This paper explores how an underlying tension at the heart of
U.S. political journalism forms a rhetorical context for how
journalists report election campaigns. The tension is grounded in
overlapping and contending role conceptions of the press in
nomination politics. On one hand, journalists are actor/
participants in the campaign, constructing and influencing the
campaign as they report it. On the other hand, journalists are
observers who endeavor to report campaign events with journalism's
hallmark qualities of objectivity and neutrality.
Of course, these role conceptions are embedded in mainstream
journalism as a whole, and are not always, or even often, perceived
by journalists to compete in practice. They are epistemological
stances that co-exist within the "creed" which shapes journalists'
everyday practice and from which they view the overarching roles of
the press in society (Sigal, 1973). Moreover, these role
conceptions underlie the increasingly pluralistic ways by which
journalists view the press as adversary to government and business,
and as interpreters and disseminators of information (Weaver and
However, professional quandaries and ethical dilemmas latent
in these contending role conceptions are highly activated in light
of journalism's increased importance to electoral politics
(Lichtenberg, 1990; Gurevitch and Blumler, 1990; Woodward, 1991).
Many scholars of media politics have described this, contending
that the press's functional importance in nomination politics has
had negative effects not only on press behavior, but on nomination
politics and democratic processes in general (Arterton, 1978a,
1978b, 1984; Polsby, 1980; Schudson, 1982; Press and VerBurg, 1988;
Entman, 1989; Sabato, 1991; Davis, 1992). Yet what is left under-
addressed in these normative positions is the possibility that
journalists may attempt to rhetorically redress such quandaries and
dilemmas through strategic discourse.
In order to explore this gap, this study attempts to open up
conceptual space for the study of the rhetorical functions, and
consequent discursive patterns, of campaign news. The study is
based on three core postulates. First, the exacerbated tension
between the actor and observer roles is a root rhetorical exigency
requiring some measure of reconciliation. Second, this
reconciliation "leaks" into news discourse. Third, this
reconciliation is expressed instrumentally through the value-laden
lenses of particular press roles.
From these postulates, this study uses text analysis to
examine the discursive output of two particular press roles and to
derive a text pattern from this output. The roles see journalists
as "anointers" of front-running candidates and as "character cops"
to candidate scandals, occurring or incipient. The text pattern,
called "disorganized journalism," is composed of three
interrelated, but analytically distinct, message features. These
message features: (1) self-consciously and self-reflexively locate
the activities of journalists in campaign events; (2) ideologically
"repair" this self-consciousness; and (3) absorb self-reflexive
insights and repair strategies into "objective" accounts of the
strategic campaign environment. These features, rooted in the core
participant/observer ambivalence, have rhetorical direction and
Text, centering on Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign,
is drawn from four issues of Time magazine--the January 27,
February 10, April 20 and May 4 issues. This time period stretches
from the late pre-primary stage of the election to the mid-
primaries. News stories, columns and front-matter are examined.
The next section defines disorganized journalism conceptually
and operationally. Following this are the text analyses. The
final section explores the implications.
DEFINING DISORGANIZED JOURNALISM
Conceptually, disorganized journalism is defined in relation
to normative research on the media/campaign interface.
Operationally, it is defined as a succession of three message
Conceptualizing Disorganized Journalism
In this study, disorganized journalism is conceptualized as a
discourse system, observable in role-based news, that is patterned
and strategic. Press roles, important heuristically for
journalists in helping them recognize facts and construct coherent
narratives out of these facts, are also crucial in conceptualizing
disorganized journalism. Press roles derive from traditional
sociological conceptions of journalism as role-based behavior. In
these conceptions, press roles have a functionalist core: they
encode values which, at the cultural level, define commitments to
action (eg., Tuchman, 1978; Gans, 1979). Taking shape in the nexus
of news values and organizational structures, press roles underlie
the well-known thesis that journalism is a social construction, and
not a smooth and unproblematic correspondence to reality.
Disorganized journalism is forged in press roles integral to
campaign reporting.1 Yet it also counterpoises the prescriptive
tenor of media politics on research on these roles in order to
consider campaign journalism as instrumental, rhetorical behavior.
In fact, the term "disorganized journalism" plays on Patterson's
(1980) "disorganized politics," a term from earlier and seminal
work on news and nominations which he used to contend that news
enlarges the defects of the nomination process. One of his
remedies for journalism's effect on nomination processes was, and
still is (Patterson, 1993), to resuscitate the lost importance of
political parties and diminish the need for journalism. Adjusting
Patterson's concept, disorganized journalism considers that the
volatile socio-political context of nomination politics aggravates
the core participant/ observer ambivalence of campaign journalism.
