New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has written an enlightening essay titled “The Quest for Innocence and the Loss of Reality in Political Journalism”. It’s an academic’s way of saying the news is kinda fatuous because often news organizations strive too hard to be ‘objective’ in a way that misses the point – they obscure more than they clarify.
Cynical people assume this is a deliberately taken action because after all, big corporations are just out to manipulate us and part us from our money while keeping us in docile servitude. Right? But while opinion polls show people trust journalists roughly as much as used car salesmen, hookers or lawyers, professionals in newsrooms are totally obsessed with two things: getting a story first – and getting it right. Despite the popular caricature, the vast majority of people who populate newsrooms are highly ethical people. Having personally toiled in the trenches of newsrooms, I can vouch for this. So when faced with the competing explanations of mass conspiracy and casual human incompetence I’ll opt for the latter every time.
Which brings us back to Mr Rosen, who cites the example of a New York Times profile of the nascent Tea Party movement in the US. Born more of astro-turf than real grass roots with Fox News funding, orchestrating, and being the chief megaphone for the movement, the far-right, neo-libertarian Tea Party has nevertheless tapped into a sense of grievance and fear that is all too real to some Americans, whose common thread appears to be being white & angry, and with a vehement hatred towards paying taxes.
Ethical journalists conference. Photo: Victoria Peckham
Rosen goes out of his way to praise the NYT piece for “original reporting at a very high level of commitment to public service; it is expensive, difficult, and increasingly rare in a news business suffering under economic collapse.” But he then pays special note to a paragraph in the article that states, “It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny.”
That sounds like the Tea Party movement I have observed, so the truth of the sentence is not in doubt. But what about the truth of the narrative?… [The author] ought to know whether the United States is on the verge of losing its democracy and succumbing to an authoritarian or despotic form of government. If tyranny was pending in the U.S. that would seem to be a story. The New York Times has done a lot of reporting about the Obama Administration, but it has been silent on the collapse of basic freedoms lurking just around the corner.
Washington Tea Party rally photo: Street Protest TV http://www.flickr.com/photos/streetprotesttv/ / CC BY 2.0
This opinion or narrative might be sincerely held by these people, but I can tell you unequivocally that America is definitely not on the brink of rounding up its dissidents and shipping them off to detention facilities a la Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany. The reporter surely owes it to the reader to clarify whether or not this sincere concern is justified. But he doesn’t.
In a word, the Times editors and [reporter] know this narrative is nuts, but something stops them from saying so— despite the fact that they must have spent over $100,000 on this one story… the “narrative of impending tyranny” is ungrounded in any observable reality, even though the sense of grievance within the Tea Party movement is truly felt and politically consequential.
Anyone living in the modern world can agree that “We have come upon something interfering with political journalism’s “sense of reality” ” as Rosen posits, and continues to explain that:
… the biggest advantage of horse-race journalism is that it permits reporters and pundits to play up their detachment. Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because “who’s gonna win?” is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession.
But this desire to appear agenda-less can get in the way of describing reality as it actually is! While there are always (at least) two side to every story, sometimes one side actually has stronger facts and a more logical argument. And the news media has all but given up trying to present the relative strengths and weaknesses of competing arguments, perspectives or ‘narratives’ – you know, the actual stuff people need to make informed decisions.
There’s a huge gap in the market for a news brand that attempts to redress this glaring weakness in modern news culture.