July 23, 2009

MSM: More Message Discipline Now!

One of the more striking aspects of press coverage of the Obama Administration is how vociferously the press demands to be bored. For example, Sonia Sotomayor's stonewalling and dissimulation in her Senate testimony were greeted not with scorn and demands for revelations, but with praise for how well she played the game of being boring and calls by pundits for eliminating Senate hearings for Supreme Court justices altogether.

And here is The Fix in the Washington Post, in which Chris Cillizza laments that Obama's press conference produced an interesting, unexpected news story that revealed some normally well-concealed aspects of the President's personality:

A seemingly innocuous answer by President Barack Obama in response to a question at last night's press conference regarding the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. has spawned a national controversy that threatens to overshadow the chief executive's messaging on the urgency of health care reform. ... But, little did we know that media maelstrom that would ensue. ...

A tempest in a teapot? Almost certainly. But, the media swirl that has developed in the wake of Obama's comments last night reveals just how critical message discipline is when you sit in the White House.

The Administration wanted today's message to be about the urgent need for health care reform -- witness the president's town hall in Cleveland and the new Democratic National Committee ad campaign -- but instead saw much of the coverage focused on whether Obama stepped too far out on a limb in his defense of Gates.

Again, the long-term impact of the Gates story is minimal. But, for every minute of press coverage it draws is a minute not being spent pushing the idea of the necessity of health care reform.

The Mainstream Media demand: More Message Discipline Now!

It's as if every single person in America these days is in the Marketing Department. Journalism today consists primarily of marketing campaigns and critiques of the implementation of those marketing campaigns.

A lot has changed over the last century.

By way of contrast (but mostly for my own enjoyment), here's an excerpt from the exuberant autobiography, A Child of the Century, by Ben Hecht, co-author of the newspaper play The Front Page (later reworked for Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as His Girl Friday). Hecht did more than anyone to create the old stereotype of American reporters, so here's their historic first encounter when he was hired at age 16 by the Chicago Journal in 1910:
We entered a large barnlike room full of desks and long tables, piled with typewriters and crumpled newspapers. There were many men in shirt sleeves. Some of them were bellowing, others sprawled in chairs asleep, with their hats down over their eyes. ... The smell of ink, the drunks coming in with seven A.M. hangovers and sucking therapeutically on oranges, the clanging of a mysterious bell abovve Mr. Dunne's head, the air of swashbuckle -- hats tilted, feet up on top of typewriters, faces breathing out liquor fumes like dragons -- these matters held me shyly spellbound.

... before another week was done, I was a curious combination of ruffian, picklock and enemy of society. Mr. Finnegan, handsome and smiling, sent me forth each dawn to fetch back a photograph of some news-worthy citizen -- or die. The citizen was usually a woman who had undergone some unusual experience during the night, such as rape, suicide, murder or flagrante delicto. ... The picture chaser was thus a shady but vital figure. It was his duty to unearth, snatch or wangle cabinet photographs of the recently and violently dead for his paper. While maturer minds badgered the survivors of the morning's dead for news data, ... I scurried through bedrooms, poked noiselessly into closets, trunks and bureau drawers, and, the coveted photograph under my coat, bolted for the street.

On his fellow journalists of a century ago:
They sat, grown and abuzz, outside an adult civilization, intent on breaking windows.

There was, I am sure, neither worldliness nor cunning enough among the lot of us to run a successful candy store. But we had a vantage point. We were not inside the routines of human greed or social pretenses. We were without politeness. There was a feast all around us. We attended it as scavengers. We picked up and examined the debris of murders, suicides, family explosions. Our noses were full of the odors of chicanery and human fatuousness.

I'm sure the progress of journalists over the last century toward being polished marketing professionals is all for the best, but, still, it's kind of boring.


Anonymous said...

The center-right has a hard time with this, too. Right liberals to be exact. The website, hotair.com, is the epitome of that kind of conservative. When these racial maelstroms hit, it's interesting to go visit and see what lengths they go to to avoid the unpleasantness.