This breach, in turn, sets up a context for rhetorical behavior.
Such a context, essentially ignored in Patterson's work, suspends
prescribing what journalism ought to do or be in campaign settings
so that norms in another sense--as discursive configurations
indicating rhetorical behavior--can be explored.
Thus, even though disorganized journalism draws from the
functionalist core of press roles, it redirects analysis toward an
examination of discourse. Alexander's (1983) notion, "bias," is
useful here. To Alexander, biases result when journalists forge
"certain non-empirical evaluations" through "the framework of
cognitive statements" (p.19). They are "flexible forms of
integration which...although sharing in [general values] are
nonetheless more specific and contingent, and more open to
continuous reformation in relation to existing social exigencies"
This neo-functionalism conceptually underlies the thrust of
this study because it weds press roles to discursive systems.
Discourse systems in news, as van Dijk (1983; 1988) has argued, are
best plumbed via coordinated analyses of texts and contexts. This
is because discourses "...may have multiple links with the context
of communication and interaction" (van Dijk (1985:1) The goal of
a discourse analysis is not necessarily to explicate the abstract
structures of texts or conversations, but rather to elucidate "the
cognitive and especially the social processes, strategies, and
contextualization of discourse taken as a mode of interaction in
highly complex sociocultural situations (van Dijk, 1985:1).
Thus, how journalists anoint front-runners and how they act as
character cops are discursive systems--"integral communicative
act[s] in some sociocultural situation" (van Dijk, 1983:24).
Particular roles are valuable discursive inroads because, in
"playing" these roles, journalists essentially respond both to the
exigencies of situations at hand and to deeply rooted value
structures (the participant/observer role conceptions).
"Disorganized" denotes news which, although patterned and
strategic, contains disjunctures, contradictions, and ruptures,
because it is news forged in an environment that upsets, amplifies
and agitates journalism's participant/observer role conceptions.
Message Features of Disorganized Journalism
Operationally, disorganized journalism is defined as a
succession of three basic message feature. These features produce
a series of "submergences." They have a rhetorical trajectory--
with each feature, news gets more disorganized--and have strategic
effects. Stemming from the root rhetorical exigency of being a
participant in and an observer of political campaigns, disorganized
journalism locates the most "disorganized" responses to these
exigencies in the journalistic conventions neutrality, restraint
The first message feature occurs when ambivalent role
conceptions are activated to such a degree that they become the
subjects, or "pegs," for news stories. These pegs are a type of
meta-journalism, or news which describes journalism or the
activities of journalists. The result is news that examines--often
coherently, at length, and insightfully--journalism's presence as
both a constructive and disruptive force in the campaign process.
However, what happens when journalists examine how they
construct and influence campaign events is that they also tend to
enact the constructionist roles they examine. For example, news
that examines the effects of journalists' "anointing" candidates
can be easily misconstrued as news that does the anointing. Thus,
journalists, at this meta-level perspective, produce a paradoxical
effect: although they may resolve being active by reporting on
active roles, these discursive resolutions can easily result in
vitiating objectivity and credibility because they signal and make
"facts" out of journalistic involvement in the campaign.
Thus, disorganized campaign journalism's first message feature
is self-reflexive, or self-conscious, journalism. This message
feature must be present for the next levels of disorganization to
occur. As news gets more self-reflexive, so are the next two
features catalyzed and observable.
The second message feature views the paradoxical effect of
self-conscious journalism in terms of press power in electoral
politics. Questions such as "Does the news media powerfully affect
candidate behavior and/or voter behavior?" have pre-occupied
scholarship on media politics, especially since television's
entrance into campaign politics (eg., Graber, 1989:193-227). But
considering the rhetorical implications of self-conscious
journalism re-routes answers to these questions. Here, press power
is real but paradoxical: campaign journalism acts powerfully as it
develops and implements responses to the largely uncontrollable
effects of self-conscious journalism.
Thus, the second message feature of disorganized journalism
reflects how journalists "repair" their objectivity, which is
compromised by self-consciousness, by cultivating images in news of
themselves as powerful actors in campaign politics. Repair
features here are similar to those described elsewhere by Bennett
(et al., 1985) and Reese (1990). They show that journalists
respond to anomalous cases through such strategies as downplaying
the newsworthiness of a story or by producing self-policing
critiques of bad journalism. These responses, they contend, serve
journalism's hegemonic designs.
