Taking radio journalism online in a multimedia world

Let me just say at the outset that I think the ABC’s response to the new digital media environment has been innovative and outstanding. Not only is their website full of fascinating content from their TV and radio networks but they have also started to produce innovative community projects like Pool, and their mix of commentary at Unleashed is terrific.

But it struck me when I clicked on a story at their website this morning that there is still a way to go. The story “Modern Mag,” from Radio Australia, about the launch of a new fashion magazine for Islamic women is on the news home page under “The best of the ABC” banner. It has a short description: “Aquila Asia is a fashion magazine aimed at Muslim women in South East Asia,” and a picture of a veiled woman (see pic above). When you click on it you get an audio player of the five minute interview with the magazine’s editor. It’s a good listen and challenges some misconceptions about contemporary Islamic women.

However it is – or should have been a visual story – a women’s fashion magazine is a visual medium and one of the main topics of discussion is the use of varied models which reflect the differences in the lives of Islamic women. It would have been a simple matter for the producer in prepping the story to ask for the editor to email a couple of sample spreads and images which could have been loaded onto the program’s website with a brief two para introduction. Or with permission these images could have been taken directly from the magazine’s website.

This would have had two effects: on air, the presenter could say, “If you want to know more about Aquila Asia take a look at our website,” and in the post-live online environment, the presentation of the audio with the addition of simple visuals provides a much stronger representation of the story. The presenter even refers to the magazine’s website during the interview without providing viewers with a web address. Again if the small story had been preloaded, this information would also have been available to readers.

I don’t deny that there are resource implications in this type of approach, but if the workflow is handled well they can be minimal. I have written before about how a multimedia approach demands a simple checklist that associates sourcing of multimedia elements with the traditional checklists already a part of all editorial pre-publication  workflows. As a transitional approach I am not even saying that all radio stories demand this type of treatment but radio producers do need to ask themselves: is this a story which needs additional visual material provided through our website. If the answer is “Yes,” then contemporary listeners will expect nothing less.

American public radio NPR are ahead of the curve in making this transition and show what a contemporary online radio environment should be like. They also have one of the only decent news apps for the iPad.

“The best of the ABC” can no longer be produced in simple one medium format – the best now demands a multimedia approach.

The story can be heard here.

And the Aquila Asia website, which is fascinating, can be found here. They even have a facebook page.

Make convergence part of all your editorial workflows

BAM premiers new film on Alexander Shuglin…The “father of ecstasy” is still a serious scientist hard at work in his home lab despite failing health.

Making the transition from print or simple broadcast to fully convergent, multimedia journalism is not easy and does involve a range of labour and other costs. But I am constantly amazed at how media organisations – from big well resourced mainstream orgs to new and innovative blogs – ignore simple steps because they haven’t come up with a convergent workflow checklist for their stories, which would enable them to quickly add multimedia reader value.

For example, given that many companies now post their film trailers on YouTube there is no reason not to include an embedded trailer with every film review. This is even more important when you are reviewing festival and independent films which may not get wide mainstream release. Cinematical is a great site that covers film culture from mainstream Hollywood to independent arthouse releases. They are a blog product of the new media age, yet even these new comers have failed to take simple – more or less cost free/time free – steps to integrate multimedia clips into their site which is about MOVING PICTURES!

I clicked on this fascinating review this morning of a new documentary about Alexander Shuglin the mavrick chemist behind the development of ecstasy. It’s just premiered at the New York’s BAMcinemaFEST and is unlikely to get to Australia anytime soon, so I immediately went to YouTube to see if the trailer or any excerpts had been posted. Sure enough the production company behind the film had posted the trailer a week ago, so Cinematical could have legally and quickly embedded the trailer in their review. This would have given me instant access to a taste of the film and would have kept me on the Cinematical site and encouraged me to explore it further.

All this requires is a different mindset and a new easy step in the final editorial workflow…. Byline. Check. Picture caption. Check. Embedded YouTube trailer. Check. etc. It certainly requires more than adding an embedded film trailer to a review to complete the move to a fully convergent media experience but unless media organisations begin to integrate these first, easy, cost free steps they will never be able to make the bigger moves.

So let me give you a taste of the film:

The problem with iPad news apps

A turtle took a video camera for a swim and ended up on YouTube

I have been loving my iPad. Many of its features make reading the web a much more intimate, easy and pleasurable experience. However none of the mainstream news organisations – except perhaps NPR, which comes close – have managed to produce a fully functional app which matches the breadth and versatility of their respective websites. The real problem however is with sharing via blogging or social media sites.

Earlier today I came across a cute little story on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s new app about a Turtle activating a waterproof camera and taking it for a swim. The camera was found washed up on a beach in Florida and its contents were posted on YouTube. It’s hardly a breaking news story but it is a perfect light relief “share” story and my problems getting the word out illustrate some of the frustrations with the iPad as a creative reporting tool and some of the problems with current news organisations’ decisions around how to produce news apps.

Normally the Turtle story would have been easy to share because, unlike a number of other news apps, the ABC has good Twitter integration – including auto link shortening – for sharing stories straight from the app. However, the app story has no link to the YouTube video. The ABC is not alone here all news apps have decided to forgo links within their apps, so researching connections to related content is difficult. But if I was going to tweet this, I first wanted to view the video and of course I wanted to include a link. So I had to exit the app and go into the YouTube app and search for the Turtle video. I tried a few different searches – including some written phrases from the YouTube notes quoted by ABC – which failed to turn up the video. So I exited the YouTube app and went to Safari, I tried the ABC’s normal website to see if they linked to the video in their web version of the story. Not that I could see. Safari produced a few other news versions and one of them provided a link to the video, which on the iPad opens in the YouTube app. The You Tube app has share via email but no Twitter integration. So to share a simple 140 word tweet I had to:

1. Open the story in the ABC app, press the share via Twitter, which produces an auto tweet of headline and shortened url, which I copied but didn’t send; close

2. Open Twitterific app, paste tweet into new tweet form but didn’t send; close

3. Open YouTube app and find Turtle video; press the share via email and copy the url – as the app has no browser style url field; close

4. Back to Twitterific, open new tweet field which has kept my previous unsent version pasted from  the ABC app, add in the YouTube info and finally send.

It probably seems even more complex than it was. In some ways switching between apps is just slightly more complex than switching between open tabs on a normal browser (two or three finger taps instead of one mouse click), and for some functions I have learned to adapt pretty well, however in this case it was far more complex than it aught to have been. Hopefully all this will improve with the multitasking functions on the new iPhone4 OS but this doesn’t hit iPads till later this year.

However even after all this I had not anticipated one final problem. As I was reading and tweeting other stories, I noticed a message from @marygazze: “That turtle link just raised a huge red flag with bit.ly. Got another?” Hmm. Turns out that the ABC uses “is.gd” shortening and when I transfered it into to Twitterific the already shortened link was reshortened by bit.ly and this caused the “red flag”. I tired to check all this on my iPad but finally I got up and went into the study opened up my big browser and a set of tabs and had the whole thing fixed and retweeted in minutes.

A final interesting point is that when I looked at the normal ABC web story (not the iPad app version) on my large screen desktop I saw that they had actually included a link to the YouTube clip in the sidebar under “related stories.” I had missed this on my initial scan when I checked the normal ABC site through Safari on my iPad:  firstly I was looking for an instory link and secondly the smaller screen didn’t allow the sidebar link to jump out on a quick scan. This in itself is an interesting comment on Nick Carr’s recent thoughts on “Delinkification“. (For further comments on this see Jason Fry’s thoughts at Nieman Lab)

The Turtle story itself wasn’t really worth all the effort. The camera was found in January, so it’s really a strange story for ABC to be running six months later. But it serves as a good case study of certain trends in news delivery and my experience tweeting this story certainly serves as an interesting case study of the tweetability of iPad news. It also signals that news organisations should think harder about the nature of news in the evolving news ecology. If a news organisation is going to run a story in any format about a YouTube video they are simply not providing complete reporting without providing a link, if they can’t or wont provide a link why even bother running the story. Not providing a link demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the nature of viral YouTube videos and web sharing which is after all at the heart of what makes this story newsworthy.

Just to complete the strange twists of this story on sharability, I can’t embed the video here because the original poster disabled YouTube’s normal embed settings. Maybe he didn’t want to infringe the Turtle’s copyright! (More likely it’s a perverse attempt to up his view rate) If you want to see it, here’s the link to YouTube.

I have lots of other thoughts on iPad news apps and usability issues which I will cover soon in another post.

BBC Newsroom Head talks web video

Andy Plesser of Beet TV reports on the BBC’s approach to web news video.

Video news reporting for the Web, different than conventional television news, is quickly evolving and the BBC is innovating in a variety of forms including one which the newsroom calls a “show and tell.”

Recently in London, I spoke with Mary Hockaday, Head of the BBC Newsroom, about video news reporting for the Web.

She refers to an emerging format for correspondents on the ground to act as a sort of guide, providing an unscripted, personalized tour of the circumstances of a news story.

Jon Stewart fact checks CNN

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
CNN Leaves It There
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Health Care Crisis

Jon Stewart takes a look at recent CNN reporting and asks why they invested time and effort in “fact checking” a Saturday Night Live sketch and let so many whoppers from their guests – outrageous exaggerations in the health care budget for example – go through to the keeper. He says that there idea of balance seems to be to get “two crazy bald guys” from different sides of politics to go head to head until the moderator says: were out of time “Well have to leave it there”.

