Thursday, October 28, 2004
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.
20 Ames Street
claimed that the Internet and the growth of cable television
have fundamentally altered American politics. The current presidential
campaign may offer a decisive test of this thesis. How are new
technologies enabling new forms of fundraising and political
activism? What is the significance of the fact that Fox News,
a cable network, drew more viewers of the Republican National
Convention than the traditional networks? What has been the
impact on traditional media of Internet-based reporting and
blogging and of groups such as MoveOn and TrueMajority? These
and related questions will be considered in the second of two
pre-election Forums in October.
by the Technology and Culture Forum at MIT with support from
the Political Science Department and MIT Votes.
Jones is the director of Harvard University's Joan
Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
He covered the press for the New York Times from 19831992
and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. Jones has been a
Nieman Fellow at Harvard, a host of National Public Radio's
On the Media and is currently the host and executive
editor of PBS's Media Matters. He serves on the advisory
board of the Columbia Journalism Review.
Jurkowitz is the media writer for The Boston Globe,
a position he has held since 1997 after spending two years as
the papers ombudsperson. Prior to that, he spent seven
years as media critic for The Boston Phoenix and author
of its Dont Quote Me column. Jurkowitz began
his journalism career at the Tab Newspapers where he served
a two-year stint as editor. He spent a number of years as a
talk radio host, appearing on WRKO, WHDH and WBZ and is currently
a regular panelist on the weekly Beat the Press program
on Bostons PBS outlet, WGBH-TV. Jurkowitz teaches media
ethics at Northeastern University and Tufts University.
is the associate director of the Project
for Excellence in Journalism where she oversees the research
and empirical studies conducted by PEJ. Mitchell is co-editor
of Thinking Clearly: Cases in Journalistic Decision Making
(Columbia University Press 2003). From 1993 to 1997, she was
a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute. "The
Debate Effect: How the Press Covered the Pivotal Period of the
2004 Presidential Campaign," report by the Project
for Excellence in Journalism (PDF).
Stephen Van Evera is a professor in the Department of
Political Science at MIT, where his research interests include
the causes and prevention of war, U.S. foreign policy, U.S.
national security policy, and social science methods.
is an edited summary, not a complete transcript]
director of the Technology and Culture Forum at MIT, introduced
the topic and moderator Stephen Van Evera.
STEPHAN VAN EVERA introduced the speakers.
MITCHELL spoke about the importance of the press in a democracy.
Reliable and accessible information is critical for citizens
to make informed decisions. This is especially true leading
up to and surrounding elections. She asked what benefits new
technologies have given citizens: it is clear that the Internet,
cable television and weblogs all expand the amount of information
available, increase the potential for individual citizens' media
participation, and make it easier to access information in a
variety of formats. However, Mitchell notes that these new media
do not add value to the fundamental role of the press: reporting
information. Here, new media do not raise the caliber of reporting.
Weblogs, for example, repeat forms of discourse already seen
on cable television and in the mainstream press.
for Excellence in Journalism's new study "The
Debate Effect: How the Press Covered the Pivotal Period of the
2004 Presidential Campaign" looks at coverage
of President Bush and Senator Kerry during October's presidential
debates. This research finds an amplification of tendencies
also seen in the 2000 election: an increase in coverage of inside
politics and the "horse race," and a decrease in coverage
of policy issues. During the debate period, fewer than 1 in
20 stories examined the policy objectives put forth by the candidates.
The study also looked at which news-consuming constituencies
(citizens, politicians, interest groups, etc.) are most affected
by political stories. The report concluded that news coverage
has greater impact for politicians and other insiders than for
"average" citizens. Seventy-four percent of the coverage
had a primary impact on politicians, only twenty percent a primary
impact on citizens. This research shows a decrease in citizen
impact and an increase in politician impact since the election
coverage of 2000. An implication of these findings is that most
political news is aimed at or intended for politicians themselves.
defined the current media environment as one where politics
are valued over policy, and politicians are valued over citizens.