The present conceptualization re-routes these conclusions as
well. Campaign journalism is more disorganized, albeit more
powerful in a hegemonic sense, by virtue of its reparative
features. "Disorganization" is a rhetorical effect, catalyzed
because self-consciousness cannot be sustained for long. Since the
insights achieved by self-reflexive journalism need to be
retrenched, these insights become submerged into news that is
conducting repair strategies.
To sum up so far, self-conscious news tells us that the news
media can articulate--coherently and insightfully--the dilemmas and
problems of being of an active participant in the campaign process.
Reparative news, however, ideologically suppresses these self-
reflexive insights and submerges them. Self-reflexive news is too
incriminating to stand alone; it too starkly illuminates the
contested nature of press power in campaign politics.
In the third message feature, self-reflexive news and repair
strategies become submerged even further. A way to locate this
feature vis-a-vis normative research is to see it as a discursive
means by which the press tries to resolve its symbiotic inter-
dependency with campaign organizations. Media politics--the
organizational, political and discursive clash of journalists and
politicians locked in mutual need but mutual suspicion and
antagonism--is the engine of presidential campaigns (Arterton,
1978a, 1978b, 1984; Press and VerBurg, 1988; Graber, 1989, pp. 193-
228; Davis, 1992). "Candidates and media are inextricably
intertwined," as Graber (1989:228) put it, adding, "media do more
than depict the political environment; they are the political
Disorganized journalism explores this situation, but with a
different emphasis than normative research. As a discourse-based
concept, disorganized journalism problematizes press behavior that
is mechanistically thought to result from journalists' resistance
to campaign orchestration--behavior either hinted at or explicit in
concepts like Arterton's (1978b) "press crisis," Robinson's (1981)
"mediality," Press and Verburg's (1988) "media crime," or Sabato's
(1991) "feeding frenzy."
What emerges is the third message feature. Resulting in
another level of submergence, this feature combines reflexive and
reparative news with news that emphasizes how news itself has
become co-opted within the strategic operations of campaign
organizations. This feature reveals that journalism is most
disorganized when self-conscious insights from level one and repair
strategies from level two are discursively assimilated into the
overall, strategic campaign environment. In effect, this level of
disorganization repudiates self-conscious news even more.
In sum, disorganized journalism follows a trajectory, from
self-reflexive to self-reparative to absorbable, diagrammed as:
Self-reflexive, or self-conscious news that reports on
active press roles in the campaign environment.
Repair strategies that submerge the insights achieved at
achieved at level one disorganization into news which
downplays the newsworthiness of news on active press
roles through self-effacement.
News that absorbs level one insights and level two
repairs into the strategic flux of the campaign
This movement from level to level is activated by the root
rhetorical exigency of journalists' being participants in, and
observers of, political campaigns. At bottom, the most
"disorganized" news features what political journalism apparently
prizes the most, the conventions neutrality, restraint and
objectivity, because it concedes that these conventions are
consumed within strategic flux that drives campaigns.
ANOINTING BILL CLINTON2
With eyes seeming to gaze toward a distant point, Democratic
presidential candidate Bill Clinton photographically surfaced on
the January 27, 1992, cover of Time magazine. The cover caption,
"Is Bill Clinton for real?" complemented his gaze: Clinton could
not "look" into the camera, as this direct address would put the
question into his mouth. The sub-caption promised to explain "why
both substance and hype have made him the Democrats' rising star."
In the cover story, "Is Clinton For Real?," George Church, a
Time senior writer, wrote that Clinton's lack of exposure on the
U.S. national political scene, coupled with fact of his front
runner status, are what prompt the "insistent question: Is Clinton
for real--not only as front runner, but as man, as Governor, as
candidate?" (p.16). Church probes these questions with anecdotes
from Clinton's youth, accounts of his record as Arkansas governor,
and evidence of his lead in the so-called "invisible" primary.3
Importantly, Church also reflects on the role played by the news
media in creating Clinton's status:
...before a single caucus or primary ballot has been cast
anywhere, the national press and television have anointed
Bill Clinton as the front runner for the Democratic
presidential nomination. (p. 15)
Later, he wrote:
Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the Clinton boom
is a suspicion that it is largely an artificial creation
by the press. Journalistic pundits are constitutionally
incapable of confessing that they have no idea what will
happen in the presidential race; they are irresistibly
driven to impose some sort of structure on the most
shapeless contest. (p. 16)
Still later, however, Church seemed to contradict himself:
But Clinton can not be dismissed as a mere creation of
journalistic fashion...Reporters on the early campaign
trail have been struck by the number of party activists
who volunteer that this time around they are looking for
"electability" far more than liberal purity in a nominee.
