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Ernest Miller Ernest Miller pursues research and writing on cyberlaw, intellectual property, and First Amendment issues. Mr. Miller attended the U.S. Naval Academy before attending Yale Law School, where he was president and co-founder of the Law and Technology Society, and founded the technology law and policy news site LawMeme. He is a fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. Ernest Miller's blog postings can also be found @
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November 04, 2004

Whither the Press?

Posted by Ernest Miller

Jay Rosen continues his excellent ongoing series of postings analyzing the challenges and opportunities for news media in light of recent events over on Press Think (Are We Headed for an Opposition Press?). However, I disagree with some of the dichotomies with which Rosen sketches the possible future:

Whatever happens with the news networks, which is only part of the picture, what's more plausible to you: the "cultural divides that have increasingly defined American politics" will increasingly come to define mainstream American media, or... Big Media will successfully hold itself back from politics, and the major news sources will remain in the "nonaligned" movement?
In politics we have opposition parties. Those in each party express one position when it is their party in charge, and castigate the same position when it is championed by the other party in charge. How expected. And how sad. Is this the future we want the press to adopt?

Why not a press that is the permanent party of skepticism and contingent thinking? How about a press, not without bias, certainly, but with a commitment to exposing the facts and a humble recognition of the possibility for error? Why not a press firmly on the side of transparency? Such a position is hardly apolitical. In fact, it is radically engaged with and opposed to "politics" as well as the "view from nowhere."

This expansion of the political into "news" and commentary coincides with greater transparency for the big news combines, which are more successfully scrutinized than they have ever been. Various layers of protection once kept journalists from the knowledge the public had of their mistakes. That layer seems gone now.
Layers of protection? Only if you consider the Maginot Line a success. Lack of transparency was a false protection. Embracing transparency is the only defense.
In Bushworld, all is different. There is no fourth estate; an invalid theory, says Bush. The press is not a watchdog for the public, but another interest group that wants something. (Or it's an arm of our opponents's operation.) But the press is weak, and almost passe, in the Administrations view. There is no need to deal with it most of the time. It can be denied access with impunity. It can be attacked for bias relentlessly, which charges up Bush supporters. It can be fed gruel in plush surroundings and will come back the next day. The Bush crowd has completely changed the game on journalists, knowing that journalists are unlikely to respond with action nearly as bold.
Well, yeah. Big Media is an interest group and frequently acts like one. One can hardly blame Bush for taking advantage of the obviousness weaknesses of the press. It was bound to happen.
Washington journalism likes to imagine itself the Administration's great adversary, but most of the time it relies on access journalism-- not the adversarial kind. "Sources make news" is the first tenet in that system, and that gives sources power. But access journalism makes less and less sense when there is no access, and sources rarely deviate from the party line. The White House press corps has always been based on access, so much so that the alternatives to it have almost been forgotten. I think there will be pressure to abandon the whole dream of press access under Bush, and re-position some forces accordingly.
Exactly. And I hope there is such pressure, though I don't hold out much hope. Non-access-based journalism is a lot more work, and you don't get invited to nearly as many cocktail parties.
I expect some news organizations to begin dealing with these pressures by essentially giving in on several counts-- for example, that newsrooms are populated by liberals and conservative voices are too few. Or some sort of concession like that. Coming to terms with "liberal bias" could be seen as a way of recognizing the reality of the election and responding to continued anger at the press. The most likely place for those efforts to begin is with the supposed finding that "moral values" (read religion) were the top concern of voters, and yet this is not a strength of the liberal, secular press, therefore we need to change-- something like that. After the Republican sweep, I expect some major initiatives on the bias front.
Sigh. Of course, if this is the "solution" then the media has asked the wrong question. It isn't about the "bias." It is about the transparency. It is about the conversation with readers. It is about the links to other sources.
Keep your eye on Sinclair Broadcasting, in my view a new kind of media company-- a political empire with television stations. It was built to prosper in the conditions I have described. It already has a self-conscious political identity. It is already steeped in culture war. And it admires and imitates the Bush method of changing the world, but keeping the same language for the new situation.
I've said it before, I'll say it again. Sinclair is the result of our current broadcast regulatory scheme that turns broadcasters into gatekeepers. Change the regulation to reduce gatekeeping and you solve the Sinclair problem. Unfortunately, too many entrenched interests, including politicians and, more importantly, other broadcasters, like gatekeepers. Yeah, I'd like to see the solutions that Big Media proposes to the gatekeeper problem. That'll happen. Sure.

The press must change, and it won't be easy. Opening up formerly closed processes hardly ever is. Mistakes will be made, complaints will be ubiquitous. The challenges are clear, the opportunities many. Personally, I'm mildly optimistic.

Comments (6) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Blogging and Journalism


COMMENTS

1. Mark A. York on November 4, 2004 02:16 AM writes...

I'm not sure that righties will ever let go of media bias claim. It's ludicrous of course as last nights coverage showed. More substance and fewer allowed lies from Republican supporters would be nice. As a journalist myself and a scientist I prefer truth. We aren't getting it from this infotainment system.

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2. Tim on November 4, 2004 03:12 AM writes...

It is about the conversation with readers. It is about the links to other sources.

I'm not sure it is a conversation with readers. Is it a conversation between readers?

The public discourse is more important. The press should concerned with the health of that discourse. It should feed and nurture that beast.

Instead, it has created a feeding tube for information to consumers. Rather than looking for ways to improve the feeding tube, perhaps we should question how the feeding tube is killing, or creating a homebound invalid of the beast?

Isn't that what James W. Carey is talking about in A Republic, if You Can Keep It that Jay excerpts?

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3. Matt McAlister on November 4, 2004 05:49 PM writes...

It would be a mistake to place all the burden of the new media order on political journalism. Transparency is a practice we can explore across genres, from Big Journalism to Small Trades, from cooking publications to music aggregation sites. The methods of writing need to change. Organization structures and editorial procedures need to change. The impact of stories must be monitored closely. At the very core, the concept of an 'article' must evolve.

Big Journalism will evolve if the right incentives are uncovered. And those incentives will most likely be found in small media where experimentation is more forgiving.

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4. Ernest Miller on November 4, 2004 06:03 PM writes...

Tim,

I'm not sure you understand what I'm getting at. I don't like feeding tubes anymore than you do. I'm looking forward to the reforms that get rid of the feeding tubes once and for all. Without gatekeepers, with transparency and easy publication, I don't know how feeding tubes continue to thrive. I don't think I'm disagreeing with Carey.

Matt,

I don't think what I'm saying is incompatible with what you're saying.

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5. Tim on November 5, 2004 12:09 AM writes...

Without gatekeepers, with transparency and easy publication, I don't know how feeding tubes continue to thrive.

I agree. But I am having difficulty envisioning the "solution" coming from "the press" that accomplishes that.

Is it a solution that replaces "the press"? For example, "the press" as a feeding tube dies when the readers are having a conversation that no longer relies on the information in the feeding tube? Perhaps the future is an "agent" that responds to an inquiry on a topic from another reader/writer in a p2p news/information infrastructure?

Can President Bush post his speech with questions solicited ahead of time from the p2p news pool?

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6. Ernest Miller on November 6, 2004 04:44 PM writes...

Tim,

What the future will look like is contingent and emergent. Big media, however, is not where the solution will come because it will mean their loss of power.

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