She asked if newer media like television or blogs have any impact
on this trend: are they better for the general public than traditional
media? "The Debate Effect" study would indicate they
are not. Both cable and broadcast television were high-level
offenders. In particular, the study looked at CNN's Newsnight
with Aaron Brown and Fox's Special Report with Brit Hume.
Both programs were likely to air stories aimed at politicians
over citizens. The study also looked at five of the most popular
blogs, to see if their focus differed at all from the mainstream
press. Overall, the tone, selectivity and angle of coverage
on blogs reflect the trends previously noted in cable and broadcast
television. Findings suggest that the blogosphere is not changing
the media agenda, but is instead adding more "pointed,
personal and frankly blunt voices
furthering the growth
of opinion news, but in an even more one-sided way than the
cable talk shows."
returned to the basic question of the forum: how much is a citizen
aided by information that is available in higher volume and
is more convenient to access, but at the same time is geared
less toward the needs of citizens? She cited Fox News' high
ratings during the political conventions, and discussed the
differences between cable and broadcast news programming. The
broadcast networks, which focus on packaged reporting that has
to fit a timed on-air news slot, have ceded convention coverage
to cable TV. While live coverage is well suited for cable news,
Mitchell asks: what is lost? The answer, she says, is the time
to double check, to verify, and to report. She suggests that
in their rush to post information in real time, the blogosphere
and cable news have similar strengths and weaknesses.
JONES suggested that the election offers a yardstick to
compare today's media/ political environment with that of 2000.
He said he would speak about media "themes that are generally
troubling," but that need to be put into context.
that a key measure of the media is whether or not citizens know
enough to make up their minds about the presidential candidates.
He proposed the term "rational ignorance" as a way
to understand how we interact with media. Rational ignorance
is the process by which we decide whether or not we need to
know specific information that is presented to us; according
to polls, the people voting in this presidential election have
for the most part made up their minds already.
21, the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University
of Maryland released a study on "The
Separate Realities of Bush and Kerry Supporters." Jones
cited some statistics from the report: while people who say
they will vote for John Kerry have a good sense of what Kerry
stands for, the people who say they will vote for George Bush
have inaccurate ideas of what Bush's policies are and what he
stands for. They think Bush supports the Kyoto Treaty and the
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. They also believe Bush had the
support of world public opinion when he decided to invade Iraq.
Only ten percent think that in a global vote, Bush would lose
the election. Jones said he mentioned these statistics to illustrate
how the media have failed to inform Bush supporters about what
Bush stands for. Jones suggested these statistics indicate that
people gather emotional impressions from the media, not facts.
the presidential campaign of 2000 as "almost an antique
campaign." The New York Times, the Washington
Post and the other major papers all played a powerful role
in defining the "meta-narrative" of the candidates,
which was then picked up and amplified by cable news channels.
But in the past four years, things have changed. Political blogging
has grown into a rapidly expanding network, and these blogs
are being read by journalists and by the people who decide what
is news on cable television. Jones noted that cable has a greater
need for information, as they have 24 hours a day to fill, as
opposed to a couple of hours as on the broadcast networks. Today,
stories emerge in the blogosphere and often go straight to cable
news. Jones cited the swift boat story as an example of a story
that wasn't properly fact checked by cable news. The story made
a big splash not because it was true, but because it was being
talked about. News organizations that have the resources to
do in-depth reporting today spend an increasing amount of those
resources doing fact-checking work on stories that have already
aired on cable or in blogs.
of this phenomenon, the news cycle has changed. It used to be
that information would travel from mainstream news to cable
news, and now it increasingly flows from blogs and cable into
the mainstream. Likewise, the news audience has changed from
a mass audience watching the major networks and reading the
major newspapers to a fragmented, niche audience. In this climate,
news producers feel more pressures to make their products entertaining,
and to spend as little as possible on reporting.