A recent tweet from Jay Rosen at NYU raised the question that there might be a connection between this and the recent news that CNN has fallen to last place in the prime time cable race. NYT’s Decoder comments:

The results demonstrate once more the apparent preference of viewers for opinion-oriented shows from the news networks in prime time.
CNN has steered opinion hosts like Nancy Grace to HLN, while maintaining more news-oriented shows on CNN itself. When news events are not being intensely followed, CNN executives acknowledge, viewers seem to be looking for partisan views more than objective coverage.

Rosen also tweeted this: “With 2.8 million followers @cnnbrk managed 0.8 posts a day for the past month. CNN has no idea what it’s doing on Twitter.”

The final edition in Denver

Saying goodbye

The Rocky Mountain News, has become a regular example in my lectures to young journalists because of their commitment to great story telling, creative multimedia approaches and pulitizer prize winning features. Unfortunately they are about to become an example of a completely different kind: of the difficulties of sustaining a profitable model of journalism in the current economic environment. Today they closed their doors after their proprietors failed in their one month bid to sell the paper. As usual they say goodye with a stylish piece of multimedia. Hopefully their website will stay operational.


Final Edition from Matthew Roberts on Vimeo.

Images of death

The Saddam hanging videos have raised key questions about the changing power of circulated images. The brutality of the incident is emphasised in the dirty grain and jerky focus of the mobile phone images. the release of the second video apparently posted on a pro-baathist news site and apparently showing the ugly state of Saddam’s neck after the hanging was labeled: “A new film of the late immortal martyr, President Saddam Hussein.” It is clear that the images are quickly becoming a part of the radical Sunni haigiography of Saddam.Today there was a brief report in the Sydney Morning Herald about revenge hangings by Saddam’s supporters:

The day after Saddam’s execution, residents in Baghdad’s Haifa Street reported that three minibuses had roared into the street. Gunmen pulled blindfolded prisoners out of the buses, shooting any who tried to resist. They then threw ropes over streetlight poles, put nooses round the necks of the remaining hostages and suspended them. “We watched as all these blindfolded men were hung up and some were shot in the head,” said a supermarket worker, Imad Atwan.An Interior Ministry spokesman said 102 bodies of Shiites had been discovered. “We believe 90 per cent of them were taken hostage for Saddam Hussein’s execution,” he said.

It is interesting that this incident has been barely reported and no images of it have begun to circulate whereas when four American contractors were hung on the bridges of Fallujah the west’s outrage was enough justification for the publication of the images.On Alternet today Richard Blair reminds us of the power of images on public opinion during the Vietnam war (image above: Nick Ut’s Pulitzer prize winning photo of nine-year-old girl, Kim Phuc, fleeing her village after a napalm attack) and notes that both the US government and the American media continue to censor images of the Iraq war:

This past Sunday, the Washington Post buried a story on Page A14 that could certainly have a significant influence over the public’s perception of future U.S. involvement in Iraq:

Capturing images of war on their digital cameras, as many troops in Iraq have done, Marines took dozens of gruesome photographs of the 24 civilians who were killed in Haditha, Iraq, in November 2005… …Among the images, there is a young boy with a picture of a helicopter on his pajamas, slumped over, his face and head covered in blood. There is a mother lying on a bed, arms splayed, the bodies of three young children huddled against her right side. There are men with gaping head wounds, and a woman and a child hunkered down on their knees, their hands frozen around their faces as if permanently bracing for an attack. …The images are contained in thousands of pages of NCIS investigative documents obtained by The Washington Post. Post editors decided that most of the images are too graphic to publish… [emphasis mine]

During a week when George Bush is preparing to announce his strategery for escalation of U.S. involvement in Iraq, and on a day when five more servicemen were killed, the Post editors made a decision that they wouldn’t publish graphic images of the war, either in their newspaper or online.

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Naming the Civil War

As GWB steadfastly resists calling the conflict in Iraq a “civil war” despite the pronouncements of many of his own current and ex-military advisers, media outlets also grapple with the nomenclature. E&P reports that starting Monday The Los Angeles Times, NBC and MSNBC, will all be using that troublesome phrase to describe what is going on in Iraq. More interestingly the Washington Post seems to be stuck in a precautionary loop. Leonard Downie, Jr., the Post’s executive editor told E&P:

“We just describe what goes on everyday. We don’t have a policy about it. We are not making judgments one way or another. The language in the stories is very precise when dealing with it. At various times people say it is ‘close to a civil war,’ but we don’t have a policy about it.”

This is typical disingenuous strategic objectivity. The obvious question is how and when does ‘close to civil war’ become simply ‘civil war’? How can a media outlet make ‘very precise’ judgments about such matters? The Post’s top reporter Dana Priest is more revealing:

“Well, I think one of the reasons the President resists that label is because it equates almost with a failure of U.S. policy. I will say for the Washington Post, we have not labeled it a civil war. I have asked around to see why not or see what’s the thinking on that — and really our reporters have not filed that. We try to avoid the labels, particularly when the elected government itself does not call its situation a civil war. I certainly — and I would agree with General McCaffrey on this — absolutely the level of violence equals a civil war.”

Priest’s comments reveal that the Post’s caution derives not from some grand commitment to journalistic objectivity it is in fact a text book example of “official source” theory and Stuart Hall’s argument that one of the subtle but highly influential ways official sources hold power over media portrayals is that they are usually the ones that define the language that is used. Hall argues that it is incredibly difficult for other “secondary definers” to move through this initial textual definition of the issue. A classic quote from Hall:

“The more one accepts that how people act will depend in part on how the situations in which they act are defined, and the less one assumes either a natural meaning for things or a universal consensus on what things mean, then the more socially and politically important becomes the process by means of which certain events get recurrently signified in certain ways.” (Rediscovery of Ideology 1982)

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At Reuters, a New Book and a Lost Job – New York Times

New York Times reports that Joe Maguire, one of two editors in charge of markets coverage at Reuters, has apparently been fired because his new book on right wing commentator Anne Coulter: Brainless: The Lies and Lunacy of Ann Coulter. A clear case where a commitment to objectivity principles quash argued critique.

On Wednesday, Mr. Maguire discovered he would have plenty of free time to promote his book, which comes out this week. Neither side in this dispute would say that he was fired.

“There was a difference of opinion about the approval I received to write this book,” Mr. Maguire said. “I thought I had met the conditions, and proceeded accordingly. As a result, I no longer work there.”

Mr. Maguire, who joined Reuters in April, said the book “looks at Ann Coulter’s arguments, and deconstructs them to show how misguided they can be.”

He added: “When the political discourse has dropped to the unfathomable levels it has, someone has to say this is wrong.”

He said he was unable to interview Ms. Coulter for the book, or even get her to return e-mail or phone messages left through her publicist.

Reuters confirmed that Mr. Maguire was granted conditional approval to write his book on Ms. Coulter — a conservative lightning rod, author and TV talking head. When asked what changed once the book was ready, a company statement pointed to Reuters’ principles of “integrity, independence and freedom from bias.” The statement reads: “Our editorial policy and The Reuters Trust Principles are prominently displayed for all to see on www.about.reuters.com. Mr. Maguire’s book will soon be available. Both speak for themselves.”

The bizarre aspect to this story is that Reuters is literally hiding behind their statement of principles and wont even say that Maguire was fired – they know that this would never play in a general discussion of freedom of expression. In announcing to colleagues that Maquire would not be working at the company any longer management gave out a copy of the “Trust Principles” and said that employees were not to ask why Maguire had been fired.

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More than craft plus

Stumbled across NYU’s Zoned for Debate: section again while buzzing around the web. Lots of good stuff. This from NYU prof Ellen Willis struck a chord:

The first step toward reinventing the journalism curriculum is to recognize that serious journalism–in all its genres and forms–is in itself an intellectual activity. While it may draw on academic knowledge, it has its own distinct character as an intellectual enterprise: it is a transdisciplinary inquiry into the present, which takes place not in scholarly journals but in a non-specialized public conversation. A serious journalist is by definition that figure so much discussed in the academy—the public intellectual. Craft is integral to all kinds of journalism—as it is, for that matter, to scholarship—but it is a means to an end: promoting a rich, nuanced, complex and diverse public conversation on contemporary affairs. How can journalism education contribute to this end? This is the fundamental question Columbia and all journalism programs must address.

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Fundamentally adversarial

Maybe my post yesterday was too pessimistic. Perhaps the controversy over the Pulitzers will round support for a press that is taking itself more seriously. As the NYT reports:

Some observers on the press side saw the awards as a recognition that the split between the government and the press, which many thought had been papered over during the first Bush administration, had widened again.

“I think that there is a renewed recognition that the relationship with government is fundamentally adversarial,” said William L. Israel, a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “I have not seen the kind of unanimity from the Pulitzer board for some time. Over and over, they endorsed work that held the government to account.”…

But Eugene L. Roberts Jr., a former editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, said that the press policies of the administration in power were always worse than those of the administration that went before it.

“I think every generation of journalist thinks they are more put-upon and aggrieved than the one that came before it,” he said. “I worked in the 50′s and 60′s at Southern papers, and there was plenty of pressure back then.”

Still, the press likes to cite its moral authority, especially in the face of an administration that has reflexively invoked executive privilege, a tool that was used 4 times between 1953 and 1974 at the height of the cold war and 23 times between 2001 and 2004.

Since the beginning of his presidency, Mr. Bush has made it clear that he does not buy the industry’s widely held conceit that it serves as a proxy for the American people. That, he has suggested over the course of his two terms, is his job.

