What is Jay Rosen For?

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For the past three days, writers and editors at Mother Jones have been engaged in a flak session over at the blog Press Think, and more recently, the Huffington Post, where NYU professor Jay Rosen has lambasted the magazine’s package of stories and interviews on “Politics 2.0.” Or rather, he has lambasted the “framing” of the stories, which is to say he’s unhappy with the way we introduced the stories in our press release and in the opening essay. Thousands of words have been expended on the subject, but Rosen’s beef can be summarized (I think) like this: In a shameless ploy to promote itself, Mother Jones has set up a false tension between the idea that Politics 2.0 is revolutionary and the idea that it’s irrelevant, and then congratulated itself with showing how neither one is true. “The Mother Jones editors,” Rosen writes, “had a great story about politics and the web within their grasp, but they were too busy fabricating myths they could bust up later— and so they missed it.”

Personally, I haven’t felt a need to respond to Rosen in our own blog because I feel his critique is, on its face, kind of silly. But I think some of the issues that have come out in the discussion of his post are worth talking about, and so I’m going to wade through this.
First, in response to Rosen, I wrote in his blog:

Much of your argument against our Politics 2.0 package presupposes that the extremes of thought on net politics–“revolutionary” or “irrelevant”–do not exist. I will grant that people who are truly informed on the subject don’t hold black and white views, but the rhetoric that they and the press employ frequently comes off as totally unambiguous, and results in a mistaken impression that things really are that simple. It is thus unfair to say that we are setting up two straw men. The straw men are already there. Yes, knocking them down is easy, but it’s also a way to, in the process, explore a lot of interesting issues raised by politics 2.0 with more complexity and nuance. . . .

What we have done is allow people in the field–actual bloggers, actual professors, actual online political consultants–to weigh in themselves, and we’re allowing anybody to comment on their thoughts at the end of each article and interview online. Our “idea,” in short, is have a bunch of people talk about their ideas. It’s not revolutionary, but it’s very Web 2.0, and it differs from the I’m-an-expert-so-let-me-tell-you-how-it-is approach that bloggers have come to expect and loathe in the print world. I fear that if we had opted for the latter, you’d simply be caviling over that instead.

In response, Rosen said that we should have simply “framed” the package as an exploration of “the complex landscape of Politics 2.0 with some of the world’s best guides.” He wrote:

But… and here we come to the contradictions at the heart of this little episode… that isn’t the stance you wanted to take. Doesn’t feel tough enough. Non-dramatic. It lacks that savvy sheen print journalists like to have on the surface of their work. Your desire, I believe, ran counter to your concept.

Rosen is missing several important points, I believe. For one, he’s writing from the perspective of an avid blogger who is familiar with the ins and outs of the Politics 2.0 world (I think) and doesn’t seem to realize that some of our readers, especially of the print magazine, are not. People with less exposure to that world need to understand the big questions at play–What’s the deal with this grand Politics 2.0 talk?–before they will see a reason to read about it. So we use that question as a starting point and then flesh it out with more nuance. It is a classic element of magazine journalism: Will Al Gore stop global warming? Well, here’s Al Gore, and here’s what he says and what he’d doing. And so on.

Rosen believes that this approach, in its more intellectually lazy forms, is associated with the print media. The thread over at HuffPost has veered off into condemnations of the mainstream media and exaltations of the blogosphere as a less spin-oriented alternative. I do think that blogs serve as a crucial check on journalistic folly, but I don’t think that they have proven to be any less susceptible to the same “framing” issues. Case in point is Rosen himself. Over at HuffPost I noted that Rosen had written his post under the headline: “Printing Press Progressives at Mother Jones Try to Debunk the Political Web.” Talk about framing. I wrote back:

Are we printing press progressives? Then what about our well-established blog? Are we trying to “debunk the political web?” We’re certainly interested in dispelling hype when it exists, but the way you phrase it makes it sound like we are out to expose the political web as a sham, which we aren’t, and it isn’t. Indeed, we are a part of the political web (or did you mean to say citizen journalism?) So who is guilty of lazy and self-serving framing here? This question leads naturally to ones about your motives for attention, which mirror your questions about our motives for attention. Pretty mind bending. But hey, I’m sure you can handle it since you’re a salaried NYU professor.

So this leads to the question: What is Jay Rosen For? (His book was called “What Are Journalists For?). I’m sure he’s good for something, but I’ll let him answer as to what that is. Meanwhile, he still hasn’t responded to my question about why he is accusing us of setting up straw men, only to do so himself.

HERE ARE THE FACTS:

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ONE MORE QUICK THING:

Our fall fundraising drive is off to a rough start, and we very much need to raise $250,000 in the next couple of weeks. If you value the journalism you get from Mother Jones, please help us do it with a donation today.

As we wrote over the summer, traffic has been down at Mother Jones and a lot of sites with many people thinking news is less important now that Donald Trump is no longer president. But if you're reading this, you're not one of those people, and we're hoping we can rally support from folks like you who really get why our reporting matters right now. And that's how it's always worked: For 45 years now, a relatively small group of readers (compared to everyone we reach) who pitch in from time to time has allowed Mother Jones to do the type of journalism the moment demands and keep it free for everyone else.

Please pitch in with a donation during our fall fundraising drive if you can. We can't afford to come up short, and there's still a long way to go by November 5.

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