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Journalism Under Scrutiny
Recent Controversies Focus on Role of Press

Jay Rosen
Author of the blog PressThink/Journalism Professor, NYU
Tuesday, November 22, 2005 11:00 AM

Jay Rosen ,author of the blog PressThink and a journalism professor at NYU, will be online Tuesday, Nov. 22, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the state of the news media, CIA leak scandal to citizen journalism and blogging.

Jay Rosen is a professor of journalism at New York University, and former chair of the Department. He writes the weblog PressThink , which he began in September 2003. PressThink comments on current issues and problems in the traditional press, especially the influence of the Internet, the tension between blogging and mainstream journalism, and the rise of citizens media. He has written extensively about the Judith Miller case, the White House and the press, and changes in political journalism. From 1989 to 1999, he was deeply involved in the civic journalism movement as one of its explainers and defenders. In 1999 Yale University Press published his book on the subject, What Are Journalists For? As a press critic and reviewer, Rosen has written for Columbia Journalism Review, the Nation, The New York Times, Newsday, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and tompaine.com, among other venues. He is a frequent guest on NPR's "On the Media," and has appeared on CNN's "Reliable Sources" with Howard Kurtz.

A transcript follows.

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Grand Rapids, Mich.: As an avid newspaper reader for over 30 years, I have found that I increasingly do not find credible the once unquestioned institutions of journalism, NY Times (Blair, Miller), Washington Post (Woodward), CBS (Rather). In fact, I now read those and then read the blogs, and try to sort out "the truth" for myself. Part of the problem is that both compete for scoops and access, and both use so many unnamed sources, that I can't help but believe a savvy organization can "bribe" reporters with scoops in exchange for getting their story out. Do you see it the same way? And if so, to what extend to you see this damaging the role of the fourth estate in this democracy?

Jay Rosen: The national press is "stuck" on the problem of confidential sources. Washington reporters in their more candid moments know that anonymity is granted to sources far too willingly. They also believe that confidential sources are absolutely necesssary to report on government and get behind the facade. So far the "solution" to this has been to adopt policies that say, in essence, "don't grant sources anonymity so easily!" Then in the hunger to break stories the policy is routinely ignored-- not completely but a lot. And when it blows up in their faces, reporters go back to saying: but confidential sources are necessary! Then they tighten the policies a little more. It's having some effect, but the bottom line is that every reporter in Washington knows that the promise of anyonymity is being abused-- and it's their own fault. Still, your practice of sorting out the truth for yourself is a wise one -- and getting wiser.

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New York, N.Y.: Some journalists say their job is to filter the facts for citizens who lack the time and access to power to do so. I agree that I want journalists to ask tough questions, but what justifies "filtering the facts"? I tend to think that judges or lawyers ask the best questions of judges and former secretaries of state or foreign policy experts ask the best questions of current secretaries of state, but what makes journalists best-situated to ask good, tough questions of, well, anyone? Journalists aren't experts on everything, but they pretend to be. I don't get it. Maybe we need to filter out some of these arrogant "omniscient" journalists.

Jay Rosen: I think this is a very important question. Journalists do tend to say, "we're the filters," but what they don't do is explain where their filtering skills come from, or what knowledge they're tapping to screen, highlight and select. They tend to fall back on years of professional experience or newsroom perogatives. In a world of few channels and only a few providers of news this may have been sufficient. Today it is not. The best filterers are in constant contact with the filterees, and also interact with them in order to become better and better selectors. To be a good filter of the news is not as easy as it sounds, because one of the first questions that arises is: what gives you the right to filter things for me?

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San Bruno, Calif.: In simple terms, what did Bob Woodward do wrong, and what actions should he have taken?

Jay Rosen: He had newsworthy information that he kept to himself for five months. It would have added to what we know about a major story. The information also had legal consequences for Woodward and possibly for the Post. He should have told his editor so together they could decide what to do. And he should not have been saying on television: "Major story? This is no major story..." (my paraphrase) when he knew things we didn't.

