new roles for established media?


Thursday, October 28, 2004
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.

Bartos Theater
20 Ames Street

Abstract

Many have 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.

Co-sponsored by the Technology and Culture Forum at MIT with support from the Political Science Department and MIT Votes.

Speakers

Alex 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 1983–1992 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.

Mark Jurkowitz is the media writer for The Boston Globe, a position he has held since 1997 after spending two years as the paper’s ombudsperson. Prior to that, he spent seven years as media critic for The Boston Phoenix and author of its “Don’t 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 Boston’s PBS outlet, WGBH-TV. Jurkowitz teaches media ethics at Northeastern University and Tufts University.

Amy Mitchell 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).

Moderator: 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.

Summary

[This is an edited summary, not a complete transcript]

AMY MCCREATH, director of the Technology and Culture Forum at MIT, introduced the topic and moderator Stephen Van Evera.

Moderator STEPHAN VAN EVERA introduced the speakers.

AMY 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.

The Project 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.

Mitchell 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."

Mitchell 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.

ALEX 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.

Jones suggested 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.

On October 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.

Jones identified 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.

Because 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.

To illustrate 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.

Jones spoke 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.

In conclusion, 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.

MARK 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.

Jurkowitz 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."

Jurkowitz 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.

Jurkowitz 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.

He cited 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.

Talk radio 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.

Jurkowitz 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.

Jurkowitz 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."

Discussion:

EDMUND 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.

JONES: 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.

QUESTION: 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?

MITCHELL: 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.

JONES: 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.

JURKOWITZ: 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 war.

HENRY 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 news standards?

JONES: 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.

MITCHELL: 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.

JONES: 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.

QUESTION: You have all painted a pretty bleak picture. So where do we go from here? What solutions can we develop?

JONES: 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.

JURKOWITZ: 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.

DAVE 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.

JONES: 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.

MITCHELL: 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.

STEVEN 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?

JONES: 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.

NORM 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?

JONES: 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.

DAVID 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?

MITCHELL: 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.

JONES: 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.

QUESTION: 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?

JONES: 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.

VAN EVERA: 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?

JONES: 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.

MITCHELL: Another example is embedded reporting. It certainly offered a lot, but many of the facts were wrong.

--compiled by Joellen Easton

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