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tv   The Future of News  PBS  October 19, 2011 10:30pm-11:00pm PDT

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partisan attacks from left and right, it can be hard to sort fact from fiction. in fact, trust in press fairness is at an all-time low. in a recent survey, 60% of americans say news organizations are politically biased. in the future, where will you get the information you need, information you trust to make informed political choices? >> i think there's been a troubling move in journalism to present it more as
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confrontation and battle and entertainment, and less about the actual substance of what these decisions really mean in daily life. >> is political reporting getting better or worse? that's our question today on "the future of news." >> a government without a tough and vibrant media of all sorts is not an option for the united states of america. >> presidents have gotten better and better at stymieing an ability to get at what's really going on. >> we're in the middle of a massive transformation of journalism, and it's just beginning now. >> this is "the future of news" from the knight studios at the newseum in washington d.c. i'm frank sesno. welcome to our conversation about news in the digital age. i'm joined today by two of washington's most accomplished political reporters. sam donaldson is a broadcasting icon and veteran reporter for abc news. he was
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chief white house correspondent covering 3 presidents, and for more than 40 years at abc, he's reported the biggest national political stories of our time. in addition to anchoring abc's "primetime live" and "this week" programs, sam's an internet pioneer. he was host of abc's first web-only program, "sam" and jim vandenhei made his mark as a national political reporter for "the wall street journal" and then "the washington post." he left that paper in 2006 with john harris to create politico, a web site and newspaper that's become one of the most popular sites for political news and commentary. he's executive editor of politico, where his knowledge of all things d.c. and all things new media has helped change the way campaigns are run and reported in this country. so welcome to you both. >> good to be here. >> good to have you. jim vandenhei, we're gonna start with you. what is politico? >> we're a web site, a newspaper dedicated to politics,
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hence our name "politico." we launched about 3 years ago. we only cover a couple of things, and we're very much confined by the name. we cover the white house, congress, national politics, and special interests who try to influence-- >> some say politico is as much a state of mind as it is a news organization. >> well, i think it's a little bit of both. it's definitely a news organization. we have 107 employees, of which 75 are involved in the editorial process. but i do think we do things a little bit differently. i think we're probably on the cutting edge of how news is getting produced and getting delivered. we put a huge emphasis on speed, on timeliness, on being really relevant to the conversation that's happening not only that day, but that hour, because i do think the way people consume information is radically different today than it was 10 or 15 years ago. people--if you have an interest in a subject, you tend to be almost obsessive in your interest, and you want a lot of information, you want it fast, and you want it deep. you want to be able to get as much information about that subject as possible so you can sort of, you know, meet your
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fix. >> sam, we certainly know that there's more political news than there has been. is it better? >> well, it's different. i mean, is it better from the standpoint of the way it's being covered? well, it's being covered differently. >> is it better from the standpoint of the person who has to read it or see it or experience it to know what's going on? >> well, it's better if the person knows where to go to get the facts or the best take on it. for instance, the morning blog that politico does--it's indispensable. it's the first thing i look at. >> it's the first thing you look at? why? >> well, sometimes i look at the old newspapers. they come to the door. but basically, why? because as jim says, it's up to the minute, plus the fact their take on what's going on in washington is usually right on. once in a while, i disagree with... >> but did i just hear--did i just hear sam--so you start with the blog and not with the newspaper most times? >> well, that's what the internet has done. that's why i answered your question by saying it's different. if you know where to go, the fact that the internet is there and people who have knowledge can get to you immediately with that knowledge is terrific. you never