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New York, N.Y.: Would you speak to the problem of using "unnamed sources" and unnamed "officials"? When an adminstration spends millions on top notch media manipulators and sales strategists to control the agenda and equips an internal partisan army to echo talking points, how does a reporter, let alone a news consumer, figure out the real truth? If some sources speak annonymously out of fear of retribution, and others are just "spouting the company talking points," how can one distinguish truth from propaganda? -- a media grad student

Jay Rosen: The New York Times has a pretty good solution to this. Unfortunately, it's just a policy so far, not a consistent practice. The idea is to force reporters or their editors to explain in the story, not why a source wanted anonymity (because all too often the reason is: to escape responsibility for my words) but why the Times decided to grant anonymity. Quite different. Take a look at last week's column from Barney Calame, the Times public editor. He says that if the Times were to make "granted anonymity because ..." the standard for explanations "it would quickly spur reporters to take greater care in negotiating deals with confidential sources." I agree with that. We'll still have the problem of distinguishing truth from propaganda-- but then this is one of the responsibilities of citizenship.

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Vienna, Va.: Bob Woodward says he didn't speak out about what he knew about the Plame case in mid-2003 because he didn't want to be subpoenaed. (Despite the fact that Fitzgerald wasn't appointed until later and no journalists were asked to testify for nearly a year later.)

Then Woodward said on CNN this year that he would have gladly served some of Judy Miller's jail time.

Both statements can't be true. I suspect neither are.

What do you think?

Jay Rosen: I think we have to recognize that Woodward saw Fitzgerald as an out-of-control prosecutor who was threatening his livelihood and his whole way of working--all his future books!--by throwing another reporter, Judith Miller, into jail over her refusal to name the same kind of sources Woodward himself relies on. He not only identified with Miller, he saw the prosecutor as a threat to his profession, as it were. I agree: both could not be true.

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Washington, D.C.: Sadly, often when the top editors and journalists in the national print media discuss why their pre-war coverage failed to mesh with reality, we hear "Hey, a lot of folks also got it wrong." While this is true, a lot of folks also got it right. For example:

American Journalism Review

Would you agree that there are specific reasons why those who got it right did get it right, and those who got it wrong did not; or was it just a matter of chance?

It seems to me that rather than getting defensive, editors and journalists should be trying to figure out why the folks who got it right did get it right (generally by interviewing mid-level, non-political experts at various levels of government), and how the folks who got it wrong got it wrong (generally by acting relying on anonymously sourced information from top-level political actors).

Jay Rosen: Specific reasons? Yeah, I am sure there are some. Simply by comparing the pre-war coverage of the Knight-Ridder Washington bureau to, say, the New York Times we would learn something about the reasons. It's rarely mentioned, but I think some of the problem with pre-war reporting was a failure of imagination, meaning: journalists literally could not imagine how so many sources could be wrong, or misleading. Maybe they ought to work on that .

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Lawrence: Sir: With all the Romeneskos, Kurtzes and Rosens out there, is journalism in too much danger of disappearing into its own navel instead of just getting out there and, you know, reporting?

Jay Rosen: I hate this attitude. But it's common in newsrooms. Self-examination equals navel-gazing. Journalists can't go out there to report and look critically at what they do? I find that hilarious. The whole curmudgeon personna, which is exceedingly common in newsrooms, is to me a form of hostility disguised with humor. At bottom what I think it means is, "leave us alone."

This column for the Post's Gene Weingarten is a great example. In it he doubts that citizen-critics have anything to add to journalism. They are just people with too much time on their hands, like you folks in this chat.

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New York, N.Y.: Bob Woodward says that he learned of Ms. Plame's identidy through a casual referenece, and did not think much about it. But isn't that an excellent, albeit calculated, way to "spread the word:" simply mention it in passing to as many reporters as possibile, in the context of an anonymous coversation, and then wait for the news to get out. And is this what happenned here, to Ms. Plame.

