Wednesday, December 21, 2005

All the News

I'm not a pundit or a professor of journalism. In fact, except for a half-year English elective in 11th grade, I've never taken a journalism course in my life. I just happen to have worked in daily newspaper newsrooms for the past 22 years as a reporter and editor. So, take that for that it's worth.

People on the left say the media has a conservative prejudice and conservatives laugh at them. People on the right say the media has a liberal prejudice, and liberals laugh at them. In fact, the only remarkable people are those who insist the media doesn't have a bias. Prejudice is the first and essential precondition of what we do.

Maybe a billion discrete events happen in the world in any 24-hour period that are "news" to somebody. A plate tectonics shift spills an inhabited island onto the seafloor like a dropped Jell-O cake. Ford comes out with a new line of hybrid SUVs. The president of the United States gets tongue-tied in a press conference. The president of Estonia gets tongue-tied in a press conference. A Wisconsin high school announces its third-quarter honor roll.

Journalism is 90 percent the art of deciding not what to tell you. You pay us to decide what's essential to you. The news editor dispatches reporters to cover an accident or a meeting. The reporter picks out the relevant facts, among thousands of facts he might choose. The copy editor or segment producer then chooses among the relevant stories and images, among hundreds that are available. They put together a product you can spend 20 minutes flipping through and get a rough understanding of the essential goings-on in your world.

But in every case the news story format is a deception. Stories do not have sharp edges. A news story is a cookie-cutter pressed into the rolled-out dough of reality.

If you don't notice that, it's because someone has done his job right. That someone has to operate with a confidence that his judgment will be roughly the same as the consumer of the news product. Journalists, to do their jobs, have to feel in their bones they represent the mainstream or majority of their audience, or else that they can work as though they do. It has to be second nature. There are too many decisions, and deadlines always are too near, to stop and consciously hold up every fact, every story to the template of "relevance."

Take the most basic type of news story: a building fire. Almost anyone could write one of these, and the hardest part is getting the fire chief to call you back. Once you get him on the phone, the questions are the ones we'd all ask: What burned? When did the fire start? How many firefighters were there? How long did it take to put out? Anyone injured or killed? What was the dollar figure on damages? Got an idea what caused it yet? Anyone inside at the time? Any dramatic rescues? Where's the family staying now?/when will the business reopen? Any challenges in beating it down?

If there's a rescue or a fatality, you lead with that. If not, just stack up the facts, bada-bing, and you're done. And you've satisfied the curiosity of about 95 percent of the people who will pick up a newspaper about that smoke they saw or those sirens they heard. You don't need four years of j-school to do that.

But even there, you'll have excluded some people from your consensus of what is essential in the news. Other firefighters, for instance, will want to know what equipment was used on the blaze, the names of the firefighters who led the crews, the tactics they employed. You won't have space to go into that, and it won't matter to most of your readers, so you cut it out. That's a prejudice.

The house fire is easy. But what do you do if your beat is politics? In its pure form, reporting from the centers of power probably would be limited to what the president signs or what Congress enacts. But you won't get far in this business sending back to the news desk daily updates on the progress of House Bill 21056792, dealing with procedures for disposing of road-kill snail darters. So you start to write about the behind-the-scenes, the game of politics, the personalities, the agendas.

How do you do that, in our bipartisan culture, in a value-neutral way, or with a sure sense that your judgment is in tune with the balance point of the consumers? The self-reported political and social attitudes of journalists in study after study come out dramatically further left than most Americans. Here's where the prejudice starts to count. It's impossible to entirely weed out the preference for one set of politicians over another.

The prejudice is compounded as you move up the scale from story to page to section to newspaper.

Even before you sit down to begin putting together a newspaper or a nightly newscast, you're working on a consensus. Certain ways of seeing the world which are passionately held by many people will simply not cross into news reporting. You won't see an article on a car crash, for example, that says, "the Hand of God protected the passenger, who was not injured." (Somebody might say that in a quote, though.) You won't see news items that take for granted that the Jews are trying to rule the world; or that meat is murder; or that the universe will end Thursday.