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had this before. the problem, of course, it's a two-edged sword. there's a lot of junk there. there's a lot of stuff there that's not factual because the people who put it there have no interest in checking the facts or seeing whether it's really true or not. >> one of the things that's different, jim vandenhei, is that in the old days, with a newspaper, you didn't know how many people were reading which article, but you know exactly what people are reading on politico. what do people want in their political news? >> well, i mean, people want news. at the end of the day, people still want to know what's really happening in washington... >> but where do they go first? and most? >> where do they go first? you can kind of guide the reader to where you want them to go first by making it--at least with our web design, it's front and center. you know what story we think is most important. but then people tend to go to the story that--definitely stories that have an element of conflict or an element of accountability or an element of sort of a gossipy side of washington. those tend to get bigger viewerships outside of washington, there's no doubt about it. but you also see, like, real interest in the health care debate, for instance. i've been surprised and somewhat delighted that--we
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put a ton of money into covering that debate, and there seems to be a big national audience. people care about it. they care both about the policy, the substance of it, but they also care about the politics of it. to your question of "is it better?" it might seem like a cop-out. like, i don't know if it's better yet, and the reason i don't think any of us know is because we're in the middle of a massive transformation of journalism, and it's just beginning now. there's been more change in the 2 1/2 years since i left "the washington post" than i think there was in the 25 or 50 years before that, and i think there'll be more change in the next 2 1/2 years than we've had in this 2 1/2 years. >> so, sam, you said a moment ago, conflict or accountability or gossip--is there more of that now than you think there was when you were first starting in covering-- >> there's not more than that, but then again, you have a better opportunity to find whatever you want. for instance--let me just say-- >> sam, one of the raps on politico is that it actually depends upon the gossip and the scandal to make its mark and create its buzz. >> well, that can be a rap if
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you want to make it a rap, but i'll tell you this: i was just about to say that on the morning after, you could read the story about the president's plan as he laid it out and his speech, and you could find people discussing whether it was effective or not; or you could immediately read the story about, "that's a lie!" well, that's what drew the interest. now, you want to call that--call it what you will. in the great march of history, "that's a lie," is not an important point. it's not going to live. it's not going to dictate anything. but from the standpoint of that morning, hey, that's the story. >> jim, very quickly, when you log on in the morning, what's the first place on politico you go? >> i usually go to the lead story to figure out--unless i edited it or wrote it, and then i don't have to. >> [laughter] >> well, we have a tour guide. sonya gavankar is gonna take us to take a look at politico and a few other places. sonya? >> frank, a quick look at politico. it is a site referenced more and more by other news sites with the words "as first reported by politico." let's say you want to
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hear the latest in news from capitol hill, but your newspaper has shut the washington bureau. well, go down to the politico's "huddle," where you get the latest in congressional news. the "pulse" gives you today's hot topic. but one of the most read sections on politico is the "playbook." mike allen wakes up bright and early to talk to news sources and scour the news to bring you his insider information. but where politico really floods the zone is in their coverage of the 44th president of the united states in "politico 44: a living diary of president obama." now, if you click on "obama in video," you get what i like to call "obama on demand," all obama, all the time. that is a very quick look at politico. you don't have to be one to enjoy what they do. frank? >> jim, obama on demand? >> you need it, we're gonna give it. >> is there demand for it? >> you were talking earlier about, like, "politico obsesses with politics or conflict." we cover washington, and i think one of the great things about washington is there's a substantive side, there's a political side, there's a gossipy side, and i
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think anybody who's in washington and interested in washington is interested in all of that. i don't think anyone should be ashamed. and the idea that all of a sudden the internet started this fire and now suddenly people are interested in conflict and gossip--like, i think i have news for people. i think people were always interested in conflict and gossip. the difference is, is now you can actually measure which stories people are going to. before, maybe everybody thought where everyone's reading those very substantive stories on a2, a3, it might turn out that everyone was just throwing that aside and going to the style section and looking at "reliable sources." >> but to reiterate a point, so, politico, i agree. it's a fundamental thing now in washington. jim and john harris and the gang and mike have really made it so. but you could go to you can go to the daily beast. i've actually done a couple of pieces for the daily beast. don't be put off by the name. or you can go to kos. or you can go up and down the line. so there is so much information out there. the question is to determine where you think you find your calling. >> and the other question is,
