Auletta on Careerism, Vanity, Touts and Aping Fox News

Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a new regular feature. Throughout the election season, Campaign Desk will conduct brief interviews with journalists and commentators to get their views on the political media and the coverage of the campaign. Today, Ken Auletta of the New Yorker discusses the Bush White House, Fox News, media bias, and Valentine’s Day.

Bryan Keefer: You have written a number of articles about the political press. How do you think the press sees its job? Do members of the media see themselves as interpreters for the public?

Ken Auletta: Most reporters feel they have a public responsibility to get the facts right, to explain to citizens what is going on — in the campaign, in budget negotiations, in Iraq — so that citizens will gather the information they need as voters. That should be a humbling task. Too often, in a highly competitive world where technology speeds information and the television beast requires authoritative answers to sometimes unanswerable questions, and editors demand a fresh angle from their campaign reporters because they’ve already seen the suggested story on CNN or the Web, reporters forage for fresh news. This is what often excites the now familiar candidate wail — from Jimmy Carter to Bush I to Bill Clinton to Bush II — that the press is engaged in “gotcha,” in searching for conflict, not information, sizzle not substance. Too often they’re right.

BK: The public relies on the media for its political information and yet, as you know, the media too often fails to gets its facts correct. Worse yet, much of the coverage of political campaigns ends up shaped by narratives about the candidates (in 2000, for example, Gore was generally portrayed as smart but arrogant and slippery, while Bush was portrayed as dumb but honest). Do you think the media has become a player in politics? And how has that changed the rules of the game for candidates?

KA: Failing to get its facts correct is one problem, while the tendency to craft too simple narratives is another. Lack of time and space is the enemy of good journalism, and increasingly reporters are allowed less time and space to report. More mistakes become inevitable as we rush to file stories, or to be first, or as editors demand that we also file for the Web site.

The most prevalent narrative in campaign coverage is the horse race. We create dramas by ordering up polls and then by regularly calling the results of the race — Kerry leads the pack by summer; Kerry falls far behind in September; Dean is pulling ahead at the 1/16th pole — before voters have voted. This allows us to choose which “winning” candidates to cover, pleasing our bosses because it cuts down on expenditures. It allows us to make predictions and to set expectations. It allows us to intrude with pundit-like predictions about the latest odds on each candidate horse and who is going to win the horse race. Careerism mixes with vanity and we become know-it-alls. We stand out by becoming touts, prognosticators, not explainers. When asked on television, Who will win? Rarely does a journalist refuse to answer by declaring, “I don’t know.” This is one good reason polls show that the public thinks the press is arrogant.

BK: In your article for the New Yorker last month, you got both journalists and members of the Bush administration to go on the record with their views about the how the press covers the White House. Did you find the White House at all reluctant to talk to you? And given that the administration has occasionally been aggressive towards reporters whose coverage it finds objectionable, did you find that people in the media were reluctant to talk to you about the administration?

KA: At first, the White House was reluctant to talk, and many White House reporters were reluctant to be quoted for fear of offending sources or sounding whiney. In the end, the Bush White House talked to me, and one reason they did was because I am a media critic, not a political reporter. Once reporters learned that colleagues had agreed to go on the record, there was safety in numbers. Each side had frustrations it wished to express. Team Bush complained about gotcha journalism; reporters complained about fortress Bush.

BK: You’ve written about Fox News Channel, which calls itself “fair and balanced,” though critics charge that it leans to the political right. How do you think Fox News has changed the way politics is reported, not just on Fox, but in other outlets as well? And do you think Fox’s approach is helping to break down the norm of objectivity in political reporting?

KA: It is probably fair to say that on certain issues — abortion, gun control, gay rights, tax cuts — the peer pressure at The New York Times and in many or our foremost newsrooms tends to be liberal. The peer pressure at Fox News on a much wider array of issues is conservative. Although the network has many fine reporters, too often the “fair and balanced” network is neither fair nor balanced. And as is true when a liberal bias creeps into coverage of, say, abortion or gay rights, more often than not the conservative bias is unconscious.

Because Fox News has been so successful, and because its cable news competitors measured their worth by ratings, CNN and MSNBC began to ape Fox News. Fox News has had a decided impact on its cable competitors. Its impact on journalism in general is less clear. I believe that by harping on what they allege is a liberal bias in the press, Fox News has made other journalists more conscious of subliminal biases, which is a good thing. By beating up on journalists for being insufficiently patriotic during the Iraq war, Fox News sometimes had a chilling affect, which is a bad thing. When it substitutes noise for information, as talk radio often does, Fox News is merely doing what CNN’s “Crossfire,” Chris Mathews’ “Hardball,” and McLaughlin& Co. have loudly been doing for years.

I think that “the norm of objectivity” is a false God. We are human beings, and objectivity is a hard-to-realize ideal. Better to strive for fairness and balance, which are obtainable. Such a goal will not be achieved if we go back to the early 19th Century American model of newspapers as vehicles of a political party, or if we follow the too dominant current European model of newspapers as representatives of a party or platform. If Fox News comes to be seen as a narrowcasting business model, and others rush to claim a “liberal” or an anti-this or that business model, the public will have even less reason to trust that journalists are honest referees.

BK: And, given that tomorrow is Valentine’s Day: Is it better to have run and lost than never to have run at all?

KA: It’s always better to be humble. Candidates learn humility by losing elections. Journalists learn humility by being shamed, which doesn’t happen often enough. But on Valentine’s Day, everyone needs a hug.

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Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.