And that leaves somebody out, and they will cry bias. I recently read a list of complaints to the BBC by a British Muslim group about the Beeb's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Muslims asserted bias. But they didn't claim the facts were wrong; they complained bitterly because the BBC, every time it mentioned the occupation of the West Bank, didn't call it "illegal" (the Muslim group cited the usual laundry list of U.N. resolutions). Just so, Chomskyites complain because the American media doesn't call the current Iraq project "illegal and unjust," and some Democratic Underground types no doubt would have us refer to the president every time as "so-called President Bush."

Prejudice is not the only force that shapes the news, emphasizing some things and omitting others. If you tour the sausage factory, it's an ugly business. The amount of news that's delivered is not determined by the amount of important things that happen, but by the amount of time in the newscast or the size of the newshole in the paper after all the ads are placed. It's almost a Murphy's Law of journalism that the days the world is dead dull you'll have a huge paper to fill (trot out that thumbsucker piece about the effect of airport noise on seal-mating in Alaska), and when the world comes on like gangbusters you'll be short of space.

It's also true that the collective liberalism of the news staffs is somewhat tempered by the general conservatism of the owners and corporate holding companies. None of this is realized deliberately from moment to moment, but you rise in the media hierarchy by proving you make the safe call at the key moments, and when you're low in the hierarchy you're playing by the rules of those higher in it. This generally is not expressed as a political matter. It is, however, what keeps cuss words and obscene pictures from getting published.

The weight of the decision-making changes from place to place. The high school honor roll is news to the Sheboygan Daily Calumniator, but not to the New York Times. Overarching media like CNN now feel themselves as a worldwide conduit, and think in global terms. This naturally filters down to their decision-making, and you end up with the situation summed up by the quote "When I’m reporting, I am a citizen of the world,” which drives some Americans up the wall and strikes others as perfectly natural and right. It certainly explains the death of the Ernie Pyle style and its rebirth, in a somewhat zombied form, as Fox News.

Journalism depends on consensus, or a rough understanding between the readers and the journalists about what is important. Chomksy is usually partly right, and he's right about this. The process of journalism not only relies on consensus, it helps cement it. Where he's not right is that he personally stands way out on the "Jews rule the world, America is evil" fringe, so when he analyzes the situation, he does so from out on that fringe. Those are the things he wants to see added in.

Why consensus, not "best interest?" Because media aren't required viewing. It's not a Big Brother world yet. Newspapers and TV networks compete in a market. If you stop being relevant to people, and start hectoring them, they'll go elsewhere. If people wake up to the fact that you're not telling them about the world, but trying to change it, they'll look at you differently -- if they keep looking at you at all.

The inherent prejudice of the media is not in the details of a story. It's in the shape of the world that the media lives in, and presumes you live in, too. It's not the painting, it's the shape of the canvas.

That defined space of "what is presumed to be true" shifts over time, both among the public and in the press. Views on race that would be unacceptable today once were commonplace in headlines, north and south and west. Sexuality issues that never would have been encountered in the news 60 years ago are routinely covered today.

It's easier to be sure of the center in a nation where there is one. It's arguable -- and I would argue it -- that America is more polarized in the last 15 years (with a brief, sharp reversion to unity right after 9/11) than it was during the Cold War.

In that climate, the prejudices of the media will be more striking to more people. Not just the Chomskies will find themselves outside the cookie cutter. And for those of us who grew up trusting that the people doing the news lived in the same world we did, the awakening can be a bitter experience.

The rise of the Internet has thrown open the curtain behind the act. News consumers can read the transcript of a White House press conference online and compare it to what the L.A. Times or the Washington Post made of it in a news story. They can discover the shape and size of the journalistic cookie-cutter, and at times (though less often than most people believe), they can get a flash of insight into the mind that made the story, and see the shape of a world that is not quite the same one the reader inhabits.