Clinton got himself cast in that role largely because he
could present solid credentials....
It is not entirely correct to say that Church is merely
contradicting himself in these excerpts. Rather, in framing a
regional candidate, the governor of Arkansas, on a national level,
Church self-consciously describes the constitutive role played by
journalists and pundits in the formulation of Clinton's front
runner status. This story therefore describes an active press
role. In this sense, it is self-reflexive. But it also pulls back
from this angle to locate Clinton's fortunes in the political
apparatus. In this sense, it begins to repair self-reflexivity.
Added to this repair strategy is another, self-effacing
strategy. Here, the submergence of level one insights can be
viewed through Church's amalgamation of "straight" and interpretive
journalism. It is true that Church "re-writes" information
reported from the actual campaign trail. But Church manages to
rhetorically disclaim that Time participates in the constitutive
processes it describes. He does this by playing "straight" and
interpretive journalism off on each other. The effects are that he
builds the requisite objectivity needed to examine press roles
without appearing to enact these roles, and he mitigates how own
story's role in anointing Clinton.
This self-effacing effect underscores one of the fundamental
catalysts of disorganized journalism: by examining how the press
has anointed Clinton, the press (Time) cannot help but participate
in the ceremony. Even knowledgeable journalists thought at the
time that the Time cover and story actually did anoint Clinton.4
Since the rhetorical momentum of disorganized journalism is
toward a repudiation of the insights of self-conscious news, its
trajectory is toward news that reveals how the press's active roles
are, or can be, absorbed into the overall campaign process. Four
pages ahead of Church's story, the reporter whose information
Church was "re-writing," Laurence I. Barret, by-lined this first
paragraph from Manchester, New Hampshire:
It was late in coming, but election year, but election
year madness has finally gripped New Hampshire.
Candidates accost voters on frigid streets, knots of
campaign workers wave placards in shopping malls, and a
blizzard of campaign commercials blankets prime-time
airwaves. But the familiar trappings disguise even more
volatility than usual as the nation's first primary moves
to its climax. Though Bill Clinton is the media-anointed
front runner, easily two-thirds of the likely Democratic
voters are in flux, and the fortunes of his four main
rivals have been fluctuating wildly ("Nipping at
That the media anointed Clinton is hereby "fact," no longer a
topic for examination. This press role is absorbed into the
strategic environment. It is absorbed so much so that, sandwiched
between Church's and Barret's stories, Michael Kramer's column,
"The Self-Making of a Front Runner," describes Clinton as the
consummate political strategist who has the wherewithal to make his
These three pieces--Barrett's story from the campaign trail,
Church's interpretive re-write, and Kramer's column--compose an
ensemble of disorganized journalism. They effectively illustrate
the self-reflexive, the reparative and the absorbable strategies
that mark journalism which: (1) enacts the active press roles it
examines; (2) repairs the "damage" caused by self-consciousness,
and (3) assimilates itself into the strategic environment of the
campaign. Interestingly, Kramer's column foreshadows another press
role that engendered disorganized journalism in the 1992 campaign,
the press as "character cop." Kramer quotes Clinton as being glad
that a supermarket tabloid, Star, will revive accounts of Clinton's
alleged philandering right before the New Hampshire primary. Of
these allegations--by Larry Nichols, a former Arkansas state
employee fired by Clinton--Kramer quotes Clinton as saying that
they are better dealt with early, before his nomination. Kramer
writes: "In considering the timing rather than the substance of
negative charges, Clinton revealed his essence." But Nichols'
charges did not engender disorganized journalism as much as the
next batch of allegations of extra-marital conduct, by Gennifer
THE "CHARACTER ISSUE" EMERGES
Can Clinton Survive?
Michael Kramer on "Vultures"
How the Press Deals with Sleaze
They'd love to kick the habit but can't
--Consecutive Table of Contents entries for Time, Feb.
10, 1992, for Kramer's column, "The Vulture Watch," and
the story, "Handling the Clinton Affair," by-lined by
senior writer William A. Henry
The re-emergence of the Democratic Party in 1992 presidential
politics was interesting from a journalism perspective because its
early front-runner, Bill Clinton, had to run the gauntlet of press-
reported "character issues" before and during the campaign.
