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Why Horse Race Journalism Works for Journalists But Fails Us

Just so you know, "the media" has no mind. It cannot make decisions. Which means it does not "get behind" candidates. It does not decide to oppose your guy ... or gal. Nor does it "buy" this line or "swallow" that one. It is a beast without a brain. Most of the time, it doesn't know what it's doing.

1. The Herd of Independent Minds

This does not mean you cannot blame the media for things. Go right ahead! Brainless beasts at large in public life can do plenty of damage; and later on -- when people ask, "What happened here?" -- it sometimes does make sense to say... the beast did this. It's known as "the pack" in political journalism, but I prefer "the herd of independent minds" (from Harold Rosenberg, 1959) because I think it's more descriptive of the dynamic. Mark Halperin of Time's The Page (more about him later) calls the beast the Gang of 500. But gangs have leaders, which means a mind. That's more than you can say about the media.

Now, the pack, lacking a brain, almost had a heart attack when Hillary Clinton won the New Hampshire primary, since they had told us Obama would run away with it because the pollsters told them the same thing. The near-heart attack wasn't triggered by a bad prediction, which can happen to anyone, but rather by some spectacular wreckage in the reality-making machinery of political journalism. The top players had begun to report on the Obama wave of victories before there was any Obama wave of victories. The campaign narrative had gotten needlessly -- one could say mindlessly -- ahead of itself, as when stories about anticipated outcomes in the New Hampshire vote reverberated into campaigns said to be preparing for those outcomes even before New Hampshire voted.

"PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- Key campaign officials may be replaced. She may start calling herself the underdog. Donors would receive pleas that it is do-or-die time. And her political strategy could begin mirroring that of Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Republican rival..."

That's Patrick Healy in the New York Times the day of the New Hampshire primary, reporting on what would happen, according to nameless campaign insiders, if events about to unfold that day validated previous reports about what was likely to unfold that day. Healy's best defense would be: Wait a minute, people with the Clinton campaign actually told me those things. They turned out to be premature and wrong. I didn't make it up!

Which is true. But when actual facts are used in the construction of news fictions -- and reports about the moves to be made in Hillaryland after Obama won Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina were precisely that, a news fiction -- your story can be accurate, well-edited, within genre conventions, and, at the same time, deeply un-informational, not to mention wrong. In fact, accurate news about the race that subtracts from our understanding of it is one of the quirky features of chronic mindlessness in campaign media.

By mindless I generally mean: No one's in charge, or "the process" is. Conventional forms thrive, even if few believe they work. Routines master people. The way it's been done "chooses" the way it shall be done.

Independent bloggers, who should have more distance from the pack mind (and often do) were not necessarily better on this score. Greg Sargent of TPM Media -- the blog empire run by political journalist Josh Marshall -- reported as follows on January 7th: "Camp Hillary insiders who have been with her a very long time, such as Patti Solis Doyle, are worried about the long term damage that could be done to Hillary if she decides to fight on after a New Hampshire loss, though there's no indication they are yet urging an exit." Doyle was said to be alarmed about damage to Clinton's Senate career from staying in the race amid a humiliating string of defeats.

Campaign news in the subjunctive isn't really news. And primary losses don't especially need to come at us pre-reacted-to, especially when there is plenty of time to air those reactions once any "string of defeats" actually happens. But while an individual mind in the press corps is quite capable of realizing this, the herd is not.

A good example would be an MSNBC program I saw just before the New Hampshire voting, where Dan Abrams asked his panel -- including Rachel Maddow, Pat Buchanan, and himself -- what each thought the final vote would be. The guests should have said, "How do we know? We're not New Hampshire voters, or professional pollsters." That would be intelligent -- and accurate. But they did something mindless instead. Each took a few points off the polls everyone else in the pack was reading and gave a "personal" prediction -- Obama by 4, Obama by 7.

Okay, so it's not a big offense -- but I didn't say it was. I said it was an illustration of routine mindlessness. That's when on-air journalism is dumber than the journalists who are on air.

Greg Sargent -- a smart reporter, quite aware of the absurdities the pack produces - can, without great difficulty, dial back the use of nameless advisers pre-reacting to things that may not occur. (This post from his boss, Josh Marshall, suggests it may happen.) But the fact remains that his account, defining reactions-before-the-fact as news, was within the existing rules of journalism, relied upon by hundreds of other reporters adding their stories to the larger narrative. There's nothing to prevent those rules from being changed, of course. Nothing, except for the fact that the media has no mind and so can't easily change it.