this trend, Jones cited Sinclair Broadcasting, the owner of
62 television stations around the country. Sinclair abused its
access to the public airwaves by pre-empting prime time programming
on one evening in October with a commercial-free anti-Kerry
documentary. When a network chooses to use its stations to manipulate
a political message, it abuses the public trust.
briefly about partisanship, and the American tradition of objectivity
in journalism. He noted a very recent shift away from assumptions
of objectivity: "We have taken a quick leap in only the
last year from something that was partisan to something that
is openly intended to intimidate." Citing the recent trend
of activist organizations mobilizing their constituents to inundate
news organizations with angry emails whenever an objectionable
report is aired, Jones asked: "Why do they do it?"
His answer: because it works. "I cannot believe that this
won't have an impact," he said, suggesting that such practices
are intimidating news outlets, making them more cautious and
less willing to research and report stories that might generate
controversy or antagonism.
Jones said he believed there has been an effort to discredit
the mainstream media in the U.S. The New York Times has
made some mistakes, but in Jones' view their openness about
their mistakes has made them more, rather than less, credible.
However, others may not agree with him; there is no arbiter
of truth that people on both sides of the political argument
can agree on.
JURKOWITZ reiterated Alex Jones' point about the intimidation
factor and what life is like for journalists today. In a forum
at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government prior to the Democratic
National Convention, Dan Rather, the CBS news anchor, said angry
phone calls and emails have become so common in response to
news stories that most reporters believe they will "catch
hell" no matter how careful or accurate their work.
praised The Project for Excellence in Journalism as one of the
few current sources for empirical analysis and data on "why
we're doing things wrong."
said there are new and powerful roles for the less established
media today. He referred to the episode of 60 Minutes
that broadcast forged documents about George Bush's military
record, and noted that in the past if a news program made a
similar error it might go unnoticed or perhaps generate doubt
in astute viewers who would have no means to pursue their skepticism.
But with this story, someone in the blogosphere recognized a
flaw in documents' typeface even before 60 Minutes was
off the air, and used the Internet to post his doubts to an
audience that included specialists who could find evidence proving
the material was counterfeit. Today everyone in the media is
subject to immediate fact checking. This is indeed a sea change.
mentioned Matt Drudge, the online tabloid-gossip journalist
who broke the Clinton/ Lewinsky story during the Clinton Administration.
During this campaign he published the false tale of Kerry's
involvement with an intern. Jurkowitz feels the mainstream media
handled the Kerry/ intern story well, as it was disproved and
put to rest quickly.
the emergence of partisan political documentaries as a new force
in our politics. Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 arguably
had a significant impact on the campaign. Other documentaries
of this political season included Outfoxed, which looked
at Fox News; Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal, Sinclair
Broadcasting's anti-Kerry documentary; and Control Room,
which took an inside look at Al-Jazeera.
is another non-traditional medium that has become a major factor
in American politics. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth published
their initial anti-Kerry advertisement in print media in a few
medium-sized markets. But more than half of America learned
about their perspective because of the echo chamber effect:
whether it's true or false doesn't matter. Talk radio, cable
news and blogs gave the story plenty of coverage.
pointed to liberals' and conservatives' distrust of one another:
many conservatives believe the recent 60 Minutes error
was a "liberal hit job;" liberals are convinced Sinclair
Broadcasting is trying to influence the outcome of the election.
Jurkowitz cited an internal memo written by Mark Halperin, political
director of ABC News, on the distortions leveled against each
candidate by the opposing campaign. The memo included a comment
that the Bush campaign is more likely to be factually wrong
in its anti-Kerry statements than the Kerry campaign is in its
anti-Bush statements. This memo was leaked, and it provided
fodder for the Right. Jurkowitz also cited the "joke"
news report on Foxnews.com about Kerry boasting about his manicure.