Character issues will discussed later. For now, character scrutiny
in the mainstream press erupted in force before a single caucus or
primary when ex-Arkansas employee, Gennifer Flowers, gave testimony
to the tabloid, Star, that she had conducted a long-standing sexual
affair with Clinton. Flowers' story, published in the Star's
February 4, 1992, edition, had already been released to mainstream
journalists by January 23, just as this edition began hitting the
news stands. This information evidently emboldened mainstream
reporters to query Clinton in New Hampshire, putting his campaign
in peril. However, this scrutiny also produced back-lash about
media's role as "character cop." This back-lash resulted in
In a story ambiguously entitled, "Handling the Clinton Affair"
(pages 28-29, second table of contents entry above), Time senior
writer William A. Henry explained the predicaments mainstream news
professionals faced when reporting the Flowers story:
For the past two weeks, print and broadcast news editors
who normally scorn supermarket news tabloids have
struggled over how to cover a story engineered by one,
concerning a top-priority subject: presidential politics.
The pretext to this story had already been established in the
sub-headline and the lead paragraph; namely, that "the mainstream
media had reacted [to the story] with unusual restraint." But
similar to Time's reportage of the press's role in anointing
Clinton, this story contained a revealing contradiction:
The nuances of how the issue was handled varied, but the
gut response almost everyplace was much the same as at
ABC. Journalists privately questioned whether Clinton's
sex life was relevant, whether Flowers was credible,
whether it was fair to scrutinize one candidate's private
life more closely than the rest. Yet they yielded to
With this report that journalists "yielded," the stage for
disorganized journalism was set. Journalists yielded when Clinton
and his wife Hillary responded to and rebutted the charges in a CBS
post-Super Bowl 60 Minutes interview on January 26. They yielded
even more so when Flowers affirmed her story in a January 27 press
conference at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. The press
conference was sponsored by the Star, covered by CNN, and attended
by over 300 print and TV reporters, including Time's Elizabeth
Rudolph. The story's photo caption said that it was a scene of
"packed journalism," reiterating that journalists were "yielding to
momentum" by covering the story.
Thus, the dilemma of examining sensationalist news and
enacting sensationalism, telegraphed in the Table of Contents
entry, was forged in real life events and discursively in this
story. Although "real" journalists may "scoff" at the interview as
"an invasion of privacy" that has "...nothing to do with real
journalism," Henry wrote, journalists would nonetheless be
recalcitrant if they ignored the story:
After Clinton appeared on the nation's top rated TV news
program...to refute the Star while sidestepping the
question of whether he had ever committed adultery,
editors concluded that they had to highlight the issue.
The challenge in newsrooms around the country was how to
inform readers without appearing to give credence to
charges that were unverifiable. (p.28)
The exonerating angle that this story was "responsible
journalism" did not jibe with its own news-content that journalists
who covered it yielded to momentum and pack journalism. Therefore,
level one disorganization--surface and self-reflexive reports of
the press's active anointing role--had to become submerged into
news that legitimated Time's character inquiries without appearing
to be culpable of the same questionable ethics and low professional
standards associated with the tabloids.
As with how Time reported the press's anointing role, the
submergence appears to have been achieved through a kind of self-
effacement. Here, level-one self-reflexivity constitutes a
rhetorical self-policing, or even an inoculative reflexivity.
However, this rhetorical "move" does not dispel this problem: even
if self-policing itself is one way that the mainstream press can
maintain authority (Reese, 1990), the character cop role is
especially difficult to examine without enacting. Therefore, self-
reflexivity and repair strategies need to go to the next level to,
paradoxically, become powerful and coherent.
Michael Kramer's column about the "vulture watch" was placed
a page before Henry's story. Through interviews with a "dozen
Democratic heavyweights," Kramer makes the point that Clinton's
nomination bid could be seriously jeopardized by the Flowers story.
Although only one "heavyweight," consultant Victor Kambor, was
quoted directly, Kramer says that what Kambor says "reflects what
the others say privately." The upshot of the vulture watch,
according to Kramer's sources, is that since Clinton seems as
though he will win the nomination but lose the election, Democratic
party activists could call for someone else to enter the race.
Thus, the vulture watch is not based on the press's direct role as
a character cop who constructs the "character issue." "The vehicle
of revelation, a 'cash for trash' tabloid or the mainstream press
is secondary," Kramer says. Rather, the vulture watch is
predicated on the speculations that Clinton's electability in the
general election could be jeopardized by the debilitating effects
of this, and possibly other, scandalous events. In this way,
public opinion toward Clinton will sour as innuendos accumulate and
are leveraged by Republican strategists.
