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The Push-Pull of Media

Yesterday, while watching President Obama’s press conference, my mind started to wander right after the president’s curt response to Ed Henry. Maybe it was because the camera panned out over the White House Press Corp, those noblest of reporters, and I wondered what would happen if I was a journalist in that room and the president called on me.

I’m sitting in the second row, behind Chuck Todd and Helen Thomas. Knowing that we’re in uncertain times (then again, when are they ever not uncertain. Try living in the 19th century when you can get typhoid and scarlet fever because you happened to not have plumbing, and where it was a miracle to even be born) I would ask President Obama a really well thought out question, with multiple follow-ups and end with a quip. And then it happens.

The President calls on someone. Who it is doesn’t matter. What matters is what comes out of this person’s mouth. It was my question. Maybe not exactly phrased the way I would have phrased it, but the gist was the same. So now I’m scrambling to think of something, something as good. No, wait. Something better. And then it happens.

The President calls on me. There are 45 other journalists in the room and he chose me right after I had my question stolen from right underneath my eyes. So I stand up and say, “Thank you, Mr. President. So…um…what..um..uh..do you think you’re gonna name your dog?”

So after I played this out it my head, I decided to find out what would happen in that scenario. And like anytime I have a question, I go to Twitter.

I follow Olivier Knox (@oknox) a journalist for AFP, and knowing that he knows his stuff, I asked him. Conversation went like this:

Me: what happens if another WH press corp member asks a similar/same Q as you & ur called on? Do u have backups or r u screwed?

Olivier: Backups. Always. Or you ask a follow-up to previous Q/A.

Me: does it happen frequently? Or do you have a pretty good idea of who will ask what?

Olivier: depends. sometimes we coop. most times we have a few Qs each

Me: thanks! Appreciate you letting me pick your brain, as well as the work you do on the front
lines of this media landscape.

Olivier: i won’t say “to know us is to love us” but we need to be more transparent

Me: agreed. the press influences behavior, policy, etc. and has the opp to take the lead in creating an open society. just don’t eff up.

Olivier: “Don’t eff up” is not practical advice. Never has been. Better area of debate is “what to do WHEN we eff up.”

Me: correct. not practical b/c it’s not just on media, it’s on us, the reader, too. we have to be media literate and pull as you push.

(and that was the last I heard of him)

I started to think more about how the press influences behavior. I’ve already written about the agenda setting theory, but recently, I’ve noticed how important the media should be, but isn’t. And I think it’s because the chasm between what we’ve pejoratively labeled “traditional media” and “transparent media” is widening faster than our Institutions (government, education, etc) can handle.

The role of the media in the U.S has gone through several different phases over the past 230-plus years. The main reason that I’m focusing on the U.S. media is not because it’s where I live, but because freedom of the press is the key to the American philosophy; without it we would not be able to criticize and question those we’ve elected to serve us, to lead us.

There’s been a vitriolic partisan press, a docile/complacent press, and an investigative press (of course there’s informative and expository press, as well) but what we have now is something much more sinister. The people of the Republic now have a very minimal barrier to entry for espousing their ideas (and yes, I see the irony in this) and traditional modes of message dissemination are being turned upside down. Anyone with a camera phone is a photo-journalist, shaping the views of our society. Anyone in your office can be an Upton Sinclair or Carl Bernstein, shaping the way business is done. Traditional media doesn’t like this as it, from a certain point of view, mocks the very system they earn their livelihood from. But there is hope.

Journalists are smarter than some of us give them credit for. They observe the world around us from a very different vantage point, as they are both the arbiter and conduit of information. They understand that their jobs are no longer jobs, but ways of life – a philosophy, if you will.

Talk to reporters and I bet they have a Twitter profile, a Facebook page, an iPhone and/or Blackberry. I also bet that they are having tiny conversations with millions of people every day through these tools and are seeing the evolution of how we communicate, how we interact, how we behave. The flip side of this is that we, the everyday citizens, are participating in the discussion on a much different level than we have ever have in our civilization.

This is important. In order for us to become the transparent concept that we have attached to President Obama, the electorate has to participate more. There are no more excuses. We need to pull as the media pushes. Our Senators and Congressmen and Congresswomen cannot hide — and the best part is that they’re not. Both sides of the aisle have opened up. This is hopeful. This is good. But if we don’t understand how the media works, how to be media literate, then we are wasting a golden opportunity to put forth the machinations of becoming an open and transparent society. It won’t happen overnight, let alone over the next 4 or 8 years, but revolution is in the air and will be broadcast into our homes via mass communication: television, radio, print (yes, print), online, on your phone that’s in your pocket. And it all starts from the top…and the bottom.

Watching this administration’s press conferences, we get a little of the old (change doesn’t happen in 64 days) and a little of the new (daily Twitter updates from people like @oknox and @anamariecox).

Finally, this is good because the press has been asleep at the wheel for too long. They needed a jolt, a fresh start, and this administration’s different approach to policy, to the people and to the media is that mental snap. Imagine what will happen in 4 or 8 years if a new administration comes in and curtails the forward progress of transparency? You can’t. You got used to snapping a picture of a guy flashing his junk on the train and sending it to Twitter, where an editor at the city desk of the New York Times sees it and decides to put the picture in the article she is writing about mismanagement of funds for the MTA. And as Gutenberg showed us, once you take the cap off the proverbial printed toothpaste, you can’t put the content back in the tube.

What do you think?



About joshsternberg

Josh Sternberg is the content strategist for The Washington Post. Prior to that he was the media reporter for Digiday. Additional bylines include: The Atlantic, The Awl, Pacific Standard, Mashable, Huffington Post, Mediaite.


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