Jay Rosen: Exactly. How difficult is it to "casually" drop a name into a conversation? Not hard at all.

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Greenbelt, Md.: I fear the direction that news reporting is taking, specifically the proliferation of blogs where sometimes it doesn't matter if what is published is factually accurate. Shouldn't bloggers be held as responsible for what they dissemenate as are the traditional pront and broadcast media where there is more accountability?

Jay Rosen: I don't think you are right that accuracy "doesn't matter" in the blog world. Bloggers who give out a lot of wrong information and don't correct it will get assailed in the blogosphere, and in the end won't have many readers. To say "it doesn't matter" is also saying that users don't care if what they read on a blog is correct, and that is not so, either.

It seems to me that a fair comparison is to take the best of the bloggers and match them up against the best of the traditional press. (Not the worst of the blogosphere against the best from the profession.) If we do it my way, the best bloggers are not, I think, less accountable than journalists because if they get something wrong they hear it right away from readers, and correct it a lot more quickly than newspapers or networks do. It's true, however, that the nature of the controls is different in each case. With bloggers the checking often happens after the "publish" button is pushed. In traditional journalism, it's before.

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Washington, D.C.: I work at a news organization, but not as a journalist.

As I look at my colleagues, the public, and the current state of their profession, I wonder as an outsider about the idea of credentialing. I would be interested in your thoughts of a system where you are a professional journalist not because you have a byline, but you have been certified as meeting certain standards and professional training.

Could such a system help answer settle questions like who is a journalist and is your job to report or to get involved? Thank you.

Jay Rosen: I am in the Journalism education biz. We give out credentials. But I believe your suggestion would be unconstitutional, and I am not for it. Part of what it means to have a free press is that people are free to start their own press-- and do their own journalism. And thank god--or Jefferson--for it. While this has always been true in theory, today the Internet and blogs and what's called citizens media are making it true in fact, as well. A.J. Liebling said, famously, freedom of the press belongs to those who own one. Today I say: freedom of the press belongs to those who own one and blogging means anyone can own one.

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Silver Spring, Md.: More people from the working class are needed in journalism. I am first-generation college, got scholarships even though I was not a whiz kid. I had to work nights. I thought journalism was a public service about getting at the truth -- questioning authority and conventional wisdom. It was not about being a pundit or hobnobbing with the elite. It's also hard to get ordinary working folks to say something on the record.

Jay Rosen: I agree with that. Unfortunately, "diversity" in newsrooms hasn't progressed far enough to include such factors as: more people from working class backgrounds, more people from rural America, and, yes, more political and social conservatives.

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Wichita, Kasn.: We hear from our local newspaper, that Knight-Ridder may be up for sale because it can't meet its public service mission AND its mission to return profits. Is there a way that both missions can be met in today's market-driven environment, or is such a solution a pipe dream?

Thank you.

Jay Rosen: There may be no way the public service mission can be met and the demands of Wall Street satisfied. Newspapers have been sustained at an artificially high rate of return-- 20 percent or more. It's not possible to maintain it, but Wall Street won't hear of it. I wrote this week about an alternative-- sell all 32 papers in Knight-Ridder to local owners who might operate at 10 percent margins and display a civic conscience.

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Munich, Germany: In the case of Deep Throat and the Watergate scandal, Woodward had found a source with a personal grudge against the administration, and hence the information received from this secret source was likely to be accurate revelations about government indiscretions.

In the Plame case, however, both Woodward and Miller likely obtained information from secret informants who were working to further the administration agenda (Well, yes, Woodward hasn't named his source, but hopefully it wasn't written questions to Cheney).

I have the impression that the might of investigative journalism was being unleashed on Wilson and Plame instead of on the administration.

Jay Rosen: I think you just identified what makes so many people uneasy about this case-- inside and outside of journalism.

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Chicago, Ill.: Hi and thanks for the discussion. I'm resending this from earlier: In an age of declining readership, the threat from Google and other businesses that threaten the economic livelihood of papers, what advice would you have for prospective journalism students thinking about becoming print reporters? Why should I or my parents invest thousands of dollars in a field that will likely leave me in debt for at a minimum, the first 15-20 years of my career?

