Social Currency

The late A. J. Liebling – who joined the New Yorker in 1935 and stayed there through its glory days until he died in 1963 – was more than a bit of a wit, along with being a press critic, a master essayist, a first-rate reporter and a hopeless Francophile. To wit, he famously said this – “People everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with news.”

 

Well, he also said this – “I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better.” If that seems a bit pugilistic, consider that in 2002, Sports Illustrated named The Sweet Science – a collection of his essays on boxing – the best sports book of all time.

 

He was a man of strong opinions, and obviously had a knack for seeing the underlying truth about things. His specialty was what you might call rueful affection – an attitude shared by many of preeminent writers. When you see how things really are you see those things are not pretty, and often just break-your-heart sad – but there’s often something there worth considering, and sometimes admirable. That’s not a bad way to go through life.

 

But the comment about newspapers is curious – that people think that is the news and it’s not. The news is something else entirely. Perhaps in odd ways newspapers are really about themselves – self-conscious constructions – and reporters are really always just writing about themselves. The actual news is off in the distance somewhere. You’re reading the news of how someone, and the organization that employs them, reacted to something that happened.

 

Of course that’s the best you can do – you weren’t there, and someone else was, someone who can describe to you what happened. You get their account, with all its limitations – what was included and what was left out, and what seemed to them to be a telling moment. After all, the reporter only gets eight or nine hundred words to cover it all and must make choices, and must jam the key points up at the top, as some display ad for pet food might mean the last paragraph or two might have to be sacrificed. Those ads keep the paper alive after all – newspapers are a commercial enterprise.

 

Given all those limitations, sooner or later you decide who you can trust. Whether you trust the New York Times or Washington Post, or the Washington Times or the National Inquirer, you do know what you’re reading is not the news, really, but it will do – you figure it seems to be close enough.

 

And as with newspapers, so with cable news these days – some like the way Fox News reports, selecting this detail over that, while others like the new MSNBC, selecting and emphasizing quite different details, and some stick with CNN, with their rather neutral and sometimes bland take on things. Right, left or center – it’s your choice. No one is giving you all the news – you wouldn’t sit through a seven-hour story on tax policy. Fox News claims it is “fair and balanced” – because they choose details the others don’t. The others could easily make the same claim. Hell, no one has the time or resources to be fair and balanced – and no one would sit through that seven-hour story, and the advertisers would walk away. And being fair and balanced is structurally impossible – saying anything involves choices, what comes first, what gets the talking head droning on for six minutes.

 

No, you want the gist of things. But as Liebling notes, you’re a fool if you think that’s the news.

 

Perhaps John McCain doesn’t understand this, as on Saturday, August 2, the Associated Press ran an item by Devlin Barrett – McCain and N.Y. Times Continue a Long-Running Bout. In short, McCain does not like the New York Times. What they print is not the news, damn it. But then, it never is. He doesn’t get it.

 

Why is the AP running this item? It could be this:

 

Before Ron Fournier returned to The Associated Press in March 2007, the veteran political reporter had another professional suitor: John McCain’s presidential campaign. In October 2006, the McCain team approached Fournier about joining the fledgling operation

 

And Ron Fournier was just appointed as AP’s Washington bureau chief. Make of that what you will, but this is the guy who can now spike stories he doesn’t like, and run with ones he does.

 

Be that as it may, the Devlin Barrett item is curious. For McCain, the problem isn’t so much the news the Times prints, it’s the editorials:

 

It is a tradition at many kitchen tables to yell at the newspaper. At John McCain’s kitchen table, it is becoming a tradition to yell at one paper in particular: The New York Times.

 

The latest dustup between the Republican presidential candidate and the “All the News that’s fit to Print” big-name newspaper centered on the editorial board’s back-to-back criticisms of McCain, one dispatch accusing him of taking the low road and another contending that he was playing politics with race.

 

The second editorial, which appeared on the Times Web site, said McCain’s ads conjured up loaded racial images and raised the specter of O. J. Simpson.

 

“The presumptive Republican nominee has embarked on a bare-knuckled barrage of negative advertising aimed at belittling Mr. Obama,” the editorial board wrote.