Steve, you pointed out during the campaign that "mainstream" conservatives were invested in the idea that Barack Obama was not really black, but Arab, and other such ideas because racial issues greatly discomfort them and they wanted to take away his black identity (because blacks in a liberal society are moral beings on a higher plane)...
Today, the site hotair buried one video about the cop (it debuted near the bottom of the page). Another they kept near the top has received a whopping 900+ comments, but still the writers are beta. And the last item posted today is a headline by Taranto that is a wrenching piece of beta handwringing and equivocating that is pitiful.

Off topic, but I've always found Ed Morrissey to be the best example of Lawrence Auster's "Right Liberal" in existence on the web. Rod Dreher has absolutely nothing on him.

hair said...

Not that I'm a fan of shamnesty-Bush, but I vaguely remember how the lamestream WAPO/NYT..er ST conglomerate was bitching about the Bush-WH Message Discipline. I guess it depends on who sits in the WH. Whether its a whitey or a blackey!

Tom Regan said...

The major difference between the journalism of Hecht's day and today?
Journalism is now in many cases a female-dominated profession, particularly at the news-gathering angle. Back then, it was male dominated.
And given that men are driven largely by competitiveness and women by consensus, its not hard to work out why journalism has taken the turn it has.
Whether it be politics, social issues, where to eat or what to wear, women have a greater tendency to want to reach an agreed position. (That is why they hate Palin so).
Men have more of a drive to out-do each other, challenge accepted viewpoints etc. This also explains the differential in scientific achievement and other like fields.

Anonymous said...

The mass media's been little more than a propaganda factory for a very long time. Nothing has changed recently.

Ben Hecht was certainly one of the greatest propagandists in history but if I explained that, my comment would definitely be deleted. In any case, using him as an example of honest journalism is ludicrous.

FU Man Chu said...

Decent post. But fuck you anyway, Steve. You're a total liar.

outlaw josey wales said...

Message discipline is not a partisan affair. Every WH will do it to the best of their ability.

The shoddy quality of journalism is also not a partisan affair. Most modern journalists covet access to politicians; writing critical stories does not further that goal.

As much as people here complain about press coverage of Obama, there was similar press coverage of Bush.

Steve Sailer said...

During the Holocaust and after, Hecht became the chief American propagandist and fund-raiser for Irgun, the Zionist terrorist organization that is the the basis for Likud.

Lloyd G. said...

Media hack Cillizza: What we need is a more compliant media that keeps on message, repeating administration talking points.
What do they teach kids in J-school these days?

Anonymous said...

I think journalism school has been the death of journalism. Today's "journalists" have want to be part of the Establishment, not its watchdogs. Think David Gergen or David Broder or the late and sainted Tim Russert. Think a thousand politicos would have come to Mike Royko's funeral (other than to make sure he was dead?).

Anonymous said...

"The major difference between the journalism of Hecht's day and today?

Tom Regan smells what's cooking. All I can add is that as women become a larger percentage of the workforce and therefore consumers, the media panders to them, which is to say dumbs down the news. Why do you think Britney and Paris Hilton and such get so much ink as compared to 20 or 50 years ago? Because women don't care about important stuff, they want to read celebrity gossip.

Women represent a greater threat to western civilization than brown people, race hustlers, and SWPL males who enable it all. Gender, not race, is the root of the matter.

I'm noticing that female bloggers and female journalists are taking Gates' side in this one, or at least suggesting that both sides are at fault. Obama is quite hen pecked, btw, although that won't come as news to some.

Anonymous said...

Tom Regan=testing99=Whisky=EvilNeocon=testy??

Anonymous said...

FU Man Chu said...
Decent post. But fuck you anyway, Steve. You're a total liar.

Looks like iSteve is starting to get some traffic from the other side of the aisle. Good sign!

Anonymous said...


The Gates arrest WAS caught on TAPE. Boston PD is contemplating releasing it.

I wish. I'd love to hear it.

Anonymous said...

