A Media Critique

This critique of political journalism can be read as a warning on too easily assuming your own lack of bias:

Prohibited from joining in political struggles, dedicated to observing what is, regardless of whether it ought to be, the savvy believe that these [journalistic] disciplines afford them a special view of the arena, cured of excess sentiment. … The savvy don’t say: I have a better argument than you. … They say: I am closer to reality than you. And more mature.” …

Writing the news so that it lands somewhere near the “halfway point between the best and the worst that might be said about someone” is not a truthtelling impulse at all. …

“He said, she said” journalism means[:] There’s a public dispute. The dispute makes news. No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. …

The power to place certain people, causes and ideas within the deviant sphere is one of the most ideological things journalists ever do. … Journalists maintain order by either keeping the deviant out of the news entirely or identifying it within the news frame as unacceptable, radical, or just plain impossible…  If you don’t think separation of church and state is such a good idea; if you do think a single payer system is the way to go,… chances are you will never find your views reflected in the news. It’s not that there’s a one-sided debate; there’s no debate. (more)

Of course as with most critiques of journalism, this would be better directed to journalists’ customers. It is readers who drive the industry, and they aren’t especially interested in what is true, relative to what is within acceptable bounds to say.

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  • Joseph K

    I wouldn’t say that this is really what customers want. I think most readers want opinionated journalism that affirms their biases. Newspapers used to be much more partisan. If you read 19th century newspapers it’s startling how opinionated and partisan they were, but that’s because there were a lot more newspapers per city. In the early 20th century newspapers started consolidating and cities came to be dominated by one newspaper, which, in order to maintain its monopoly, had to present at least the appearance of an unbiased, even-handed perspective. When tv news sprang up, it was built on this model. Now the world of blogging has revived the former world of partisan journalism. This is advantageous for assessing their truth claims because readers can take into account the writer’s biases, and also because readers have access to genuinely ardent and articulate defenders of both (or many) sides of an issue. The problem of the journalist taking the middle ground, is they may not really understand one or either position that well. It’s valuable to hear both sides of the dispute for readers presented by people who understand and can defend that position well because then you much better evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the various opinions. In short, I think presenting the middle ground is fine, if you understand the debate well, but it’s unlikely that most journalists will understand both sides of a controversial question well.

  • http://un-thought.blogspot.com/ Floccina

    It is readers who drive the industry, and they aren’t especially interested in what is true, relative to what is within acceptable bounds to say.

    How true. If you want to promote some idea it is most useful to go to the people rather than the journalist or the politician.

    BTW Listening to NPR recently they aired twice an ad by his opponent that would make certain voters think twice about voting for him. IMO someone at NPR really does not like Rand Paul.

  • Salem

    “It is readers who drive the industry”

    Is this really true?

    Proprietors have been a huge driving force since time immemorial. Directing the content of a newspaper gives rents both psychic (prestige) and political (ability to steer debate). This is why so many newspapers were set up as party propaganda, and why few sections of the news media have ever been truly economic propositions. Proprietors are willing to absorb losses (or make subpar profits) for the privilege of owning news media.

    But more importantly, almost all journalism is really paid for by the advertising it carries. Being concerned about their brand, advertisers do not want it tarnished by being associated with controversial positions, as they generally think that they will lose more offended customers than they gain sympathetic ones. It is the advertisers who are most concerned to make sure content is within “acceptable bounds” – hence the advertiser boycott of Glenn Beck, and Michael Jordan’s famous comment that “Republicans buy sneakers too.”

    I disagree that customers care much about what is within acceptable bounds. I think they care mostly about price. If news is sanitised and slanted towards the proprietor, that’s better than it being significantly more expensive. I’m not saying proprietors and advertisers have free reign. If the news gets too sanitised or too slanted, then you will lose eyeballs, which will diminish your proprietor rents and your advertising revenue, There is a balance to be struck.

    I think you see this when you look at blogs. The key to the success of blogs is not because of their high content – few would survive on a subscriber model – but because of their price. And there is extremely free competition, because entry costs are so low, so there is a lot lower tolerance for proprietor/advertiser interference – you will lose readers much more easily. And the result is not that the popular blogs conform to “acceptable bounds” – quite the reverse. In fact you will find it very hard to find popular blogs that much resemble the traditional news media. This strongly suggests to me that what customers actually want is a broad choice of highly partisan screeds that pander to their biases (the blogosphere or 17-19th century journalism) and that the strengths and weaknesses of 20-21st century journalism are driven primarily by factors other than consumer preference.

    • http://infiniteinjury.org/blog/ Peter Gerdes

      On your theory blogs should have totally displaced all pay media. Nothing beats free after all! And how does your theory explain how the economist remains profitable?