This provided fodder for the left. The electorate is telling
us that they believe today's media are partisan, that the old
notion of journalistic objectivity has lost its authority.
said he fears this trend in which the public loses all confidence
in fair or objective reporting. What develops instead is a "cafeteria-style"
news consumerism. In this model, we all have more choices than
ever before, and we can start picking and choosing based on
whose message we like. Jurkowitz sees a future not only of red
and blue states, but of red and blue media. Someone will eventually
create a Fox News of the left, and it will probably do well
in a niche market. If these trends continue, Jurkowitz said,
"as a society we will have fewer and fewer shared truths.
Everything will be up for debate."
TAYLOR, retired physicist: I want to ask about individual,
personal media. The Abu Ghraib pictures were taken by soldiers,
by private individuals. Is the presence of digital cameras as
a potential witness to crime or atrocity a check on abuses of
authority? Or a new source of information for the public? The
Abu Ghraib photos certainly suggest that.
It is important to remember that the Abu Ghraib photos were
distributed by the mainstream media. The use of private photographs
by mainstream media is nothing new. But I think you are right
that the existence of digital cameras and similar personal technologies
allows everybody who wants to participate as a journalist, recorder,
blogger or photographer to do so. But when images can spread
virally across the Internet within hours, the problem is that
we get a cacophony without anyone acting as gatekeeper. I think
we'll develop a new appreciation for media gatekeepers.
The two-party system encourages people to see the world in black
and white, and to think there are only two options. The access
of journalists to sources is determined by how they behave in
Washington. Journalists might be afraid of emails from angry
viewers, but what does it mean that they have to give up their
integrity to keep their jobs?
In our study we looked at news coverage of Afghanistan, and
how much of that coverage articulated perspectives provided
by the administration as against outside sources. We found that
most information came from an administration perspective because
journalists only had one source to go to: the Pentagon.
There is always tension between journalists and the administration.
Most journalists believe this administration is the most hostile
and the most willing to punish journalists, but that's also
part of the game. Also, the sophistication of people who consume
news is important. They need to be aware of the concept of intimidation
or payoffs or sweetheart deals, as well as the ideological browbeating.
I mentioned the New York Times' apology for believing
the government on whether or not Iraq had weapons of mass destruction;
news organizations are often only a small part of a huge organization
that doesn't feel it can afford to be unpopular in a time of
RUBIN, instructor of sociology and media studies, Tufts:
In my classes my students don't have a sense of the time needed
to do real research. If they see a source before 2000, they
think it's ancient news. How do you think this concept of time
is affected by the news cycle? How would you approach teaching
young people how to discriminate between different kinds of
That's a good question. Young people are raised with a different
set of behaviors from someone my age. The worst thing American
journalism does is tell stories episodically without really
providing context - but one of the most fascinating stories
is going back to find out what really happened. News outlets
should do this as a matter of practice: to say, this is what
we reported and then this is what really happened.
As a teaching aide, on our website we have something called
"Etymologies" where we take a story from its first
appearance in the press and trace it through the reporting to
see what happened. Students could try to do that on their own
- it's a helpful exercise for appreciating depth and understanding.
Tell your students they should identify specific journalists
and specific stories, and go back to ask them why and how they
reported what they did.
You have all painted a pretty bleak picture. So where do we
go from here? What solutions can we develop?
I consider the major newspapers to be the only real journalistic
resource we have, along with NPR and a few other isolated sources.
There's a dwindling amount of money that will be spent on serious
reporting. That's the worst problem. I think news organizations
will not be willing to foot the bill to do this kind of reporting,
so it will be picked up by foundations - you'll see lots more
endowed reporterships and volunteers.
As a media critic, you depress your audience all the time!
But there are two upbeat things I would say: People will look
for brand names they trust. Since 9/11, Seymour Hersh and Bob
Woodward have re-emerged they're relics of the 1960s,
but are more prominent today than they have been in a while.
Also, standards are important. It is much harder to use an anonymous
source today than when I got started in journalism.
LEWIN, social psychologist, Alliance for Democracy: I'm
concerned about how survey research and the reporting of survey
research can be misleading. I'm particularly thinking about
the way Bush supporters are so mistaken about their candidate's
position on global warming or other issues.