We get a quick story about a Jew and an Irishman, and a "theory" of why they all sat on their asses once their side won the culture war.

Uhm, 'cause that's what soldiers do when they win a war?


Anonymous said...

What do they teach kids in J-school these days?

"Man the barricades, lest they be retaken."


Anonymous said...

It's as if every single person in America these days is in the Marketing Department.

Well, we know that everbody in the media is in the Democratic Party Marketing Department.

Anonymous said...

As much as people here complain about press coverage of Obama, there was similar press coverage of Bush.

Right, we all remeber the fawning, butt-kissing coverage the press gave to Bush.

Are you insane?

DCThrowback said...

Cillizza is not a j-school guy (we lived in the same undergraduate house for two years). He was an English major at Georgetown who got his start as an "ink-stained wretch" at the newspaper "The Hill" for 5 or 6 years.

The WaPo brought him over to be their political handicapper/blogger. I don't know that he has the "this how journalists should act" background to question his own point of view...I mean, since Clinton, the focus has been on "the means is the message". This emphasized by a media that cares about symbolism (what kind of jeans the president is wearing) and access over substantive criticism (we'll outsource THAT to the Ezra Kleins of the world.) As I have discussed with Cillizza at some length, he acknowledges that his readership is some 80% liberal.

Anonymous said...

Where is the center position for a moderate to take when the moderate Black position contains a gem like this:

"He (Gates) isn’t outraged because he feels he was the victim of racial profiling by the police (that dubious honor goes to his foolish neighbor)


Every single account by "moderate" blacks highlighted by so-called conservatives has contained huge qualifiers and fantastical insights.

I don't know what's worse, the race hustlers, or the people who have a religious belief that truth will always be found somewhere in the middle: spread some guilt to the good guy to make the bad guy less bad. One of these moderate conservative talk show hosts (Todd Schnitt) yesterday was trying desperately to do this... his was a very common tactic: talked as though he knew more about policing procedures without even addressing what the procedures are and how the cop deviated from them. This was the cop's "sin" but it was desperate. Also, ignore that Crowley has the complete support of his organization, especially in regards to his professionalism that night.

MacSweeney said...

I remember when the election was going on, somebody on this site said something absolutely perfect: The media weren't asking the hard questions like, "Can Obama really deliver on his campaign promises?" or analyzing the costs of a candidate's proposals. Instead, the media had merely become theatre critics applauding or poo pooing the candidates' "showing" for the day.

Clio said...

I don't see any problem with quoting Hecht, but for those of you who do, take a look at Will Greider's account of the transition from Hecht's kind of newspaper to the modern kind, in Greider's book "Who Will Tell The People" (Simon & Schuster, 1992).

Read Chapter 13, "Angle of Vision" in which Greider explains how:

As an institution, the media have gravitated toward elite interests and converged with those powerful few who already dominate politics.

...The story is a kind of illustrated tour of how the rich, contentious variety of the free press has been transformed in to a voice of dull sameness, a voice that speaks in narrow alignment with the governing authorities more often than it does in popular opposition.

The city room of the Cincinnati Post, where I worked as a young reporter a generation ago [latter 1950's], was a comfortably chaotic place, with the desks jammed together in clusters and stacked with piles of old newspapers. In some ways it resembled an industrial space more than a business office, for pneumatic tubes and piping were exposed overhead and the wooden floors were swept and wet-mopped like a shop floor. People worked in shirtsleeves and the large windows along one wall were always open in summer since the building was not air-conditioned. The Post's composing room was adjacent to the editorial department, a few steps away through an open portal, and the heat and hot-metal fumes from the printers' typecasting machinery sometimes drifted into the newsroom.

The reporters were mostly Irish, German Catholic or Jewish, Cincinnati's leading ethnic groups... These reporters affected the wisecracking irreverence expected in newspapering (and a few were closet alcoholics), but most were churchgoing, family men.

Few of these reporters (or their editors, for that matter) had been to college; it was unnecessary for newspaper work in those days. They typically started as "copy boys" and relied on their own wit and common sense to become "journeymen." ...There was no social distance between the newsroom employees and the Post's printers and pressmen...