2. Convergence of Judgment

Because we have evolved a way of talking about the news media that fails to recognize this very basic fact -- no mind! can't decide a thing! -- everyone is free to grant more intentionality to the organism than reasonably exists. Here are just a few samples from recent weeks:

Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post: "The media have decided, fairly or unfairly, that Iowa was Edwards's best shot at winning the nomination."

John Amato, Crooks and Liars: "The media will treat Democrats much harsher than Republicans from here on in."

Ken Silverstein, Harpers: "Another factor in Obama's favor is (just as the Clinton campaign claims) that the media seems to be strongly in his corner."

Blogger Tom Watson: "At the start of the campaign, I didn't think the national media could possibly be successful in an anti-woman campaign against a Democrat."

Chris Bowers at Open Left: "OK, The Media Hates Clinton-But Why?"

I think we know why people speak this way. We use collective nouns, even when they mash way too much together, because, despite all the flattening and collapsing, there is some rough justice in saying, "The media loves Obama right now." We know we're speaking imperfectly, or metaphorically, but we also know we're observing something that's really happening.

And that's fine, normal, human even. Nonetheless, it's important to remember: The media has no mind. It might appear to decide things, but if no one takes responsibility for "Edwards must win Iowa," then it's not really a decision the media made, but a convergence of judgment among people who may instantly converge around a different judgment if it turns out that Edwards isn't done after failing to win Iowa.

That's pretty mindless. Strangely, though, the argument that the media has no mind serves almost no one's agenda, with one exception, ably represented by Jon Stewart, but including all who satirize the news and the news criers, exposing their collective mindlessness and making it almost... enjoyable.

3. "We have special insight"

John Harris and Jim VandeHei, formerly of the Washington Post, are the top editors of The Politico, a new newspaper-and-web operation that only does politics. After the New Hampshire screw-up, which they called a "debacle" and a "humiliation," Harris and VandeHei asked themselves why their profession, political reporting, "supposedly devoted to depicting reality, obsesses about so many story lines that turn out to be fiction."

This is an excellent question and it's admirable that they don't mince words in framing it. "The loser -- not just of Tuesday's primary but of the 2008 campaign cycle so far -- was us," they write. That would be the pack, "...the community of reporters, pundits and prognosticators who so confidently -- and so rashly -- stake our reputations on the illusion that we understand politics and have special insight that allows us to predict the behavior of voters."

A key point: "we have special insight." The current generation of political reporters has based its bid for election-year authority on its horse race and handicapping skills. But reporters actually have no such skills. Think: what does a Howard Fineman (Newsweek, MSNBC) know about politics in America? I mean, what would you logically turn to him for? It's got to be: Who's ahead, what's the strategy, and how are the insiders sizing up the contest? That's supposedly his expertise, if he has any expertise; and if he doesn't have any expertise, then what is he doing on my television screen, night after night, talking about politics?

Even if Fineman and company had it, the ability to handicap the race is a pretty bogus skill set. Who cares if you are good at anticipating events that will unroll in clear fashion without you? Why do we need people who know how this is going to play out in South Carolina when we can just wait for the voters to play it out themselves?

Among the "bogus narratives" the campaign press has developed so far, the Politico editors chose three to illustrate their humiliation. John McCain's "collapse" in the summer of 2007, which meant we could write him off; Mike Huckabee's win in Iowa, where the candidate without an organization took a state where electoral success, we were assured, was all about organization; and Obama's "change the tone in politics" campaign which, according to the Gang, was not going to be in tune with the voters' rawer, more partisan feelings in '08. All three were a bust, suggesting political journalists have no special insight into: How is this going to play out? What they have are cheap, portable routines in which you ask that kind of question, and try to get ahead of the race. This, too, is what I mean by mindlessness.

"If journalists were candidates, there would be insurmountable pressure for us to leave the race," say Harris and VandeHei about their sorry-ass performance in '08. But they're at sea in trying to explain why such things happen. They blame addiction to the game of politics, journalists and their sources hanging out too much together, and personal bias among reporters unconsciously rooting for the candidate who is more fun to cover. Those are certainly three factors. Another 23 could be listed without running out of plausible reasons, because what they're really grappling with is routine mindlessness in their institution. Explaining that is a bit harder.

4. "Removed from the experience"

A much better attempt was this short and consistently to the point entry by Christopher Hayes of the Nation magazine: "WHY CAMPAIGN COVERAGE SO OFTEN SUCKS." He starts with something that is known to everyone in the pack: Campaign reporting is an essay in fear.