Jay Rosen: I think you're asking why you should go to journalism school, when you talk about "leave me in debt." But no one has to go to J-school to become a journalist. As for "why do it?" I would give the same answer to that as I would to "why write?" You should only do it if you feel you must.

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Metropolis, Ill.: Mr. Rosen, What,in your opinion,is the differencebetween journalism and just writing your opinion about issues, slanted to the side you favor?

Jay Rosen: A journalist is trying to inform a public about matters of common interest, and goes out into the world to gather intelligence that will help in that aim. A living breathing public will always include people with differing opinions, and a true journalist always keeps that in mind.

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New Rochelle, N.Y.: Please explain why a journalist cannot burn a source when it is a known fact (the aluminum tube storyline, hyped on the front page of the NYT and on Meet the Press) the source LIED. Doesn't the mantra, "we protect our sources" give assurance to liars they won' be outted and therefore could throw whatever BS into the public forum they want? I read you over at the HP and enjoy your pieces tremendously. Thanks.

Jay Rosen: Many reporters would say that if a source lies the source can be burned-- and should be. This tends to be an opinion expressed more often about the other guy's sources than one's own. But the principle is there. If a reporter wants to preserve relationships in the future, however, there may be a hesitation to expose even a lying or misleading source. This is part of what makes the business of confidential sources a dirty business.

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Washington DC: The Post is behaving like so many politicians do when something bad happens: It is in denial. But it seems to me it has to let Woodward go sooner or later -- and the sooner the better -- for its own credibility.

Do you agree?

Jay Rosen: No. But I think it should have tighter controls.

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Herndon, Va.: A number of reporters and media outlets argue that a federal shield law is needed. Do you support such a law? Who would it cover -- just print, radio, and TV journalists, or bloggers too?

Jay Rosen: I support a shield law only if it identifies who's protected by the acts of journalism they undertake, not who they work for. If bloggers are acting as journalists and informing a public by developing sources they should be protected.

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Toronto, Ontario, Canada: The Guardian UK had a story today about Bob Woodward's appearance last night on Larry King. Acknowledging that he should have told his editor that he had information relevant to the "leak" story -- and acknowledging that he only had a small piece of the puzzle, Mr. Woodward persists in his tempest in a teapot view of the affair. He has become part of the story, and long ago appears to have decided to become an insider in the Bush regime -- should he continue in any role with the Post?

Jay Rosen: I am not for firing him. But I do think this. In theory we send these people out to report back to us. Some of them penetrate the secret worlds of national security and government policy-making on our behalf. But if they keep going into the secret world they can come under the gravitational pull of another planet-- the people in power, the secret-makers themselves. They're still sending back their reports, but have "left" our universe, so to speak. I think this definitely happened with Judith Miller, who is very far gone by now. It may have happened with Woodward too. The mysterious part is you never know exactly when that point is reached.

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Bethesda, Md.: I am struck by the bizarre disconnect between the mainstream public and media over the push by the White House to get us into this war. Back in June, an ABC poll showed that 57 percent of Americans felt the administration intentionally misled us on the threat from Iraq. Since then, two polls have found a majority favoring impeachment if they lied to us. Yet, to read the newspapers of record you would not have any clue that the public felt this way. There is a blanket taboo on the "I" word. Are they simply afraid of offending the folks downtown who feed them (quotes -- and in some cases -- payments)?

Jay Rosen: The biggest fear journalists have is appearing unsavvy, not sophisticated enough, too much like an activist or outsider, or like someone who is not "in the know." That may be a factor here.

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Richmond, Va.: Dear Mr. Rosen,

Much of the mainstream TV/News Media is ultimately owned by a small number of people. How do you think the rise of the Internet, and blogging specifically, undermined the ability of this small group to influence our perception of the news?

Jay Rosen: Very effectively and completely. That's how.

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