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The ghost of Judy Miller

Arianna Huffington has been one of the most trenchant critics of Judith Miller throughtout the whole Plamegate affair, sometimes hysterically so, but her latest post is all sense. She suggests that a recent Times editorial on Scooter Libby which commented that the latest round of “this messy episode leaves more questions than answers” is unduly coy:

But what the Times doesn’t say is that one of the reasons there are more questions than answers is because the Times itself continues to operate behind a veil of secrecy, refusing to come clean about exactly what transpired behind the scenes at the paper while this White House disinformation campaign was going down.

This isn’t information that the paper of record needs to get from Bush or Cheney or Libby or Fitzgerald or the Senate Intelligence Committee. It’s information the Times already has — questions the paper can already answer.

So instead of bemoaning the surfeit of Plamegate questions, how about the Times adding a few answers to the ledger?

Huffington is right. For all its mia culpa exposes of itself the Times still refuses to answer some basic questions, the most relevant are, as Huff points out:

Did Miller propose writing a story about any of what she heard that day at the St. Regis (or during her two subsequent July 12 phone conversations with Libby)? If not, why not? Why would she keep this information to herself?…

So if she did pitch the story, which Times editor did she pitch it to? What was their reaction? Why did no story result? Had the editors become so suspect of Miller’s sources and reporting that they refused to sign off on the story? Was she officially barred from writing about Iraq/WMD? Did her editors know that she thought she had special Pentagon clearance to receive classified information?

Or were Times editors dubious of Judy’s latest round of inside info because they knew that just a week earlier Colin Powell had told three other Times reporters the opposite of the bill of goods Libby was peddling to Miller?

Because of these questions the Times and journalism as an institution will be on trial again when Libby fronts the court on perjury charges. Journalists have rightly been up in arms over the confidentiality of sources issue in the Miller saga but their are actually much deeper issues.

Any protections that journalists claim, such as confidentiality of source relationships, derive only from journalism’s democratic role. When the confidentiality of source relationships seem to be inhibiting journalism’s obligation to question government rather than enhancing it, then other questions must be asked that go beyond initial “protection” framework.

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Creating Neutral Experts

The Revealer has a good critique of newspaper sourcing practices when quoting “experts” from think tanks. The NYT acknowledge in a story today that they were caught out in their earlier reporting of The Lincoln Group’s activities in Iraq. The Lincoln Group a PR outfit with ten million dollars worth of contracts in Iraq has been under investigation for paying to get pro-US stories in local Iraqi media and most recently paying Sunni clerics for their support.

Last month when the story broke, and again this morning, the NYT quotes “Michael Rubin, a Middle East scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington research organization” as an outside expert. They acknowledge this morning that Rubin may not be just a disinterested scholar:

Mr. Rubin was quoted last month in The New York Times about Lincoln’s work for the Pentagon placing articles in Iraqi publications: “I’m not surprised this goes on,” he said, without disclosing his work for Lincoln. “Especially in an atmosphere where terrorists and insurgents – replete with oil boom cash – do the same. We need an even playing field, but cannot fight with both hands tied behind our backs.”

However The Revealer’s Jeff Sharlet makes the more pertinent point:

This obscures the fact that Rubin is not a “scholar” in the traditional sense of the term, but a committed neoconservative activist, a former official of the Coalition Provisional Authority, and, according to two reliable reporters in the liberal magazine Mother Jones, one of Wolfowitz’s cheerleaders in the early stages of the war.

This doesn’t mean Rubin shouldn’t be quoted in the paper, but it does mean that he should be identified as more than a “Middle East scholar.” Rubin’s an apparatchik.

And a loony one, to boot. The Times‘ ideology-erasure policy not only recasts conservatives (and in other cases, leftists) as centrists, it also gives its talking heads the appearance of reasonable detachment. You be the judge. (More about Rubin here, from the leftist International Relations Center.)

…Perspectives of people such as Rubin should be in the news — after all, he helped make the events under discussion happen — but they should not be categorized as outside “experts.” That’s like quoting a naked PETA activist as a neutral observer in an article about fur.

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Answering back

Great article in the NYT by Katherine Seelye on the way the internet is changing the relationships between sources and journalists, between the writers and those being written about. It is a great article because it does what good journalism does, it provides a range of points of view while still being pointed in its analysis. It begins with a fairly bland analysis of the phenomenon:

Unhappy subjects discovered a decade ago that they could use their Web sites to correct the record or deconstruct articles to expose what they perceived as a journalist’s bias or wrongheaded narration.

But now they are going a step further. Subjects of newspaper articles and news broadcasts now fight back with the same methods reporters use to generate articles and broadcasts – taping interviews, gathering e-mail exchanges, taking notes on phone conversations – and publish them on their own Web sites. This new weapon in the media wars is shifting the center of gravity in the way that news is gathered and presented, and it carries implications for the future of journalism.

Too many journalists would have left it at that and this would have been one of the many articles that concentrate on the mechanistic ways blogs and the internet are influencing journalism. But Seelye goes further:

The printing of transcripts, e-mail messages and conversations, and the ability to pull up information from search engines like Google, have empowered those whom Jay Rosen, a blogger and journalism professor at New York University, calls “the people formerly known as the audience.”

“In this new world, the audience and sources are publishers,” Mr. Rosen said. “They are now saying to journalists, ‘We are producers, too. So the interview lies midpoint between us. You produce things from it, and we do, too.’ From now on, in a potentially hostile interview situation, this will be the norm.”

These processes are changing both journalism paradigms and journalism practices.

Journalists now realise that they have to be extra careful in their transactions with sources and some programs are posting their own full transcripts. It is also changing formal public relations practices with businesses incorporating blogs into their publicity strategies. But the revenge of the source is not just a utopic story about reform and empowerment.

Danny Schechter, executive editor of MediaChannel.org and a former producer at ABC News and CNN, said that while the active participation by so many readers was healthy for democracy and journalism, it had allowed partisanship to mask itself as media criticism and had given rise to a new level of vitriol.

“It’s now O.K. to demonize the messenger,” he said. “This has led to a very uncivil discourse in which it seems to be O.K. to shout down, discredit, delegitimize and denigrate the people who are reporting stories and to pick at their methodology and ascribe motives to them that are often unfair.”

Seelye gives one example where a creationist group used these techniques to dispute a Nightline piece on intelligent design.

Ultimately this process is part of the broader push towards “transparency” in news media:

Reporters say that these developments are forcing them to change how they do their jobs; some are asking themselves if they can justify how they are filtering information. “We’ve got to be more transparent about the news-gathering process,” said Craig Crawford, a columnist for Congressional Quarterly and author of “Attack the Messenger: How Politicians Turn You Against the Media.” “We’ve pretended to be like priests turning water to wine, like it’s a secret process. Those days are gone.”

Some news outlets are posting transcripts of their interviews with newsmakers, and some reporters are posting their own material. Stephen Baker, a senior writer at BusinessWeek, has posted not only transcripts from his interviews but also his own notes on his Web site, saying he likes to involve his readers in the journalistic process.

“Sometimes I say to my readers, Here’s my interview. What story would you have written?” said Mr. Baker, who writes about technology. Journalism, he added, used to be a clear-cut “before and after process,” much like making a meal; the cooking was done privately in the kitchen and then the meal was served. Now, he said, “every aspect of it is scrutinized.”

One of the difficulties with this is that it is forcing a simultaneous public and professional reevaluation of news gathering processes. But it is difficult and confusing to suddenly have a public conversation about news when so much of what journalists take for granted as routine story formation is seen as a quasi alchemical process by much of the public. We have sold the myth of objectivity for so long that it has become common wisdom: whereas once upon a time this provided a protective shield it is now being used as a weapon against us.

It’s classic blowback.

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Not Racist?

First the PM, and now Peter Costello and Maurice Iemma, they all say that "Australia is not a racist country." It is as if repeating the refrain will somehow transform our current grim reality.

Costello’s other claim is that the media – including Alan Jones – didn’t "whip" anything up.

"I think racism can be easily whipped up in Australia," Mr
Costello said.

"I don’t think there’s racism on the street, no, I think we’re a
very accepting country," he told ABC Radio.

Sydney talkback radio personalities, including Macquarie Radio’s
Alan Jones, have been accused of fuelling racial tensions in the
wake of the recent Cronulla riot.

Asked if he thought Jones "went too far", Mr Costello said he
did not.

"That’s not what I mean by whipping up," Mr Costello said.

"I think it can be fanned if gangs of youths come into a
neighbourhood and try and take it over. That can fan racism.

"If people, say, get down and launch an attack, a counter-attack
on gangs of youths, they can whip it up. It can be whipped up from
both sides."

So racism can "easily" be whipped up. But we are not a racist country. Racism is "fanned" if gangs of youth come into a neighbourhood and try "to take it over". It is an example of the strange political double speak that is reported constantly in the media without comment.

Apart from his claims of gangs trying to "take over" neighbourhoods, Costello’s metaphor is telling. You fan a fire only if there are simmering coals. On a day to day basis much of Australia is indeed an accepting kind of place but there are always those simmering coals waiting to be fanned by someone who doesn’t belong stepping into the wrong neighbourhood.

It seems like the public is not being hoodwinked. A poll indicates that large number agree with the PM’s statement that the recent events in Cronulla don’t reflect a racist reality in this country.

The Herald Poll reveals deep concerns about the long-term
impact of the riots: 59 per cent of respondents believe the
violence at Cronulla and other Sydney beaches would damage
Australia’s international reputation. Only 38 per cent think
Australia’s image has not been tarnished.