"Reporting at events like this is exciting and invigorating, but it's also terrifying. I've done it now a number of times at conventions and such, and in the past I was pretty much alone the entire time. I didn't know any other reporters, so I kept to myself and tried to navigate the tangle of schedules and parking lots and hotels and event venues. It's daunting and the whole time you think: 'Am I missing something? What's going? Oh man, I should go interview that guy in the parka with the fifteen buttons on his hat.' You fear getting lost, or missing some important piece of news, or making an ass out of yourself when you have to muster up that little burst of confidence it takes to walk up to a stranger and start asking them questions."

Whereas he had once thought of it as a rookie's experience, this year he learned that the fear never goes away. "Veteran reporters are just as panicked about getting lost or missing something, just as confused about who to talk to. This why reporters move in packs. It's like the first week of freshman orientation, when you hopped around to parties in groups of three dozen, because no one wanted to miss something or knew where anything was."

It is rare to find a campaign correspondent who is inner-directed, with a vision of how to report on the election season that sends her off on her own. Campaign reporters tend to be massively other-directed. The reality-check is what the rest of the press is doing -- and the Web makes it far easier to check. Mindless.

"When you go to one of these events as a reporter, there's part of you that's aware that you don't really belong there," writes Hayes.

"You're an outsider, standing on the edges observing the people who are there doing the actual stuff of politics: listening to a candidate, cheering, participating. So reporters run with that distance: they crack wise, they kibbitz in the back, they play up their detachment. That leads to coverage that is often weirdly condescending and removed from the experience of politics."

Removed from the experience. Well, yeah. That is the number one virtue of horse-race reporting and the inside baseball mentality: speed of removal from the immediate experience. Hayes thinks the "worst features of campaign reporting" can be traced back to the "psychological defenses that reporters erect to deal with their insecurities." First line of defense: pack behavior. A second is what the Politico guys said: "the illusion that we understand politics" and with our special insight can predict the behavior of voters, anticipate a turn in the narrative, divine a winning strategy.

Maybe this illusion is reproduced for us because it is fear-reducing for them to mount the horse-race production.

5. Under the influence.

In November, Mark Halperin of Time, who is both a student of pack behavior and a creature of the pack, wrote a revealing op-ed piece about this "illusion that we understand." He said he had been under the influence of Richard Ben Cramer's massive and fascinating book, What It Takes, about the 1988 battle for the White House. Halperin wrote:

"I'm not alone. The book's thesis -- that prospective presidents are best evaluated by their ability to survive the grueling quadrennial coast-to-coast test of endurance required to win the office -- has shaped the universe of political coverage.

"Voters are bombarded with information about which contender has 'what it takes' to be the best candidate. Who can deliver the most stirring rhetoric? Who can build the most attractive facade? Who can mount the wiliest counterattack? Whose life makes for the neatest story? Our political and media culture reflects and drives an obsession with who is going to win, rather than who should win."

Right there, Halperin identifies the roots of mindlessness in campaign coverage: All right, press team, when that door opens, I want you go out there and find out for us... WHO IS GOING TO WIN?

That's the baseline question. But how good a question is it?

The only decent definition of "information" I know of states that it is a measure of uncertainty reduced. But voters are the ones who reduce uncertainty in elections. They can do it pretty well themselves, without the help of horse-race journalists. Halperin once thought it fine to obsess over "the race," because he considered the race a good proxy for the leadership test we're supposed to be conducting during the now-well-more-than-a-year it takes to elect a new president.

"But now I think I was wrong," he writes. George W. Bush passed his horse-race test and flunked the leadership test once in office. So did Bill Clinton, Halperin says. Both were good campaigners and strategists. Their weaknesses only became glaring to the pack when they were in office, he argues.

Let me say it again: Reporters have no special insight into how elections will turn out. According to Halperin, a thesis that has "shaped the universe of political coverage" is false; the rigors of the race do not produce good outcomes. So what does the pack do now? "Well, we pause, take a deep breath and resist. At least sometimes... we can try to keep from getting sucked in by it all."

This is the same limp remedy Harris and VandeHei offered. They know they're stuck with horse-race journalism. They know what a mindless beast it can be -- and what a mindless beast they can be. And, above all else, they know they're not going to change it. After all, they are it. Glenn Greenwald of Salon was right to point to this exchange between NBC's Tom Brokaw and Chris Matthews as the results from New Hampshire came in...

"BROKAW: You know what I think we're going to have to do?

"MATTHEWS: Yes sir?

"BROKAW: Wait for the voters to make their judgment.

"MATTHEWS: Well what do we do then in the days before the ballot? We must stay home, I guess."