[CONTINUED IN NEXT COMMENT (I hope... is that okay, Steve?)]

Clio said...

Two decades later, I was working in a very different newsroom... The newsroom at The Washington Post might have passed for an insurance office of the trading room of a Wall Street brokerage. But it was different, above all, because it was staffed with a different class of people. The[y]... were college graduates and many... from the most prestigious Ivy League universities-- Harvard, Yale and even Princeton... They did not know any of the printers or pressmen who worked downstairs, much less socialize with them. Some had only the dimmest notion of how their own newspaper was produced each night.

The contrast I am making between these two experiences provides a metaphor for what happened generally to the press over the last thirty years [written in late 1980's]. In the broad sweep of the last generation, educated young "journalists" displaced the quick-witted working-class kids who had merely been "reporters." A trade that had once been easily accessible to the talented people who lacked social status or higher education was converted into a profession. This did not happen only at top-rank newspapers like The Washington Post, but generally throughout the news media, even at the smallest small-town dailies...

As a young reporter, without knowing it at the time, I was glimpsing the end of something important in American public life... But I am describing [the change], not to indulge nostalgia for my own youthful experiences, but to try to explain what it is about the modern media that so regularly disappoints citizens-- and to get at why the press, for all its accumulated sophistication, falls short in its own responsibility to democracy.

The truth is that the Cincinnati Post of the 1950s was not a very good newspaper... parochial and shallow, with a short attention span and a charming randomness in its coverage. Its front page was dominated by the "breaking news" of violent crimes or large calamities...

...For all its shortcomings, the Cincinnati Post had one great redeeming quality. Like its reporters, the newspaper was frankly and relentlessly "of the people" and it practiced a journalism of honest indignation on behalf of their political grievances. Some of these were pedestrian complaints and some were quite shocking abuses of public office. But there was never any doubt in the tone and style of the Cincinnati Post that it meant to speak for a certain segment of Cincinnatians-- mainly those who did not have much status or power themselves. When the Post took up their cause on some matter, it would hammer on it day after day, story after story, until someone in authority responded.

Read the book for the rest, including real insight into the very different ethos of modern "journalists."

From 1990 through 2004, with minor gaps, I worked for two major newspapers in different cities. My personal experiences confirm Greider's remarks about modern newspapering and I find Greider's story of the old days quite credible based on my own observations and conversations with old-timers.

Of course, things continued to change after 1991 and the lay of the land was already quite different when I left the newspaper business half a decade ago.

Now, of course, the educated public is coming to understand something which was understood in the newspaper business ten or fifteen years ago-- American newspapers are doomed. In another ten years, twenty at the most, all but a few daily (print) newspapers will be out of business.

(Oh, although I am pleased to bring Greider's work to your attention, I disagree with many (most?) of his political opinions.

(I don't hold Greider as a great economist, either, but note that he did highlight the power and wickedness of the Federal Reserve back in 1989. His big mistake was thinking the Fed can stop recessions as easily as it can start them. As we have seen in the last two years, once having pushed the economy off the cliff, the Fed can cannot then haul it back up onto safe ground.)

Anonymous said...

"It's as if every single person in America these days is in the Marketing Department. Journalism today consists primarily of marketing campaigns and critiques of the implementation of those marketing campaigns."

If you read almost any computer program manual (including Apple Final Cut's 1,200+-page tome), you will discover that it was in all probability written, not by technical writers, but by marketing people.

These manuals rarely tell you how to operate anything. They are full of sales blather: "This program has many interesting features." "You have a variety of choices with this program." "You can do X. Or you can choose to do Y. You can also choose to do Z."

HOW to do X, Y, or Z is not covered.

For that, you must repair to online forums and ask users who have figured it out.

The purpose of a proper manual is not to sell a product that the customer has already bought. Because he obtains the manual (in 99& of cases) only by purchasing the product first.

A decadent era!

travis said...