The results are in stark contrast to John Howard’s statement
following the Cronulla riots: "I do not accept there is underlying
racism in this country."

According to the poll, 75 per cent of respondents disagree with
Mr Howard’s statement and 22 per cent agree.

The proportion of people who believe there is an undercurrent of
racism was highest among minor party and independent voters (84 per
cent) and Labor voters (76 per cent). However, more than two-thirds
of Coalition voters – 68 per cent – also disagreed with Mr
Howard.

The poll found people were more comfortable with immigration
levels than they were immediately after the Tampa crisis. Only 33
per cent polled over the weekend by ACNielsen considered the
current intake "too high" compared with 41 per cent in September
2001.

The number of people who thought immigration levels were too low
climbed by one point to 11 per cent.

The poll revealed 81 per cent backing for multiculturalism.

By the way this is what Alan Jones said when he wasn’t either whipping up or fanning. He urged a local show of force:

"A rally, a street march, call it what you will.
A community show of force," he told listeners, at one point even going
so far as to push for locals at Cronulla to get Pacific Islanders
involved because "they don’t take any nonsense".

Indeed it’s time for all of us to show that we wont be taking any nonsense.

It takes a riot

It takes a riot to get Australian news into the world media.

This week we even made SF Gate’s World Views with the unflattering headline: "Australia’s Leb Bashings" the other piece in the column this week was on the international reaction to the US torture policy – fine comapnion pieces:

War, bombings and torture in other places are the routine stuff of
headlines, but this past weekend, sun worshippers at Cronulla Beach in
Sydney, Australia, got a taste of a different kind of violence — the
homemade kind. Reportedly provoked by assaults about a week ago on two
lifeguards at the beach by youths described as being of "Middle Eastern
appearance," Sunday’s race riots involved what papers called "thousands of
drunken youths." (BBC/Daily Telegraph/Courier-Mail)

A number of commentators have compared the situation in Cronulla with the recent riots outside Paris. But Gary Sauer-Thompson makes a key distinction:

The race riots at Cronulla
on the weekend bring the Australian Right into the foreground. The
riots can be connected to what recently happened in France. I agree
with Andrew Norton over at Catallaxy
that the Cronulla violence is similar to the most recent Sydney riots
at Macquarie Fields and Redfern. In both the French and Sydney cases
the base economic issues are clear: poorly educated young people
fuelled by anger, dispossession and booze/drugs, low incomes and poor
job prospects, turning tribal.

However,what happened Cronulla is also different from the events in
France. Cronulla turned tribal and became racist, without the police or
the political authorities fueling racism, which is what happened in France.

The other key distinction is that the media in both countries have behaved very differently as the Australian Media section reported on Thursday:

French media had a rather novel ethical
approach to covering the recent Paris race riots after the images
reached saturation point: they simply stopped showing them.

Incensed critics have labelled the move censorship, accusing
the French media of political biases and an over-inflated sense of
power. Yet others have seen the move as an indication that the media –
a powerful social force — could also possess a social conscience.

"We have a unique situation in France at the moment. Because
events have been continuing for some weeks, we have the time to
consider the impact of our reporting," says Antonin Lhote, chief editor
at Canal Plus, one of France’s privately owned television stations.

"Often when we film something, we are unaware of its impact until later. Our job is simply to witness.

"But here we have the unique opportunity to consider what the images mean and whether they should be shown."

The difference, Lhote says, is that the station has decided not
to show the images it obtains for fear of spreading what he calls a
contagion through the thoughtless dissemination of the images.

"It’s not about the violence," he says. "Iraq, Tel Aviv,
Pakistan … these are all much more violent images. But they are news.
This is not news; it is a show. We know there can be a perverse
relationship between young men and the media, and they are giving us
beautiful pictures … things burning, people running around in the
night, it looks wonderful. But what we want to do is draw the
distinction between spectaculars and news."

Images of cronulla

Cronulla2_4Beachviolence_260x300_6

It is interesting to look at the evolution of the press images of the Cronulla riots.

Last Saturday the Sydney Morning Herald published a very provactive image of a defiant ozzie – literally a true blue singlet wearing sufie.

This week we have an attempt to represent something of the multicultural efforts at reconcilliation.

It seems to me that last week’s image was an invitation to riot.

Hopefully this week’s image is an invitation to dialogue.

Hopefully it also reflects some growing self awareness in the media that news organisations must contribute to social cohesian not just report social unrest.

Reviews in on Woodward

Editor and Publisher summarises the none to glowing early reviews of Bob Woodward’s Deep Throat book, The Secret Man:

One of the leading political writers of today, Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times, declares: “If Bob Woodward were in journalism school, his professor might have handed back his new book, ‘The Secret Man,’ as incomplete.”

And USA Today’s chief book critic, Bob Minzesheimer, today writes: “Woodward’s book is filled with as many questions as answers. It’s more about Woodward than Felt. It’s fascinating and frustrating, revealing and disingenuous, self-critical and self-serving.”

Meanwhile, in a Time magazine item, Alicia Shepard (who is writing a biography of Woodward and Bernstein) takes this shot: “Bob Woodward’s memoir … doesn’t shed much new light on Watergate. But it does tell us a lot about how Woodward, the journalist who helped bring down a President, cowered around his secret source, W. Mark Felt.”

In his review, Ron Brownstein calls it an “intermittently engaging but ultimately slight memoir” and says Woodward “fails to answer the most important question remaining after Felt unveiled his identity in a Vanity Fair story: Why? Why did a career FBI agent who had ascended to the second-ranking position in the bureau, and who didn’t think much of the press, leak such critical information about the scandal to Woodward?

It seems to me that the answer to that question isn’t very difficult to answer. It has to do with thwarted ambition. Felt’s personal ambition to head the FBI was thwarted by Nixon but also Felt obviously thought that Nixon was thwarting the very agency that Felt had helped Hoover create. This is of course different to the traditional whistle blower’s concern for justice because the agency that Felt and Hoover had created had very little to do with justice. Felt himself only avoided jail time via a Reagan pardon over some of his dodgy practices. But for Woodward to admit or speculate about any of this would be to blow the myth of Watergate sky high. Once Felt’s ambition was showing then maybe Woodward’s own ambition would also be more carefully scrutinised.

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Purple Hearts

US Graphic designer Jeff Culver has come up with a far more informative electoral map than those published by mainstream media.

It is an interesting example of how the graphic devices and rhetorical frames that we use actually construct very different narratives. While the election maps which show the blue and red states (say this example from Time) show a divided America with the red states in the ascendency, Culver’s map which shows the gradations of support for Bush and Kerry along a set of hues from red to blue portrays quite a different reality.

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Values

Everyone’s reporting on the values issue and Karl Rove’s masterly strategy. No one yet seems to know quite what it means. The NYT sums up the numbers succinctly:

It was not a landslide, or a re-alignment, or even a seismic shock. But it was decisive, and it is impossible to read President Bush’s re-election with larger Republican majorities in both houses of Congress as anything other than the clearest confirmation yet that this is a center-right country – divided yes, but with an undisputed majority united behind his leadership.

Surveys of voters leaving the polls found that a majority believed the national economy was not so good, that tax cuts had done nothing to help it and that the war in Iraq had jeopardized national security. But fully one-fifth of voters said they cared most about “moral values” – as many as cared about terrorism and the economy – and 8 in 10 of them chose Mr. Bush.

In other words, while Mr. Bush remains a polarizing figure on both coasts and in big cities, he has proved himself a galvanizing one in the broad geographic and political center of the country. He increased his share of the vote among women, Hispanics, older voters and even city dwellers significantly from 2000, made slight gains among Catholics and Jews and turned what was then a 500,000-popular-vote defeat into a 3.6 million-popular-vote victory on Tuesday.

On Rove Andrew Sullivan admits that Bush’s strategist read the American electorate – or at least an important part of it – better than anyone else:

A lot of gay people are devastated this morning, and terrified. We have seen, and not for the first time, how using fear of a minority can be so effective a tool in building a political movement. The single most important issue for Republican voters, according to exit polls, was not the war on terror or Iraq or the economy. It was ‘moral values.’ Karl Rove understood the American psyche better than I did. By demonizing gay couples, the Republicans were able to bring in whole swathes of new anti-gay believers into their party. With new senators Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn, two of the most anti-gay politicians in America, we can only brace ourselves for what is now coming.

Joel Achenbach in the Washington Post goes to the nub of the “values” rhetoric:

The term wasn’t defined, and Democrats spent much of yesterday protesting that they have morals and values, too. The term is basically a code phrase for abortion and gays. For some people, particularly religious evangelicals, these issues are even more important than Iraq, terrorism, the economy, health care, the environment and education. Moral issues gnaw at the guts of people who think they know right from wrong and normal from sick. The reelection of George W. Bush as the 43rd president of the United States appears to be at least in part because of a fear that liberals favor marital unions among sodomites.

Greg Grieve, a Fellow at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, makes a very perceptive comment on The Revealer website:

[a colleague] and I have been talking about ‘moral values’ all morning. And it seems to us that it is working as an empty signifier, similar to Barthes’ notion of ‘myth,’ onto which people are projecting their conceptions. As Barthes writes in ‘Myth Today’: ‘The signifier presents itself in an ambiguous way: it is at the same time meaning and form, full on one side and empty on the other.’ (117) As the Russian saying goes: ‘A sacred space is never empty.’ There seems to be a need for two steps: (1) to debunk the Myth of moral values, and then (2) to craft a new ‘myth’ that democrats can control for progressive ends.