With this duet of news story on press behavior and column,
campaign news was disorganized. Importantly, the disorganization
evidenced a rhetorical momentum: the press's role was reflexively
acknowledged, repaired and then absorbed into the campaign
environment. The press's role of character cop was therefore
accomplished by this disorganized journalism.
THE CHARACTER ISSUE TAKES HOLD
The press's character cop role provides the most important
setting for disorganized journalism. In essence, being a character
cop requires the press to have, presume, or otherwise construct,
the requisite authority to report "character issues." Character
issues are most commonly defined in terms of news that intersects
public and private aspects of a candidate's life. Journalists
defend the legitimacy of this information with the claim that this
news can give insight into the underlying character of the
candidate vis-a-vis some questionable public act or event, such as
a gaffe, public statement, rumor, allegation or incident. Yet, as
character issues have become entrenched in campaign journalism,
they are also embattled. Critics within academe and journalism
have decried journalism's "character cop" role--a role which blends
moral policing, adversarial intrusion and requisite professional
standards of reporting. Campaign journalists have adapted to this
role, critics contend, and it this that is behind the growing
number and increasing stridency of character issues in recent
presidential elections (Germond and Witcover, 1989:57-61,230-243;
Sabato, 1991:52-93; Diamond, 1991:173-181; Robinson and Lichter;
1991:198-200; CPP, 1992:11,15,30-31; Kurtz, 1993:261-272;
This section explores disorganized journalism from the context
of the press's character cop role. The discourse analysis begins
in the issue where Time simultaneously changed its lay-out, aired
its "information" prospectus, and pushed 1992 presidential
character scrutiny to a new level.
Time magazine unveiled a new look in its April 20, 1992 issue.
Managing editor Henry Muller spoke about the substantive changes in
the front matter (p.8) of this issue:
This issue contains the most significant changes since
the magazine's creation in 1923 --a long stretch in the
life of a successful and pre-eminent publication. We
have re-designed Time with you in mind, to make the
magazine more accessible, more relevant and more valuable
than ever in an era in which the instantaneous
transmission of news around the world has transformed how
much--and how little--we all know.
Muller explains that Time will now have a news summary. He
implies that Time will both mimic and outdo television news.
Because "readers like you are busier than ever and blanketed by
sound bites and news fragments as never before," the summary will
sort "the important from the trivial, the timeless from the
fleeting" (p.8). Thus, he distinguishes the news summary from
being a print equivalent to television news stories: the summary
will package small amounts of news, but with depth and substance.
In addition to the news summary, Muller suggests that the body
of the newsmagazine will be re-dedicated to Time's "mission." The
...[will] not just record events but go well beyond the
news. These stories define the essential mission of a
newsmagazine in the era of split-second global
communications: to give you more--more than you saw on
television heard on the radio or read in your local
newspaper. Not just more facts, more understanding.
What Muller is saying is that these changes offer Time
expanded opportunities in the marketplace of information. Time
will be a corrective force to the purely visual and evanescent,
using its resources to assist people in understanding the enormous
amounts of available information:
We know that you look for thorough reporting, excellent
writing and sound judgement. You expect us to discover
the undiscovered and explain the unexplained. In a world
overwhelmed by instant unanalyzed news, you demand
reflection and perspective, balance and breadth.
The cover of this novel issue featured an unusual photographic
rendering of Democratic presidential candidate, Bill Clinton. This
cover photo appeared as an enlarged photographic "negative" of
Clinton's head. Across his forehead, the caption read: WHY VOTERS
DON'T TRUST CLINTON. By this time in mid-April, Clinton was the
presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party. Fresh from winning
primaries in New York, Wisconsin and Kansas, and with over 1,200
delegates pledged to him, Clinton had more than half of the total
delegates needed (2,145) for the nomination. His closest rival,
Paul Tsongas, had 539, but he was no longer actively running.
However, since January, character issues had grown in number
and intensity. In early February, the Wall Street Journal reported
that Clinton may have unfairly evaded and then expediently rejoined
the Vietnam War draft in 1969. Also, ten days before the important
April 7 New York primary, Clinton was queried by reporters if he
had ever smoked marijuana, and he admitted that he did, but never
inhaled. The April 20 Time story, entitled "Questions, Questions,
Questions," began with a question:
Is it possible for a candidate to win a presidential
nomination while convincing even many of his own party's
strongest partisans that he does not have the honesty and
integrity to lead the nation? It would seem a wildly
implausible accomplishment (if that is the word). Yet
Bill Clinton is closer and closer to pulling it off.
