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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Friday, November 7, 2008

How the Blogosphere Saved American Democracy

(This was a lecture delivered at Queen's University, School of Public Policy, Kingston, Ontario, on November 6, 2008)

One of the hallmarks of the media environment over the last thirty years has been an unrelenting and growing partisanship inside journalism.

This election may take us away from that. Obama may be our generation’s FDR, just as 9/11 was described as our generation’s Pearl Harbor. But the challenges are so huge and the stakes so terrifying, we may yet slip into a deeper division.

It’s easy to blame journalism for our woes as a people, especially in the United States.

Canadians are luckier for a variety of historical reasons. Canadian media is according to the Canadian Media Research Consortium, more trusted by Canadians to report fairly, to in effect, do the right thing, compared to American attitudes to their media.
There has always been a so-called “alternative press” in America. This press works largely in an isolated way and rarely gets noticed by the mainstream media, until it breaks a story that is so huge and so important that it is hard to ignore. Izzy Stone who published single-handedly, I.F. Stone’s Weekly through the 1950s and 60s was one example. The blogosphere has now revived that tradition of the pamphleteer that originated in colonial pro-revolutionary America.

But for the most part, today’s media in America and I believe in Canada, crave legitimacy and those in power know and act on that. We could talk for hours about the deep psychological roots of this status anxiety. My sense is that journalists are haunted by what I call “credentialitis,” where journalists see themselves – deep down – as Rodney Dangerfield, always lamenting the fact that he “gets no respect.”
I’ll come back to this anxiety shortly because I think it is one reason why mainstream journalists were so easily deflected from their own sense of obligation to the public.
Part of the dilemma can be found in the early 20th century debate when journalism in American began to assume to prominence that we know it to have today. The dilemma about journalism’s role was encapsulated by the debate that occurred between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey back in the 1920s.

Lippmann was an exponent of how journalism and democracy are interrelated and that the job of journalism in a democracy was to provide the public with the ideas and opinions from the “best” people who know how the world works: business people, economic experts, political leaders, and scientists who will be given access to journalism as their intellectual delivery system. To do less would be to succumb to the worse aspects of democracy – the mob.

Lippmann’s ideas were a natural outcome of the experiences of World War One, which until World War Two, was the greatest calamity ever to affect western civilization. It wiped out a generation, not so much in America, but in Europe and in Britain and in Canada. We wear these poppies even today in recognition of that trauma.

Lippmann was also powerfully influenced by the emerging ideas of Sigmund Freud who spoke about the power of the unconscious and the darker side of humanity that could be found there. Lippmann – perhaps unconsciously himself – saw journalism as frankly elitist and saw nothing wrong with maintaining close professional and social contacts in the White House and on Wall Street.

John Dewey on the other hand, took the opposite side in claiming that the public can also be a source of wisdom. Dewey was the first to advocate the wisdom of crowds, although that particular phrase wouldn’t emerge into our consciousness for another hundred years. Dewey was an early advocate for keeping the public in public policy. He believed that journalists needed to ensure that citizens had a role to play in keeping the public informed and he opposed Lippmann’s ideas as an early form of thought control.

Fast forward to the election of Richard Nixon in 1972 where journalism in the 1960s seemed to validate everything that the Nixonians feared and hated: vulgarity dressed up as free speech, disrespect for tradition described as personal discovery, sexual liberation, and gender identity, anti-militarism and anti-war sentiment and a disrespect for the two party system. For many in the Republican Party at the time, Nixon’s the one who would restore the deepest American values to public life. For many in America, journalism was the cause of this sea change by simply reporting what was going on. But many in the media weren’t buying it.

Watergate ended Nixon’s attempt to stabilize American society on his terms, and from the mid-1970s on, a new kind of political and social philosophy began to take shape.

By the time Ronald Reagan came into office, the premise of what would be called neo-conservatism was fully in place. Among the many attributes of this movement that began among the foreign policy hawks inside the Democratic Party, was the idea that journalism in America had been the enabler of America’s moral decline. Watergate, they believed, was an unfortunate mishap on the road to that restoration. It is no accident that some of the main players in the George W. Bush administration were among the most hostile to the media – Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith Jeane Kirkpatrick and Paul Wolfowitz believed that Watergate had dangerously diluted the power of the executive branch. They were also strong advocates for an interventionist military and foreign policy and openly admired how the Truman administration stood up to the Russians during the Cold War.

During the Reagan and to a lesser extent, the George H.W. Bush administrations, efforts were made to restore what they believed had been lost due largely to what they believed to be a hostile press. And the neo-cons had their allies in the media, mostly among the mainstream media commentariat – George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, and David Frum to name a few.

During the Clinton years, the neo-cons began their efforts to undermine what they considered to be a liberal media. They were helped in no small way by the rise of a new and openly ideological media in the form of Fox News. Their slogan “fair and balanced” was and is – quite brilliant. Because it implies that they are fair and balanced and everybody else is not.

Most of us the so-called mainstream media (and I would include public broadcasting in that category) were put on the defensive by accusations of moral equivalence, imbalance and bias. To accuse a journalist of bias is effective in making sure that the other side gets equal time, even if they may not deserve it.

I call it the Europeanization of American news. Newspapers over there are unabashedly political and often supported and financed by political parties. In North America, the same thing seems to be happening here, but without the direct financial support of the parties. The indirect support comes from the tax breaks and the essential journalistic access granted to those media organizations who are seen to be friendly to the parties in power.

