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July 13, 2007

Secret Media Manuals (Can't Follow the Action Without a Program!)

Writing the previous post, I got to thinking about how many "media reading rules" there are in Washington -- rules that are supposed to blunt criticism of an institution, or increase comprehension of their product, but which most people don't know. Rules like "Don't take anything written by Marty Peretz, or someone who sounds like Marty Peretz, seriously, as the magazine tacitly disowns it," or "The Wall Street Journal editorial page is full of shit." Suggestions like "read oddly obtuse David Ignatius columns particularly closely because they generally are revealing the thinking of highly-ranked Bush administration sources," and "while a lot of people think Thomas Friedman is a little silly, he is unquestionably the most closely read foreign policy journalist among politicians, and so his trajectory is actually quite important."

There are dozens more, though I'd need to sit down and think about it for awhile. It would be cool to put together a collection of such tidbits, though. "A Reader's Guide to the Beltway Press," or something. For now, add to my list in comments.

July 13, 2007 | Permalink


Though not "rules," perhaps, closely related would be all of the political/family/romantic connections one needs to know. Like when Robert Kagan gushes excitedly about the "surge" and Fred Hiatt just expects you to know that his brother came up with the damn plan. And if you don't know it, well that just means you don't count anyway.

Posted by: Glenn | Jul 13, 2007 1:56:16 PM

I suspect the rules are better known than you think. The problem is, in part, that it is increasingly unclear whether they're very good guides anymore.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Jul 13, 2007 1:58:38 PM

Really? You have to be "in the know" to understand that the Wall Street Journal's editorial page is cartoonishly right-wing? Most of the non-Beltway subscribers are all utter dolts who can't figure this out for themselves?

I mean, maybe that's true, but it seems like a rather large assumption.

Posted by: brad plumer | Jul 13, 2007 2:01:01 PM

Brad Plumer- the WSJ keeps its idiotic editorial page because it drives subscriptions for them. But because there's this "rule," the Journal can keep printing this shit while still being taken seriously by a more sophisticated readership.

Posted by: Bloix | Jul 13, 2007 2:15:17 PM

I'm with Brad and would go further. You have to be "in Washington" and/or "in the know" to know these things about David Ignatius and Thomas Friedman?

Wouldn't access to the internet work just fine? Anyone who reads Atrios is aware of these critiques.

Posted by: Ankush | Jul 13, 2007 2:16:14 PM

But you folks reading small-level wonky blogs are in the know. It's true that sites like Atrios have expanded "the know," but I think we're making a huge error if we assume anything but a small proportion of WSJ subscribers know the ed pages are laughable and broadly known to be mendacious.

Posted by: Ezra | Jul 13, 2007 2:18:37 PM

While columnists might be easy targets for this kind of thing, it would be more interesting/useful to categorize or critique reporters and their particular biases. As someone whose job it is to consume an enormous amount of US media coverage of the Mideast on a daily basis, I really get a feel for the nuanced differences between an article reported by Michael Gordon versus one reported by Steve Erlanger or by Megan Stack or by Sam Dagher, etc. etc. The subtlety is something that only the wonkiest would detect.

This would obviously have come in handy for, say, the NY Times WMD pieces by Judith Miller. People could have just looked ol' Judy up in their field guide to reporters and realized where she lies on the spectrum, instead of just taking for granted that all NYT front page stories are created equal.

If you want my rule, how about this:

"Don't be fooled by the paper's goofy name; The Christian Science Monitor actually has some of the very best foreign policy reporting in the US."

Posted by: Jerry Medium | Jul 13, 2007 2:47:44 PM

Nonsense, Ezra, the WSJ believes the "independence" of its editorial pages is a selling point; I think one thing the blogs have shown is that there's a lot more sophisticated readers out there than Washington types ever thought they were, and that, as it turns out, we're onto them... er, onto you. :) As a longtime Journal reader I do wish you'd stop implying that its readership is too stupid to know that the editorial page is a right wing world unto itself.

Posted by: weboy | Jul 13, 2007 2:50:15 PM

It's not just that someone like me reads wonky blogs and is in the know. I'm in the know *because* I read wonky blogs.

I've long thought the real value added to news about, say, national security policy by commentary from people like Josh Marshall and Laura Rosen is that they know the rules that guide reporting on that stuff. It's from reading blogs like theirs that I've learned, e.g., to pay attention to the *precise* wording used to describe anonymous sources. (I wouldn't otherwise know how to read "administration official" vs. "WH official", CIA "analyst" vs. "operative," or know the implication of "highest levels of the administration".) And on a related point, before I read those blogs, I didn't know how to pick a peice apart to see its meta-story--the story about who leaked the information the story's based on, why they might have made the leaks, and what that means for how seriously I should take what's been reported in the story.

For a while it sort of infuriated me. How the hell was I supposed to squeeze out all the information a reporter clevely coded into a story? I didn't know the rules, so I couldn't decode the peice. And why should I have known the rules? I didn't go to J-school, and I never did the internships where young reporters hone their tradecraft. I had to learn the rules from people who were willing to unpack all that coded information and lay it out explicitly for a punter like me.

But there's something awfully screwy with print journalism, if you need a powerful hermaneutic to understand what's going on in a story.

Posted by: Scott E. | Jul 13, 2007 2:58:04 PM

The only really useful "Guide to the Beltway Press" would be one of those books with the hollowed out section for a gun.

Posted by: a1 | Jul 13, 2007 3:19:38 PM

Scott E,

The fact that certain journalists have been exposing all their secret methods to the unwashed masses probably has a lot to do with why so many other journalists hate bloggers so much.

