The press is known as the fourth estate – existing to hold the collective feet of the other three estates, or three branches of government, to the fire. There should be a healthy friction between press and government. There should be skepticism.
On the other end of the spectrum, here is an illustrative example of what it looks like when press and government function as one, with no skepticism or friction. Vox.com is almost a year old, but in smug years, they’re 42.
They landed an interview with President Barack Obama conducted by co-founders Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias, and released the videos and transcripts today (Vox will be joined by Buzzfeed Tuesday as part of Obama’s new media tour).
On some level, Vox drops the journalistic pretense altogether. Instead of an “interview,” it is mostly referred to as a “conversation” (or, more glasses-on-tip-of-nose-y, “THE conversation”). The produced video elements are not called “videos” or “clips,” but “films.” How important!
Yglesias drives home that point on Twitter – just chatting with the president, NBD.
Me and Barack Obama talking foreign policy: http://t.co/KHazS5iJgJ
— Matt Yglesias (@mattyglesias) February 9, 2015
We should pause for a minute to note the unique, interesting videos produced by the Vox team. There are annotations and graphs, music underneath that adds a dramatic element. It’s visually appealing and unlike anything you’ve seen before for an interview with a major political figure. Vox co-founder Melissa Bell was excited about this:
We interviewed and annotated a president. It's pretty great: http://t.co/oiszPFa5zD
— Melissa Bell (@MelissaBell) February 9, 2015
But there’s a very good reason why this hasn’t been done before. It turns an interview into a conversation, or even more appropriately (with the music and graphics) a commercial. There is no critical thought that goes into the video production, no questioning. It takes Obama’s words as truth, and builds a beautiful visual around it better than any Democratic National Committee communications team could do. What does it say about your supposed-news organization when Glozell produced a more journalistic experience?
As MSNBC host (and buddy of Klein and Yglesias) Chris Hayes notes on Twitter:
— Christopher Hayes (@chrislhayes) February 9, 2015
Striking, yes. And also – not something you’d ever want to brag about if you’re an actual news organization. This is not what journalists interviewing a newsmaker looks like. This is a couple excited college kids getting a chance to pick the brain of their favorite college professor, hoping their intellectual curiosity can earn them some extra credit (or, even better, respect).
It’s not just about production either – it’s about substance. A significant part of Klein’s portion of the interview focused on the pressing topic of polarization.
“It seems that there’s something structural happening there in terms of party polarization and the way it affects approval ratings and cooperation with presidents,” says Klein, which translates in non-fanboy terms to “a lot of people don’t seem to like you, what’s wrong with them?”
Yglesias handled the foreign policy questions, and asked things like this:
“…members of your administration often seem acutely aware of the idea of limits of American power, maybe to a greater extent than they always feel comfortable articulating publicly. Is it difficult to say, in the political and media system, that there are things that you can’t really do?”
Translation: your job is hard.
Are there substantive questions throughout? Yes. On Iran, on foreign aid, on health care costs. But when you decorate your substance with the frills of a promo for the president, the fourth estate role disappears.
Vox’s slogan is “Understand The News.” How can they understand something when they don’t know how it’s made?
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