The late Clinton years and through the first Bush Administration, the mainstream media has become so intimidated that they effectively engaged in an act of journalistic self-censorship that is unique in American history. 9/11 only encouraged that tendency as we all reacted with horror at what happened in New York and Washington. And the Bush Administration was quick and nimble in taking advantage of that, with the help of some of their media allies.

What caused the American media to break out of their stenographic role? It wasn’t WMD or the War in Iraq. Many of us believed Colin Powell when he said that the war was justified and that WMD would eventually be found. What changed the media’s perception was in my opinion, Hurricane Katrina.

The governmental response was so inept and so painful that journalists finally began to question what else in America was similarly badly handled. After Katrina, American journalism got its mojo back…and with the election of Barack Obama, not a moment too soon.

What helped the mainstream media find its voice again was, I believe the arrival of the internet and the bloggers who love it.

Technology was the real enabler of this change in journalism. Consider this: in 1999, according to the Pew Center for Politics and the Press, there were fewer than100 blogs.

Today there are more than 20 million. Now most of these seem to be done by young men (mostly) who seem to stay in their pyjamas for most of the day. But the political blogosphere ( a word that was only coined on September 10, 1999 according to Wikipedia) became a power during the 2004 election and especially during the 1006 midterms, when Howard Dean used it as an organizational as well as an informational tool to great effect. Barack Obama has taken it to new heights, sending donors of even $25 updates on the campaign, giving the impression that a mass movement has arrived. Those of you who have seen their website know how effective it has become as a mobilizing force.

Journalism could not resist. Even as news organizations are stripping out their editorial resources and laying off reporters, editors and producers, the blogosphere has picked up the slack. The blogosphere in this election has become the sharp end of the journalistic lance in truth squadding and grass roots reporting while the mainstream media are discovering that their new and essential role is become creators of a journalism of validation of the information gathered elsewhere.

This is, I believe, the future of news organizations – the bloggers will be the hunters and the mainstream media will be the gatherers - in effect, the curators of evidence and information that others have discovered.

But it’s also a reaction on the part of mainstream news orgs to finally push out of the defensive crouch they have been in since Reagan when accusations of liberal media bias became part of the Republican strategy.

That strategy was to create a false dichotomy of pitting true American values (sic) against eastern liberal news values. It worked for a long time thanks to Lee Atwater, Roger Ailes and Karl Rove.

The premise was to frame the debate in terms of emotional values rather than economic interests, and for a generation, it was a hugely successful gamble.
Salon Magazine recently reported that if there is an ideology in Perry County, Ohio it is not so much conservative or liberal as it is rooted in a profound mistrust of the nation’s political and economic establishment. “They’re remarkable people,” said Lowell Morrison, the county Republican chairman who runs a printing company, in a telephone interview. “They’re the only people I know who vote principle over their pocketbook.” Morrison explained that McCain fits their core values while Obama reflects their economic concerns.

I spoke to Bill Kristol a few years ago and asked him if he really believed that there was a liberal bias in the media in general. His answer: “Of course not. But it does keep you guys on the defensive about conservatism.”

So in essence, “fair and balanced” was a brilliant concept because it gave the right equal access to airtime and column inches on issues like abortion, stem cell research, intelligent design and certain key foreign policy issues like Israel and WMD.

It’s managed to keep journalists at the Times, the CBC, NPR and other “proper” journalistic organizations from drawing conclusions about their own reporting. (Public broadcasting in the US was for a time, intimidated by the prospect of an end to Congressional funding. To step out of that role, NPR has become since 1994, a private, not-for-profit that depends on public support rather than governmental appropriations. The CBC remains beholden to Ottawa…but that’s another topic).

Thanks to the incompetence and the cronyism of the Bush administration, that tactic of intimidation seems to have run its course for now.

So when MSNBC and the blogs start to bark back, the right starts to cry foul. It seems they can dish it out but they can’t take it.

In the long run, the question remains in my mind whether journalism can restore a sense of trust by playing that game. Or whether we need to find a better way to serve our audiences as citizens as John Dewey first suggested.


  1. Jeff:

    You really hit some key points with this speech -- bravo. But I want to
    hear more: What are your thoughts about how we're going to carry out John
    Dewey's view -- which you say is modernized as "wisdom of crowds," or,
    perhaps, citizen journalism? And why does it matter that we are moving
    into a era of renewed partisan press, when there are so many voices
    available. Perhaps we just need to develop a new entity, the "information
    valet," who helps people discern fact from fiction. An example:

    -- bill densmore

  2. Bill - Thanks for your comment. Your conference on the "Informational Valet Project" at Mizzou sounds amazing and I wish I could be there. It fits right in with what I'm doing these days.

    I'm in the process of designing a course for the Masters candidates at Ryerson U for the winter semester that I'll be teaching. The working title is "Journalism Workshop." It's one class for six hours, over twelve weeks on inventing new journalism forms what they may be.

    What I hope will happen is this: I hope we will forge a new set of tools by taking the sharp end of the cyber-lance and attaching it to the contextualizing and verifying powers of the msm.

    The goal of the course will be to situate everything in public policy terms and this is where your
    idea of "valet" and my experience of the mediating ombudsman comes together.

    I think journalism is moving to make everyone inside and outside, their own ombudsman. Journalism happens to have the most potential for this process.

    Can all this be monetized? It's hard to compete with "free" which is what all of this is right now. My guess is that information platforms like iTunes and enhanced subscriptions (the "pay-to-play" approach) won't work. But secondary products (e.g. intellectual property) will.

    Good luck with the conference.