Bias in favour of the hot story

Here’s one of the more percpetive comments about Rathergate (I continue to use the stupid term for the pure hysteria of it!) that I’ve come across. From David Shaw at the LA Times:

I think he wasn’t as good — as careful, as thorough, as demanding — for several reasons. The most important may be that his gut instincts and his previous reporting had convinced him that the essence of the story was true — that Bush had indeed received preferential treatment in the National Guard.

With documents that seemed to support this view, available after a long hunt, in the heat of a presidential campaign, Rather thought he had a good, juicy story, one that would have a major impact. Knowing that other news organizations were pursuing the same story, he didn’t want to risk being beaten.

Those incentives — those, if you will, biases, a bias in favor of a good story and a bias in favor of being first — kept him from being as vigilant as he should have been.

Every experienced journalist knows there’s nothing more dangerous than the story that you think is true, that you want to be true, that you know the competition is breathing down your neck on. That’s when your natural skepticism and your good judgment tend to waver. That’s when you have to pull back, take a deep breath and say: “Wait a minute. Let’s be extra careful here. Let’s be sure we’re right.”

Another Rathergate casualty

Howard Kurtz Media Notes points to this article in Salon which reports that CBS has shelved a detailed report on how the Bush administration either lied or was extremely credulous in its assessment of Saddam’s nuclear capacities. The irony here is that the report center’s around the forged documents that the Bush administration believed showed that Saddam was seeking to buy uranium from Niger. And after Rathergate it seems that CBS has decided that people in glass houses….

However, the official reason for the cancelation of the program is that CBS deems it inappropriate to broadcast such a program in an election year. This again points to the ongoing conflict between the game of objectivity, concerns over bias and the overarching project of the press as a fourth estate that produces an informed democracy.

The other irony of this debacle is that this detailed half hour report by 60 Minutes veteran Ed Bradly was originally slated for the September 8 slot but was bumped at the last minute for Rather’s report on Bush and the national guard because the producers thought they had a real scoop.

According to Salon the report doesn’t produce any major new information that isn’t already in the public domain, but it does do what 60 Minutes has always done: it produces a concise, convincing, well wrought narrative.

“Two years ago, Americans heard some frightening words from President Bush and his closest advisors,” Bradley said in his introduction of the now-shelved report. “Saddam Hussein, they said, could soon have a nuclear bomb. Of course, we now know that wasn’t true.” Not only did Saddam not have a nuclear program, Bradley said, but “he hadn’t for more than 10 years. How could the Bush administration be so wrong about something so important?”

The Salon report makes a very interesting point about the particular televisual production of this narrative:

The mysterious surfacing of the forged Niger documents, Bradley said, helped “explain why President Bush and his cabinet delivered the frightening message we all heard in the early autumn two years ago.” The broadcast then cut to video clips of Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice making public statements with eerily similar wording:

“We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons,” Cheney said in an address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Cut to Rumsfeld: “We do now know that Saddam Hussein has been actively and persistently” pursuing nukes. Then, Rice, on a television talk show, insisted: “We do know that he is actively pursuing a nuclear weapon.”

By showing the video clips in rapid succession, the television piece conveyed, in a manner beyond the printed word, how deliberate and practiced was the administration’s sense of urgency.

Because this type of television narrative is extremely powerful, it is immediately criticised as biased in a way that a simple written or oral description of the same information would not necessarily be faulted. It is true that the impactful nature of the televisual medium can be harnessed to make things appear more convincing than they are, but in cases like this I don’t think that is the obvious conclusion.

In our debates about bias and objectivity I don’t think we have really yet come to terms with the visual grammar of television and film documentary. This became obvious in some of the more hysterical reactions to Michael Moore’s work. Moore is doing something quite different to news reports in the New York Times but people insist on judging him by the same ( already problematic) criteria.

Liberals and the bible, journalists and objectivity

The Revealer points to this FAIR ACTION ALERT on an NBC news report about liberals wanting to ban the bible:

On the September 24 NBC Nightly News, Tom Brokaw gave this brief report:

“The Republican National Committee now has acknowledged sending mass mailings to two states that say liberals want to ban the Bible. Republican Party officials say the mailings in Arkansas and West Virginia are aimed at mobilizing Christian voters for President Bush. Some Christian commentators say liberal support for same-sex marriage could lead to laws that punish sermons denouncing homosexuality as sinful.”

It’s clear how one should describe the claim that “liberals want to ban the Bible”: It’s a lie, and a blatant and incendiary one. But not only does Brokaw not tell his viewers that the RNC smear isn’t true, he gives “Christian commentators” a chance to justify that deceit with another, that gay marriage could lead to censorship of sermons. Why does such an unsubstantiated and frankly bizarre claim deserve space on a national newscast?

Meanwhile, the victims of the lie don’t get any chance to speak in Brokaw’s report; the entire item is sourced either to Republicans or to the religious right.

This is yet another example of the objectivity game out of control. They say it, we report it, and it’s not up to us to comment. It also follows the “strange but true” news frame and the “conflict over values” frame. Each of these frames encourage evaluation free reporting: strange but true because irony has to speak for itself (although in this case it doesn’t seem irony was intended, but perhaps titilation was) and ironically, in the conflict frame it doesn’t take two sides to create an argument because the ongoing conflict is taken as a given.

Insider Leaks to Reporters Spread as CIA Turns Wary on Iraq

Atrios at Eschaton points to this article on Editor and Publisher:

Conditions in Iraq appear to be deteriorating so badly that CIA officials are now leaking to reporters left and right, signaling a new dynamic in press coverage of the war. Columnist Robert Novak noted this on Monday in a column titled, “Is CIA at War With Bush?”

In a Washington Post article Dana Priest and Thomas E. Ricks report:

“A growing number of career professionals within national security agencies believe that the situation in Iraq is much worse, and the path to success much more tenuous, than is being expressed in public by top Bush administration officials, according to former and current government officials and assessments over the past year by intelligence officials at the CIA and the departments of State and Defense.

“While President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others have delivered optimistic public appraisals, officials who fight the Iraqi insurgency and study it at the CIA and the State Department and within the Army officer corps believe the rebellion is deeper and more widespread than is being publicly acknowledged, officials say.”

The press has been rightly ciriticised for doing a bad job in the lead up to the war. But these recent stories point to the interdependence of the press and the current political environment. In a fractured political environment, the press has much greater access to oppositional sources. Yes it is true that good investigative journalism will always find those sources in any environment, they do however become much easier to locate and convince in an environment like todays. It could however be argued that this is all chicken and egg effect. The press itself must also play a role in creating an environment for critique to emerge.

All about us

Another really interesting comment about Rathergate New York Region > NYC: We Have Met the News, and It Is Us” href=”http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/24/nyregion/24nyc.html”>from Clyde Haberman in The New York Times:

Given how obvious it has long been that Mr. Bush ducked Vietnam duty, much as Dick Cheney ducked the Vietnam-era draft, you can’t help but wonder why Mr. Rather and CBS even bothered chasing this nonblockbuster scoop. “Now they’re going to pay dearly for it,” Mr. Rosenstiel said.

Now, too, Ms. Overholser said, “the story is about us. Part of that is the Bush administration’s skill in feeding it. If the story is about us, then it’s not about his National Guard service. And we in the media are willing lackeys because” – you got it – “we are fascinated with ourselves.”

Bernstein on Rathergate

Watergate ace Carl Bernstein in a wide ranging critique of contemporary media raises the real questions about Rathergate.

Hurrying to be first can cause problems, he said. For example, had more serious questions been asked about the reports in the CBS story about President George W. Bush’s service in the National Guard, the story might have been more sound.

“Obviously, the story should have been held until more reporting was done,” he said, also noting that CBS executives have stripped their news operation of resources over the last several years…..

And while the CBS story is dominating the news, people are forgetting about the real story: whether Bush actually fulfilled his military obligations, he said.

This is the issue that I have been waiting for someone to raise. Why has this become a story about, blogs, the media and liberal bias in the media when there was plenty of other evidence apart from the supposedly forged memos that pointed to the fact that Bush received special treatment in the National Guards. If there is a media practice that needs critiquing it is this: the tendency to blow up micro issues into scandals while leaving the real stories behind.

There is plenty to criticise in the CBS reporting but can we have a discuission about this without resorting to predictable frames like: “the triumph of the bloggers” or “liberal media bias”.

President at War

Some very frightening points made by Eric Alterman in his latest Nation columns.

In this week’s column he gives a very useful summary of some of the new information that has come to light in Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack. One of the key points is the influence of VP Cheney. As Alterman puts it:

For foreign policy purposes, Dick Cheney is President: Cheney wanted this war from way back when; it was Bush who needed convincing…When the President is not around, Administration officials refer to Cheney as “the Man,” as in, “The Man wants this” or “The Man thinks that.”… That’s too bad, because unfortunately Cheney is nuts. As Powell puts it, Cheney was in the grip of a “fever,” no longer the “steady, unemotional rock that he had witnessed a dozen years earlier during the run-up to the Gulf War. The vice president was beyond hell-bent for action against Saddam. It was as if nothing else existed.”

The new information revealed by Woodward is fascinating and important but what is also interesting is the book itself. As Alterman points out the new book is a big improvement on Woodward’s last effort: Bush at War, which was little more than a hagiographic tribute. What makes the difference is, as can be seen from the above quote, the candor that Colin Powell and his camp bring to their contributions. Oh what a difference a good source makes!