The reason Bush supporters believe Bush supported those
issues is because they supported those ideas. They projected
those ideas onto Bush. It suggests to me that people are voting
for Bush not because they agree with him on policy - people
in this country agree on important issues more than the red
state/blue state idea would lead us to believe.
Surveys have proliferated in the last few years, and the
way they are being used has changed as well. Journalists have
become more educated in understanding polling and what it means.
Journalists today ask smarter questions than they did five years
ago, at least in the mainstream established press. Also, it's
important to remember the purpose of surveys: they're indicators,
not facts. They are supposed to guide us, not give us answers.
BROWN, MIT: How can we help the voters better apply their
rational ignorance? How can we increase their self-confidence
so they can make their choices on skills and issues, not just
on who they feel comfortable with?
The things I have read say people who are for George Bush voted
for him in 2000, and then they made an emotional commitment
to him after 9/11 and also when he invaded Iraq. They don't
want to say 'I was wrong three times here.' Much of the support
for George Bush is emotional support, whereas much of the opposition
is more analytical. We are in a particularly volatile emotional
environment, and I don't think you're going to see anything
in the newspaper tomorrow that will change who you're going
to vote for.
FARAMELLI, Boston University: It is difficult to understand
and appreciate the complexities of complicated issues - they
are not accessible. This is why one liners work so well in the
news. What kinds of things can be done and how can we move forward?
I think Americans yearn to be united, but they vote with their
feet in terms of their attention for conflict. What happens
when you make that choice in our media environment is everything
is put in the most extreme terms, sort of the "Crossfire
Effect." Reasoned discourse does not draw ratings. Jon
Stewart was recently on Crossfire, and he dressed the
hosts down for what they are costing the country in terms of
discourse. If people in the media think they can attract an
audience then, that is what they are going to do. If it's not
in-your-face behavior, people don't watch it even if they claim
to not like it.
THORBURN, professor of literature, MIT: In my lifetime,
this is the election in which the role of religion has been
most prominent. Can you comment on that?
Religion is another area of polarization, but perhaps is not
as conscious. A lot of people aren't sure how they feel about
it, and how much they want it to be attached to politics. The
question of Kerry and his willingness or lack thereof to discuss
religion is an important indicator that that is an area where
people are not comfortable or unsure. I don't know if people
are making their voting decisions based on religious issues.
The technology is available to explore religion and other complex
issues in-depth, going beyond the surface, but as Alex said,
the money just isn't there for that type of in-depth work.
The religious issue, to a certain extent, is a canard. I just
don't buy the idea that the issue of religion trumps all else.
We have had this war without real cost: there has been no new
tax, and no draft. Except for those who have lost loved ones,
we have not been touched. If Bush said we needed a draft, no
matter what he said about God's will, his support would plummet.
Bush has created an environment in which there the evangelical
voters perceive no cost that would trump the religious issue.
If the electoral system in the U.S. were to change, would the
media at some point stop dividing the United States into red
states and blue states?
It's not easy to change the way the electoral system works.
There have been attempts in the past and they have not moved
forward. There are vested interests in maintaining the current
system. Alex Keyssar, who is on the faculty at the Kennedy School,
said the only incentive for true change would be for Bush to
win the popular vote and Kerry the electoral.
Can you explain the gap between mainstream coverage of the
situation in Iraq and reporters' personal accounts of how bad
it is over there, and how tough it is to do their job?
I would say you've outlined the difference between reporting
and blogging. The best thing about blogs is that their believability
is so high. People see them as sincere. And I think that is
a dangerous thing in an environment when there is as much public
relations talent out there, ready to take advantage of that
belief (for corporate interests). A reported story has to hold
to certain standards. You can't get a story published unless
you have evidence. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I would trust
journalism more than a blog.
Another example is embedded reporting. It certainly offered
a lot, but many of the facts were wrong.
--compiled by Joellen Easton