Matthews was being the realist: Without who's-going-to-win, "we" might as well stay home. Brokaw (now long retired as the face of the NBC brand) gave him an apt warning in response: "The people out there are going to begin to make judgments about us if we don't begin to temper that temptation to constantly try to get ahead of what the voters are deciding." But he was speaking as if the media had a mind and could shift course.

6. Less innocence, more politics.

Let's see if we can bring these strands together. I've been picking at the weaknesses of horse-race coverage, but to really understand it we need to appreciate its practical strengths.

Who's-gonna-win is portable, reusable from cycle to cycle, and easily learned by newcomers to the press pack. Journalists believe it brings readers to the page and eyeballs to the screen. It "works" regardless of who the candidates are, or where the nation is in historical time. No expertise is actually needed to operate it. In that sense, it is economical. (And when everyone gets the winner wrong the "surprise" becomes a good story for a few days.) Who's going to win -- and what's their strategy -- plays well on television, because it generates an endless series of puzzles toward which journalists can gesture as they display their savviness, which is the unofficial religion of the mainstream press.

But the biggest advantage of horse-race journalism is that it permits reporters and pundits to "play up their detachment." Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because "who's gonna win?" is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession. This is experienced as pleasure by a lot of mainstream journalists. Ever noticed how spirits lift when the pundit roundtable turns from the Middle East or the looming recession to the horse race, and there's an opportunity for sizing up the candidates? To be manifestly agenda-less is journalistic bliss. Of course, since trying to get ahead of the voters can affect how voters view the candidates, the innocence, too, is an illusion. But a potent one.

Imagine if we had them all -- the whole Gang of 500 -- in a room and we asked them (off the record): How many of you feel roughly qualified to be Secretary of State? Ted Koppel having retired, no hands would go up. Secretary of the Treasury? No hands. White House Chief of Staff? Maybe one or two would raise a hand. Qualified to be President? No one would dare say that. Strategist for a presidential campaign? I'd say at least 200 hands would shoot up. Reporters identify with those guys -- the behind-the-scenes message senders -- and they cultivate the same knowledge.

What a waste! Journalists ought to be bringing new knowledge into the system, as Charlie Savage and the Boston Globe did in December. They gave the presidential candidates a detailed questionnaire on the limits of executive branch power and nine candidates responded. This is a major issue that any candidate for president should have to address, given the massive build-up of presidential power engineered by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. We desperately need to know what the contenders for the presidency intend to do -- continue the build-up or roll it back? -- but we won't know unless the issue is injected into the campaign.

Now, that's both a political and a journalistic act. And where does the authority for doing such things come from? There is actually no good answer to that within the press system as it stands, and so the beast would never go there.

The Globe's questionnaire grew out of Savage's earlier reporting on the "unitary executive" and the drive to create an "unfettered presidency." (See this PBS interview with Savage; also, contrast the Globe's treatment with more of a throwaway effort from the New York Times.) Here, the job of the campaign press is not to preempt the voters' decision by asking endlessly, and predicting constantly, who's going to win. The job is to make certain that what needs to be discussed will be discussed in time to make a difference -- and then report on that.

A Blog Is a Little First Amendment Machine

When in the eighteenth century the press first appeared on the political stage the people on the other end of it were known as the public. Public opinion and the political press arose together. But in the age of the mass media the public got transformed into an audience.

This happened because the mass media were one way, one-to-many, and "read only." When journalism emerged as a profession it reflected these properties of its underlying platform. But now we have the Web, which is two-way (rather than one) many-to-many (rather than one-to-many) and "read-write" rather than "read only."

As it moves toward the Web, journalism will have to adjust to these conditions, but a professionalized press is having trouble with the shift because it still thinks of the people on the other end as an audience--an image very deeply ingrained in professional practice.

I'm going to tell you some stories that I think illustrate the disruptive effects that blogging has had, and the democratic potential it represents. But let me say at the outset that, though a blogger myself, I am not a triumphalist about blogging. I do not think that the age of fully democratic media is suddenly upon us because we have this new form. There is a long way to go if we are to make good on its potential.

Now to my five stories, which are I offer more as parables, even though they are, of course, true to the facts.

Chris Allbritton: independent war correspondent.

In March of 2003, Chris Allbritton, a former AP and New York Daily News reporter, became what Wired magazine called "the Web's first independent war correspondent." He did it by asking readers of his blog to send him to Iraq at their expense. Allbritton raised $14,500 from 342 donors on a simple promise: that he would send back from the war original and honest reporting, free of commercial pressures, pack thinking, and patriotic hype.