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and it's on politico and elsewhere, is the role of the bloggers, because not only are there more places to get information, there are more people putting in information. bloggers have increased the number of voices in our national political debate and dialogue. they're questioning the political reporting by traditional media. one blogger we spoke to, beth perry, posed a question for our panel. >> how does the concept of a postracial america affect your day-to-day reporting? and for those of us who have lived experiences that prove that we might not be there yet, how do you plan to address that? >> sam? >> that's a good question. i mean, i came to washington in february of '61 and participated in some extent covering the great civil rights movement and the marches and what have you. and of course, we looked at it in a different way--talk about conflict, talk about the danger and all of that. now, with our first african-american president and with the country moving more
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rapidly, i would hope by geometric progression, toward nirvana, where we hope we'll eventually get, the coverage is different, and the way we look at things have to be different. >> jim, pew center for people and the press surveyed and asked people where they get their information with all this stuff out there. 70% say tv, 40% say internet, 35% say papers. where's it going? >> i think increasingly, it's going to be on the internet, but then probably on some sort of mobile device. as my kids and my wife can attest to, i'm a blackberry junkie. why? because i can get my e-mails, i can get my information, it's portable, it's easy to read. i think increasingly you're gonna have technology that will make it very easy and very handy to have portable devices to do everything from viewing video to reading papers. so i think that's the direction it's heading in, and there's plenty of stats to back it up. you can see the decline in newspapers. you can see the decline in tv. so i think that's definitely
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the direction it's gonna head in, and i think at the end of the day--like, right now, if you say, well, is it good or is it bad? i think what it does, it puts a huge burden on the reader, which sam was talking about. i think you really have to be a much more discerning consumer of information. you have to know where that information is coming from and why it's out there. but one of the things that does scare me, and we've seen it over the last couple of months, is it's really easy to take a lie or to take a sort of a bogus argument and get a huge group of people to think that it's truth and to really end up having that be the narrative that's driving a conversation or driving debate. and i think that's unfortunate. i think that over time, that'll rectify itself. people will figure out what news sources they can trust, and i think there'll always be different organizations that people feel are reputable. so i do think that will fix itself, but right now, it's a problem. >> another question, of course, is can you make any money doing this? >> they're trying. >> well, everybody's trying, and the big debate now is whether you offer it free, whether you don't offer it free, and what model you follow. do you have pop-up ads? do you have little ads that run for 15
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seconds that you have to watch before you get to the main story? they'll figure it out, but we're going through that kind of transition, and a lot of people will bite the dust. >> are you making money yet? >> we are. >> profit? >> yeah, we're profitable with 107 employees in a terrible economy. so we're very proud of that because i do believe--i think there's gonna be a bunch of different journalism models, but i do believe very passionately that you have to have a for-profit model that can support the type of journalism that you want to do, and i'm really confident, i'm very optimistic, that we're going to figure this out. right now, you're getting a lot of information for free. enjoy it because that's gonna change probably in the next couple of years. you're increasingly gonna have to pay for stuff online, just like you do a newspaper, and i think at the end of the day, despite the popular notion right now, people will pay for information. if you have something that people need to survive in their community, you'll pay for it. if there's something in politics--absolutely. >> ...their phones or wherever else. jim, before we go too much farther, respond to the blogger's question--movingacial, the impact of barack obama on politics as politico covers it.
