Monday, August 22, 2005

Don't Press, Don't Think

A very strange debate on the appropriate relationship of the White House to the MSM has unfolded over the last several days at Jay Rosen's PressThink. It has been Prof. Rosen's contention that the White House is inappropriately trying to "roll back" the media, and he had invited Austin Bay to guest post on the topic (crossposted at Austin Bay Blog here). As could be expected, Bay provided a long and thoughtful post, rich with historical allusion, in which he took both sides to task for a dysfunctional relationship. What made the debate strange was that Jay (who usually seems quite fair-minded) has shut it down with a rather odd tua culpa. I quote in full his final comment, with which he closed the thread:

I'm embarrassed that this thread appeared at my weblog. I'm embarrassed that something I wrote and edited was the occasion for it. I embarrassed that the letters "edu" appear in the Web address at the top of this page, since most of this is the opposite of education. I'm embarrassed for having entertained, even for a second, the notion that Austin Bay, a Bush supporter and war veteran, might get a hearing for some of his warnings from those who agree with him on most things. And I've had enough of anonymous tough guys with their victim's mentality raging at their own abstractions...Those who wish to continue can head over to Austin's thread, where the story is pretty much the same. But four days of this pathetic spectacle is enough for me. Thread closed. My advice: Go home to your wives and children, and breathe some truth.
I have the feeling that this thread will be talked about in the blogosphere for some time, as another one of those new media/old media watersheds. While I doubt that Jay's cri de coeur will be seen as a death rattle of Old Media's power monopoly, I think it will come back to haunt him. At the very least, he owes his audience an accounting of how he arrived at his dire conclusion. I think for most of us watching the debate, it seemed to confirm that he was in such a different memetic universe that communication was more difficult than we imagined. But it is notable that communication only became impossible when Rosen pulled the plug.

I agree with the analysis offered by neo-neocon here (as well as that of several commenters on her boards):
Understand that the comments section on the thread had not degenerated into the sort of overwhelmingly vicious nastiness that sometimes occurs on so many blogs... Yes, some of the comments may have overstated the case (on either side), and the comments were certainly polarized. But that's hardly remarkable in a comments section; in fact, it is to be expected...
What is most strange about this reaction of Rosen's is that his post contains a critique of the Bush administration for supposedly shutting off the flow of information to the press in retaliation for what it perceives as press bias against it. But in the very same thread Rosen threatens to close his own comments section for engaging in free speech that doesn't quite suit him, apparently because it doesn't go in the direction in which he wants it to go.
Now, I came to the party very late, and actually read almost the entire thread in one (long) sitting last night. I have tonight gone back and re-read the entire thread, including the original postings from Rosen and Bay, re-reading certain comments multiple times, as well as looking back through the last few threads at PressThink for context. And I have tried to analyze exactly where the debate turned so sour for Jay. First, a bit of background, then a careful parsing of his reaction is in order:

I understand that Jay has repeatedly announced his disaffection with bias-hunters of all stripes, and takes the philosophical view that bias is unavoidable. In the past, he proposed this solution:

Get into the habit of making these two distinctions:One: Treat the press as political, and argue about its politics. On the whole, this is a good thing, necessary to a free press. But when you argue about the press and its politics—which we should do—things cannot get politicized. And when they do, there is emptiness.Two: The press is not supposed to heed the people. It’s supposed to feed and sustain the public.
It seemed to me, and I assume a majority of the conservative commenters, that arguing about the press's politics was a central aspect of the thread. I can only assume that Jay found the discussion to be politicized, and hence, empty. But he failed to demonstrate how he drew that distinction in his first comment, in which he announced that the thread was "depressing" and petulantly threatened to shut down debate, without in any way offering an alternative focus. His second comment, after more than 40 more hours in which he failed to offer any substantive re-direct, declared himself at a loss for words -- until he found the words to accuse someone (everyone?) of "untruth in layers" and "meaningless" "self-infantalization." In his third comment, he finally added some substance to his critique, by picking off some of the more hyperbolic statements scattered across the comments and declaring "Every one of these statements is a fantasia. It isn't possible to argue with them." [emph added]

Of the comments he targeted, several were hyperbolic, but in some cases merely by painting with too broad a brush, using words such as "only," "doing everything possible," when of course a more measured statement would be more accurate. Yet, Rosen ignored the fact that such measured statements were often made by the very same commenters, at times in the very same comments. In fact, I scoured the first several dozen of the comments for hyperbolic statements, and mostly found that the posts were balanced, fact-based, and at times lengthy and even-handed almost to a fault. In his responses, Rosen also slightly alters a couple of the comments, to make them sound more extreme.

