December 23, 2002

Modern journalists in a postmodern world…

Howard Kurtz considers the attitude of the press toward Al Gore (see my earlier post). There are two quotes in the column I find disturbing:

“Somewhere along the line,” says Mark Halperin, ABC’s political director, “the dominant political reporters for most dominant news organizations decided they didn’t like him, and they thought the story line on any given day was about his being a phony or a liar or a waffler. Within the subculture of political reporting, there was almost peer pressure not to say something neutral, let alone nice, about his ideas, his political skills, his motivations.”

…and…

Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank said on CNN in August: “I think that Gore is sanctimonious and that’s sort of the worst thing you can be in the eyes of the press. And he has been disliked all along, and it was because he gives a sense that he’s better than us.”

In the first quotation, note the prominence of the narrative bias. In other words, Halperin is saying that the master narrative that the press wrote for Gore dictated a certain point of view among political reporters. This master narrative ran counter to the intuitive assumption that Gore should get favorable coverage from a liberal press.

In the second quotation, Dana Milbank is not a columnist but a reporter. What a reporter thinks about Al Gore shouldn’t play a role in the “objective” process of news gathering, writing, and editing as long established by the profession. As we all know, however, one’s point of view cannot be escaped. And, as the postmodern thinkers tell us, one does not have a single point of view; one has multiple, even conflicting, points of view.

So in Milbank’s case, which is the more powerful point of view (assuming two for the moment)? I’ll assume (safely, I think) that Milbank is politically liberal. Don’t liberals automatically favor liberals because no human can observe the world objectively? An affirmative answer is roughly the position espoused by Michael Kelly in his recent columns about media bias (see here and here)

Standard criticism of media bias assumes a modernist subject position, i.e. a stable and consistent personality whose actions can be analyzed and predicted based on an understanding of the subject’s point of view. Well, it ain’t that easy.

Reporters may be overwhelmingly liberal, but that doesn’t mean that their political ideologies are always the dominant point of view, or the dominant influence on their work. I suggest that for many reporters the structural biases of journalism have far more influence on their coverage than ideology. I suppose my best argument for this contention is that ideology varies greatly among individuals, but professional practice, while still variable to an extent, is a shared context among professional practitioners.

December 21, 2002

Lazy journalism as structural bias…

In another life, long ago, I was a news photographer. I was only three years out of college the summer of 1982, and I was working in Washington D.C. At the time, I thought that was seriously cool. But I rapidly became bored because every bit of news I saw was manufactured. I quit that job–later to become a reporter, editor, and freelancer–after I missed the only real news that I actually witnessed that summer.

Sen. William Roth (R-Del.) was much in the news that summer with his tax cut bill (Roth-Kemp). For a publicity stunt, the Senator and others arranged to have an 8-foot apple pie baked and delivered to the Mall near the Washington Monument. They gave free pie to passersby as a symbol of the tax cut giving back a piece of the pie. Yadda, yadda, yadda…until three members of something called (as I recall anyway) the Coalition for Creative Non-violence leaped onto the stage and dove right into the pie.

I missed it. MISSED IT! I was totally asleep, lulled into a Washington stupor expecting nothing unscripted to happen (or, expecting that nothing scripted could possibly be interesting). I stood there, mouth agape, as these three jokers belly-flopped right into the pie. My cameras hung around my neck–useless. I was ashamed of myself.

There are many reasons why the Washington press corps missed the Lott story on 5 December. Paul Janensch certainly has a piece of it when he says:

When I worked in Washington, I was struck by how boring it can be to cover a carefully scripted event. Often the reporters there already know how they will frame their stories and don’t pay attention to what’s actually said at a Congressional hearing or a press briefing.

Or a birthday party.

Or a publicity stunt.

Okay, so this is how they missed it for the evening news (although the ABC political blog, The Note, carried it on 6 December) and the morning papers. What happened on 7 December?

I was lazy that summer. The reporters at that birthday party, except for one ABC producer, were lazy. Part of this laziness may be attributed to the Washington stupor. And the Washington stupor may be attributed to several of the structural biases of journalism. Scripted events do not fit the bad news bias, so they are thought immediately boring. Scripted events do not fit the temporal bias because the timing is nearly always artificial. Scripted events do fit the narrative and status quo biases because these events present a set plot that nearly always affirms the system of American government. (via MediaMinded)

December 21, 2002

Time for another Clinton?…

Al Gore’s departure from the 2004 presidential campaign seems to have hit the Democrats hard. That might explain a recent Gallup poll of election support showing Sen. Joe Lieberman with 25% and Sen. John Kerry with 21%. But if Sen. Hillary Clinton were to run she would start with 40%, and Lieberman and Kerry would drop off the map.

Someday we will elect a woman or an African-American as president. I hope to see it in my lifetime. I suspect this person will be a Republican, not a Democrat.

