Jay Rosen Writes A Treatise

Jared Keller at The Atlantic rounds this up

“What is the actual ideology of our political press?” Hundreds of articles have been composed concerning this question, and countless organizations founded to combat the perceived bias in American media. While debate about the nature and slant of this bias persists, NYU professor and consummate media critic Jay Rosen believes he’s found an answer.

Jay Rosen:

What is the actual ideology of our political press? There are two camps on this question: one is huge and includes almost everyone who has declared a position. The other is tiny; it includes almost no one. I’m in the tiny camp, not completely alone but— well, there aren’t too many of us. (And if you’re one, raise a hand in the comments.)

The big camp includes everyone who thinks it’s easy to describe the ideology of the political press in the United States. Most on the progressive left, most on the conservative right, and almost all of the people in the press itself think this way. Of course, they would describe that ideology very differently, but that it can be done in a sentence or two… about this they have little doubt.

(Now I’m generalizing here, okay? This means I’m aware that there are exceptions and that I am overlooking certain nuances that divide observers within camps.)

The left says: Look, it’s very simple. The political press ultimately serves the interests of the people who own it— the corporate capitalists, the ones with money and power and “access” to politicians, the people who run things and always have. Those who are unwilling to make peace with this fact don’t make it very far in political journalism.

The right says: Look, it’s very simple. Press coverage reflects the bias of the people who produce it— and they’re liberals! Conservatives who are against abortion, suspicious of gay rights, skeptical about global warming, against the redistribution of wealth and instinctively wary of government regulation don’t make it very far in political journalism.

Look, it’s very simple, our journalists say. The press isn’t on the side of the left or the right. Of course, journalists are human. They have passions, they have interests, they have opinions. But these are irrelevant to the way they define and do their job, which is to find out what’s happening and tell the world about it. Ideologues don’t make it very far in political journalism.

In the puny camp that I’m a part of the first sentence is: This is complicated…

[…]

But if we were able to engage our political journalists in a deeper discussion we would also find that most of them are skeptical about changing society in any fundamental way. And they are big believers in the law of unintended consequences. So: liberal or conservative? My answer: it’s complicated. One thing we can definitely say: political journalists are cosmopolitans, and they will see the world through that lens. They may also stop seeing it as a lens, and that’s when it becomes an ideology.

But even if we had an x-ray machine that gave us perfect information about the beliefs of the journalists who report on politics, the ideological drift of the work they produce wouldn’t necessarily match the personal beliefs or voting patterns of the reporters and editors on the beat because there are other factors that intervene between the authors of news accounts and the accounts they author.

Take for instance the way professional journalists try to generate authority and respect among peers, or, to state it negatively, the way they flee opprobrium. Here it is important for them to demonstrate that they are not on anyone’s “team,” or cheerleading for a known position. This puts a premium on stories that embarrass, disrupt, annoy or counter the preferred narrative—the talking points, the party line—of one or both of the sides engaged in political battle. An incentive system like that tends to be an ideological scrambler, which doesn’t mean that it scrambles consistently or symmetrically across political lines. It means what I said earlier… this is complicated.

Julian Sanchez at Megan McArdle’s place:

The big obvious constraints, especially in the contemporary mediasphere, are the demands for speed and volume. A successful journalist in the modern market needs to put out a lot of copy fairly quickly and, ideally, get to the story first. (This is also why we get a lot of reporting on tactical maneuvering and short-term perceptions that ultimately don’t make a lick of difference electorally–an enterprise that seems guaranteed to inculcate cynicism.) These are matters of professional pride, but that’s partly because they’re also–as I was reminded in my former life whenever I’d try to persuade an editor to back off for a few days so I could work on a longer investigative piece–good eyeball-maximizing strategies, especially in a world where the second paper to report a story is ever less able to count on a built-in reader base.

A lot of Rosen’s ideological profile plausibly falls out of this. The journalistic sweet spot is a story that’s “disruptive” or “counterintuitive” enough to distinguish itself from the pack, while remaining sufficiently rooted in a familiar narrative that it can be turned out by rote and (crucially) digested in a two or three minute news segment without a great deal of explanation. Similarly, for all the many and obvious flaws with the much-derided “he said/she said” style of reporting typically confused with “objectivity,” it has this much going for it: It’s fast. Actually determining which of multiple competing claims is true, on the other hand, can take quite a lot of time, effort, and expertise–the last requiring a reporter to get tied to a policy beat that may cease to be hot in a few months.

Moreover, actually trying to play referee means you’re pretty much guaranteed to be wrong some proportion of the time, and to be accused of getting it wrong even when you’re right by the media machine of whichever side you’ve debunked. If the issue is even moderately complex and the relevant players are bright enough not to make easily falsifiable claims, there’s no reason to expect any kind of ultimate general vindication, since partisans and activists will always be willing and able to devote more time to the question than harried journos. Not getting it wrong in a he-said/she-said story, by contrast, mostly just requires that you transcribe accurately.