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>> it's huge. i mean, i think it affects almost--not all stories, but many stories about barack obama. there is no doubt that if you even look at the opposition to obama right now, particularly when you get into certain states and certain regions, that there is certainly a racial element to it, and there's no doubt that there was a big racial element to his support. i mean, if you look at his support right now, his poll numbers have dropped precipitously, but they remain at about 96% among african-americans. so he's always gonna have huge support with that community. and i think his election was a great thing for the country, and it's great because i think we're talking about issues that we didn't talk about before, and i think he has the ability to change the perception that some folks might have about different races and their role in politics, and i think it's always gonna be part of the obama story and the politics of today. >> i think you saw the big change start in the primaries before he was elected. he ran a smart campaign, he and axelrod and other people, and she didn't run a smart campaign... >> "she" being hillary clinton. >> however--and you can disagree
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with this--it is clear to me that the press in general did not play it down the middle. the press in general favored barack obama in ways that were not overt--"oh, i'm going to favor him. i'm going to write a story that's wrong in his favor." it was something that was just in the air, in the water, if you will. >> oh, it was a big story. i mean, it was a historic--and there was a sense, i think--my take on it, sam--and i'd be interested in your response--my take on it was less that the press was necessarily in love with barack obama, but there was some of that, but they were in love with the gigantic nature, the historic nature, of what he represented. >> i think that's true. that's what i was trying to say when i said i don't think it was a bunch of reporters or editors who sat around in a conspiracy and said, "we're gonna help elect barack obama." it was simply the nature of the candidacy. but let me just point out one thing. i think the first time it really hit me was when then-senator clinton said it took a president and martin luther king jr. to get that great civil rights bill--and i
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covered the debate in the senate in 1964, passionate debate--passed. she was exactly right. well, the obama people very smartly said, "oh, that's dissing dr. king." and that's fine. that's in politics. use what weapons you can. but the general press that i read and listened to sort of agreed that was dissing dr. king, and i thought, "nah! come on. stop it." >> but, sam, it raises an interesting point that i'd like to throw to both of you, and that is that the rap on television has always been that you jump all over conflict--one good negative soundbite, and it drives the newscast. now, the question is whether all this internet coverage that's coming along is making that even more pronounced. in other words, does the scandal, does the attack take on a life of its own that's even larger when it's online because online is even more instantaneous than sam's evening newscast or than cnn may have been? >> i think so. i mean, look at what happened in august. if you look at all the big stories, whether it was the resignation of van jones, who was a top official in the obama
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administration; the town halls; the so-called "death panels"--all of those stories started either on right-wing radio, cable tv, or the internet. and in almost every case, it took several days for mainstream media--the big networks and the big newspapers--to even write about them. they were sort of--they weren't even as relevant to the big stories as they have been in the past, and i think that is changing. and there's a part of it that's not a good thing, because so much cable, talk radio, internet--so much of it does play off of confrontation that it can have this huge exaggerating effect on the importance of the story. >> ...more responsibility, then, for the viewer and the listener to sort through. >> well, that's right, if the viewer or listener has the opportunity to do so. >> good point. so where do you go to sort out what's true from what's not true? we turn now to some other web sites. sonya gavankar has that for us. sonya? >> well, is one of those great sites that we like. it's a nonprofit from the annenberg center at the university of pennsylvania. they monitor the whole political scene--television ads, debates, interviews--and check them all
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for accuracy. but let's say that you want to contact them. well, go to "burning questions," where you can get some of those questions answered. let's say you get an outrageous e-mail and you want to see if it's true or not. they will tell you. or is there a law against false advertising in political ads? oh, trusting citizens. strives to be a consumer advocate for voters, and their reporters and their scholars really cut through the spin. the other site that we like is they are a pulitzer prize winner from the "st. petersburg times" newspapers. they have a lot of fun things, too, like the truthometer, the obameter that answers the call that president obama made during the campaign of wanting to be held accountable, the flipometer that monitors the flip-flopping of politicians, and they also monitor reporters and pundits. they give them ratings of "barely true," "half true," "totally true," and the "liar, liar, pants on fire" award. >> [laughter] >> politifact--another good site that helps you sort out the
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truth in american politics. frank? >> thanks, sonya. sam? >> all of the ability to go various places to find information--you never had that before. >> right. >> never. it's just a quantity that's unimaginable. how can anyone go just to politico? >> i want to read something very quickly to you. this was written by michael wolff in "vanity fair" about politico. a lot of great things have been written about politico, and, sam, i'm gonna ask you to respond to it. "at politico's level of specificity, there may be no room for a general-interest reader. the conversation arguably comes limited to professionals and compulsives. if one of the gravest dangers of politics and the real rap against the beltway," he says, "is its insiderism, politico vastly compounds the problem. the propensity of the political class to speak only to itself is enabled to a new degree by politico." >> well, who does "vanity fair" think they're appealing to? >> [laughter] >> who does michael wolff think they're appealing to? a general audience of mom, pop, people in