December 20, 2002

Of plurals and the letter ‘n’…

Jacob “Nitpicky Grammar Person” Weisberg offers us another Bushism today. And, like all such nitpickers, he ignores content in favor of form–as if this were the most important thing in communication, as if this were a sign of intelligence. In today’s installment, Bush has trouble with his plurals and tacks an ‘n’ sound onto “America.” Wow, what inexcusable transgressions those are!

In the end, it’s not really Weisberg’s fault. He’s been taught by our culture and educational system that such nitpicking is proper. I would, however, suggest he look into the history of “correctness” in English usage. I think he might be surprised what he finds there. I suggest he reads The Formation of College English by Thomas P. Miller (U of Pittsburgh P).

Weisberg, of course, would have spoken flawlessly because he’s intelligent–a language expert! Here’s the Bush passage as a true expert would have spoken it:

A goal for this country is peace in the world. And another goal for this country is a compassionate America for every single citizen. That compassion is found in the hearts and souls of the American citizens.

End the Bushisms.

December 20, 2002

The power of goodwill…

William Powers considers the role of goodwill in helping politicians survive scandals. He contends that Sen. Trent Lott is among the “goodwill-deficient.” I especially like the 4-point categorization Powers creates, but I wish he had accounted for Bill Clinton. I’m not sure any of Powers’ categories adequately explain the source of Clinton’s goodwill. Perhaps we should add: perceived political effectiveness, or common connection. Love him or hate him, Clinton did preside over a long period of economic expansion that created an ever greater level of comfort in America. And he really did sell his ability to feel our pain. I would add to this that Clinton came to understand something important about how to apologize, as I present in this essay on the topic [.pdf].

December 19, 2002

End the Bushisms…

I called for Jacob Weisberg to stop publishing Bushisms on Slate. I’ve now decided to counter them as he publishes them (for all the good it’ll do). Weisberg takes these statements out of context, so I will do the same–meaning, I will consider each Bushism as a separate speech act just as Weisberg does. Today’s entry is certainly an example of Bush’s clumsy speaking (wow, that’s a tough target to hit), but let’s consider the content. He is taking responsibility for consoling the relatives of those who may be killed in battle by his orders. Another president took the same responsibility on 21 November 1864. One is certainly more eloquently stated than the other. The sentiment deserves praise. End the Bushisms!

December 19, 2002

Journalism’s state of confusion…

Michael Kelly concludes his two-part series on bias in the news media. I remain unimpressed with his observations regarding bias, but I think this observations about professionalism and education in journalism is important:

But we don’t have any professional training or discipline. Journalism is not a profession in the sense of medicine or law or science. Journalists do not go through years of brutal academic apprenticeship designed to inculcate adherence to an agreed-upon code of ethics (such as the Hippocratic oath) or an agreed-upon method of truth-determining (such as the method of scientific inquiry). We are not required to meet any standards of knowledge. We are not certified. We operate under no mandated professional set of rules. We need not even be decently educated, as consumers of news frequently notice.

It seems to me that it is exactly this set of concerns that Lee C. Bollinger (background here, here, here, and here.) is trying to address with his task force at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. While I think journalists universally recoil at the idea of licensing (ditto), I believe better education and more professional training is possible and desirable.

Perhaps better education would correct the mistaken notion that journalistic objectivity is about a “godlike ability to perceive and present the ‘objective’ truth on all matters that come before us,” as Kelly states it. This is not what journalistic objectivity meant; it is, however, what it has come (mistakenly) to mean. Objectivity in journalism once denoted a method of reporting and writing that seeks the truth as it is able to be understood by real people.1 The ethic and method of verification is part of this objectivity, for example. The reason objectivity is mistaken today: The profession of journalism is losing its methods.

The Kerry hair scandal is an excellent example of this loss of method. The inaccurate story was first “broken” by Matt Drudge. That’s red flag number one. But, without verification, legitimate news organizations picked up the story as inaccurately presented by Drudge. By attributing the story to Drudge, these journalists apparently thought that they had done their jobs. Not so. The journalists who did their jobs were the ones who checked it out, who did their own reporting and were able to discover the (uninteresting) truth that Kerry pays $75 for a haircut.

Kelly’s two columns are instructive. They represent for me much of what is good in journalism–the constant search for truth, clarity, and professionalism. But these columns also point up for me all that is confused about the profession–even by some of its top practitioners. (via MediaMinded)

1 See an excellent discussion of “truth” in Journalism Ethics: Philosophical Foundations for News Media, by John C. Merrill (Bedford/St. Martin’s).

