That Old, Tired Balancing Act

Did the election kill objective campaign journalism?


Jay Rosen, chair of the Journalism Department at New York University, calls it "The Contraption." Thomas Lang, a correspondent for, terms it the "automatic pilot approach to reporting." Hunter S. Thompson labels it "the Objective rules and dogma," adding that it's "one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long." More politely, A Free and Responsible Press, the influential 1947 report prepared by an all-star cast of 13 academics, referred to it as the means by which reporters pursue "a truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day's events in a context which gives them meaning."

By whatever name, the ethic by which the vast majority of daily newspapers and network news broadcasts have produced their work in the last half-century has come under a perhaps unprecedentedly heavy barrage of questioning by self-doubting journalists in the wake of George Bush's re-election. From New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who awoke November 3 feeling "deeply troubled" about his countrymen, to Los Angeles Times photographer Luis Sinco, who abruptly left Iraq because of the election's "clear-cut signal" that "we as journalists are not changing anybody's mind about this conflict," reporters seemed to take the results as a personal repudiation, requiring immediate re-assessment.

A few of the many examples:

October 24: "We journalists, we are at sea," former New York Times reporter Doug McGill writes on, "because our Grand Old Professional Code is falling to pieces."

October 30: "There's a growing sense that this race may involve tectonic shifts in the landscape of political journalism," predicts Los Angeles Times media columnist Tim Rutten.

November 12: "We are moving away from a model of objective reporting," Alex Jones, director of Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, warns in a speech. "We are moving from partisanship to something much worse." The same day, National Journal columnist William Powers tells The Hartford Courant, "There is so much change happening, and everyone feels a little lost and disoriented."

Jay Rosen crystallized the debate on November 3 with the provocative suggestion that some media outlets currently in the Objective camp might switch to a self-consciously Oppositional stance, treating the Bush administration more like Rush Limbaugh treats Hillary Clinton.

"The contraption [mainstream journalism] has for explaining, situating and defending itself has in 2004 finally broken down, given out after 40 years of heavy, reliable use," Rosen wrote on his weblog, at "I believe Big Journalism cannot respond as it would in previous years: with bland vows to cover the Administration fairly and a firm intention to make no changes whatsoever in its basic approach to politics and news. The situation is too unstable, the world is changing too rapidly, and political journalism has been pretending for too long that an old operating system will last forever."

Is a media revolution really in the air? If you ask the people who, unlike everyone quoted above, are downright cheerful about Bush's victory and Fox's dominance of the cable news ratings, the answer is a robust "Hell, yes!" On one side, new media with new styles are booming; on the other, credibility crises have kneecapped such previously authoritative institutions as CBS News, The New York Times, and the BBC. Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan encapsulated that spirit in a November 4 Wall Street Journal column: "Every time the big networks and big broadsheet national newspapers tried to pull off a bit of pro-liberal mischief–CBS and the fabricated Bush National Guard documents, the New York Times and bombgate, CBS's 60 Minutes attempting to coordinate the breaking of bombgate on the Sunday before the election–the yeomen of the blogosphere and AM radio and the Internet took them down."

But there are three good reasons to be skeptical that November 3 sounded the death knell for old-style political journalism. First, every presidential election since 1960, if not earlier, has been followed by increasingly louder whither-journalism sessions. It was only four years ago that the major networks and newspapers were vowing never again to get bamboozled by Election Day exit polls. Needless to say, such fretting does not always produce reforms.

Second, while the New Media revolution has unleashed a boom in publishing outlets and has converted news consumers into news producers, it has yet to create a style of reporting dominant enough to replace that which it so successfully criticizes.

Niche publishing has nibbled off chunks of the mainstream media's audience: Since 1996 the percentage of consumers who use newspapers as their primary source of campaign news has dropped from 60 to 46, while the percentage who mainly use the Internet has grown from 3 to 21, according to an October survey by the Pew Research Center. But newspaper publishing and television news are still two of the most lucrative business models in the country.

Which leads to the most important reason for skepticism: inertia. For the last half-century, despite the growth and success of niche publishing, professional journalism has had one dominant paradigm, one that has allowed its owners to get spectacularly rich and its workers to make out all right as well. No matter how rattled reporters seemed in November, change from within will come incrementally, not instantly. Rather than tear up the old reporting model, news outlets are gingerly experimenting with some of the New Media's more successful strategies: publishing weblogs, introducing greater transparency, encouraging a more subjective writing style.

"I had a publisher here once who said that you hunt where the ducks are flying," says John Robinson, editor of the 100,000-circulation News & Record of Greensboro, North Carolina. "And the ducks seem to be flying online."

In August 2004, Robinson started a weblog ( where he engages readers in a more direct and interactive way than in his existing weekly column. The News & Record is also trying to become a hub for more opinionated local bloggers, a strategy that has been adopted as well by newspapers from California to New Jersey.

But that doesn't necessarily foreshadow subjective campaign coverage, or a policy of asking reporters to 'fess up their biases. "I'm not to that point yet," Robinson says. "I still believe that newspapers and the traditional media can present the news objectively, and that there's a marketplace for the objective presentation of news."

As the success of Fox News, political talk radio, partisan book publishing, and blogging has shown, there's a healthy marketplace for nonobjective presentation as well. So far, though, subjectivity has flourished only in markets that are competitive, such as New York newspapers or cable news.

With entry costs plummeting for all forms of media–more than 50 daily newspapers have been launched in the U.S. this young century–competition looks set to flourish even in currently uncompetitive markets. But as long as Objective publishing remains profitable, the two sides of the media divide are likely to dig deeper trenches. Anxious professionals on one side will continue to take the Contraption to the bank, while the barbarian army outside grows in numbers and weapons.

Jay Rosen and others are predicting that some exasperated member of the Old Guard will switch sides before 2008 and come out politically–if it's not too late to recapture their eroding audience. When and if that day comes, a generation of media critics will have to grapple with a new problem: What if the liberal media finally decide to become the liberal media?

"Some day," Rosen wrote in November, "a clever historian is going to explain how fear of being politicized (legitimate) convinced American journalists that the press could have–and should have–no politics at all. (Not legitimate.) It has been one devastating illusion."?