It's as if every single person in America these days is in the Marketing Department.

Great observation, Steve.

testing99 said...

Good point about Ed Morrissey on Hot Air. I used to be like that too. But the good Rev. Wright cured me of being called racis. The other day someone accused me of being a Klan member and I laughed, citing Wright and how that was "OK because he was Black," and the noxious racism among Blacks and Hispanics. That's routinely excused. Thanks Obama and Wright!

The Media used to be fairly partisan OPENLY, and as you note Steve lower class. It's now SWPL yuppies who are the "respectable" semi-celebrities of Yuppie dom enforcing the female-centric "rules" of Yuppie-dom.

Yes great observation on every single person being marketing.

FWIW, Hotair has new polls on Obamacare. Even women are going negative, only slightly 51% approving of Obamacare, because they can see they get benefits cut (most people have insurance) for lesser care (Soviet style rationing) and higher taxes. Even among women who worship First Rockstar Obama and hate Straight White Guys (hence reflexively backing Gates over Crowley) it's true, and Obama overall is under 50% approval for the first time in the Rasmussen poll.

/Whiskey also. No I'm not Tom Reagan.

Anonymous said...

It's as if every single person in America these days is in the Marketing Department. Journalism today consists primarily of marketing campaigns and critiques of the implementation of those marketing campaigns.

Gotta agree with Travis. This is the Steve quotation of the month. It's why I read this blog.

John Seiler said...

Those were the days! Another great newspaper bio is Mencken's "Newspaper Days."

One thing you'll also notice from such old accounts, as well as from such movies as those based on Hecht's scripts, and Jack Webb's "30," is that almost all reporters were men, who smoked and drank and swore through the job. Nowadays, most are women.

Perhaps Steve would have some pertinent observations about that.

By the way, if you want to hear Mencken's voice, including about the glory days of reporting, the Library of Congress recording is up on YouTube. Part One is here, then click on the others:

Anonymous said...

"It's as if every single person in America these days is in the Marketing Department."

Well, it's the post-industrial economy, y'know.

Are we becoming a nation of mountebanks?

Meanwhile, get back out there and SELL, you slacker!

Anonymous said...

Mencken sounds like George Bailey, which is cool. Sailer's right, though, editorial standards are like genetic drift: vaguely attached to public mores, but now idiotically self-contained. Mainly domesticated by moralization triggers that have uncertain correlation with public opinion, since PUBLIC OPINION SHIFTS, partially by reason, partially by moral cues, some by shame and more by fairly organic processes nobody can articulate. And you can see some of the old viciousness coming back in the "snark" sites, which sort of assault the general idiocy of status and rank in America. I don't think they do it in an intellectually robust way, but the old decrying newspaper populism was even less robust.

Anonymous said...

One of these moderate conservative talk show hosts (Todd Schnitt)

He's a douche bag, and a neocon, not a "moderate conservative."


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Mencken youtube. Wonderful stuff. I should also recommend Hecht's autobiography which I've read a couple of times some years ago. The man was definitely different but I'd guess that most istevers' lives would be enriched from the reading.

I'm not generally prone to compliments or expressions of social happiness but BY GOD is it great to be part of a community of men who not only appreciate Mencken's and Hecht's attitudes and sympathise with their tones but have actually read them as well.

And again, thanks for the youtube tip. To repay the favor: In Google Books check out the opening essay in Mencken's "Prejudices: Third Edition" called "On Being An American" and see if you'll be able to refrain from delightingly rendering it aloud to friends and family whether they have the ear for it or not.

If you're able to delight in brilliance for it's own sake, whether you agree with every single view of the author or not (and in Mencken, Hecht and Twain's examples even the authors themselves didn't agree five minutes later with all of the ideas they had just so vociferously exclaimed) you can't help from having a love for the newspapermen of that bygone era and mourning the fact that the utter stupidity of dumb mortality has been allowed to stuff their roaring mouths and drain their nuclear-tipped pens. I (genuinely, in frustration and childlike anger) mourn it still.