Most importantly, though, Rosen misses the point of the very first commenter, who stated (inter alia) ""the goal of such a press is Public Relations against Bush, implicitly supporting the death squad terrorists in Iraq." To which Jay responded: "Did you hear that? The press, in effect, supports the death squads who are murdering innocent Iraqis-- and journalists!" In the context of his post, Rosen seems deeply offended, as if the MSM has been accused of explicitly or deliberately supporting the terrorists, and as if he has never heard of Orwell's critique of the pacifist Left in WWII and its applications today. Moreover, Rosen ignores the following balanced statement (and others like it) in the very same comment:
Bush is failing in not explaining what Building a New Iraq really means. Not finding out what it means is how the press is failing. It seems that the speeches Bush gives don’t tell enough, and the questions the press asks don’t clarify what is known and not known, enough.
In a comments thread of more than 35,000 words, Rosen could not find a single critical comment worthy of his standards?

By contrast, I found that the first post which both explicitly and implicitly (in tone) brought the thread towards unproductive sniping, without offering a positive alternative, came from CJR's Steve Lovelady:
Already the thread has degenerated into "What the press reports doesn't correspond to my world view (of the White House, of Iraq, of Vietnam, of whatever), so it must be wrong. "It's too bad, because Austin Bay actually had some interesting things to say. Now he knows what it's like to be obliterated in a tidal wave of static. Welcome aboard the Fantasy Express, Colonel.
Too bad that Steve never found the time to make a productive comment on the interesting things Austin Bay had said; his tone throughout the debate tended to alternate between the pedantically nit-picky and the smugly dismissive. In an act of projection, he introduced the terms "faux-macho" and "posturing" to the debate. And he bizarrely criticized several commenters for the use of a nom de plume. I can just imagine his critique of the authors of the Federalist Papers:

We've had quite enough of tough-talking patriots swathed in anonymity. Do you guys show up at community hearings wearing Hallo'ween masks and using voice-distortion technology? [Publius?] ... enough already! Is this junior high ? Put your money where your mouth is.Then we can begin. Until then, it's all posturing.
At no point do either Rosen or Lovelady seriously attempt to engage their interlocutors. I take particular umbrage at the fact that my (admittedly late) attempt to redirect the debate to Austin Bay's original post (and his historical analogy to the Cold War) was completely ignored by both. I intentionally began and ended my post with a (verbal) peace offering, which was not taken up in the remaining 15 hours that the thread was open.

More importantly, I think that Rosen himself is responsible for the direction of the thread, after his summary of Austin's piece begins with a "gotcha" headline and meme that is popular amongst the MSM today: "Republican criticizes Bush," while ignoring his criticism of the press, giving short shrift to the overarching framework of the Cold War analogy, and never once picking up the NY-DC-LA gauntlet that consitutes the heart of the piece.

I know that this post has been long, even by my rather verbose standards. But I wanted very much to give all participants in this train-wreck the benefit of the doubt. I would love it if Rosen would publish a substantive explanation of his reaction. I would greatly appreciate it if Steve Lovelady would adopt a more congenial tone -- I suspect he has an interesting story to tell from his experiences. Most importantly, I hope they can understand that many of us are deeply worried about the potential for the MSM to unintentionally damage our national security through a repetition of the Vietnam template, and that we have come to our conclusions independently, without ever once receiving a fax from Karl Rove. Why, I've never even given him my fax number.

8 Comments:

Blogger Callimachus said...

Thanks for the good, hard work of summation. FYI, I've worked in newspaper newsrooms for 22 years. I once gave a brief account of my experiences of the political leanings of my co-workers on Pressthink, and Steve Lovelady responded by saying that I could not possibly be what I said I was because my experience didn't agree with his perception of reality. Talk about fantasia. As for pseudonyms, you'd use one, too, if your employer had vowed, in print, to fire you if you ever appeared anywhere on the Internet under your own name without the company's prior approval.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Norma said...

