The news media in a capitalist society is a two-way energy flow between producers and consumers. Consumers influence coverage by putting their money (or their exposure to advertising) into some sources, and not into others. If the media gives people too much of what they don't want -- too many naked ugly people, for instance -- the viewers will tune out. Media, on the other hand, influence consumers by, overtly or subtly, showing them certain paradigms of the world they live in. It's thanks in part to the media that we have a collective image of which people are ugly when naked.
People have varying degrees of ability to sort out that media's constant stream of "reality memes" and test them against their own experience. If CBS news tells the world there's a brushfire in your back yard, you can tell at a glance whether that assessment is ture. If it tells you Iraq is a nation in chaos, neither you nor I can tell whether that is true without seeking more media to consult about it.
About 90 percent of my job, as a reporter or an editor, is about deciding what NOT to tell the readers. That sounds arrogant, but if you think about it, you'll agree that it's necessary.
I used to cover a lot of municipal meetings. They'd open with the pledge of allegiance, do old business, do new business, discuss the date of the Halloween parade. Joe Neighbor and his wife want a permit to add a garage to their house. The police chief thanks the supervisors for buying new uniforms.
Then a big lawyer gets up and makes a presentation saying that he represents a firm that wants to build 500 new homes on the last farm in the township. The supervisors tell him the proposal doesn't meet certain terms of their ordinances, and tell him to come back with a revised plan. Then they do some more business, set the date of the next meeting, talk about the local football team, and adjourn.
The only think I'm going to go back and write about from that meeting is the big development plan. I'm doing this on the premise that, unless you're Joe Neighbor or you live right next door to him, you don't care about his garage, but almost everyone is going to want to know that the last farm in the area is under consideration for development, and that someone wants to add a whole lot of new people to the census and new traffic to the roads.
That part of the meeting might have lasted 20 minutes out of 2 hours. That's reporting; a reporter is paid to recognize that stuff, and to write it on time.
When I'm sitting at the wire desk as an editor, it's not much different. AP will move maybe 300 stories in a cycle. We also get stories from the New York Times and Cox wires. Some duplicate the AP coverage, some don't. All told, there may be 500 possible stories to go in the paper (in addition to the ones generated locally) on any given day. Maybe 30 of them will get in, and some of those only in very abbreviated form.
Not only do I chose which ones people read, I decide, or help decide, which ones ought to get more prominence than which other ones.
Along the way I'll choose maybe 6 photos to illustrate the day's news, out of maybe 250 images available since the last time we put out a paper, 24 hours ago.
And the AP editors, whom I never see or interact with, already have weeded through the news to choose those 300 stories, those 250 photos, through which I move like a cafeteria customer. They might have looked at 3,000 or 5,000 articles that were written in that day, and moved only a fraction of them on the wire.
And the photographers decided where to point their lenses .... You get the idea.
The other 10 percent of the job? That would be reporters looking for stories that don't flow through the usual channels of police reports, court trials, press conferences, news releases, beat coverage in the usual places. That would be me as a copy editor finding a story on the wire that doesn't have a lot of news value or local relevance, but might be compelling to read, and making space for it in the newspaper. Ten percent is about how much of a news organization's time and resources are left over for that part.
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A morning newspaper or an evening newscast consists of decisions made by dozens of men and women along the line. Yet it strives to appear to be a seamless presentation of the world. And in fact newspapers and newscasts do appear to be the work of one mind. This can only work if the people making the decisions have, essentially, the same range of views about things. I say range of views, because there's a degree of flex in it. Two different wire editors can read the same AP political story and one will headline it: "Bush bashes Kerry," and the other: "Kerry's record questioned." But you get the same story in either case.
Some views are essentially excluded from the media: flat-earthers, for instance, are not taken into account when a reporter writes about the Space Shuttle. People who think that cell phone towers are alien homing devices usually only turn up in the letters to the editor page.
Not all fringes are minorities; Catholics who believe in the miracles of the saints don't usually find that view supported in the newspaper. America may have more Creationists than people who believe in the prevailing scientific view of geology. Yet the newspaper is written as though science is right.
That doesn't seem to bother most people, maybe because St. Theresa or the Carboniferous Period rarely appear in headlines. I think a lot of people, even committed Catholics and creationists, understand that their views on these particular issues are not universal, and they accept the secular alternative, for the sake of getting the news.
The mass media is part of the public definition of the wall between "mainstream" and "fringe." Yet when the journalistic core contracts, or shifts in one direction, valid views can get excluded, get marginalized, get taken off the table.
In the minds of the people who accept it and consume it, the mainstream mass media both defines and inhabits "the center," the core, the range of acceptable views of the world we live in. However differently these views may shade away from each other (the Bush-Kerry headline quibble), they are essentially coherent, logical, and consistent with facts.
* * *
The Chomsky critique has a lot of truth in it, as I've said. He examines the way in which media consensus is a manufactured quality, and he often sees that correctly, from my experience. Certain questions will never be asked in the press, because certain ways of thinking that would lead to them do not exist in the press. Swaths of information that some people consider crucial never will be presented because editors won't recognize how they fit into the world view.
