Marshall is a liberal Democrat skeptical of the Bush agenda, though not a dogmatic one. His is the transparency route to trust and success in political journalism. A key crossing point came last month when Marshall and company won a George K. Polk Award for excellence in reporting on the legal system.

The way Marshall figures it, the important thing is to show integrity -- not to be a neuter, politically. Having good facts that hold up is a bigger advantage than claiming to reflect all sides equally well. TPM's homegrown mix combines political argument, dogged investigative work, news aggregation, a filtered community forum, some media criticism, and user-assisted reporting.

(Marshall discussed his approach, and I commented on it, on KCRW's "politics of culture" show, hosted by Kevin Roderick of LA Observed, with Mark Glaser of Media Shift joining us. Listen here. Also, I will be joining in a forum at TPM Cafe's Book Club next week on the press and the Iraq War.)

Uncoupling fairness from neutrality

If the press has to get its own politics right to do news well and remain a force for public good, then future success in the production of news may hinge on the quality of political argument and ideological experiment within the pro tribe itself. That's a conversation that isn't happening yet, but there is action everywhere.

Marshall's success is one example. Keith Olberman anchoring political coverage for MSNBC while also engaging in "special commentaries" that denounce Bush for world class denial and criticize Hillary Clinton for fratricide -- that's another. Now comes James Poniewozik of Time making the case for disclosure. Political journalists, tell us who you voted for! "The biggest reason to go open kimono is that the present system does what journalism should never do: it perpetuates a lie," says Poniewozik.

Modern political journalism is based on the bogus concept of neutrality (that people can be steeped in campaigns yet not care who wins) and the legitimate ideal of fairness (that people can place intellectual integrity and rigor over their rooting interests). Voting and disclosing would expose the sham of neutrality -- which few believe anyway -- and compel opinion and news writers alike to prove, story by story, that fairness is possible anyway. Partisans, bloggers and media critics are toxically obsessed with ferreting out reporters' preferences; treating them as shameful secrets only makes matters worse.

I agree. Uncoupling fairness (needed) from neutrality (not) is a critical and positive step. And I'm with Jeff Jarvis, writing for The Guardian: "The more journalists tell us about their sources, influences and perspectives, the better we can judge what they say." But disclosing whom you voted for (Obama for Poniewozik, Clinton for Jarvis) is only a part of it. In many ways, the easiest part. Political press think needs a deeper overhaul. The really tricky question is not, "whom did you vote for?" but "what are you doing with your power?" And how are you generating power and authority in the first place, behind what claims?

The courage to admit you're a participant

Walter Pincus has been at the Washington Post for some 35 years as a reporter, most of it specializing in the intelligence world and the national security state. (He was also executive editor of the New Republic during Watergate, and worked for a brief time on a Senate committee.) Pincus, I think, is one of the best reporters in Washington; and he has his own ideas about journalism.

He proved that when he was asked to write an essay for a new magazine called Frank: Academics for the Real World, which is published by the Clinton School of Public Service in Arkansas. It is this piece that moves the ball down the field: Power of the Pen: A Call for Journalistic Courage. Up until yesterday, it wasn't online, so barely anyone has seen it.

Pincus does something rare for any mainstream journalist: he openly argues for a more political press. He even uses the word "activist," which is forbidden in the mainstream newsroom code. And he says that courage in political reporting sometimes means the courage to admit you're a participant--a player, a power in your own right -- within the struggle for self-government, the battle for public opinion and the politics of the day.

Jim Lehrer of PBS would turn on his heel and walk away from Walter Pincus on some of these points. Leonard Downie, executive editor of the Post, would probably blanch. Of course those are the most interesting parts. For instance, Pincus describes the rise of neutrality as a loss of rights and a conversion downward for the political press.

Owners, editors and reporters today rarely push issues they believe government should take up. If a vote were taken among editors of the major daily newspapers, the vice presidents of network news editions, television and radio anchors, and, I hate to say, probably even most younger print and electronic reporters, the result would be that few to none want or believe they have the right to shape government actions. They don't want to play activist roles in government--either personally or professionally--unless, of course, it could affect the bottom line.

If Lou Dobbs and his "apocalyptic centrism" are a ratings hit for CNN, he can stay. But for the deciders in the news business, the fiction of floating above politics is the better way to prosper. To Pincus that's positively lame.

I believe this failure is a threat to our democracy and a poor example for the rest of the world. This is my romantic and unfashionable view of journalism, but it is the one that caused many of us to take up the profession in the first place.

Undoing what Deaver did

"The Power of the Pen" builds on a short essay Pincus wrote in 2006 for Nieman Watchdog. There he described a very concrete way in which the presidency had brought the news media under greater control. Michael Deaver started it during the Reagan Years. By giving early guidance to the networks about where the president would be speaking and what he plans to say to whom, Deaver began to edit the news himself:

He turned that meeting, which began in prior administrations to help network news television producers plan use of their camera crews each day, into an initial shaping of the news story for that evening.

Independent judgment in the press was eroded, which Pincus counts as a power shift. When you commit cameras and extend coverage based on what the White House says it plans to say, you cede power over the news to the President. There's mission creep:

The Washington Post, which prior to that time did not have a standing White House story scheduled each day (running one only when the president did something new and thus newsworthy), began to have similar daily coverage.

This turns precious news space into a messaging system for political controllers. Pincus marvels at how being able to "stay on message" is considered a crucial skill by Washington reporters, when this is the very method that reduces them to stenographers.

Of course, the "message" is the public relations spin that the White House wants to present and not what the President actually did that day or what was really going on inside the White House.

The press was getting boxed in by its own routines, including its fascination with the inside story.