But the problem in reporting the war is not a lack of sources it is a shocking new attitude in key news organisations. There has certainly been much critique and consequent gnashing of teeth lately about the media’s failure to hold government to account on Iraq, the war and WMDs. While it is only now that people at Powell’s level are starting to break ranks, there has been a level of dissent throughout the long build-up to war that went unreported.

It is an irony that one of the few journalists who attempted to do real investigative work and show the British government’s (and by implication the US and Australian governments) exaggeration in their case for war – BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan – ended up being vilified by an appalling government white wash, loosing his job and taking the head of the BBC with him.

The American media has been particularly deficient in it’s collusion with government. The very lines of what a journalist is, or should be, seem to have been redrawn.

Alterman reports this quote from NYT’s White House correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller:

Bumiller has admitted that asking tough questions of the President is just too scary, and we should get off her case about allowing him to mislead America and the world: “I think we were very deferential,” she recently explained in an interview, “because it’s frightening to stand up there. Think about it, you’re standing up on prime-time live TV asking the President of the United States a question when the country’s about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and no one wanted to get into an argument with the President at this very serious time.”

Michael Massing in his devastating analysis for the New York Review of Books reports a very similar attitude from Judith Miller, another NYT reporter:

Miller said that as an investigative reporter in the intelligence area, “my job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought about Iraq’s arsenal.” Many journalists would disagree with this; instead, they would consider offering an independent evaluation of official claims one of their chief responsibilities.

If the most respected, and perhaps most powerful, newspaper in the world has abandoned basic tenets of journalism: asking hard questions of those in authority, digging until you get the real answers and providing a critical, balanced, independent analysis of government announcements, then the media’s role in contributing to a dynamic civil society is at an all time low

Trickster

This is a copy of an article I recently published on the John Marsden defamation tiral and mythological images mobalised in the media coverage of the trial.

Recent scholarship has explored the mythical function of news reporting. A diverse set of studies has shown that when news takes mythic shape it can perform both a community-building cultural role and/or a boundary-setting ideological role.

This article looks at theories of myth and the way it functions in both journalism and law. This mythical understanding is contrasted with the widely held views of journalism and law as truth-seeking and fact-based institutions. The public identity of any plaintiff in a defamation case will necessarily come under challenge. The adversarial system necessitates the construction of competing tales of who that person is and how he or she customarily behaves.

This process seems to have been exacerbated in the case of Sydney solicitor John Marsden, the longest running defamation case in Australian legal history. Powerful archetypal patterns shaped the telling of the Marsden story, which takes it well beyond the realm of the controversial and into the realm of the mythical. Mythical images of hero, villain, martyr and initiate are identified as operating in the Marsden trial and its reporting. But the image of the mercurial Trickster is identified as a key myth in understanding the Marsden story.

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What did it reveal?

The super bowl breast business was an amazingly revealing moment, JJ’s right breast being the least of it.

First the language.

Jackson said in her statement that the decision to do a “costume reveal” was made after the rehearsals. Timberlake blamed it all on a “wardrobe malfunction” and Jackson’s publicist said there was “some kind of collapse in the garment”.

They sound like they are talking about some failed military strategy or a rocket that didn’t make it though re-entry.

And that’s really the question. What texts have been allowed to land with this one?

There’s been plenty of common sense comment from media scholars and the less up tight columnists.

“For the league to say, ‘We are shocked,’ over the exposure of a woman’s breast is the height of hypocrisy on multiple levels,” Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, told USA Today’s Ian O’Connor

As he goes onto comment:

The NFL’s beer sponsor, Coors Light, spent the postseason blitzing viewers with yet another mindless commercial featuring buxom barmaids and cheerleaders, an ad hardening the notion that women who dare to step inside America’s testosterone-crazed football culture are to be seen exclusively as sexual playthings.

Don’t blame Justin Timberlake for trying to one-up his ex, Britney Spears, who locked lips with Madonna before poor Justin’s saucer-sized eyes. Timberlake was only behaving the way men are encouraged to behave in your average NFL beer ad, where male fans either get drunk and fantasize about mud-wrestling bimbos or get drunk and fantasize about twins.

“There are so many things going on in those ads more disturbing than a quick glimpse of a naked breast,” Thompson said. “This quick exposure was a tiny drop in the bucket. … The NFL didn’t know this would happen, but the league was fully aware of the rest of the halftime show. The bumping and grinding. The costumes. The fact it was put on by MTV.”

And there was plenty of comment along those lines. As the editorial in the same paper concluded:

The Super Bowl halftime show was a victim of its own conceit — that it could put an “edge” on the broadcast. The result was tacky and artificial, a public display of affectation. The public display of Jackson’s breast was only part of the problem. The nation has seen better as well as worse.

But this didn’t stop the circulation of outrage.

Bush administration head media regulator Federal Communications Commission chief Michael Powell called the incident “classless, crass and deplorable.”

And of course all of the organisations and individuals concerned have spent the day apologising.

Others tried to quell the outrage.

“There’s no story here,” University of Southern California journalism professor Joe Saltzman told the SanFrancisco Chronicle “People have seen a breast before.”

He is right of course but he’s also wrong. There’s a very big story here. The nerve that was touched is raw – fleshy and awkward

Powell’s full statement tells some more of that story:

“I am outraged at what I saw during the halftime show of the Super Bowl,” said Powell, promising a swift and thorough investigation. “Like millions of Americans, my family and I gathered around the television for a celebration. Instead, that celebration was tainted by a classless, crass and deplorable stunt. Our nation’s children, parents and citizens deserve better.”

Here we see the ritual context of the scandal: families gathered to watch their gladiatorial heroes demonstrate the sportsmanship, athleticism, courage and manly competition that lies at the heart of the American dream. What was revealed in amongst this manly chest puffing and preening?

A black amazon’s breast.

But this is more than fear of female sexuality. This is fear of the MTV generation. This is fear of the performative. Fear of accidents. Fear of a new world where home is an unfamiliar place.

Janet Jackson’s breast revealed that the Super Bowl pantomime, Joe DeMagio, field of dreams America is no more: a mirage that never was.

Mad Vow Disease

I’ve neglected this blog for a couple of months now. Mainly because I am trying to finish off my Master’s thesis.

But I want to get back into the discipline of regular posting. So to begin here’s an excerpt from a talk I gave recently about media naratives of same sex marriage. I’ll post some more over the next few weeks because it’s obviously a red hot issue at the moment. Lesbian comedian Kate Clinton recently called it a bad case of mad vow disease!

In the piece below I take a step back and ask what is the general way that marraige is portrayed in the media.

My initial explorations would suggest that the two dominant media stories about marriage present it as either a fantasy or as a social problem. It is either a fairy tale romance of a princess or movie star or it is a story about divorce rates, the problems of working mothers or child custody battles.

There is also a third narrative about marriage, which is part of a wider discourse, that I will call the “new world” or the “new adventure”. It includes articles like one in the Melbourne Age (2/10/03) that explored couples who are also business partners or an article from the Good Weekend (1/2/03) that explored new extended families, where the new and old families of divorced partners – including both sets of ex-partners and their new partners – form a friendly relational unit. This is part of the wider media discourse about emerging social trends and the advent of a “new world”. It is partly utopic and partly dystopic and thus embraces elements of both the fantasy and problem narratives of marriage. This story about new forms of social organization is where narratives of gay marriage intersect with the general media stories about marriage.

In the single biggest media story of a marriage in recent times: the story of Diana of Wales, we can see the intersection of all three marriage story types. It was, at different points in its trajectory, presented as both a fairytale and a problem and was also played out against a story of changing social forms in regard to marriage, the monarchy and the media.

In recent times we have seen the emergence of another princess fairytale in the news. On 9 October 2003 Sydney Morning Herald – and most other Australian papers – led with the story of Mary Donaldson the real estate agent from Tasmania and her engagement to Prince Fredrick of Denmark.

The keynote of the stories published about Donaldson over the weeks surrounding the announcement was the motif of “transformation”: of a commoner into a princess, of an English speaker into a Danish speaker, of a woman fond of “sporty” attire into a wearer of haute couture.

These stories clearly represent an institutional discourse about marriage even when this is cloaked by the fantasy of the lucky princess. This is nowhere clearer than in the stories that have emphasised that “her main job” in the immediate future will be to bear an heir.

The headline of the main announcement story (SMH 9/11/03) is revealing: “Danes denied a kiss but still love Aussie Mary”. This is a romance without visible passion.

In the same issue of the Herald another power couple were featured: victorious Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife Maria Shriver. If anyone was in doubt that this was an American dream sprung to life you only had to listen to Schwarzenegger’s victory script: “I came here with absolutely nothing and California has given me absolutely everything. I want to be the people’s governor”, Schwarzenegger said. He called for support to make “the tough choices ahead” so that “together we can make this again the greatest state in the greatest country in the world”. (SMH 9/10/03)

Shriver is an integral part of that dream. She comes with Kennedy family pedigree and thus links this story with the Kennedy story, with the Camelot myth, with the story of Jack and Jackie.

But this is not really about romance, it is about a pragmatic alliance. The “telegenic and politically astute” Shriver as one report (SMH 9/10/03) called her, is an important part of Arnold’s political strategy. He makes this clear in his thank you speech. The report continues:

Mr Schwarzenegger fought back against the groping allegations with the help of his wife, who is recognised as a talented television journalist. Ms Shriver was the first person the actor thanked for his victory. He told her in front of his supporters: “I know how many votes I got today because of you.” (SMH 9/10/03)

If Shriver’s relationship to the Kennedy’s immediately summons up the vestiges of the dream of Camelot, this defence of her husband immediately summons up another contemporary political marriage: that of Hilary and Bill.