      Being concerned about their brand, advertisers do not want it tarnished by being associated with controversial positions, as they generally think that they will lose more offended customers than they gain sympathetic ones. It is the advertisers who are most concerned to make sure content is within “acceptable bounds” – hence the advertiser boycott of Glenn Beck, and Michael Jordan’s famous comment that “Republicans buy sneakers too.”

      Your model of advertising is too simplistic. Some major advertisers whose target customer base is the whole country shy away from anything controversial but controversial content can be a more attractive place for other sorts of businesses to advertise. Certainly stridently pro-gun rights publications are controversial yet they are far more valuable to gun and hunting equipment sellers than a general interest mag.

      Ultimately advertisers don’t exert any deep malevolent pressure on the media since for the most part they are concerned about having their ads viewed in a context readers find appealing. So if the readers like it advertisers will tend to come. I challenge you to find a publication that had a large enthusiastic readership but couldn’t attract significant ad revenue.

  • JGWeissman

    >Of course as with most critiques of journalism, this would be better directed to journalists’ customers. It is readers who drive the industry, and they aren’t especially interested in what is true, relative to what is within acceptable bounds to say.

    While of course the news industry cannot deviate too far from what its customers want without going out of business, Rosen makes a case that much is driven by news professionals acting out their self images. It seems that their behavior could therefor be affected by getting them to critically examine their self images.

  • lemmy caution

    “they aren’t especially interested in what is true”

    Do you really think people want to read lies? Do you want to read lies? Pretty much everything reported in the media is true. “Sources say the world is flat” can be a true statement.

  • http://jauzo.com Mikko

    Of course as with most critiques of journalism, this would be better directed to journalists’ customers. It is readers who drive the industry, and they aren’t especially interested in what is true, relative to what is within acceptable bounds to say.

    When in doubt, follow the money.

    Customer is the one who pays the bills. According to old maxim, 80 per cent of revenue comes from advertisers and 20 per cent from subscribers.

    Newspapers (and hence journalists) are in the business of selling readers to advertisers.

  • Doug S.

    “Remember, you can’t be wrong unless you take a position. Don’t fall into that trap.” – Dogbert’s Top Secret Management Handbook

  • Nic Smith

    Lemmy – First you equate “what is [not] true” with “lies” and then you give an example of intellectual dishonesty, which that statement would be if not otherwise qualified, which is not a lie to show that the media is truthful. I take you’re a professional journalist?

    • lemmy caution

      It is part of the ethics of american journalists that they tell the truth. They do tell the truth. That isn’t a problem. They are still biased, but they don’t in general lie about things. “He said, she said” journalism is perfectly true.

  • http://infiniteinjury.org/blog/ Peter Gerdes

    This critique is contradictory. Are journalists not truth-seekers because they give equal weight to all sides or are they ideological because they identify some views as unreasonable and exclude/minimize the coverage they give them?

    “He said, she said” journalism means[:] There’s a public dispute. The dispute makes news. No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story

    The job of a journalist, like that of a scientist, is not (primarily) to present their best estimate of the truth. The job of both journalists and scientists is to provide a public record of relevant information which society can use to converge towards the truth. We don’t take it amiss that biology textbooks try to present all influential points of view among leading biologists so why should we take it amiss when journalists do the same thing.

    Both the idea that journalists merely report what happens without injecting their judgments about truth and the idea that journalists should only present what they believe is likely the truth are misguided. Journalists have the important role of gatekeepers in deciding what kind of evidence and views are worthwhile, relevant and sufficiently likely to be true that it’s important they be recorded and presented to the public.

    Of course journalists must sometimes inject totally new ideas into the national debate but given that they too have the same biases as the rest of us the strategy of assuming that a view promulgated by many eminent leaders has some non-trivial chance of being right no matter how absurd it may seem to them (possibly because of their biases) is totally reasonable. So I don’t see the problem with he-said she-said journalism in general.

    Ohh yes and of course people think they are closer to reality. That’s what it means to believe something: you think it accurately describes reality while it’s negation does not.

  • Ray

    Apropos for this time of year.
    It’s wildly slanted media coverage that makes politics easily digested for public consumption.
    Strip the politicians of their thin ideological facade, and we’re left with the ugly truth that there is no real war of ideology taking place, but a naked fight for power. The media exist in order to place the actors in their proper costumes, provide the script, background, and supporting cast, and make the whole process look sanitary.
    Which leaves the real ideological battle taking place in the media itself. People like Beck and Stewart, Limbaugh and Krugman, really are motivated by ideology, but the politicians themselves are simply the whores willing to sell their souls for the spotlight, and illusory power of the moment.