He needed a plane ticket to Turkey (where he snuck over the border and found the war), a laptop, a Global Positioning Satellite unit, a rented satellite phone, a digital camera, and enough cash to move around, keep fed, and buy his way out of trouble. While some reporters were embedded with the American military, Allbritton sent himself on assignment. No one gave him permission to be in country.

The Internet did the rest. On March 27, his reporting drew 23,000 users to his site, www.back-to-iraq.com. So here you have a journalist collecting his own mini-public, a few thousand people on the Web. They then send him to report on events of interest to the entire world, via a medium that reaches the entire world.

This is journalism without the media. I leave you to contemplate the implications of that. But it was one of the events that caused me to start my own blog.

Trent Lott Speaks; bloggers listen.

On Dec. 5, 2002, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, leader of the Republican party in the Senate and probably the third most powerful person in Washington at the time, spoke at former Senator Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party on Capital Hill.

"I want to say this about my state," he said. "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either." He was referring to Thurmond's 1948 third-party campaign for president, which was an explicitly racist campaign. So what was Trent Lott saying in 2002? That a segregationist president would have been good for America in 1948?

There were some reporters present, but they didn't see much significance in it. Except for one young producer from ABC News, Ed O'Keefe, who managed to get a brief story read on the air at 4:30 am, which in turn led to a small item the next day at ABCNews.com. This in turn gave it to the bloggers, who began discussing what Lott had said, and digging into Strom Thurmond's 1948 campaign so as to reveal what his comments really meant.

It turned out that bloggers from the left as well as the right were puzzled and disgusted by Lott's comments, and they continued to discuss them. For three days the story was the talk of the blogosphere while the news cycle moved on to other things. But political reporters were reading the blogs, and by the fourth day they realized.... This was news! The story of what Lott had said re-broke in the major press--five days after it happened--and he began apologizing for it while major political figures reacted. Ten days later he resigned as majority leader; his power was gone.

Here's the part of the story I want you to focus on: the chances of a television producer from CBS or a style reporter from the Washington Post not knowing enough history to see any import in Trent Lott's comments were pretty high. But the chances of the interconnected blogosphere not knowing this background were zero. To this day professional journalists do not understand this fact, even though it was one of the things that helped sink Dan Rather when his badly flawed report on President Bush's National Guard service was attacked (and sunk) by bloggers and their readers.

FireDogLake Shines at the Libby Trial.

In Boston in 2004, I was part of the first class of bloggers admitted to cover a national political convention. That was where bloggers had their coming out party before the national press. Beyond celebrating that arrival, no one suggested the bloggers had a better product, not even the bloggers.

In January of 2007 there another first, similar in form: first class of bloggers accredited to cover a big Federal trial. This was the trial of Lewis Libby, Dick Cheney's top aide. A handful of bloggers got passes and joined the courthouse press. One blog, called Firedoglake, put more boots on the ground than the big commercial news operations--six people working in shifts. These writers brought more background, more savvy and more commitment to the case than any of the journalists covering the trial.

Firedoglake got handed a golden opportunity by the reluctance of big news organizations to spend money on the information commons. At the Libby trial, there was no broadcast, no taping allowed. No posted transcript for anyone to consult. Thus the most basic kind of news there is--what was said in court today--was missing.

Converging on Washington, the team from Firedoglake felt they represented people back home who wanted to know everything. And so they decided to live blog the trial. Typing at fast as they could, they produced the only blow-by-blow account of the trial available to the public. They also provided expert interpretation because they knew more about the case than most of those being paid to cover it. In fact journalists covering the trial began to rely on Firedoglake's accounts because it had the most complete coverage.

The expenses were paid by contributions from the blog's readers, giving new meaning to the term "team coverage." I wrote about Firedoglake's achievement because it contradicted everything professional journalists believe about bloggers.

Bloggers do views, not news. They're like a giant op-ed page, but without decorum. Bloggers are parasitic on reporting that originates elsewhere. Bloggers have an ax to grind, so their reports aren't reliable. These ideas are "fixed" points for a lot of journalists. And the example of Firedoglake at the Libby trial disconfirms them all. It was the most basic kind of journalism imaginable. We're there, you're not, let us tell you about it.

TPM Muckraker Gets a Document Dump.

On March 20th of this year, the Justice Department released 3,000 pages of documents to the House Judiciary Committee, which was investigating why a group of seven federal prosecutors were fired last year, a scandal that continues to make headlines today. Over at TPM Muckraker.com, a investigative site started by the political blogger Josh Marshall, the guys who work for Marshall were wondering how they were going to sort through those 3,000 pages to see if any clues turned up. And then they realized: "We don't have to. Our readers can help."