If in the story of Fredrick and Mary we see the fantasy meeting the institution with Schwarzenegger and Shriver we see the dream meeting pragmatism.

What is strikingly obvious from both these examples is the extent to which current media discourse on marriage is still embroiled in traditional narratives of gender and linked directly to other narratives of political power.

Marriage itself is a narrative ritual act. The form it takes is a story that two people tell to one another as a sign of their commitment: to love and to cherish, in sickness and in health, till death do we part.

This story is told in the context of a particular national and particular institutional setting, it is told against the stories of others who have been married before, and it is a story that often contains both dream and pragmatics, both fantasy and problematics, romance and politics.

It is in this context of an institution that is at once idealised and problematised that we need to situate any discussion of same sex marriage.

Media dots

Howard Kurtz’s latest Washington Post Media Notes is a fascinating reflection on the almost impossible task of keeping up with the rate of scandal blistering the media landscape.

I’m in the business of connecting the dots.
And it’s been raining media dots lately. In fact, I’m getting bleary-eyed just trying to keep up.
First the big story was Howard Dean, who made John Kerry seem like old news. Then the big story was Wes Clark, who made Dean look dated. Then, just as the WMD debate was taking a brief respite, the Bob Novak controversy erupts, quickly morphing into a Justice Department probe of potentially illegal White House leaking about a CIA operative.
And just when I was starting to get my rhythm on that story, Rush Limbaugh is pinned in the end zone for racially charged remarks about a black quarterback. But before I could finish typing about that, he’s under investigation for buying illegal painkillers.
Only that story gets blown away by a 3,577-word report in the L.A. Times about the Gropinator, according to a half-dozen women who had close encounters of the unpleasant kind with Arnold.
And no sooner was I going to write about the absurdity of the Schwarzenegger campaign’s flat denials than Arnold apologizes, sort of.

Conservative commentators are screaming that it’s all just the product of endless liberal media scheming. However a number of commentators have invoked the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal effectively saying what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg communication school makes the more substantive point:

“In the post-Lewinsky era, I think we’ve raised the bar and you have to be one step short of a serial killer to really be seen as violating community standards.”

But the biggest scandal doesn’t even make Kurtz’s initial list: Bush’s trite claim that the U.S. inspector David Kay’s interim report “vindicated” the case for war. The report clearly says however, that no WMDs had been found and seems to largely confirm reports such as those in the latest Time that Sadam’s WMD program had largely been disbanded after the 1st Gulf War.

This is of course as Kurtz notes at the end of his article “the elephant in the room”. He also aptly notes that in Washington, as with politics generally, “every battle is a proxy for something larger”.

Hagiography

The Hutton inquiry is a source of endless fascination. Rarely have the cogs of government been exposed in such grand detail. Even now with the hearing of evidence complete strange new details emerge.

Today’s Guardian reports on a bizarre tug of war between the the Cabinet Office’s ceremonial secretariat and Hutton over the publication of the full citation prepared when David Kelly was awarded the Cross of St Michael and St George. The head of the unit initially refused to allow Hutton access to the document on the grounds that such citations are “never” made public. Eventually after intervention by the Cabinet secretary Hutton was given a copy but only on the condition it was not published.

Is this just the result of pompous British protocol queens run amok? Or is there something else going on here.

From an evidentiary point of view the award itself holds some significance because it is given to senior public servants and ambassadors therefore it challenges the government’s controversial dismissal of Kelly as a “middle-ranking official”.

But is one of the elements underlying the ceremonial unit’s fear of publication the fact that they realise – either consciously or unconsciously – such citations are little more than hagiography? Do they fear the clash of cultures that might emerge if such ritual myth making is dragged before the cold eyes of the court?

In spite of all the evidence Kelly remains an enigmatic figure. As Michael White points out Kelly has largely only been intelligible as a victim.

One of the least contested features of the much-contested battle in courtroom No 73 has been Dr Kelly’s possession of that most priceless of treasures of our times, victim status.

White’s is one of the few extended, sympathetic attempts to see the world through Kelly’s eyes and go past the cipher of Kelly as victim, or rather to add human form and incident to that cold outline.

Exporting Censorship to Iraq

The press system the occupying forces allow the Iraqis is far from free. American Prospect‘s Alex Gourevitch reports.

“On the one hand, the American presence in Iraq was intended to nurture basic democratic liberties. On the other, as an occupying power, the Americans needed to root out the Baathist regime and eradicate support for its values. For the The Iraqi Media Network (IMN), that meant serving as a model for a free press while at the same time ensuring that anti-American and pro-Baathist sentiments did not flourish on air. And it’s between that rock and a hard place that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the American-orchestrated transitional body running postwar Iraq, ran into trouble.

“As criticism of his authority appeared in Iraqi media, occupying authority chief L. Paul Bremer III placed controls on IMN content and clamped down on the independent media in Iraq, closing down some Iraqi-run newspapers and radio and television stations. Those actions led to charges by Iraqis and external observers that the Americans were touting liberty but ruling by tyranny. “You have this dynamic of nonexistent planning, no clear goals, uncertain allocation plans and failure,” says Anthony Borden, executive director of the Institute on War and Peace Reporting, about the entire media undertaking. Under the best of circumstances, managing the media in a newly destabilized Iraq would have been a tricky balancing act. But as a result of mismanagement and general confusion on the part of the Bush administration about the nature of American power in Iraq, the job has become harder than it needed to be…[more]

Just the facts

Three very different stories from today’s newspapers show the difficulties that journalists have negotiating “facts”.

To begin on a light note a German constitutional court has finally resolved the tiff over whether the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, dies his hair – he doesn’t. The court said the original suggestion, which came from a political consultant and was broadcast by a German news agency, was not the crux of the case. The news agency was given a slap over the wrists for what the court called the agency’s lack of “scrupulousness in checking the accuracy of opinions expressed by third parties in interviews.”

It seems to me it would have been far more appropriate if the court had told both the news agency and the chancellor to get a life! This is a fine example of journalism being measured against the wrong yardstick. The primary issue here is not facticity but relevance. The myths of objectivity and factiticy hold such sway that they have become the dominant framework for popular media criticism. The prior question of relevance is not even asked.

In a very different way the evidence under dispute at the Hutton inquiry is also being reduced to the wrong issues. From a big picture point of view yesterday’s Guardian leader argues that the focus should have not been limited to Dr Kelly’s death but should have included an inquiry into the whole case for, and conduct of, Britain’s war against Iraq. But even on a micro level the issues are being massaged and distorted.

For an enquiry which has given Gilligan such a hard time for distorting or embellishing facts it’s ironic but not surprising how partisan the closing arguments were.

The QC representing the government in the Hutton Inquiry suggested in his final evidence that the wrong lessons were being drawn from the evidence before the enquiry.

“We are, I suggest, in danger of trying to learn general lessons from appalling but wholly exceptional and unpredictable events,”said Jonathan Sumption QC referring to Dr Kelly’s apparent suicide.

“What is much worse than that is we are in danger of learning the wrong lessons.”

It was perfectly possible he argued to express genuine sympathy to his family, “without at once turning aside in order to hunt for other people to blame”.

Sumption’s point about blame is poignant but fails to recognise that this has been a blame game from the beginning – so much so that it is now almost impossible to unravel.

While Dr Kelly’s death may be an “appalling but wholly exceptional and unpredictable event,” the conduct of government, as revealed in the unprecedented evidence from politicians and civil servants, was shown to include thoroughly predictable “Yes Minister” style behavior.

When it comes to Gilligan’s version of the facts, he did prove a problematic witness and provided a paradigmatic lesson for all journalists about keeping your notes in order.

However the reality is that Kelly had similar conversations with three reporters. Gavin Hewitt’s notes show Kelly saying: “some spin came into play” over the dossier’s development. He expressed concern to Susan Watt’s over the 45 minute claim and identified Campbell and the No 10 press office as party to the controversial claim’s inclusion. Watts concluded that this was a “gossipy aside” and did not use it. She also notes that Kelly clarified his reference to Campbell by saying: Campbell was “synonymous with the press office because he was responsible for it.”

Here we see a number of interesting factors come into play.

There is a clear contrast between Gilligan’s style and Watt’s careful traditional journalism that doesn’t necessarily weight all parts of a source’s conversation equally and is careful to differentiate between solid argument and speculative asides. Gilligan took what he had and ran with it in order to try to ignite discussion. I think overall the inquiry backs up Gilligan’s facts but call’s into question some of his “tabloid style” journalistic practice.

The issue of personalisation is also highlighted, Kelly clearly sees Campbell and the No 10 office as “synonymous”. This is in fact a common journalistic ploy saying “Campbell” when we mean the press office or “Blair” when we mean the government.

But if any one has any doubt that Campbell both directly and by proxy “sexed-up” the dossier have a look at this article from today’s Guardian: “10 ways to sex up a dossier

Whether he made specific changes knowing them to be wrong, as Gilligan first reported, is open to interpretation. But it is clear that as a PR professional Campbell would be acutely aware of the different implications in the change to the dossier’s executive summary. It originally claimed that Iraq “could deploy” or “could be ready” to deploy weapons in 45 minutes, in the final version this became weapons that “are deployable” within 45 minutes.

BBC barrister Andrew Caldecott QC presented evidence in his closing argument that Jonathan Powell, the prime minister’s chief of staff and Alastair Campbell had intervened to change parts of the WMD dossier.