Many of the other elements of press ideology Rosen identifies ultimately serve to rationalize this approach. Take the “High Broderist” premise that the “extremes” on both sides are equivalent. It’s not just this attitude allows reporters to make a show of even-handedness, it’s that equivalence seems like a natural default, deviation from which would require (time consuming) justification. Moreover, a “he said/she said” approach requires some implicit consensus–and it has to stay implicit–about which players and positions are worth attending to, about which hes and shes get a say. Hence the “sphere of deviance.” Otherwise, again, the individual journalist is sucked into making and justifying an evaluation about which groups are credible.

Rosen pretty clearly regards most of these ideological tendencies as pernicious, and while I’m often inclined to agree, it’s also worth at least asking whether, in each case, they’re any worse than the plausible alternatives. Suppose, for instance, we agree that its both delusional for journalists to cultivate an attitude of being untouchably “above the fray” and that this attitude ends up warping coverage in undesirable ways. It might yet be the case that we’re so naturally disposed to tribalism that it can only be avoided by cultivating a self conception as a member of the Savvy Tribe. It would be depressing if this were true, of course, but it can’t be ruled out a priori. Sometimes our delusions serve useful functions.

DiA at The Economist:

What Mr Rosen describes here corresponds to a set of pressures that I think any honest journalist should acknowledge feeling. Two days ago, for example, I wrote a post in which I described two arguments developed by a pollster to field-test political messaging on climate change: “[The message on the left] is every bit as shallow, populist and misleading as the message on the right, which I think means the pollster has done an honest job of phrasing each argument in the fashion most likely to appeal to the American public.” That was an attempt to be cute, and to some extent it described an authentic sense of frustration I feel with the American body politic. But it was also a dodge, a way of temporarily neutering the fact that, obviously, I agree with the climate-change alarmist crowd, and that therefore my assessment of whether the environmentalist message was likely to be effective as well as true might have been biased. I was, exactly as Mr Rosen says, “pushing off from both sides to generate authority”.

I’d recommend you read Mr Rosen’s post in its entirety. Substantively, I have one point to raise in response. Mr Rosen lists six terms he’s developed for describing press ideology:

1. The Church of the Savvy

2. The Quest for Innocence

3. Regression to a Phony Mean

4. The View from Nowhere

5. He said, she said journalism (which Mr Rosen tries to bust up via fact checking)

And finally, one I’ll list in its entirety so I can get into that response:

6. The sphere of deviance. The power to place certain people, causes and ideas within the deviant sphere is one of the most ideological things journalists ever do.

In the sphere of deviance we find “political actors and views which journalists and the political mainstream of society reject as unworthy of being heard.” As in the sphere of consensus, neutrality isn’t the watchword here; 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… Anyone whose views lie within the sphere of deviance—as defined by journalists—will experience the press as an opponent in the struggle for recognition. 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; if you dissent from the “lockstep behavior of both major American political parties when it comes to Israel” (Glenn Greenwald) 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.

The problem I see is that if you want to avoid point five, you have to allow some room for point six. A press that can’t “place certain people, causes and ideas within the deviant sphere” is one that will be unable to escape “he-said, she-said journalism”. There is, for example, simply no room in most articles to refute the belief of people who “don’t think separation of church and state is such a good idea” that the authors of the constitution intended America to be a Christian nation. That contention is simply wrong, and there’s generally no space or time to get into proving it every time it arises. For example, I’m not going to take the space or time to prove it in this post. Instead, I’m going to place people who think the United States was founded as a Christian nation inside the “sphere of deviance”. I don’t think such people are “unworthy of being heard”, exactly, but I’m not going to let them be heard in my blog post without a refutation, and I don’t have time for a refutation, so they’ll have to go elsewhere to make themselves heard. The same goes for a variety of views that have currency in contemporary American politics. Here are a few: advocacy for the gold standard; the belief that the Earth is not growing warmer; the belief that cutting taxes in America today will increase government revenue; the belief that Barack Obama was not born in the United States; denial of evolution. On these issues, I would fall among those journalists for whom, as Mr Rosen says, there is “no debate”. And in this case I will refrain from attempting to generate authority by pushing off against two sides.

Marc Ambinder:

Jay Rosen, the New York University press critic, has written a treatise on what he calls the “actual ideology of the American press.”  It is compelling and provocative, and I recommend a full read. I also think it leaves out something quite important: if the ideologies he identifies — the pathologies, actually — are the sum total of the media, what would Jay Rosen, if he were running the world, have us do? Is there a distinction between journalism and ideological argument? Is it methodological? Are there times when, given the difficulty of discovering a truth, journalists can and should adopt a disinterested or disembodied stance?  His criticism applies largely to political journalism, and so  I anticipate his answer.

