Tuesday, January 27, 2004

# Posted 10:09 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

REAL-TIME COMMENTARY: The WaPo's Robert Kaiser is answering questions online at the moment. I think it's a testament to the WaPo's readership and to internet news junkies in general that their questions tend to be a more interesting than his answers. Here are a few samples:
Toledo, Ohio: Doesn't losing both NW and Iowa doom Dean? 13 out 14 nominees have won at least one of these critical first states.

Robert G. Kaiser: Maybe, but I don't believe in historical determinism, and I have never seen a year like this one.

Washington, D.C.
: In the recent past, has any Democratic candidate lost the first position in Iowa and New Hampshire but won the nomination.

Robert G. Kaiser: Bill Clinton did not run against Tom Harkin in Iowa in '92, and came in second to Paul Tsongas in NH. In fact, none of these results from the past "prove" anything about the future...

Boston, Mass..: Paul Tsongas won South Carolina in 1992 by a wide margin -- does this bode well for Kerry down there? Thank you.

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, it suggests that South Carolina won't gote against Kerry on the grounds that he comes from the wrong state. But I'm not sure it means any more than that...

Ames, Iowa: Do you think that the media is so much against Howard Dean because they are owned by the big corporations who would lose if this sort of campaigns built on $100 a little person succeeds?...

Robert G. Kaiser: ...Dean was the big phenomenon of this election. He naturally attracted a lot of attention. He didn't handle it very well. I think that's his problem. [OK, so not all online newshounds are that smart, but the percentage is high. --Ed.]
Now, if you're willing to follow a tangent, take a look at Kaiser's response to a question about the media's role in the election:
Washington, D.C.: Mr. Kaiser, as the fourth arm of government, how would you rate the performance of the media during this primary season?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to say that "the media" is a club neither I nor any of my colleagues at The Post ever applied to join. We work, proudly, for The Washington Post, which has, once again, covered national politics with great distinction last year and this, in my insufficiently independent opinion. Television now does a poor job on politics year round. many papers around the country don't pay enough attention to political coverage. Commercial radio has died. NPR is doing a fine job. Etc Etc. "The media" is a catchall that doesn't really catch the reality of the news business.
While there's no disputing the high quality of the WaPo's coverage, Kaiser's answer is still profoundly misleading. Few journalists spend their entire careers at a single papers, especially not the WaPo. Rather, journalists circulate constantly, a process that results in the establishment of a set of professional norms that is almost identical at every major news outlet. In this sense, there truly is a profession known as "journalism" and a collective of professionals known as the "media".

The opinion expressed above reflects the work of numerous scholars, my favorite of whom is Stephen Hess. In fact, while divided on many issues, scholars interested in the media almost all agree on the uniformity of journalistic norms. This finding has endured now for more than twenty years. In the process, it has been confirmed by opinion surveys (of journalists), hundreds of interviews, and many sociological studies in which scholars have spent weeks or even months in the newsroom as observers.

In fact, Kaiser's comments back up another important finding on which media critics have reached consensus: that even journalists at the most prestigious publications are only dimly aware of the norms that bind them to their colleagues. Rather, journalists often perpetuate stereotypes that have little basis in fact, such as the supposedly low quality of TV journalism in comparison to print. Unsurprisingly, most scholars believe that the first step toward the improvement of American journalism is greater self-awareness on the part of American journalists.
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