“This was not cosmetic. It was substance,” said Mr Caldecott. “Mr Powell realised that this wording advanced a powerful argument against war.”

All of this reminds us of the very direct and simple power of words, facticity is not the only determination of accuracy. Narrative frame and language shape fact.

Politics is not the only realm where facts are under dispute. Today’s Australian includes an interview with the Danish environmental skeptic Bjorn Lomborg. The campaigning statistician has been at odds with the world’s environmental scientists over such issues as pollution and global warming since the publication of his 2001 book The Skeptical Environmentalist. He claims, amongst other things, that population is slowing, air pollution is falling in rich countries and the answer to third world environmental problems will come with economic growth. Scientific America presented an impressive array of evidence against his arguments last year and the Danish Research Agency earlier this year concluded its own investigation calling the book “scientifically dishonest”. Lomborg remains defiant and has answered his critics back.

Today’s article (unfortunately not online) does little justice to the complex arguments and focuses on the “global stoush”. The content of the article is conflict, not the environment. In an extraordinary dismissal of a conflict which is about the earth’s very survival the journalist Leigh Dayton concludes:

Regardless of Lomborg’s protestations, the Danish parliament has called for an investigation into eight environmental analyses conducted by his institute. One concluded that the country’s recycling scheme for cans and bottles cost far more than incineration and produced minimal environmental benefit.

It does all seem much of a muchness. Dispassionate observers may be excused for feeling they are witnessing a schoolyard brawl rather than a healthy scientific disagreement. Certainly, as the arrows fly back and forth, it’s hard for outsiders to follow developments.

It does all seem much of a muchness.

What an extraordinary, stupid and reductive statement.

Our intrepid reporter then goes on to completely misrepresent one of the only significant insights in the article.

Perhaps some insiders are also confused, suggests CSIRO atmospheric scientist Barrie Pittock. He points out that statisticians and economists and natural scientists speak different languages. One group speaks numbers, the other ambiguity.

“For instance, I think a lot of people [like Lomborg] tend to treat climate change research as a matter of dogmatic truth or falsity when in fact there are uncertainties about the observations and the interpretation,” says Pittock, a lead author with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of hundreds of international scientists whose findings link human activity to global warming.

Pittock’s point is critical: scientists in complex areas are prepared these days to admit to uncertainties and ambiguity, which are not well represented in Lomborg’s statistical model. Dayton dismisses such complex ambiguity as confusion rather than the nuanced insight that it is!

Here we have the ideology of facticity at its most blatant and most banal.

For my take on a 60 Minute’s segment on Lomborg as Hero and Heretic see my essay on news and myth.

A messy draw

The Guardian’s latest report from the Hutton inquiry shows how high the stakes were at the height of the Gilligan/Kelly affair.

An excerpt from Alastair Campbell’s diary has the spin miester writing that “It would fuck Gilligan” if David Kelly proved to be the BBC journalist’s source for his controversial WMD dossier story.

The tussle between the BBC and No 10 was definitely a fuck me/fuck you battle, which in spite of both sides protestations to the contrary was never about truth. It was all about political and journalistic performance.

Campbell also admitted under cross-examination that he wanted the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into the affair to be “a clear win, not a messy draw.”

Both sides are again desperate to win the Hutton inquiry. But there will be no clear winners.

Conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan calls the Independent’s recent tally of evidence a “devastating analysis of the BBC’s fabrications against the Blair government”.

That’s not the way I read the same article. Sure Gilligan was guilty of exaggeration for effect in his live radio spots.

But the Independent concludes that Gilligan’s assertion that the 45 minute claim was unreliable, and included in the dossier against Kelly and his colleague’s wishes, was sound.

This, the guts of the Gilligan claim, has been vindicated by the inquiry evidence. The inquiry heard this week that a memo was written on behalf of the DIS by Dr Brian Jones, head of its WMD section, objecting to the claim as it appeared in the dossier. Dr Jones and his chemical expert wrote further formal complaints.

This is surely the nub of the matter, not whether Gilligan should have called his source an “intelligence source” when Kelly actually worked for the Ministry of Defense.

The transcripts of the Hutton inquiry make fascinating reading.

I am left wondering who’s reporting would be left undamaged after hours and hours of cross-examination by ruthless barristers who also want a “clear win not a messy draw”.

The whole affair is a fiasco that in one sense tells us a lot about the state of journalism and at another level tells us nothing at all. Gilligan has been described as a hot shot brought onto the Today program to make it more controversial and hard hitting – he certainly did that. But as Today program editor Kevin Marsh said very early on:

“This story was a good piece of investigative journalism marred by flawed reporting. The biggest millstone has been the loose use of language and lack of judgment in some of the phraseology.”

This was of course a very important story – a leader misleading the people about reasons for war – so more care than usual was required. Gilligan’s sloppiness will no doubt confirm many people’s worst fears about the state of journalism. But in effect he did his job: he raised important questions and began to unravel some of the answers.

Could he have done this more carefully and more thoroughly? Probably. But the source game, the fair comment game, the checks and balances game, is precisely that and no more: a game. As Gaye Tuchman described it 30 years ago: objectivity is a “strategic ritual” that journalists engage in largely to protect themselves.

And as Ariel Hart recently pointed out in the Columbia Journalism Review all journalists make mistakes all of the time. As a freelance fact checker she says she’s never checked an article that didn’t contain some errors. She says journalists should get over their “delusions of accuracy”.

The myth of objectivity has been the corner stone of the liberal democratic model of journalism but as the world changes, and journalism changes to keep pace, it has the potential to become a millstone around our neck. In the public mind it holds us to a level of accuracy that we can never deliver.

News and Myth

In times like these it becomes only too obvious that news has a mythical function. News producers fall readily into the pattern of creating heroes and villains but more importantly reading and writing the news is a cultural function that brings some people into the center and casts out others to the margins.

This is a very introductory essay (Download file) that I wrote last year on mythical constructs in the news. The theory section is very basic but the analysis of Australian coverage of the Bali bombing and of an Australian 60 Minutes episode may be of some interest to media watchers.

I am currently involved in more detailed research on the myths mobalised by news paper magazines.

For those interested in this type of analysis a couple of other links:

Annabel Lukin a Sydney linguist analyses the grammar of the war on terror

And NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen looks at Master Narratives in the news

The ideas race

American politics has always fascinated me. There is a grandeur in the way an American Presidential election is played out that makes for an intriguing story. Australian elections pale in comparison. Part of that is definitely the personalisation factor, part is the ritual that has developed around the presidency, the personification of a certain type of national tradition.

A friend was recently bemoaning the fact that our politics was so “dull” in comparison:

“If only we had people that were such larger than life figures [Powell, Rumsfeld, Rice and Bush of whom she is no fan at all] maybe at least people would take some interest in politics.”

However the voter turnout in US elections doesn’t suggest an overwhelming level of interest in these figures from American citizens

While the ritual drama might be fascinating from a distance, it gets scary up close, it would seem.

Matt Taibbi’s fascinating article in the latest Nation, about being on Howard Dean’s Sleepless Summer campaign tour of nine cities, is a fresh insight into the glitzing up of politics even by such a supposedly idealistic candidate.

First there is the “Imageering 101 political staging.”

At most every stop Dean had a statistically accurate multicultural microcosm await his arrival on stage, usually against a background of a giant American flag. Milwaukee, the second stop on the tour, was the most painful: seventeen supporters of various races (in proper proportions: three blacks, two Hispanics, etc.), frozen and seemingly afraid to move or make a face against the backdrop of a mammoth Old Glory. Watching them wait for Dean gave me shivers; they looked like sausages nailed to a giant red, white and blue crucifix.

This type of staging can at least be taken as good symbolic politics but the subtle conspiracy, between the candidate and the press corp, to avoid substantive issues is really disturbing.

When given a chance to run with a statement by Dean on the “war on drugs,” the opportunity’s not taken up. Dean went part way in saying that not all drug offenders should end up in prison, but the follow-up questions were few. As Taibbi says:

It would be revolutionary for an American President, or even a major-party nominee, just to say that nonviolent drug offenders shouldn’t go to jail. The breaking of that public taboo on a nationwide basis would be a major event, a huge step in halting the idiocy of a 2 million-strong prison population. But the press wasn’t interested in making it happen, even though Dean was serving up the chance on a silver platter.

In the end, looking at it all close up, Taibbi is more disillusioned than inspired. Disillusioned by his own colleagues:

As much as the reporters snickered about the campaign fakery, and occasionally cracked about it in print, there is no question that they were attracted to the big-campaign symbolism like moths to a lamp. To be full of shit in American politics is a signal to our political press that you are serious, and it was quite obvious that the most transparently meaningless or calculating aspects of Dean’s behavior were what most impressed the Sleepless Summer press corps.

It’s about time we found new ways to cover elections, as Jay Rosen recently argued in his analysis of the Californian recall election

He suggests that the electability question – the famed horse race model of election coverage – should not be the only criteria for campaign reporting. He suggests the “ideas race” is as important:

Let’s give the second narrative a name: the idea race. It’s news about the recall that tells us who’s floating new, interesting, counter-intuitive or maybe even useful ideas for California, which people should be talking about anyway. If reporters are allowed to gauge who’s ahead in the money race, in the polls, and among campaign insiders, they can certainly be permitted to judge who’s a player in the game of offering fresh wisdom, inventive proposals or a more nuanced diagnosis of the state’s problems. From there it’s easy: you just cover the players. It might even prove refreshing to ask who’s winning the idea race?