Jay Squawking

I am writing to explain why I find NYU journalism prof Jay Rosen's big speech on the state of political journalism to be, as I called it on Twitter, "idiotic crap." I'll try to be brief.

--Rosen states as his overall theme a disgust with political journalists becoming "insiders." Of course they do; all journalists try to get further inside than their audience can, whether they're covering Mitt Romney or the town fire department. Rosen seems to be blurring a distinction between doing that, and "identifying with the wrong people" and losing sight of the journalistic goal. Instead of criticizing those who go on the wrong side of that line, he seems to be saying that the one inherently leads to the other. I don't see that. To be honest, I've seen more journalists getting too cozy in coverage of school or police beats -- let alone business, sports, and entertainment -- than I have with politics. Frankly (and this I think is a running theme) I suspect the real reason Rosen feels dirtier about journalists who tread that line with politicians, is because Rosen (understandably) feels dirtier about the politicians. But, you know, somebody's got to cover them.

--One of Rosen's big problems is the "impoverished idea" that "politics is an inside game." Again, I think that Rosen's disgust is with politics, not the coverage; politics is largely an inside game. You might not like the insidery things that affect the selection of our next President, or the writing of the health care reform bill, or (to give an example I just posted today) which congressman Massachusetts will lose through redistricting. But your distaste is all the more reason to report them. In Rosen's example of the reporting of Labour's real, crass reasons for endorsing or opposing same-sex marriage, I honestly don't know why he doesn't think that story is A) interesting of itself, and B) important for those who care how Labour may behave on the issue later, once the crass motivation has passed. Getting that "insider," "savvy" view seems like terrific journalism to me. Isn't being "connoisseurs of our own bamboozlement" a large step up from being ignorant of our own bamboozlement?

--Rosen gripes about excessive horse-race coverage, positing that journalists like to write about "Who will win?" to demonstrate their ideological neutrality; actually I tend to think that it's pretty majorly freakin' newsworthy who will win. Sure, of course there's way way too much nonsense written and yammered about every poll and campaign twitch -- that's what happens when you pretty much devote a whole network or publication or web site to constant discussion of politics. But there's also a tremendous amount of, you know, actual political journalism going on.

--Rosen's "verifivation in reverse" complaint is, again, really a complaint about politics -- specifically, the movement-conservative marketplace about which I have written extensively. Rick Perry is a climate-change denier because a dominant portion of Republican primary voters have become convinced that they must entirely ignore all forms of media that treat climate change as legitimate. Or that waterboarding is torture, or that tax cuts don't increase revenue. The NYTimes and CBS News could work "climate change is a proven fact" into every story every day, it wouldn't change a thing, because, to those Republican voters, the NYTimes and CBS News would obviously be a bunch of liberal liars. There is nothing that any journalist can do about this. The circularity is within the conservative movement. Take it up with them.

--Finally, in his prescription to go forward, Rosen suggests that political journalists should separate out real news from phony news; manufactured controversies from legitimate ones. Well, what makes them real? When the climate-change bill failed in the Senate last year, I tried, as best I could, to report the 'reality' behind Scott Brown's decision to oppose it -- but what does that mean? Do I not report his own explanation if I personally think it's BS? Do I not report other people's suggestion of his real motives, if they are only speculating? Do I not work my "insider" sources? Should I or should I not apply my "savvy"? I don't think it's a yes/no, grid-plotted thing.

It's journalism. There are terrific journos and terrible ones; local ones and national; general-audience and niche; beat and assignment and column and opinion. When you just throw it all together and say you're all doing it wrong, do it this way... well, yeah, I think that's idiotic crap.

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