David Frum: The State of Political Journalism
The State of Political Journalism
with David Frum
September 27, 2010, Toronto
11:45 a.m., Fairmont Royal York Hotel, Concert Hall
100 Front St. W
In partnership with the Canadian Club of Toronto
Journalism is changing faster than most of our democratic institutions. Thanks to the Internet, new journalists are emerging and redefining the craft. Nowhere is this more evident than in "political journalism" where some of the most original and informative political reporting and commentary is taking place not in the mainstream media but online. David Frum, an established mainstream author and journalist, is a leader in this new form of political journalism. He is the creator of Frum Forum, a website dedicated to the modernization and renewal of the U.S. Republican party and the conservative movement in America.
ABOUT OUR SPEAKER
David Frum is the editor of FrumForum.com and the author of six books, including two New York Times bestsellers. He is a regular commentator on American Public Medias Marketplace and writes regular columns for Time magazine, CNN.com, The Week and the National Post.
In 2001-2002, David Frum served as a special assistant to President George W. Bush. In October 2005, Frum founded and chaired Americans for Better Justice, the lobbying group that led the opposition to Harriet Miers' nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2007-2008, he served as senior foreign policy adviser to the Rudy Giuliani presidential campaign. Frum is a member of the board of directors of the Republican Jewish Coalition. The Daily Telegraph's 2007 and 2009 surveys named Frum as one of America's 50 most influential conservatives.
David Frum was born in Toronto, Canada in 1960. He received a simultaneous B.A. and M.A. in history from Yale in 1982. He was appointed a visiting lecturer in history at Yale in 1986; in 1987, he graduated cum laude from the Harvard Law School, where he served as president of the Federalist Society.
Frum lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, journalist and novelist Danielle Crittenden Frum. They have three children.
Here are David Frum's notes from the speech he delivered at the September 27 event, originally published on FrumForum.
Good Journalism's Not Dead Yet
To address a room of journalists about the state of journalism seems like speaking in Youngstown, Ohio about the future of steelworking. These have been tough times for the media business. Layoffs at ABC News, Newsweek sold for $1, the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times traded as distressed properties but why continue? You know the worst as well as I.
Today I'd like to step back from the carnage and see if we can discern the deeper trends -- and ways to respond to those trends creatively and positively.
I think I see five of special importance.
Trend 1: De-monopolization.
I see my father-in-law Peter Worthington here today. Peter of course launched the Toronto Sun in 1971. When he did so, that was the first daily newspaper launch in a major North American market since Marshall Field, heir to an enormous department store fortune, created the Chicago Sun-Times 30 years before.
The barriers to entry in the newspaper business rose very high in the 1970s. Printing presses cost big money. Distribution networks were difficult to build. And the most lucrative advertising went to the dominant paper in each market.
Broadcast barriers were even more daunting: big networks formed an ultra-profitable oligopoly whose returns on investment would impress the oil companies.
All of this is gone, gone, gone. Barriers to entry have collapsed, Craig Newmark killed classified advertising, proliferating cable channels have cannibalized network revenues.
Now the surest way to sound like an old-fogey in the media business is to tell the youngsters that there used to exist this thing called an expense account.
Trend 2: De-professionalization.
Monopoly revenues paid salaries that elevated journalism from a trade to a profession. Universities offered degrees in journalism, journalists discussed and debated codes of professional ethics, media companies instituted public editors to respond to perceived bias or unfairness.
But as barriers to entry have collapsed, the line between "media professional" and ordinary person has collapsed too.
Who is the media exactly these days? Anybody who wants to be.
Who must worry about journalistic ethics? Nobody who does not want to.
Case in point: Perhaps you remember Jon Stewart's famous appearance on Crossfire, where he memorably scolded the hosts for lowering the tone of public debate. One of the hosts challenged Stewart: well, what about your tone? He answered: "You're on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls."
This is a brilliant excuse, and Stewart is not the only one to use it. It's the excuse used by radio talk show hosts -- by the new American polemical cable stations -- by bloggers.
We're not "journalists," we're not governed by those rules, they're for the CBS Evening News and the New York Times. All the rest of us are allowed to be as biased as we like, to edit unfairly, to quote out of context, to wage vendettas, to mock and ridicule.
A generation ago, quality control in the media was self-imposed: media corporations built in layers of editors and checkers, in the manner of the vertically integrated corporations that dominated the midcentury era.
Today, the quality control comes from outside, in effect outsourced. Websites try to catch each other in mistakes, Jon Stewart satirizes Fox, the conservative Daily Caller buys the KeithOlbermann.com site and posts hostile items about the MSNBC star.
Which leads to:
Trend 3: Rising demands on the media consumer.
A generation ago, media organizations thought very hard about what their audiences needed to know -- and what they did not need to know.
The headlines on the front page; the order of items in the nightly news; all reflected the news judgment of some hierarchical organization.
Those same organizations also decided what their audiences did not need to know: which politician was having an extramarital affair, the race of the mugger in the crime blotter.
Today there is more information available than ever -- but the job of making sense of that information is also thrust more upon the news user. Walter Cronkite used to sign off his broadcast, "And that's the way it is." Who would dare say such a thing today? Who would believe him? It is the way each of us wishes to believe it is.
We used, each of us, to be entitled to our own opinions. Now we are each entitled to our facts -- or pseudo-facts.
Trend 4: Information inequality.
There was an important election in Venezuela yesterday. If you'd like to know more, you can visit websites and blogspots -- in English -- that can immerse you in all the details and consequences of the story.
A generation ago, it was harder to be completely ignorant of public events. You had to rise off the sofa to turn off the television when the news started, then turn it back on when the news ended. More of us were associated with formally organized institutions -- churches, trade unions, service clubs, veterans' organizations -- that pushed information out to memberships.
Today, while the best informed 5% of the population know more about the world than any previous information elite, the least-informed 1/3 of the population almost certainly know less.
We can easily measure the gathering economic inequality that looms so large in all the advanced economies, especially but not only the United States. Informational inequality is harder to measure, but perhaps more profoundly consequential.
Trend 5: The increasing importance of strategic communication and miscommunication.
Probably everybody here remembers the incident of the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish boat that attempted to force the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
The boat organizers hoped to focus international condemnation on Israel. Their plan backfired when Israel released video footage of the knife-armed boat crew savagely attacking Israel commandos.
This incident is a microcosm of modern warfare. Yes there was actual violence in which actual people got hurt. But while in traditional warfare, the purpose of violence is to impose one power's will by force upon the enemy, the violence in modern war is deployed to shape global public opinion. War is PR by other means.
And not just war.
It's true in politics and business and culture -- messaging increasingly dominates all other aspects of activity. Look at this season's elections in the United States. Traditional organization and get out the vote work takes a back seat to the framing of narratives: a Republican narrative of Democrats as anticonstitutional extremists, a Democratic narrative of Republicans as ignorant primitives.
The media collectively are more powerful than ever, but individual media enterprises are much weaker than they used to be. This gives sophisticated messagers both greater incentive -- and greater ability -- to shape the mental universe in which we all live.