Matt Bai is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, for whom he covered the 2004 presidential campaign. After beginning his career at the Boston Globe, Bai spent five years as a national correspondent for Newsweek. Bai, a former Pulitzer Traveling Fellow and Harvard Institute of Politics Resident Fellow, is working on a forthcoming book about “this moment in democratic politics and a group of people who are trying to rebuild a democratic movement,” to be published in 2007.
Brian Montopoli: The press corps has faced a lot of criticism in recent years. Washington reporters, in particular, have taken a number of hits; they are thought by many to be lazy, disengaged, and biased. Do you think the negative characterization some people hold is accurate?
Matt Bai: No, I don’t think it’s accurate. I think it has aspects of accuracy. But I think it’s a caricature. I think it’s healthy for us to have a conversation about what we can do differently and what we’ve done wrong. There are aspects of political journalism in the last several years, since I’ve been doing it, that should give us pause. Particularly, I think the move toward punditry and the culture of competing for time on cable television is toxic to the business. And I think we as an industry should reexamine why we do it, and if we should do it at all. I think it has definitely eroded the public’s trust in us.
BM: Should reporters not be going on television and giving their opinions?
MB: By and large, I don’t think they should be, and I personally choose not to. That’s not to say that I never do television — there are shows that I will do. I did “Nightline” last year, and I would do that for the magazine, because there are still some substantive forums, but I think the cable TV venue is really vapid, and I think it’s corrosive. It thrives on conflict and glibness and it almost demands that people talk about things they know nothing about.
It takes me months to do a story. If I went on a cable TV show they’d ask me about four different topics in sixty seconds or ninety seconds — how could I possibly claim to know what I’m talking about? I wish we’d reexamine it. I’m also fairly skeptical that there’s any real promotional value in it. I doubt there is.
BM: Do you think it also contributes to that negative attitude I asked you about in the first question, as people sort of blur Fox News and the New York Times and whatever else, and all of these things just sort of become ‘the media’?
MB: Yeah. I actually think when people talk about the media pejoratively, most of the time they’re talking about some clip on TV. That is what passes for most people’s impression of the media. What people in blogging call the “MSM” is this legion of different media that have totally different missions and different outlooks. I think we all need to be more sophisticated when we talk and think about the media, because it’s not one monolithic entity. And I think people in politics, and people who comment on political journalism, sort of need to be more discerning between one brand of media and another. But we also have to be cognizant of the fact that the public draws its conclusions about the media from whatever exposure it has — and most often that exposure is probably not to the New York Times, but to a clip on some chat show while they’re making dinner.
BM: Is this coming from people drawing their own conclusions, or is it coming from bloggers, and places like the Media Research Center, and all these groups that have spring up, that are constantly beating the drum, saying “bias in the media, bias in the media, the media’s corrupt?”
MB: I think there are two different situations going on there. I don’t think that the bloggers — at least not yet — reach a mass audience. And I think the mass audience has its own dissatisfaction and feelings of unease about the media.
I think, in the case of the public, I’m not sure most people know exactly what it is about the media that they distrust, but I think they’re correctly getting a sense that the rules and the venues are changing, and that they have to exercise a good amount of skepticism. That’s been fueled by politicians, who find it easier to blame the media than to answer for themselves, and I think it’s been fueled by the shouting culture of television.