The Judiciary Committee had put the document dump online in the form of PDF files. And so Marshall's guys asked readers to pick a PDF and read through the documents. "If you find something interesting (or damning), then tell us about it in the comment thread below," they wrote. Readers finished in a day or two and made some intriguing finds.

The significance is obvious: potentially hundreds or thousands of hands available to work on a single story.

John Markoff Mocks Blogging.

In October of 2003 John Markoff, the lead technology reporter for the New York Times based here in San Francisco, who by that time had been reporting about the Internet for more than ten years, was interviewed by Online Journalism Review. One of the topics he was asked about was the very subject we are discussing here--the democratic potential of blogging. Markoff was openly dismissive. I want to read to you what he said. And remember, this is the man the Times counts on to understand these things.

"It sometimes seems we have a world full of bloggers and that blogging is the future of journalism, or at least that's what the bloggers argue, and to my mind, it's not clear yet whether blogging is anything more than CB radio.

"...Give it five or 10 years and see if any institutions emerge out of it. It's possible that in the end there may be some small subset of people who find a livelihood out of it and that the rest of the people will find that, you know, keeping their diaries online is not the most useful thing to with their time.

When I tell that to people they get very angry with me. ... I also like to tell them, when they (ask) when I'm going to start a blog, 'Oh, I already have a blog, it's www.nytimes.com, don't you read it?"

There's nothing wrong with waiting five years to see if the form develops. In the meantime, Markoff said, I'm (literally) not going to think about it.

By 2003 the press had started to shift social location. Much of it is still based in The Media and will be for some time, but some is in nonprofit hands, and some of the franchise is now in public hands because of the Web, the weblog and other forms of citizen media. Naturally our ideas about it are going to change. The franchise is being enlarged.

The most famous words ever written about freedom of the press are in the U.S. Constitution: "Congress shall make no law..." But the second most famous words come from the critic A.J. Liebling: "freedom of the press belongs to those who own one." Well, freedom of the press still belongs to those who own one, and blogging means practically anyone can own one. That is the Number One reason why blogs--and this discussion--matter.

With blogging, an awkward term, we designate a fairly beautiful thing: the extension to many more people of a free press franchise, the right to publish your thoughts to the world.
Wherever blogging spreads the dramas of free expression follow. A blog, you see, is a little First Amendment machine.

This is the speech I gave at the International Communication Association annual conference in San Francisco, May 27, 2007. The conference panel was entitled, "News, Journalism And The Democratic Potential of Blogging." It is lightly revised from the remarks as delivered.

Off the Charts

On October 7th I was interviewed by Elizabeth Jensen, a media-beat reporter for the Los Angeles Times, who sometimes calls me for expert commentary. She had some news and wanted to get my reaction, but my first reaction was disbelief. My second reaction was: This is going to be huge. What she described sounded so improbable. (And in fact it never came to pass.)

On all 62 stations owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, at different times, on different nights, but close to the election – "like within ten days," she said – Sinclair was going to interrupt the prime-time programming offered by different networks in different cities where it owns affiliates, and put on the air "Stolen Honor," an anti-Kerry documentary – agitprop, as it used to be called – featuring former POWs in Vietnam who, in essence, charge John Kerry with treason for his anti-war efforts. And they were doing all this because....?

It didn't make any sense. You couldn't complete the because.

That is, it didn't make sense within any known model for operating a company that owns local television stations under U.S. law. Customary practice had always precluded a political intervention of any kind near the finish line of an election. Behind this custom was not some grand sense of the public interest shared among stations owners, but a cold realism about electoral politics. Start interfering in the horse race by backing the wrong horse and regulators from the hostile party are likely to make you pay if their guy wins.

In addition, contested elections divide markets; advertisers don't enjoy that one bit. Kerry voters buy cars and corn flakes, and they watch television. Advertisers don't want to choose between customer groups, and they don't want you, their community broadcaster, choosing, either. They don't want to be making political statements with their ad buys. Why would they?

In Search of Sinclair Logic

For all those reasons – commonsensical, "good business" reasons – plus a little matter of Federal law called the Fairness Doctrine, in force until recently, station owners have held back from any action that would seem to be aiding or attacking a candidate. And the closer to the election, the more cautious they have been. "Ordering stations to carry propaganda? It's absolutely off the charts," said former Federal Communications Commission chairman Reed Hundt, who served under Clinton.