Hence, the rationale behind the enigmatic cover. Clinton was
winning primaries and closing in on the nomination, but he was
getting high "negatives" on many fronts. In the words of the sub-
title, "many voters still have qualms about his character and
beliefs." The substantive data on these qualms the article drew
from was a Time/CNN conducted two days after Clinton's primary
victories. The story also reported on a string of unpropitious
events: exit polls indicated that Democratic voters had doubts
about Clinton's honesty and trustworthiness; late-night comedians
who lampoon him; some superdelegates remained uncommitted.
Importantly, the story also had a self-reflexive component:
Clinton's admirers put much blame for Clinton's woes on
print and TV journalists who, in their view, have been
harping on largely trivial questions of character while
ignoring the policy issues that are Clinton's strength.
Here is our first clue to the story's disorganization, for the
self-reflexive component masked a contradiction. Both the fanciful
cover and important information in this story--information which
included a fulsome 33 column inches of exegesis on the "mixed bag"
of questions about Clinton's "personal" and "public" character--
were contradicted in this claim:
...for the candidate and his supporters, the massive
distrust he has aroused is maddeningly difficult to
counter because it stems from so many sources. It can no
longer be dispelled by refuting specific charges--not all
of which are terribly important anyway. (pp.40-41,
Downplaying the newsworthiness of what are considered
anomalous events is an important journalistic repair strategy
(Bennet, et al., 1985). But character issues in 1992 represented
a continuous anomaly; journalists were caught in the loop of
reporting character issues, perpetuating them by reporting them,
and then "going meta-" on this loop by reporting on it. So in its
April 20 issue, Time produced a highly informative story and a
cover photograph that indeed "went beyond" the news. But both
acted in concert to signal that Time would enact the role that it,
in this story, subtly examined with self-conscious news.
The disorganization was more explicitly compounded two weeks
later. In the "Letters to the Editor" section in the May 4 issue,
Time re-measured its own previous mission statement when called to
task by some of its readers' who wrote in that they did not like
the April 20 cover. Time repaired the damage:
A number of our readers disliked our photographic cover
rendering of Bill Clinton. They described the reverse
photograph as "sickening," "manipulative" and
"hideous."... That interpretation is a lot more dire than
the cover itself. Our purpose was simply to represent
the negative image that clings to candidate Clinton. The
image is not a judgment call by us but a political
phenomenon amply documented by primary results and the
poll figures in the cover stories. (p.9)
It is telling that the edition of one of America's elite
weekly newsmagazines containing (1) major format changes, (2) a re-
articulation of its mission, (3) an explicit understanding of its
readers' information needs, and (4) a cover photo and cover story
about "character issues" should be followed, two weeks later, by
editorial remarks which repudiate this mission and subtly chastise
readers for misreading its pictorial analogue of the problematic
"state" of Clinton's character. These remarks neutralize the
photograph, claiming that it wasn't really meant to "go beyond the
news"--it was simply meant to represent the real world.
Yet, as the editor discounts the interpretive intent of the
photograph, he or she divorces the photograph from being an example
of Time's mission to correct for the plethora of unanalyzed and
fragmentary televisual information that barrages readers. Through
this repair strategy, Time re-combines its mission into the
conventions of value neutrality and journalistic objectivity
required in serious and mainstream political journalism.
However, this repair strategy is a clue that level three
disorganization does, and indeed, has to, occur. The confluence of
Time's format changes, the character issue cover story and cover
photo, and Time's attempts to repair its mission, all indicate what
normative research says--that journalists and candidates are bound
together symbiotically. Yet, as the organizational focus of media
politics stresses that candidates use and out-flank journalists,
the rhetorical momentum of this example suggests that journalists
cannot extricate themselves or their professional ideologies from
being submerged in the campaign strategies on which they report.
This momentum appears inexorable, and objectivity, balance and
fairness are thereby assimilated into the strategic swirl of the
This assimilation illuminates two conditions. First,
mainstream campaign journalism is trapped between being manipulated
by candidates and obsessed with campaign strategy. Also, it is
confused by the economic imperative to make a profit and the moral
imperative to inform and educate the electorate. These conditions
reflect and amplify difficulties journalists have reconciling
ambivalent role conceptions when they "play" particular roles.
CONCLUSION AND IMPLICATIONS
This paper has examined the discursive results of the press's
observer/actor role conceptions. The paper located these role
conceptions in a context, a presidential election campaign, which
is known to amplify and aggravate its underlying ambiguity. This
situation, it was argued, formed a rhetorical context for campaign
news. The discursive results of this ambivalence were conceptually
defined as a patterened discourse system and operationally located
in three message features. Two particular press roles, the press
as "anointer" of front-runners and "character cop" to candidates,
provided the basis for the selecting texts and the basis for
journalism's rhetorical behavior.
