Interview with Tom Rosensteil
Media Analyst

The Race for Ratings and Readers: How it Drives Mainstream News Coverage

ROSENSTIEL:...We are trying to imitate these pseudo-news programs that are challenging us and taking away our audience.
And so we have -- instead of trying to be more distinctive and more -- sort of sticking to our professional principles and our professional standards, we have lessened our standards and have become more like Oprah and Ricky and Rush and Don and Larry, and we've lowered our standards of what news is, which is ironically suicidal. Because we'll never be as entertaining as Schwarzenegger. The only thing we bring to the party are our standards, and if we lower them, then we're not bringing much to the party at all.

ROSENSTIEL: One example of lowered standards is that we now routinely print rumors. By "rumors," I mean stories that we don't know whether they are true or not, and that the only proof that we have is that somebody else said it was true.
An example would be allegations that Newt Gingrich has had extra-marital affairs. "Vanity Fair" does a story suggesting that Newt has had extra-marital affairs. The story offers no evidence -- no quotes from anyone, no citings of this. The author of the piece, Gail Sheehey, simply says, Newt's been seen having breakfast with someone, or everyone knows or talks about having a relationship with this person. The "Vanity Fair" story then becomes a story in "Newsweek" and other publications, doing a story about the story, and in the process, shuttling into their coverage these absolutely unsubstantiated hearsay accounts of someone's personal life, and there are many, many examples of this.

Rush to Judgement: Opinion, and Interpretation in News Coverage

SMITH: So what's wrong with this horse race kind of coverage when you address governing that way?

ROSENSTIEL: Well, for one thing, what you do is, you sort of reduce the presidency to a kind of stage manager, in which all we cover are the tactics and maneuvering of the handlers behind the scenes who are trying to help the president's favorability rating and his popularity. And we ignore the essence of governing, which is the policy and the ideas that the president is trying to put forward, or the Congress, or whoever in politics. The more that we focus on sort of the outside game, the less we miss the real meaning of what governing is all about and what these politicians are trying to do. One of the most startling examples of the way in which we start rushing to judgment was when the Clinton administration bombed Iraq in response to its death plot against former President Bush. It happened on a Saturday night, and CNN's "Capitol Gang" was on the air the moment that the attack took place. And the panelists began speculating on the political fall-out of the bombing for the Clinton administration. And this was before the bombs had even landed. We didn't know whether they were going to hit Baghdad or Boston, Massachusetts at that point, and they were already speculating on the impact. If we cover the presidency as if it's a kind of continuing favorability poll --is the president a little more favorable today as a result of what happened yesterday, or is he a little less favorable in the public's view -- then we are missing a good deal about what is actually happening. This idea that everything has to be squeezed into an instant sort of judgment as to whether the president is a success or a failure doesn't allow presidents, first of all, to make mistakes and grow in the office, because we're constantly judging him and we, in the press, determined that the Clinton presidency was a failure after about a week and a half. He had no honey moon and no actual human period of time in which he was allowed to sort of learn the job. In journalism terms, we're giving up doing the first day's story, where we tell everybody, this is what happened, and we're now doing all the time the second day story.
This is what will happen next. This is what it means. This is why it won't work. This is why it's bad for the president or good for the president. And people -- our audience -- is saying, what's good for the president or bad for the president. We're assuming a knowledge that study after study after study tells us our audiences don't have.

ROSENSTIEL: In 1993 I did a study that tracked the front pages of "The New York Times," the "Washington Post," and the "L.A. Times" for two months, and I put into different categories every story that the papers ran on the front pages. What I found was that about 50 percent of the stories that ran were not straight news stories. They were interpretative, analytical stories of some type of another. But one of the most surprising things in addition to that was that the vast majority of these stories were not labeled as interpretive. The idea that you will advance the story beyond the news and beyond the facts has become so --has so suffused our idea of how we deliver the news now that we put it into our lead news story reflexively, without thinking about it and without thinking that it needs to be identified for our readers.
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