Thanks for all that reading in context. I just sort of skimmed, but you've said it beautifully. I've updated my blog entry with your comments.

3:19 PM  
Blogger Dymphna said...

I'm not going over to read the thread; you and Neo-neocon seem to have summarized it well, based on my experience with the reactive environment in which the MSM/academia lives. It is life lived as mandarins; exposure to the real world is frightening and probably disorienting.

Perhaps you and Neo-neocon still care because you're so newly gone from that world view and it's more painful for you? I'm not trying to be condescending here -- I cannot think of anything more painful than slowly realizing that everything you thought you knew is...?skewed?

I left the Left long before the country became so divided, and I left it as Jeanne Kirkpatrick did: for reasons of social policy. But there was still cross-talk then, and civility beyond the usual scurrilous political jabber. The ACLU had not yet gone over the cliff. That's all gone now.

American Digest put up an excerpt of my take on the Left's world and a commenter went ballistic on it. Interesting. Accused me of making comic book characters of them. To which I replied that they weren't, but that some of their ideas on how to fix things were -- giving as an example teaching 5th graders how to apply condoms by using cucumbers...as an answer to childhood sexual encounters, AIDS and adolescent pregnancies that particular lesson *is* comical.

I still keep thinking about that librarian who put up a comment on your blog about the ratio of liberals:conservatives in her line of work. I believe it was 27:1? No wonder the new book section has such a paucity of interesting material. I don't even bother to go there anymore. Not a deliberate decision, just no reason to walk thru the doors anymore.

Strike another match, go start anew
And it's all over now, Baby Blue...

3:46 PM  
Blogger ljmcinnis said...

I, too appreciate your thoughtful analysis into Mr. Rosen's perplexing behavior, especially since his outbursts seemed to sharply contrast with his professional assertions.
How he reconciles this to himself would be interesting but in the meantime he has irrevocably damaged his credibility as a media critic and journalist in my eyes.

4:21 PM  
Blogger who, me? said...

Yup, Rosen melted down in public on this one. I'd like to see from him a model comment of the sort that would not have left him embarrassed and fatigué.

8:16 PM  
Blogger Tom Grey said...

Very nice summary (wish I'd done it!)

As author of the first comment, and MANY comments on PressThink, it is my opinion that Jay suffers in denial, denial that there is a Moral Hazard to a free press.

In earlier threads there is discussion about the press as activists, with an agenda, trying to "make a difference." And there is a tension with being neutral, innocent, above-it "just the facts" current reporters of history.

To "make a difference" in Iraq means either A) Fewer Americans are killed, or C) More Americans are killed, with B) same # Americans killed being "no difference."

Previous threads including criticism of the press brought forth this defense (by John Cole?): 'what do you want? Public Relations in support of Bush?'

Consider PR in support of Bush, and PR against Bush (almost=PR support of terrorists), and apply the (A) & (C) possible changes the press can make.

Minimizing US casualties comes with PR press for Bush. Maximizing US casualties comes with PR press for the terrorists (almost= PR against Bush).

Neither Jay, nor Steve, have any refutation of this Moral Hazard -- so they call me psychotic.

[I support balanced press, with more US soldiers being killed, FOR a free press -- but less than PR against Bush.]

12:25 AM  
Blogger M. Simon said...

Dymphna,

It still matters to me and I'm some 25 years gone from the leftist point of view.

I think it is critically important for those of us who have been on both sides of the issues to speak in a way our former comrades/brothers and sisters can understand.

I know where they are coming from. My ease made other's hardships painful. I'd say that was the main driving force behind socialist liberalism.

I'm still a liberal. I just do not believe in socialist solutions.

I'm also in favor of this war and even how it is being prosecuted. The errors in this war are no worse than any other except for the fact that so few are dying - including Iraqis. I got this from the study of history, Clauzwitz, B.H,L. Hart, Col. Summers and others. In international politics I tend to take all the actors at their word, most especially the bad actors.

6:59 AM  
Blogger Tom Paine said...

Rosen disappoints because he has always seemed an MSM-type more interested in examining the truth than in protecting himself from it.

Lovelady’s just one of the Kacophonies of the Kos Klucks Klan – minds closed, locked, and hermetically sealed inside the alternate-reality based echo chamber.

11:43 AM  

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