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rural illinois? no. every publication these days has to find an audience. i think politico serves a great purpose, but if you're asking me whether the people in tucumcari, new mexico, are gonna hit that blog first, the answer is no. >> let's take some questions from the audience now. hi. go ahead. >> my name is flo pripstein. with the 24-hour news cycle today in the cable television and internet, is there a danger of the news media creating the news rather than just reporting on it? and if so, what can be done about it? >> sam, danger of the news media creating the news? >> i don't think we create the news, but we may take the wrong stories, in the sense that they're not the important ones, and exaggerate them and make the audience think that that's the most important thing. i mean, there are a lot of dangers that speed brings to the process. >> what can be done about it? >> what can be done about that? i don't think there's
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anything that could really be done about that. it's happening...particularly for conservatives--and i'm not faulting the right versus the left. it's just that because republicans are out of power right now and they don't have a national leader, i do think that people like rush limbaugh, glenn beck, fox news--i think they have more power to drive a story and to get conservatives fired up than john boehner or mitch mcconnell. so i do think that that's happening. and increasingly--and this is a little bit new--you see that on the left as well, and that wasn't true a couple of years ago, because now you have the huffington post, which is a hugely trafficked and very popular web site, especially for liberals. you have msnbc, which in prime time has made the decision, the calculated decision, to really cater to liberals. so they have the same power that the right has had for some time through talk radio on the left, and i think both of those forces really can push and press a story. >> sir? >> what can the media do to hold elected officials and media
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personalities accountable for lying about facts? >> well, we can continue to try to ask them the questions and look at what they say, and of course, investigative reporters can look at what they do and their people do and bring you that information. and then you get to do with it what you will. we talked about correcting the record a moment ago. i am always puzzled to some extent, but i acknowledge it's there, when the media or reporters bring information that counter absolutely what someone has said or done, and with so many people, unfortunately, it doesn't matter. they still like their hero. they still think the statement is right. they still will ignore what you bring them as the facts. so all they can do is keep at the job. >> jim, what do you do? >> i think one of the annoying trends as a reporter but one of the great things, i think, for reporting is that there's a whole cottage industry of bloggers and organizations who commit themselves to trying to keep us honest, to making sure that when we have a mistake,
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that they inundate us with e-mails or inundate us with phone calls to make sure that we correct the record. media matters was set up by the democrats over the last 6 years because they felt like, "let's just be relentless in making sure that they're portraying the facts the way that we think the facts to be true." and this puts a lot of pressure on reporters to correct the record, and the great thing about the web is when you screw up a story or you have an error in a story, you can correct it in real time, whereas before, if it was just a newspaper, you had to wait usually several days before the reporter would finally reckon with the fact that they screwed something up, then confess it, and then put it into print a week later on a4 so no one would see it, anyway. now, i think, it gets corrected. so i think that's what people do to hold us accountable. i love reporting. i got into reporting because i believe in its ability to change things, to change society, to hold government accountable. at the end of the day, that's the most important thing that we do, and that was no different 30 years ago, 20 years ago, today, and 10 years from now. >> so we want to show you now, courtesy of the newseum archives, a time when a different technology changed our politics. the year is 1960.
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television is little more than a decade old, but it is about to be used in a new way that will alter what everyone thinks they know about running for office. >> can you hear me now? speaking. is that about the right tone of voice? >> well, we figure when you see 30 seconds... >> then try to bring it--all right. >> nixon was ill. he had a staphylococcus infection. i said to both of them, "would you like makeup?" and kennedy said, no, he didn't need any, and nixon heard kennedy say it, and so he said, "i don't want any makeup, either." and he needed it. >> people who listened on radio thought that nixon performed better or as well as kennedy, but those who watched it on television thought john kennedy had won by a landslide. it was that first moment in our history when we saw that television can transform a political candidate from a candidate into a celebrity, and it changed the whole contours of our politics. >> television, depending on your point of view, either gave voters a powerful new way to
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evaluate their candidates or ushered in an era that overemphasized the visual. perhaps the lesson is no matter what new technology comes along, its true influence takes some time to be seen. we will end where we began, but this time, with a one-word answer. is our political journalism better and getting better or worse? jim? >> it's better and getting better. that's not one word. >> it's different, and it has the ability to get better. >> we end on an optimistic note, then. thank you, jim vandenhei of politico, sam donaldson of abc news. it's been a pleasure, as always. join us next time for "the future of news" from the knight studio. i'm frank sesno. of the best of europe.
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