This system reached its apex [in 2006] when the White House started to give "exclusives" -- stories that found their way to Page One, in which readers learn that during the next week President Bush will do a series of four speeches supporting his Iraq policy because his polls are down. Such stories are often attributed to unnamed "senior administration officials." Lo and behold, the next week those same news outlets, and almost everyone else, carries each of the four speeches in which Bush essentially repeats what he's been saying for two years.

When what's going on is public relations, not governing, the press still feels it must extend coverage because to refuse it would seem... too political. Pincus knows this. Still, he says journalists should refuse to publish "any statements made by the President or any other government official that are designed solely as a public relations tool, offering no new or valuable information to the public."

Quit your part in the propaganda system. Stop enabling message control. No "standing" or automatic coverage should be granted. No running to the spin room, either. We have to undo what Deaver did and re-gain some of that lost territory.

Looking to the past for better press think

Pincus, I think, is well aware that he is no longer hugging the shore of mainstream press think, but drifting out to sea. And so he turns to the past to get his bearings. To William Allen White of Kansas, who helped explain and promote Theodore Roosevelt's progressive ideas, speaking to the nation from the Emporia Gazette. And to Lincoln Steffens, the great muckraker (and progressive) of the early 1900s, who wrote "Shame of Cities," a series about municipal corruption.

Steffens started the flame that awards like the George K. Polk keep alive. About his articles explaining the corrupt machines in St. Louis, Minneapolis, Chicago, he says, "They were written with a purpose, they were published serially with a purpose, and they are reprinted now together to further that same purpose." The politicians "will supply any demand we may create. All we have to do is to establish a steady demand for good government." (Yes, the progressives overestimated what could be done with publicity and exposure alone.)

Creating demand in the country for more transparent and accountable government is the political part of the reporting project Steffens undertook with his "shame" series. "All very unscientific," he wrote.

But then, I am not a scientist. I am a journalist. I did not gather with indifference all the facts and arrange them patiently for permanent preservation and laboratory analysis. I did not want to preserve, I wanted to destroy the facts.

I wanted to destroy the facts. That's Steffens, disclosing his agenda. He wanted to see if the findings in his report, "spread out in all their shame,'" would "set fire to American pride," and change what was acceptable to voters and influential citizens.

That was the journalism of it. I wanted to move and to convince. That is why I was not interested in all the facts, sought none that was new, and rejected half those that were old.

Steffens, I think, would know how to deal with an accusation of bias.

The fourth branch of government

By re-claiming White and Steffens as heroes, Pincus is dissenting from the view you can hear in this account from columnist Matt Miller, who five years ago went searching for the limits of press neutrality.

"I don't think that if you sat in on page-one meetings over the course of six months," says Steve Coll, managing editor of The Washington Post, "you would hear any discussion about 'We ought to do this because we want to put it on the map.' You have to see the media as chronicling the public square. When nobody shows up in the public square to talk about what you would wish them to talk about, is the person standing in the back with an open notebook the structural cause of that?"

It's a vivid image of a blameless press: the open notebook on a windswept public square. Miller interprets what Coll is saying:

The national press, despite its power and occasional hobbyhorses, sees its role as "witnessing," as serving up a "daily diary of debate," as offering "a platform for independent inquiry and investigation" -- but not as setting the terms of public discussion.

Even though it does have that power, at times. Miller again:

I asked Downie, "Should the news side of an organization like yours have a perspective on what are the most important challenges facing the country?"

"No," Downie said instantly.

Walter Pincus disagrees. And he has a theory, which starts with Edmund Burke on the rise of a "fourth estate" and winds up with Downey's instantaneous "No." I summarize:

Whoever can speak to the public as a whole has political power. This power can be used for good or ill. Some who have used it for good have sought to influence government. The framers of the Constitution were familiar with this type of editor, and so freedom of the press protects the power of the pen. But it also protects the kind of press that would shrink from using its power, or re-claiming it. This is where courage is necessary. But recent history isn't very encouraging.

"Transmitters of other people's ideas..."

In the 1950s Douglas Cater called the press the fourth branch of government. "The reporter is the recorder of government but also a participant," said Cater. Since then, official policy has been toward a less political press, less inclined to see itself as a participant, even as complaints about bias have risen. This cycle has weakened journalism. The fairness doctrine, an official policy of even handedness, spread "backward" from television to newspapers. Media concentration, publicly-traded stock, and the rise of monopoly news gatherers helped enthrone the notion that providers of news should be onlookers.

Today's mainstream print and electronic media want to be neutral, unbiased and objective, presenting both or all sides as if they were on the sidelines in a game in which only the players--the government and its opponents--can participate. They have increasingly become common carriers, transmitters of other people's ideas and thoughts, irrespective of import, relevance and at times even accuracy.

Reporters with depth of knowledge are capable of challenging government and getting beyond he said, she said, a tepid style of truthtelling. But the media corporation shifts its people around a lot. They switch towns, beats, assignments so often that it's impossible for most reporters to build up any independent base of authority. They can't challenge spin because they don't know enough. So they become transmitters. Neutrality valorizes a loss of footing and self-respect.

This is bad news for the press if you care about having a strong one, capable of challenging the line of the day. But fine for the media, which finds it far cheaper to farm out "context" and "analysis" to ex-government officials. They came by their knowledge at another sector's expense.

To wrap this up, a question via Sir Pincus for public editor Clark Hoyt: What if the very thing the New York Times is doing for reasons of trust--remain officially neutral, like Switzerland--is causing more people to trust the Times less and less? You can say those people are misguided. You can prove them wrong with better stats. Or you can read Power of the Pen, and start your re-think right there.