The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Druther-fest on political journalism - Part 94

If nothing else, the couple of years or so this blog has limped along have been a process of self-education, not least about the business of American political journalism.

The iniquities - the use of anonymous sources from within the elected branches of the Federal government, most notably - have been analysed here, and in far more important places; some of the techniques of manipulation used - burying awkward analysis pieces in the depths of the paper, in particular - are now commonplaces.

Whilst further work on the detail would no doubt be valuable, enough has been done already to establish serious failings in the coverage even of the leading political newspapers.

What there has been little of, so far as I'm aware, is any satisfactory explanation of why these failings should have been allowed to persist. The recent Washington Post piece by resident comedian Howard Kurtz (August 12) has spawned a further round of why, oh why pieces from journo-pundits - amongst those picked up today by Romenesko one by J-prof Edward Wasserman in the Miami Herald, under the hed Cowardice in the newsrooms.

Wasserman tells us the old, old story: editors cowering in their funk-holes, afraid to dissent from the upcoming war for fear of setting off the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (the Limbaughcracy) and of retribution from USG.

The other side is: what's in it for the editors of, say, the Post not to kow-tow? In general, business acts to pursue potential sources of profit and to avoid potential sources of loss: to take an example not quite at random, what incentive would there be for Leonard Downie to decide that henceforth in the Post, statements of politicians and government officials should be printed with any necessary context or qualification provided in the next-door sentence in the same article. Or, perhaps, a sidebar next to it.

That bollocks from Cheney et al about Kerry saying he wanted a sensitive war on terror, for instance.

He'd have to set the bean-counters going with their spreadsheets; and the first question would be, What effect would the change have on revenues? How many would take out subscriptions for the Post on the strength of such a crusade for transparency, and how many would cancel theirs on the grounds of the paper spurning the high-road of objective journalism. (Which doesn't exist, of course - but that doesn't hurt Santa's popularity much...)

And the advertisers - many of whom may have trained seals on the Hill whose words of wisdom they might object to see hedged-round with impertinent aspersions of inaccuracy - how many will decide to take their business elsewhere?

And then there's the management time spent in fending off the VRWC's relays of attack-dogs chewing them out; and USG sources that dry up.

And let's by all means picture Downie's conversation with Uncle Bob Woodward when he finds his White House privileges have been cut off.

But the flak would come not just from the current Administration: the craving for stenography is entirely a bipartisan addiction. If Kerry wins in November, he will want a press as supine as that enjoyed by Bush: though, as with his foreign policy - favouring world domination, but being careful to say please before invading - there may be a bit less swagger about Kerry's MO.

Even if the effect on profits of such an integrated truth squad approach was nil or positive, the resulting furore could still affect the value of the company: the stock market generally hates surprises and uncertainty. For the Post (or the New York Times or whoever) to change the stenographic habits of a lifetime has great Columbus and Manifest Destiny vibes, but would cause brown trousers all round at their brokers.

What, it may occur to you to asked, happened when the Post did its bit of crusading over Watergate? Katherine Graham herself, in a piece dated January 28 1997, says
Among the worst effects was the sharp decline in our stock price that naturally ensued, from $38 a share down to $28 in the first two weeks after the challenges, and continuing on down to $16 or $17, decreasing the value of the company by more than half.

When the awards started coming, and the movie and so on, did the stock price return whence it came [1]?

Unless critics can make a business case - based on realistic analysis of the implications for revenues, the editorial process and so on - for this sort of change, they can scarcely expect a paper like the Post to embark upon it.

The odd pride-saving venture - like fronting Glenn Kessler and Dan Morgan's piece (September 2) on the lie-fest at the Republican Convention - is permissible within the existing order; but only because such things are bound to have no lasting effect.

Counsel of despair? Not entirely: improvements at the margin are worth having; criticism at least provides comfort and ammunition for those within news organisations working for change.

Ninth Beatitude applies.

  1. Analysis of stock prices is a tricky business, of course. One needs to factor out the effect of general economic changes (as reflected in price movements for the market as a whole), changes affecting the sector and other matters relating to the particular company (a takeover bid or boardroom row, for instance).

    I can't remember seeing whether any analysis was done of the New York Times Company's price to see if the Jayson Blair farrago had any incremental effect: my guess is that you couldn't tell.


Of course, giving credence to lies and distortions may not be merely a desirable defensive strategy for the media: it may make for a damn fine story.

As witness the Swifties and their life-saving (for editors with a gaping news-hole to fill) silly season skit (Eric Boehlert in Salon admires the handiwork, kinda).

Most of the news media is in the entertainment business: it's Kobe, Laci and - oh, is there an election going on? Flip-flopper and 350 votes for higher taxes [1] have their place - but they don't have the all-important story element. Which the guys at CNN, quite as much as those at Fox, will have recognised straight away: with a fair wind, it was going to run and run. Unless some dipstick decided to do some actual journalism, and ruin things for everyone.

The pressure wouldn't have been so much on the NYT, LAT and Post - but the stenographic reflex is hard to resist (from lack of practice!). These papers aren't used on their own initiative to calling folks liars; or to draw attention to their past associations. The assumption is that, just as on the floor of the US Senate, all members are gentlemen.

And they were missing the essential ingredient - an attack by the Kerry campaign on the Swifties and their allegations. According to the Simon Says rules that apply to political coverage, it would not be legitimate for the press sua sponte to dig into the matter: rather like a common law judge, the adversarial system applies.

As it was, Kerry's trappism left them powerless to act. Boehlert deadpans
If the Kerry campaign thought the press would do its job and debunk such an obviously bogus story, it was sadly mistaken.

I suspect the Kerrymen held no such illusions: rather, they were concerned with not getting sidetracked from their own agenda (or so I remember reading in pieces by many more expert than me - not a few!).

  1. It's now down to 98, I seem to recall reading. Haven't the Dems heard of Joseph McCarthy: 57, 81, 205 - but not necessarily in that order.


On the subject of roorbacks, whatever happened to Larry Flynt's promised book on the illegal abortion that Bush is supposed to have paid for? Supposedly due this summer - the piece said in February...

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