I'm with Ezra on this. Most people simply don't know that the WSJ editorial pages are so delusional and print so many blatant falsehoods. They just lump them in with the rest of the paper. A couple of thousand, or hundred thousand, or even a few million people reading political blogs and getting all this juicy info about the way the media does things does not necessarily result in everyone knowing about it.

Posted by: Stephen | Jul 13, 2007 3:21:41 PM

As a longtime Journal reader I do wish you'd stop implying that its readership is too stupid to know that the editorial page is a right wing world unto itself.

I'm agnostic on how stupid WSJ readers are, and how aware they are of the disconnect between the editorial and news pages. But that's not the real point, at least not to me. The point is, to non-WSJ readers, the good reputation of news pages gives an imprimatur to the WSJ's editorial positions that is totally unwarranted.

Posted by: Glenn | Jul 13, 2007 3:24:28 PM

Exactly. And look, a lot of the readers obviously may think the pages are extreme (though many may be convinced, too). The ideology, of course, is transparent. The problem is folks take it for granted that they lie and are deceptive. That's not something most folks have time to check -- it's more a judgment developed from the aggregate experience of those who do have the time to check. So if you've heard that enough times, the pages lose credibility in your eyes. If all you know is the WSJ is the best business paper in the country (also true!), they have high credibility. It's a problem.

Posted by: Ezra | Jul 13, 2007 3:30:15 PM

"while a lot of people think Thomas Friedman is a little silly, he is unquestionably the most closely read foreign policy journalist among politicians, and so his trajectory is actually quite important."

This is profoundly depressing.

Posted by: feral1 | Jul 13, 2007 3:56:14 PM

I think the most important overiding gloss that people need to bring to their reading of the NYT, Post, WSJ, Time, Newsweek, et al. or the talking head shows on TV is that there is an incredibly cozy relationship between the press and those upon whom they report (stilted but grammitical)and the notion of an adverserial press, particularly on the Op-Ed pages is a quaint one. Moreover, the ink stained wretches who once reported the news and viewed themselves as members of the proletariat have been by and large replaced by high achieving, relatively highly paid reporters who identify far more with management types than workers. Basically these people belong to the same club as their subjects and are suspicious of anyone who brings a genuinely left view of thw rold into the conversation.

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | Jul 13, 2007 4:10:30 PM

TNR does not disown Peretz, tacitly or otherwise. Peretz-ism suffuses the entire magazine.

Posted by: otto | Jul 13, 2007 4:13:11 PM

Rule 261. Matthew Yglesias meant to write "Uranus," not "your anus."

Posted by: Christopher M | Jul 13, 2007 4:15:01 PM

I have a couple:

In media-speak "bipartisan" means a few Dems or Lieberman agreeing with Republicans.

All news = good for Republicans

When the media says "Congress kills bill," it generally means Republicans filibustered it.

Wanting war with Iran means a serious foreign policy.

Posted by: Unstable Isotope | Jul 13, 2007 4:16:40 PM

I would appreciate that manual, because I do not, in fact, know the secret codes for understanding East Coast newspapers.

Posted by: Megan | Jul 13, 2007 4:21:59 PM

The most important rule I know in dealing with the Washington press corps is that they are far more likely to quote you if you insist that your comments are "off the record" than if they are "on the record."

I think there are two reasons for this. First is a matter of intellectual property. Reporters assume that anything on the record is so widely available as to be worthless--like a press release. Second is that if the identity of the person quoted is disguised, the reporter can made it seem as if he has a high-level souce instead of some low-level schmo passing on gossip of dubious quality.

Posted by: Bruce Bartlett | Jul 13, 2007 4:44:54 PM

How about this one: remember when Joe Klein wrote in a column excoriating bloggers that "everyone knows" when a member of congress says they're going to vote a certain way in the future it's OK to put it in the past tense that they did vote this way? (Yes, he actually said that.)

Posted by: Rick Perlstein | Jul 13, 2007 5:34:40 PM

What Megan said. I would add it's more than "cool to put together a collection of such tidbits," it's a public service. After reading wonky blogs, it's certainly possible that some readers think they can read though the hieroglyphics in the MSM, when in fact they're merely being led by candlelight over certain issues. An explicit Rosetta Stone of media rules would be great for consumers of journalism, period. Give a man a fish/Teach a man to fish, etc, etc.

Posted by: sangfroid826 | Jul 13, 2007 5:41:59 PM

Yes, let's make all news about personality. That way, if I don't like a reporter's conclusions I can ignore and insult rather than refute them.

Posted by: Sabina's Hat | Jul 13, 2007 6:58:35 PM

Second is that if the identity of the person quoted is disguised, the reporter can made it seem as if he has a high-level souce instead of some low-level schmo passing on gossip of dubious quality.

I think that the high-level source is much more likely to be passing on gossip of dubious quality than the low level schmo is. Wasn't that the message of Knight Ridder's Iraq reporting?

And I don't at all agree with the notion that TNR tacitly disowns the racist drivel that Peretz excretes. If we're to adhere to that rule, than we're just agreeing not hold responsible those who should know better and either take a stand against the man or leave the publication.

Posted by: Marshall | Jul 13, 2007 7:21:16 PM

Sabina, at the end of the day, though, it has huge relevance on the nature of news stories. John Solomon of the Washington Post has a long and distinguished track record of being a dupe for republishing whatever oppo research is handed to him by campaign operatives. Judy Miller was always desperate to view herself as an "International-Woman-of-Mystery" which led her to be taken in by the claims of Iraqi exiles and military spokesmen shilling claims of the administration because the fact that they spoke to her validated her view of herself. The "inside story" of these reporters really does provide insight into their stories and the sorts of stories they publish.

Posted by: Tyro | Jul 13, 2007 7:21:45 PM

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