Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Media Mash-Up

All mainstream journalism involving politics is ultimately political cartooning. The cartoonist does in visible and graphic form what the reporter does invisibly, in the framing of his sentences: He endows his subjects with fixed, sharply defined, and unalterable identities. They have characters, as opposed to personalities. Which is why politicians, as they appear in the news, tend to resemble creations from Dickens novels.

This is because, to write coherently in the language of his craft, the reporter, like the 19th-century novelist, has to sharply delimit the parcels of reality he stacks and restacks every day like building blocks.

[There is a special class of journalists whose job is to write in-depth pieces that seem to puncture the defined identities of things that the rest of them employ. This class is rare, and regarded with suspicion, if not resentment.]

I have seen remarkable scenes in newsrooms, when some new emergence on the local political scene had not yet been given a label and a box. Some people saw her as a maverick, some saw her as an ego-driven insurgent in the party, some as an ally and possible tool of outside powers with agendas. Tears were shed over this. Eventually, one faction won and she was written about thereafter -- never explicitly, mind you -- as an ego-driven insurgent.

If it ever occurred to my bickering peers that all those things might be true, in different measures or at different times, that was not expressed. Nor did I express it. That level of reality simply is too complex for the 15-inch newspaper story.

* * *

James Joyner made some observations on the media here

The press has the same tendency as the rest of us to filter incoming information through our preconceptions, a phenomenon social scientists call “expectancy bias.”

And concludes:

While media is decidedly plural, there’s nonetheless a herd mentality. There’s a healthy does of cognitive dissonance which allows well-established memes to survive repeated collisions with coun[t]ervailing facts.

The observations are not new. But the puzzlement over them never ends.

Dave, at The Glittering Eye, who in an e-mail called my attention to Joyner's post, also at the same time framed the wittiest answer:

I sometimes wonder whether there's a sort of pre-literate quality to some journalistic writing in which Homeric epithets (red-bearded Menelaus, Odysseus
of the many wiles) are updated for modern use (lazy Fred Thompson, nutty Ron
Paul) as a kind of mnemonic or rhetorical device.

For as long as my memory holds up, I'll wish I had written that. After my memory goes, I'll insist I did write that.

For those fascinated by this topic, one place that is constantly contemplating it (from an inside journalism perspective, which likely will be more to the left than most readers here but I think not disturbingly so) is Rhetorica.

* * *

The Internet spooks the old media, and not just because of the ass-fact-checking. It's the way things can go "viral" on the Net. A Youtube of some speech that the big papers overlooked. An essay on some issue that totally reframes it. A soldier's blog view of a battle that was covered in the news only from the general's mouthpiece. And suddenly millions of people are onto it, and the ones in the newsroom are the last to know. A viral event online is as scary as a zombie uprising. Because it shows how much is so important to people, but never occurred to the journalist to write about.

Before, before we knew this, we could pretend we basically were in tune with the public we claim to represent. Sure, there was stuff they liked to read about we didn't bother to show them: Two-headed calves and UFO sightings. But now we realize their passions and perceptions are not only different than ours, they often are deeper. It reveals an out-of-touchness that yanks the carpet out from under the confidence that we, or our class of people, know what the public needs to hear and see.

* * *

This recent thumbsucker on the death of newspapers by Eric Alterman got a lot of attention. Newspapers sure are dying, but I think the Internet triumphalism over that is premature -- as some in Alterman's piece suggest.

A couple of points he raised in passing sent me off on tangential thoughts:

In private conversation, reporters and editors concede that objectivity is an ideal, an unreachable horizon, but journalists belong to a remarkably thin-skinned fraternity, and few of them will publicly admit to betraying in print even a trace of bias. They discount the notion that their beliefs could interfere with their ability to report a story with perfect balance. As the venerable “dean” of the Washington press corps, David Broder, of the Post, puts it, “There just isn’t enough ideology in the average reporter to fill a thimble.”

Does that strike non-journalists as odd? I ask that sincerely, because I am not a non-journalist. It certainly is true. But the entire news profession is built on the ability to insist irreconcilables exist simultaneously, and to deny that the impossible is impossible.

You realize that your first week at a desk:

  • The job of a news staff is to get the story absolutely correct. Errors are intollerable. Even punctuation errors cannot be allowed, and big errors are disgraceful.

  • The job of a news staff is to get the product off its desk and into the printing press or on the air on deadline, or else the entire system of delivery freezes up and the outlet loses its audience. The job of the news staff is to get the story as fast as possible and preferably before the competition, if there is any.

Irreconcilable? You bet! Ask any managing editor which matters most, though, and she will answer "both!" Work there two days, and you'll know which really matters.

But not only newspapers have conflicting core goals. The new media does, too. This is less well noted in the Alterman piece, I think.

According to [blogger Josh] Marshall, “the collaborative aspect” of his site “came about entirely by accident.” His original intention was merely to offer his readers “transparency,” so that his “strong viewpoint” would be distinguishable from the facts that he presented. Over time, however, he found that the enormous response that his work engendered offered access to “a huge amount of valuable information”––information that was not always available to mainstream reporters, who tended to deal largely with what Marshall terms “professional sources.” During the Katrina crisis, for example, Marshall discovered that some of his readers worked in the federal government’s climate-and-weather-tracking infrastructure. They provided him and the site with reliable reporting available nowhere else.

How does he -- or his readers -- trust that these employees do not have axes to grind against certain bosses? Or do not have a career investment in seeing their employers acquire new technologies? Or are talking about aspects of their operation that they do not personally work in? It is possible to imagine many ways this breathtaking access to alternate sources might make the product less reliable. It is also possible to imagine some checks and balances that would correct that, but that would make the blog as dull as a newspaper. "X says ___. But Y says ____. And Z, who is outside the trade but has studied it professionally, says _____." Not much "strong viewpoint" in that.