Eric Bohlert of Salon spoke to Bob Zelnick, ex-Pentagon correspondent for ABC News, now chairman of the Department of Journalism at Boston University and "a self-described conservative who says he intends to vote for President Bush." Zelnick, who on other occasions might be defending a company like Sinclair, said, "Whether you're liberal or conservative, if you have roots in the journalism profession, there are core values that transcend and need to survive election to election. You avoid airing, very close to election, highly charged, partisan material that takes the guise of a documentary."

Sinclair was not only breaking with broadcast custom, it was smashing idols by threatening to show a 42-minute film, "Stolen Honor," which by any measure was "highly charged, partisan material." The interesting part to me was: Why risk it? Acquiring "Stolen Honor" with the intention of using it must have fit into Sinclair's plans for itself somehow, but how?

So I went in search of the Sinclair logic. This was a company I knew a little about from an earlier episode, equally strange in its way. Last April, Ted Koppel decided to read the names of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq on a Nightline. It was called "The Fallen." Sinclair sent a clear message: no way, Ted. We won't permit it on the eight ABC stations we own. Koppel said it was the first time anything like that had happened to Nightline. In an open letter to Sinclair executives, Senator John McCain denounced the company for refusing to air the program. Sinclair's CEO David Smith wrote a response giving no ground. Notice how his letter instantly politicizes what the "other side" is doing:

"Nightline is not reporting news; it is doing nothing more than making a political statement. In simply reading the names of our fallen heroes, this program has adopted a strategy employed by numerous anti-war demonstrators who wish to focus attention solely on the cost of war. In fact, lest there be any doubt about Nightline's motivation, both Mr. Koppel and Nightline's executive producer have acknowledged that tonight's episode was influenced by the Life Magazine article listing the names of dead soldiers in Vietnam, which article was widely credited with furthering the opposition to the Vietnam war and with creating a backlash of public opinion against the members of the U.S. military who had proudly served in that conflict..."

And "The Fallen" did indeed go unseen in Sinclair cities. Now, this was not normal practice when it came to a controversial broadcast by a network news division. ABC and Ted Koppel would normally be held responsible for the content of Nightline – not Sinclair Broadcasting. The owner of a local station would not endorse "The Fallen" simply by distributing the regular ABC schedule. An affiliate could "stay out of it" simply by referring questions and complaints to ABC News. The producer of the program is the one who takes the editorial risk; that's good business, good journalism, and common sense.

But Sinclair had other ideas. It had no desire to stay out the politics of "The Fallen." It wanted in. And so its executives went out of their way to create controversy from the Koppel show, especially when they accused ABC News of disloyalty to the American cause. "The action appears to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq," Sinclair insisted in a statement posted on its website during that week in April.

It may not have been clear to me then where Sinclair was going, but after Elizabeth Jensen's phone call, I realized that the anomalies were beginning to add up: Sinclair was taking actions not normal for a commercial broadcaster because it was not a normal broadcaster at all. It had political ambitions new to our mainstream media, including an urge to speak out publicly and involve itself as a company in controversy. The more carefully you examined its moves, the clearer and more self-conscious the political design was.

Take the 62 stations it either owns or controls in 39 markets, reaching at least one quarter of the country, including 8-9 swing states in the current election. Take its amazing record of success in pushing beyond the old limits on ownership that once prevented a company like Sinclair from controlling more than a handful of television stations. Or take its plan to keep growing by accumulating more properties (TV, radio, and – it hopes – newspapers) in markets where it already owns one or two TV stations.

Take its vision of a new kind of national news service, News Central, controlled from Sinclair headquarters, embedded in local news hours around America, and more aggressive than Fox News Channel in "correcting" for liberal bias. Finally, take the editorial voice in which Sinclair broadcasts its views to the nation – that of Mark Hyman, Vice President for Corporate Affairs at Sinclair – a lobbyist – and the sole proprietor of a commentary slot called "The Point," a few minutes of air time created just for him to rant from the Right on all Sinclair stations in all 39 markets, an arrangement so unusual that Hyman literally has no peer in America. No one else has a job even remotely like his.

In these ways, and others I have described, Sinclair has revealed its intentions: to become the broadcast network that ur-conservative candidate Barry Goldwater never had. Hyman himself was to be a Spiro Agnew with TV stations. I say that because Sinclair was constructed not on a normal business model, but on a mountain of debt partly to televise the politics of cultural resentment. This has been a successful strategy for Republicans ever since Richard Nixon ran as a law-and-order candidate defined against the anarchy of long-haired protestors in the streets.