Mori Dinauer at Tapped:

This Jay Rosen piece on the ideology of the American press is worth a read. “It’s complicated,” he writes, and indeed his multi-dimensional analysis — in which I cannot find anything to disagree with — does not lead to a pithy conclusion. I’ve said before that regardless of their political orientation, the press is biased toward authority, but that is a different matter than their ideological beliefs.

Jonathan Holmes at ABC The Drum:

You could have read any number of ‘he said, she said’ articles about the Resource Super Profits Tax, at any time in the past six weeks. You could have heard even more of them on ABC radio or television. Particularly if they work for media outfits that aim for ‘objective, balanced’ journalism – as most of the mainstream media claims to do, and the ABC’s Charter legally demands that it do – it’s easy for journalists and editors to feel that so long as they’ve accurately reported what one side has said on any particular day, and how the other side has countered the first side’s claims, they’ve done the job.

It’s simple, it can be done quickly and on deadline, and no-one can accuse you of bias.

But supposing that one side in a dispute – any dispute – could be, with a bit of digging, shown to be objectively wrong, and the other right? Suppose one side is making claims that can be shown, without departing from the most rigorous standards of objective journalism, to be grossly exaggerated? Suppose, for that matter, that both sides are? Isn’t it the ‘objective’ journalist’s job to tell us so?

Oooh, but now you’re getting into deep water. For starters, you’re talking about a lot more work. Secondly, you’re bound to be accused of ‘bias’ by the side that you decide is making claims that are untruthful or distorted, and by those who generally support its arguments. Thirdly, if that side happens to represent the people on whom you depend for information, and interviews, and background briefings – suppose, for example, you’re a journalist who specialises in reporting on the resources industry, and you write a piece debunking the mining industry’s claims – there could be serious consequences for your future reporting.

Much safer, much easier, to stick to ‘he said, she said’. Jay Rosen quotes a distinguished former Washington Post reporter, Paul Taylor, writing about his own tendency to avoid making a call either way: “Yes, I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge. I’m taking a pass on the toughest calls I face.”

But, Rosen points out, the web has changed the game in two important ways. First, it’s such a wonderful research tool that it’s far easier for reporters, even on a tight deadline, to make some attempt to discover whether someone’s talking nonsense or not. And second, it should mean that media organisations can offer their readers instant background, if they want it.

For example, some time in the last six weeks, every serious media organisation should have written a simple, easy-to-follow guide to the Super Profits tax: what’s proposed; how it’s supposed to work; what’s meant by terms such as ‘resource rent tax’, ‘uplift factors’, ‘discount rates’; what the main differences are between the new tax and the existing Petroleum Resources Rent Tax, and how the Government justifies them. It should neither espouse nor attack the proposal – although if that proposal contains obvious flaws, they should be highlighted.

As it happens, The Drum commissioned exactly such a piece on the Resource Super Profits Tax just a couple of weeks ago from ABC business and economics correspondent Stephen Long. I found it illuminating. (But look at the comments, and you’ll see that it’s fanciful to suppose that ‘analysis’ like that will be perceived as unbiased by everyone.)

For that matter, surely somebody could write a sort of idiot’s guide to the mining industry’s and the Government’s advertising campaigns. How do they arrive at the figures they’ve used? Are they controversial? If so, what alternative figures have been put forward? Are any of their claims unjustifiable? If so, which, and why?

If the claims change, so can the piece. If industry or Government convinces the writer that he’s wrong, the analysis can be tweaked, and so on. But the reader is being helped through the fog of dispute.

A link to these analytic pieces should be added to every article written about the dispute, so that online readers, at least, can click through whenever they want.

But usually, in the real world, that doesn’t happen. Consumers of news are largely left to fog it out for themselves. Of course, those who have the time and inclination can do so. But as the news story develops, the assumption is made by daily journalists that everyone knows what happened yesterday, and a week ago. It’s far harder than it should be to find the background analysis.

The addiction to ‘he said, she said’ journalism is not, in my view, because reporters are lazy, but because they’ve been schooled to believe (by news consumers, as well as by editors and, dare I say it, Chairmen of the Board) that the appearance of ‘balance’ is more important than the quest for truth. But maybe, as Jay Rosen suggests, it’s time for journalists, and their readers or listeners or viewers, to demand more: ‘he said, she said – and I think’.

UPDATE: Jay Rosen and Julian Sanchez at Bloggingheads

UPDATE #2: Rosen responds to Ambinder

Ambinder responds to Rosen

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One response to “Jay Rosen Writes A Treatise

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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