Monday, July 10, 2006

Press Think and Thinking Journalists

See update below.

I've wanted to write something about Jay Rosen's "rollback" theory of GWB and the press for sometime now. It's a big topic and i have not been able to do it justice in a post. Fortunately, Matt Welch wrote this which touches on a central weakness of Rosen's argument. (Although Welch is not discussing rollback or ROsen directly.)

One of the key weaknesses of the rollback thesis is that it takes a very narrow view of the conflict between the president and the press. Narrow in two senses: Rosen confines his historical perspective to the last 30 years or so and he ignores the economic, technological, and social context that that shaped that period. Rosen takes it as a given that the Watergate-era media world is the way things are supposed to work.

The institutional press, its fourth estate identity, and what Ben Bradlee recently called “a holy profession” (because “the pursuit of truth is a holy pursuit…”)— these are all modern inventions. Their legitimacy derives not from the founding fathers but from the opinion of living Americans that an independent and truthtelling press is vital to have as a check on government power, that its loss would be dangerous to their well being, and that professional journalists are doing the job well enough now to be that vital check.
To Rosen, if the press is losing legitimacy, it must be because of the sinister actions of conservatives, and Bush-Cheney & Co.

What Welch brings to the table is a willingness to admit that the "nonpartisan, independent" press model was a business strategy that fit a certain set of economic conditions.

Objectivity was a money-making plan ginned up by publishers and ad execs before World War II, then latched onto by the journalism establishment afterward. When towns used to have multiple competing dailies, the titles differentiated from each other largely by politics, and few publishers (almost all of whom were heavily involved in editorial) cared much for non-partisan objectivity.

if you can credibly appeal to all the readers (or at least the majority who aren't absolutely rabid in their politics), you are less likely to offend advertisers, and more likely to become the dominant local daily. Journalists and academics, who felt a long-abiding shame and revulsion toward the meddlesome excesses of moguls like William Randolph Hearst, seized this model as their own. The partisan sheets started dropping like flies; afternoon papers got killed by television, and even venal old Party codgers like the Chandler family reluctantly acknowledged that objectivity-hunting was better for business than political king-making ... especially as long as printing presses were expensive enough to discourage new entrants and drive money-losers out of the industry.
The independent "institutional press" that Rosen longs for was the relic of an era of media consolidation and temporary technological maturity. It was relatively small and increasingly insular, The media landscape of today looks more like that of 1939-- more boisterous, more diverse ideolgically. That is not Bush's doing but it is hard to understand why any politicial leader would want to play by obsolete rules.

UPDATED 7/12/06. I got an email from Jay Rosen which informs me that i have the rollback theory all wrong. That's quite possible. I'll post more about this when i get time, but for now take a look at these posts by Rosen.


"What if Bush Changed the Game on You?"

Snow at the Podium, Rollback on the Rocks

It's a Classified War

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