December 19, 2002

Structural blindness…

This article from The American Prospect demonstrates how, if not why, the structural biases of journalism are more important to consider than temporary, localized, or over-generalized ideological bias. Despite the left-leaning nature of the commentary about the press’ treatment of Al Gore in 2000, I consider this article an excellent example, a case study if you will, of the structural biases trumping simplistic ideological bias. Writer Paul Waldman says in his conclusion:

Reporters’ view of Gore is an exaggerated version of their view of politicians in general: conniving, manipulative, driven by the lust for power, a persona rather than a person, someone from whom nothing can be taken at face value. The lesson of Gore’s press coverage is that reporters’ personal views about candidates matter, but not in the ideological sense of liberal reporters boosting Democrats and conservative reporters boosting Republicans. While it may be true that a majority of reporters vote Democratic, they savaged Gore and continue to give glowing coverage to John McCain, a conservative Republican who treats them like buddies, seldom refuses to go on record and is generally fun to be around. The men seeking the opportunity to face Bush in 2004 might consider this as they prepare their campaigns.

Set aside your thoughts and feelings about Al Gore for a moment. This “case study” offers excellent examples of narrative bias and status quo bias that affect politicians right or left. The effects of narrative bias are evident in the quoted paragraph. In the plot that is American politics, journalists assume that politicians are “conniving, manipulative, driven by the lust for power, a persona rather than a person.” Politicians are characters playing roles. And journalists often treat them in predictable ways based on these characterizations. But those characterizations may be changed–especially if the politician treats the press as John McCain did.

This article raises disturbing questions about the professionalism of political journalists, their abilities to think critically, their understanding of the structure of their own profession, their understanding of interpersonal communication, and their basic understanding of language issues.

December 18, 2002

New media dialectic…

I’ve not been covering the situation with The New York Times and the Augusta National Golf Club because it is outside the interests of this blog. So I might otherwise have missed this column by Terry Eastland of The Weekly Standard if not for the on-the-ball media coverage of MediaMinded. Eastland argues that the “story of the spiked columns is about more than the Times. In fact, it is a story about the old–i.e., the establishment–media. And the story shows why their influence has waned.” He concludes:

The history of the media since the 1960s may be described as a revolt against the old establishment and its definition of appropriate political discussion. Necessarily, it has employed argument to find out “what we know and what we still need to know.”

At first, the revolt was led by so-called alternative media, including small magazines and weeklies. But with new technology have come the new media of cable news and nationwide talk radio. And now there is the Web with its blogosphere (see, among many, kausfiles.com, andrewsullivan.com, instapundit.com, volokh.blogspot.com, and nationalreview.com). There is a lot of argument out there–some good, some mediocre, some awful. And much of the new media has a conservative (to libertarian) cast, doubtless a response to the liberal tendencies of the old media (see the New York Times).

But the bigger point about the new media is that they have broken the hold the old media had on news for so long. Indeed, they advance stories even the most aggressive newspapers miss and in ways not predictably partisan–the one involving Trent Lott a case in point (see Josh Marshall’s talkingpointsmemo.com).

I think we may certainly agree with the role dialectic plays in new media forms, if for no other reason than the internet and other interactive technologies make it possible to argue back effectively–instead of settling for the moral satisfaction of shaking a newspaper or yelling at the TV screen. I think we must, however, also look at the unique structures of the internet in general or the blogosphere in particular and begin assessing what bias those structures introduce. The structural biases of journalism that I so often allude to are old media structures.

I too often assume a structural correspondence where none may exist because I contend that the internet offers a print-based cognitive system, i.e. propositional content that demands a rational assessment of logical, pathetic, and ethical argument. Just because the internet and The New York Times share a cognitive system, however, does not mean they share other structures of bias.

December 18, 2002

And they’re off…

Al Gore’s departure from the 2004 race eliminates the front-runner and opens the field for a pre-primary horse race. I detest the horse-race metaphor, but it has become nearly impossible in our media culture to think of the presidential nominating process in other terms–unless, of course, we use a football or war metaphor.

That we view the process primarily as a race leads directly to the kind of thinking outlined by Howard Kurtz yesterday. At a moment when the press has the time and opportunity to explore issues before the primary season begins, it will instead spend its efforts focusing on positioning:

Dick Gephardt is the front-runner in Iowa, which would be an insurmountable advantage, especially with his labor support, except that John Kerry is the leader in New Hampshire, but of course he’s expected to win so any softening would be fatal, especially in South Carolina, where John Edwards could have the edge. But all that turns on whether Joseph Lieberman can garner support as a northern pro-war hawk outside his base, which in turn would be influenced by Tom Daschle’s decision to jump in, which could make it easier for Howard Dean to claim the outsider’s mantle. Or not.

Kurtz says this situation makes political reporters “ecstatic.” I guess so. And why not? To describe the kind of political reporting and writing they could be doing, the kind that might actually be useful in understanding the issues, I’d have to use, say, a ditch-digging metaphor.

Horse-race reporting is lazy reporting. It requires only that you take what politicians feed and then make superficial connections. And it’s more fun to write because it’s personality driven. Plus, there’s the added bonus of political prognostication (and an appearance on cable TV!)–a peculiar journalistic sport in which there are absolutely no penalties for mistakes.

But journalists counter that issues reporting bores the public. Yes, that’s true. Issues reporting bores the public when handled badly…or lazily.

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