The text analyses showed how the core, ambivalent role
conceptions of mainstream political journalism as participant and
actor were rhetorically played out in particular roles. When
viewed as rhetorical, these roles foster a view of journalism's
conventions of objectivity and restraint which might be misread as
useless or false, as prevailing normative or critical views would
have it. I will return to this implication momentarily,
considering first two meta-theoretical concerns engendered by the
analysis. The first concern centers on how the text pattern,
disorganized journalism, is to be judged and evaluated if a
prescriptive impulse had to be suspended in order to derive it.
Although this study does argue that a rhetorical purview of
campaign journalism ought be maintained in analysis of campaign
news texts, it does not mean to argue that this purview obviates
criticism. What is does implicitly argue is that much can be
learned about campaign news and about political processes if
researchers of the news/campaign interface concentrate on
rhetorical dimensions and structures in political news texts.
"Disorganized politics" may not therefore be as useful a concept as
"disorganized journalism," for the former repudiates the
rhetorically rich and dilemmetic campaign environment within which
journalism has an ever-increasing importance, and within which
press roles and news values are forged.
Beyond this meta-theoretical concern, disorganized journalism
may usefully gesture toward hoary problems of the relationship of
discourse and ideology addressed in communication scholarship,
particularly in cultural studies. Disorganized journalism,
operationalized, gives a glimpse how news ideology is accomplished
through discourse. Such glimpses are necessary, and best achieved,
I argue, when the critical endeavor appreciates that rhetorical and
dilemmatic environments generate discourse production.
Two implications conclude this study. First, it seems that an
important aspect of disorganized journalism may lie in how the
hegemonic potential of message components on levels two (reparative
news) and three (absorbable news) interact with level one, or self-
conscious, news. What I would argue is that self-conscious news is
worth taking seriously because it contains elements of intellectual
honesty vis-a-vis the press's roles in electoral politics. Self-
conscious journalism that articulates active press roles is not
only possible in the logic of objectivity--contrary to what Tuchman
(1978), for example, claims--but also a potentially beneficial
development in the marketplace of information--contrary to what
Entman (1989:133-134) asserts. The real problem is that this self-
consciousness instigates other rhetorical responses that submerge
its potentially useful insights.
The second implication is that these submergences appear to
form bases for campaign journalism's objectivity and authority.
Even though the most "disorganized" journalism occurs within the
conventions neutrality, restraint and objectivity, this study
implicitly argues that we ought to be careful to not throw out the
baby with the bathwater when discussing these conventions.
Disorganized journalism, although encompassing ideological
processes, does not mean useless journalism. It does, however,
mean internally unstable, groping journalism, which, encoded in the
information we vote by, makes it difficult for voter/news consumers
to gain positive conceptions of journalism as a legitimate
regulator of political change.
1. Davis (1992:256-271), for example, summarizes the major roles
found in the political press: "the roles the press now plays are
mentioner, categorizer, expectation-setter, agenda-setter,
winnower, and chief critic." Sabato (1991) describes the press's
ever intensifying proclivity to "attack" candidates in terms of a
progression of roles. Since the beginning of the New Deal, he
argues, journalists have gone from being "lapdogs" to "watchdogs"
2. Disorganized journalism does not refer to an a priori
evaluation of Time magazine or campaign news in general: Time is
not any more "disorganized" than other newsmagazines, newspapers or
television news. The issues of Time used in this study were
considered to be exemplar cases of the text pattern under study.
3. The "invisible primary," corresponding to a period between the
candidate's announcement to run for the presidency and the first
caucuses and primaries (Hadley, 1976), is described by Rosenstiel
(1993:47) as "...a critical event conducted by a closed circle of
journalists and Washington insiders that decides which candidates
could raise money, build and organization, and win party support."
4. Howard Kurtz (1993), press critic for the Washington Post,
reflected on the early days of the election in Media Circus:
In the first days of 1992, the press worked its
conspiratorial magic in anointing Bill Clinton as the
Democratic presidential front-runner.
Much of the country had never heard of the Arkansas
governor. Not a single vote had been cast in any
primary. Yet a relative handful of newspaper reporters,
acting like some metaphysical screening committee,
divined that Clinton was the man who would face George
Bush in the fall.
The magazines quickly followed suit. "Is Bill Clinton
for Real?" Time's cover asked six weeks before the New
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