Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Think Ink

[posted by Callimachus]

I want to explain something about the media and Iraq without reference to the media and Iraq. Instead want to talk about the media and the problem of American cities, specifically mine (because I know that one best).

This is an analogy, not an identification. I have to say that because somehow, in the general destruction of education in this country, people have lost sight of what an analogy is and what it is meant to do. It lays two things next to one another to explore how they are alike and learn something about the processes that make them similar, which also includes reference to their differences, and acknowledge a general truth about the thing they have in common.

But in the blogic world, someone always pops up and says something like "Hah! Iraq has an 'I' in it and your city's name does not; this invalidates your entire argument!"

Which makes me look for the button that ought to be on my keyboard, the one that makes a giant hand come out the other person's computer screen and slap him on the head like Benny Hill used to do to little Jackie.

Some people have somehow convinced themselves that the media has no influence on reality. If it had no such influence, there's be no point in protecting it, as our constitution does. Of course the media makes a difference. Imagine if you had someone with a camera and a tape recorder following you around all day. Imagine how many things you'd do, or wouldn't do, and how often you'd do something differently.

It changes reality. And in most cases, that's beneficient to our society and a bulwark of democracy. One of the ugly side-effects of the Cold War was the rise of a climate of government secrecy that, for reasons partly logical, shielded much of Washington operations from the light of the media. Politicians ought never to be entirely trusted, and they behave better when they know they're being watched.

[Ironically, though, the glare of public attention can in some cases inhibit the kind of frank discussion among leaders that produces real solutions. The constitutional convention of 1787, for instance, had to be conducted in utter secrecy. Read Madison's note or Farrand's Constitutional Debates and see how many things were brought up, hashed out, and worked in or set aside that would have doomed the men who said them.]

So can we at least dispense with the notion that the media changes nothing? It changes reality in more subtle ways, too. It is an unwritten axiom in the media itself. We push, or withhold, or play up, or play down, certain stories based on an awareness of how they are likely to change reality.

Take the story about a middle school student in the next state over who brings a gun to class but is disarmed without incident. Sort of newsworthy, but not indispensible. So are a lot of things. In every paper I've worked at, that story is likely to not appear, if there is something else that can go in the space. Editors are very aware of setting an example for copycats in such cases. None of them wants that on his conscience.

OK, now consider the city where I live. It has serious problems. It has transients, homeless, a shrinking tax base, and public schools in sad shape. The police force largely has been brutalized to the level of the criminal element, and it has been infiltrated by drug gangs from the big cities a few hundred miles away.

Nobody would want to live in such a place, right? But spend a day here. It's a place of vibrant neighborhoods, local culture, farmer's markets, solid housing stock, live music and gallery scenes, a baseball stadium, excellent restaurants and coffee-houses. You can live here for years and never come face to face in a threatening way with any of the things I listed.

But the way the news business works, the way news is reported, that list is all you're likely to know about my city unless you live here.

And that -- the perception created by the coverage -- is another element in the list of problems. My mother calls whenever she reads of a break-in on my street in the police blotter. My parents ought to have moved into the city when they came out here. They love old houses and take care of them. They'd be part of the solution if they came here. They didn't even look here. The news reports scared them off.

They bought out in a small suburban town and they pour donations into the "rescue mission" which concentrates all the region's homeless mental patients in a few square blocks of my city's downtown. Now not only are they not contributing to my city's life, they're actively contributing to its diseases.

The media here is aware that it contributes to the perception problem. My city had a little one-block red light district, and a few open-air drug markets. We would report on the arrests from the periodic police sweeps through those blocks. The johns and junkies largely come from the suburbs -- the supposed safe and crime-free areas.

But they are identified in police reports by their drivers' licence addresses, which list the town based on zip code, not actual municipality. The city where I live has four square miles, but its zip code covers dozens of square miles over surrounding townships and boroughs. None of the arrested folks lived in "the city," but all were identified in news reports as being from "the city."

The mayor complained. We changed our policy. Not because we were wrong -- we weren't -- but because it was contributing to the negative image of the city and thus impeding its progress.