The mistake Chomsky makes, I think, is in believing that HIS view ought to be enshrined in the meda in place of the current soft, leftish "center." When people protested against Fox News during the GOP convention, they told it to "get off the air." Chomskyites tend to want to replace "corporate media" with "severely Stalinist and Amero-phobic media." This ignores the symbiotic relationship of viewers and the media. It presents the viewers as passive recipients of propaganda.
And that, I think, reflects a somewhat outdated fixation with the importance of the major mass media, but one which is natural in a man of Chomsky's generation. In the 1960s, with only three network channels and international print coverage in America driven almost entirely by the AP, UPI, and the New York Times, the worldview of the majority of Americans could be shaped by a few twitches in the top newsrooms.
Now, you get the Internet. You get Fox News. You get NPR. You get Radio America. Hell, you can all but duplicate my copy desk job of sorting through the AP wire and the AP photo desk; it's all online. I'm waiting for the day my boss figures out that all this material, for which we pay tens of thousands of dollars per year as a "member" of the Associated Press, is available for free to anyone with a laptop and a phone jack.
But that's the rub. Most people don't have four hours a day to sort through the AP, Reuters, AFP wires and photo desks. They'll pay 50 cents for a newspaper, or sit through 10 minutes of dull TV commercials, for the sake of letting someone do it for them.
* * *
Since the 1970s, "journalism" has become not just a trade practiced by random people who couldn't hold down real jobs, but a profession, one for which you train since high school. Such schooling has the tendency to streamline herds into phalanxes. It weeds out misfits. It ensures the editors and reporters who do make it through have a common background that focuses the range of their world-views.
It's a lifetime process, because the people who hire reporters and editors tend to embrace people who think like they do. Managing editors (the ones who do the hiring) are products of the newsroom culture. They moved up through the ranks (in part by not making trouble for the herd mentality) till they got to the point where they can replenish the gene pool. And they'll choose people who resemble themselves.
It's a natural human trait. I'm sure editors are no different than other bosses. If they interview a job candidate and scent someone who has a way of seeing that is dramatically different from the boss's own, or from the group of people he's already hired, that candidate is not likely to get the job. It's just inviting trouble for yourself, as a boss, as someone trying to guide a group of people to cooperate intensely to get something done every day on short notice.
If the political polarization of the public expands, while that of the media shrinks, this is a problem. And if the media center not only narrows, it tilts in one direction, so that its world view loses touch with realities and in some ways itself resembles the "fringes" it typically excludes, then this is a crisis.
I believe we're in that crisis now. I find it amazing that people consider the media to have a "conservative" bias. If by that you mean, "Peter Jennings is not actively promoting Maoist revolutionary rhetoric," then yes, that's true. But according to a Pew Research Center survey reported in "Editor & Publisher," the official publication of the U.S. news media, the proportion of self-defined "liberals" in newsrooms is increasing much faster than that of self-defined "conservatives," and the ratio is well out of proportion to the nation as a whole.
At national organizations (which includes print, TV and radio), the numbers break down like this: 34% liberal, 7% conservative. At local outlets: 23% liberal, 12% conservative. At Web sites: 27% call themselves liberals, 13% conservatives.
This contrasts with the self-assessment of the general public: 20% liberal, 33% conservative.
Pew found that, over time, not only is the media more polarized, but the liberal voices are more numerous. Since 1995, at national outlets, the liberal segment has climbed from 22% to 34% while conservatives have inched up from 5% to 7%
This is a self-assessment. Most of the journalists, like many Americans, describe themselves as "moderate." But from my experience, the majority of journalists who describe themselves as "moderates" actually break toward the left on most issues. If you consider the schism between newsrooms and the rest of the U.S., it's not surprising that a "moderate" in the subculture will be a "liberal" in the larger culture.
And when the fury of partisan politics, and the vision of a world being led by George W. Bush into hellish ruin, converge in the minds of the media, as they have in so many anti-Bush/anti-war/anti-American people I see and read in the media, then the desire to change the future through the "medium" of the present becomes an active force in the thousand little daily decisions that define news coverage.
My newsroom is a sea of conversations in which my co-workers sit at their desks talking about how much they hate Bush, how important it is to defeat him, how many people they saw at the anti-war rally they marched in, how criminal the Iraq war is, how "evil" the U.S. administration is, how brilliant and important Michael Moore is, how stupid Republicans are.
These things are not even considered controversial. They're presented as things too obvious to require proof, and too universally known to be questioned. If I want to find someone in my newsroom to talk to about what a good job the U.S. men and women did in overthrowing Saddam, and are doing in rebuilding Iraq, I have to walk across the room the find the one who would answer me with anything but a stare of horror, like I'd just proposed dismembering a puppy.
And at the same time these conversations are underway the same people are assembling newspaper pages. They do this with the same minds, the same world-views, that they bring to their conversations. Would anyone expect otherwise?
Labels: journalism, media, MSM