Here, then, is part of a typical Mark Hyman on-air commentary in which the role of the decadent, corrupt liberal elite is played by Hollywood celebrities who involve themselves in politics. It's a Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity message with the usual "hot" language and stark imagery, but this time the speaker is a media executive:

.".. Did the postal carrier argue that you need to pay even more in taxes? Common, everyday workers don't lobby you on issues of the day. But Hollywood celebrities and other entertainers believe it's their job to tell you how to vote.

"Consider that many famous celebrities live lifestyles exceeding that of royalty. They live in gated homes, sometimes with security guards. Their children attend high-priced expensive schools. They eat in restaurants that don't admit average diners like you and me. They drive or are driven in luxury cars.

"Often they are on their third, fourth or fifth marriage or relationship. Or both at the same time. Illegal drug use and alcohol abuse are common. They use their status to get free travel, hotel rooms, food and entertainment. They throw public fits if they don't get special privileges...."

A Political Empire Made of Television Stations

Sinclair, I came to see, wasn't a normal media conglomerate in the making, not even in the Rupert Murdoch mold with forays into right-wing politics. It was a kind of political force accumulating broadcast assets, intending to use them at strategic moments in order to keep growing, yes, but also to swell in influence, reputation, "voice." Between the last election and this one, Sinclair had developed the capacity to intervene in politics using its 62 local stations as loudspeakers for a message synthesized at the center.

That's what "The Point" starring Hyman is: a demonstration of Sinclair's power to speak out nationally and from deep within the cultural resentments of the Right. And that's the same Mark Hyman who then deals with government regulators and agencies, trying to get the best deal for Sinclair, a company that has a history of constantly pushing the regulatory envelope. It owes its whole existence to the politics of deregulation, which must be pushed ever harder to provide Sinclair with the opportunities it wants. As Barry M. Faber, Sinclair's general counsel, told the Washington Post, "we are a deregulation company." That puts it very well.

How much extra power does Hyman have in negotiations with politicians and regulators by virtue of being on the air and ranting every day, or by virtue of his perceived influence at News Central? I don't know the answer. But I think Sinclair is organized to find that answer out and apply it with force. Thought of another way, Sinclair is basically a political empire made of television stations, the first of its kind in our country. That empire acted once with "The Fallen," then again with the threat of airing "Stolen Honor." It tried to use the film to pressure Kerry onto the air for a one-hour program where he would have had to confront the POW's charges of treason ten days before the vote.

As it turned out, the ploy was far-fetched and it didn't work, but if everything had fallen the right way, Sinclair would have delivered a second Vietnam groin-kick – the first being those ads from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth – to Kerry, thus knocking down his numbers at just the right time to turn the election's outcome. Not only would the company have cashed in and gotten the regulatory relief it wanted during a second Bush term, but it could have started to cast a bigger shadow politically and with its news operation. Simple example: the Bush team sends a message down the line: When you're stiffing the rest of the press, remember to feed News Central and strengthen Sinclair. Just because it didn't happen this month doesn't mean it can't in the years ahead.

"Off the charts," former FCC'er Reed Hundt said about the "Stolen Honor" scheme. And he was, of course right; if, that is, we stand here in October 2004 and look back at the era of broadcast regulation – the one we grew up with. But those charts are no longer valid; they don't actually tell us where we are. This is what Sinclair, a nouveau media company, is saying to us loud and clear: Turn around and look ahead to where that speeding train, deregulation, is going! It's been happening for 15 years, in Democratic and Republican administrations. Changes in law, public policy, technology, and the media industry have made possible a new kind of media enterprise: the imperial political broadcaster that involves itself in public fights as a way of showing others what it stands for, what it's willing to do, and what kind of muscle it has.

Unlike a traditional broadcaster, Sinclair didn't want to stay out of the election. It wanted in, and that's where the whole "Stolen Honor" episode began. But it miscalculated wildly on what the consequences would be when its plans became known. Sinclair wanted to intervene in the election by jockeying with Kerry and publicizing the POW charges; it was willing to be bold. But imagination and the will to be outrageous failed the company at the critical moment. It was not quite bold enough to say: we have a First Amendment right to intervene (which may in fact be true), and to air a propaganda film in the final stretch of the campaign – and if we decide to do that, we damn well can. Sinclair wasn't willing to be that up front. The path it took instead was to label the "Stolen Honor" documentary "news" rather than call it "politics" or "commentary:" news a decadent elite would not allow through to America.

Here is Mark Hyman with a sympathetic Britt Hume of Fox News. Hyman is trying to suggest that Sinclair had no choice but to seek a forum for the POWs to air their allegations. After all, he claimed, it can't determine when news is going to break, can it?

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