BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. More than a week has passed since the president's Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad, but the debate rages on as to whether the press and the American people were inappropriately misled by the White House. I say "inappropriately," because from the beginning, deception was part of the official plan. While reporters in Texas unwittingly filed bogus dispatches about holiday preparations, Air Force One was stealthily landing in Baghdad with a few reporters on board. A number of observers see it as yet another taxpayer-subsidized PR stunt by President Bush and have criticized the complicity of those few reporters. GOP strategist Mary Matalin, on the other hand, has defended the president's jaunt, telling the Washington Post that it, quote, "captured something about the president that people know is true -- that he really cares about the soldiers and gets emotional when he sees them." Jay Rosen chairs the Journalism Program at New York University. He wrote on his blog that the all-too-familiar terms of this debate are not up to the task of truly deconstructing Bush's political maneuver.
JAY ROSEN: "Shrewd, unethical, fake, manipulative, honest, real" -- those are the terms of the debate so far.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what about the president's trip? Was it real, or was it fake, or was it both?
JAY ROSEN: What interested me about it was that it was impossible to decide. When the president landed on the ground in a war zone, he was creating a reality that is very far from any sort of stunt. First of all, it's dangerous. Second of all, it enters into the politics in Iraq. The logic of the trip is to communicate to the troops -- not just the 600 in the airport, but the hundreds of thousands involved in the operation -- and to the nation, that the president believes in this cause. Now you can't say that's just a stunt, because it has repercussions in many arenas. But the trip did not exist as an event independent of its reporting, independent of the press.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As a matter of fact, if the press did not agree to keep silent, then the trip would have been canceled.
JAY ROSEN:The press had the power of life and death over this event, which is a very unusual thing. If the press refused to go, it is then in the business of canceling a presidential visit. It would have to report that it did this, because it's news that the president wanted to go to Iraq. And the nation would then have to decide whether it was a good thing that journalists vetoed his visit. If, on the other hand, they say "Sure. We'll keep it secret. We'll pretend we don't know." Then they are co-producers of the event, and journalistic thinking doesn't cover that class either.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:This state of affairs, as you've just described it, you've called the "modern publicity state." But you say it's not, in fact, a modern phenomenon. So give us the background.
JAY ROSEN: In 1919, the major powers came to Versailles to try and settle the peace treaty at the end of the world war, and there had been gatherings of statesmen and diplomats before to settle wars. What was new was that news of proposals made was sent instantly back to the home countries, and reaction at home was sent immediately back to the negotiations, and the story started to have an effect on "the story." Today we take this for granted. Then it was -- wow - a new force in the world. We've never really assimilated that the press is a player in politics, because if in America we say the press is a player, we would have to know what it's playing for, and what we prefer to say is: no one, nothing -- it brings you the world. That's the rock that we're stuck on. But we've been stuck there since 1919.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What happens to journalism when an event can't be separated from the media coverage of them?
JAY ROSEN:I think you're thrown into a kind of a philosophical confusion that is not necessarily a bad thing, because it means you have to look anew at the world and ask yourself what is in front of my eyes?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Give me an example.
JAY ROSEN:Well, if I went up to a reporter on Air Force One as it flew to Baghdad, and I asked this person "What the hell are you doing here?" He or she would most likely say to me "I'm here to cover the president's surprise trip to Baghdad." And the assumption the person would be making is that this trip exists independently of the intention to cover it. But it does not. And a moment of thought would tell even the journalist that. So that's what I mean. Be a little bit more confused about what you're doing in that situation -- is an advantage, because your clarity is a false clarity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So what you're saying here is that the president's Thanksgiving trip exists in some sort of middle region between pure image-making and an actual, real event that exists outside of press coverage -- that there is some sort of middle zone where the two things can't be separated that are still worthy of coverage even though they only exist to be covered.
JAY ROSEN: It's a quintessentially modern problem of ours, because we live in the world where the media are not just representing the world. They take up a powerful position in it. Journalists are political actors. There's no way around that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But what is a political actor? A political actor isn't one that simply writes political commentary as a journalist.
JAY ROSEN:No. What I mean by a political actor is: what you do makes a difference in the political world. Peter Arnett goes to Baghdad and sits with the Iraqi media. He didn't know how to think politically about what he was doing. And so there are consequences to not being able to see yourself as a political actor. You are in some ways creating the public world. Most of us know this. We know it intuitively. We just don't know how to describe it, debate it, accept it, deal with it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Thanks very much.
JAY ROSEN: Brooke, my pleasure. You even taught me something.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Jay Rosen is a press critic and writer who is currently the chair of NYU's Journalism Program. You can read his reflections about media and democracy on his blog PressThink, accessible from NYU's web site.