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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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May 26, 2005

Three Questions for Kevin Drum: A Response From Me, Instead

Posted by Ernest Miller

New Journalism guru Jay Rosen proposes three questions for Kevin Drum (Three Questions for Kevin Drum):

  • Is the press, properly understood, a political animal?
  • If so, what kind of politics should it have?
  • How do we know if the press has got the politics part right?
No one asked me, but I'll go ahead and give my answers anyway.

One caveat, I wouldn't phrase the questions as about "the press," but rather, about journalism. For me, "the press" means distributors of information. Entertainment is part of "the press." PR is part of "the press." The government is part of "the press." I know that "the press" and journalism are often used as synonyms, but I think it confuses things somewhat.

Is journalism, properly understood, a political animal?

Of course it is. How could it not be? That is sort of one of the main points of the First Amendment, is it not? When one reports on political issues, it is inevitable that the reporting will become part of the political cycle. At the very least there is an "observer effect". Carlyle attributed Edmund Burke with claiming that there were three estates in parliament and a fourth estate in the press gallery. The name "Fourth Estate" stuck, with good reason, as it is a fairly accurate depiction of the role journalism plays in government.

I think the most trouble comes when journalists try to deny this. See also, Instapundit

If so, what kind of politics should it have?

Almost any damn kind it pleases. Journalism isn't a single monolithic institution. It is a cacophony of voices.

In many ways it is part and parcel of democracy, which is political by definition, but doesn't have a particular "politics." Rather, democracy has particular processes (which exclude at some point certain forms of politics - anti-democratic ones). We may not agree on the ends in democracy, but we have a working consensus on the means.

Journalism is the same. Have whatever "politics" you desire, but adhere to a few process-oriented rules: transparency, accuracy, fairness, open access, etc. There will never be perfect agreement on what these entail, precisely, but we should be able to achieve a good working consensus, just as we have for democracy.

How do we know if journalism has got the politics part right?

We can't.

Journalism is a means and journey, not an end. Just as our understanding of democracy has developed and changed (universal sufferage, new constitutional rights), so will our understanding of the processes of journalism. Isn't blogging sort of like universal sufferage for journalism? The best we can try to do is figure out ways that journalism can be more transparent, more accurate, etc.

Thoughts?

Comments (7) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Journalism


COMMENTS

1. Lowell Brown on May 26, 2005 10:13 AM writes...

I think you have it right. Democracy is an untidy process, and free speech and free press are perhaps its most untidy elements. The increase in voices (e.g., the blogosphere) will create some additional untidiness but protects democracy.

Hmmm. Don't mean to sound pseudo-profound.

Permalink to Comment

2. rho on May 26, 2005 10:24 AM writes...

I agree with your take on it. Journalism's current obsession with itself as a "truth-bearer" and "dispassionate observer" is so much hoakum.

Journalism has no certification process, it has no meritocracy outside of fickle fame, and it is open to anybody with time and the ability to read and write at a fifth-grade level. This is a genuine marketplace of ideas, and is its strength. It is much worse for journalism to live inside of a single enclave of, say, TV network news, because what happens when CBS reports on a fake memo? Now journalism as a whole is tarnished instead of (rightly) just CBS News.

Permalink to Comment

3. R C Dean on May 26, 2005 11:41 AM writes...

The questions are fundamentally unsound, because they assume that "the press" is a unitary thing of some kind. Its not. These days, there aren't even any barriers to entry; journalism is an activity that anyone at all can engage in.

So it makes no sense to ask these questions.

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4. Seth Finkelstein on May 26, 2005 12:45 PM writes...

"Is journalism, properly understood, a political animal?"

The problem is that this question is very easier to misparse as

"Is journalism, properly understood, a PARTISAN animal?

The word "political" has two strong senses:
1) Pertaining to civics and government - "the political process"
2) Partisan and advocacy - "a political position".

Confusing, conflating, and obsfucating, these two very different meanings is fodder for much bloviation (no offense meant, just a general observation).

Permalink to Comment

5. pilsener on May 26, 2005 01:21 PM writes...

To R.C. Dean:

The sense of these questions is that most of the large news organizations deny that they are political. They are free to be as political as they want (except for NPR & PBS), but acknowledgement that they are not objective bystanders would go a long way toward restoring their credibility.

Permalink to Comment

6. Sisyphus on May 26, 2005 01:51 PM writes...

Seth: "Confusing, conflating, and obsfucating, these two very different meanings is fodder for much bloviation ...."

True, but denying one or both is also fodder for much bloviation. Journalism participates in the political process, and the greatest hypocrites are the journalists who then don't participate (i.e., vote).

Also, journalists ARE partisan and advocates - for themselves, their self-perceived role in the polis and their art/"profession".

Press Politics

Permalink to Comment

7. Seth Finkelstein on May 26, 2005 04:04 PM writes...

"Also, journalists ARE partisan and advocates - for themselves, their self-perceived role ..."

While this is very true, it's quite different from the Great Game of the right-wing ongoing now, which is to destroy the current overall system of journalism that is non-partisan in the sense that is not an outright satellite of either *political* party, and replace it with something integrated into the Mighty Wurlitzer.

Part of this effort is to strip it of any moral high ground, any sense of being morally different from the demagogic ranting of *political* hatchet-jobbers. Hacks get paid? Well, journalists get paid too (neglecting by who!). Hacks are political? Well, journalists are *political* too (for a suitable definition of political). Etc.

I've given up trying to figure out exactly what Jay Rosen is doing. But it's clear what area he's working.

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