 

Well, the New York Times gives you the news, and its editorial board gives you the gist of things. The two always blend into each other, necessarily, no matter what the news source. The job is, after all, to reduce things down to the essentials. That process is just more overt on the editorial page. Most people understand this.

 

McCain doesn’t understand this, or pretends not to:

 

“If the shareholders of The New York Times ever wonder why the paper’s ad revenue is plummeting and its share price tanking, they need look no further than the hysterical reaction of the paper’s editors to any slight, real or imagined, against their preferred candidate,” said McCain campaign spokesman Michael Goldfarb.

 

Goldfarb compared the editors to a blogger “sitting at home in his mother’s basement and ranting into the ether between games of Dungeons & Dragons.”

 

The Times spokeswoman declined to comment. What is there to say? The McCain campaign is sending a message to the Republican base. Why get involved? That image – the adult nerd sitting alone playing fantasy games in his mother’s basement, probably because he can get neither a job nor a date – is playing to the angry right:

 

The relationship between McCain – a frequent reader of the newspaper – and the Times has been rocky. Yet such a grudge could pay political dividends for the presidential candidate, as criticizing the liberal media often improves a candidate’s standing with Republican Party conservatives. That’s critical for McCain, who has never been their favorite.

 

And he probably he feels he’s right to be pissed off – in January the Times endorsed him for the Republican nomination – “Sen. John McCain of Arizona is the only Republican who promises to end the George Bush style of governing from and on behalf of a small, angry fringe.” He thought he had them in the bag, and they betrayed him – and that’s not fair, or something.

 

The next month they printed that story about McCain and a female lobbyist – they might have been something going on there. The two denied it and the Times said they were surprised at how angry he was – the story was about how McCain says he hates lobbyists but works with them all the time, and the sex angle was a minor thing. Either way he was pissed.

 

More AP detail:

 

A month later, McCain flashed his temper at a Times reporter, repeatedly cutting her off when asked whether he had spoken to Democratic Sen. John Kerry about being his vice president in 2004.

 

Then last month, Republicans complained that the paper rejected an Op-Ed piece by McCain about the Iraq war after one by Obama was printed and received widespread attention. The paper said it had only tried to get McCain to rewrite the piece to be more specific about his plan.

 

Well, they asked Obama for his proposals on this and that, and he laid them out. It was a policy piece – quite dull, actually. McCain’s was a screed against the audacity of Obama thinking he could run things, and the Times asked McCain to give them the policy piece they had requested. Then he and the right ripped into the Times for being unfair. Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post ran it for McCain.

 

The AP item may be a list of how unfair the Times is – urging everyone to understand that – and a call to arms for the good guys:

 

Beyond any personal pique there may be, there is a strategy to attacking the Times because it is a bogeyman of conservatives who still may not be entirely sold on the Arizona senator.

 

Senior advisers are fully aware that assailing the Times could help endear McCain to his talk radio skeptics and their followers.

 

So, they go after the newspaper often – and send the message: McCain stands with you.

 

Advisers also recognize the power of the newspaper to influence how other media organizations cover the campaign, so they are aggressive in pointing out where they feel McCain was wronged.

 

That reads like advice. And AP items also points out that many on the right think the New York Times always has been unfair to Republicans:

 

Back in 1992, aides to President George H. W. Bush complained that the Times and other media outlets had mischaracterized his examination of a grocery check-out scanner by suggesting he was unfamiliar with the long-used technology and implying he was out of touch with everyday Americans’ economic issues.

 

In the 2004 election, a conservative anti-tax group called Club for Growth ran an ad decrying Democrat Howard Dean as a “latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading” tax-raiser.

 

“It’s not complicated,” said Club for Growth spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik. The paper, she said, “has really become a symbol for a lot of conservative grievances.”

 

“For starters, their editorials are decidedly liberal. That’s a no-brainer. And there are often complaints that even their general reporting is biased in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The New York Times has come to be associated with the Northeast liberal establishment.”

 

But to be fair, the Devlin Barrett item does mention in the last paragraph that attacking the New York Times, one more time, may win over the base, but could turn off the moderates McCain needs to vote for him.

 

Yes, that’s right. You should be careful – screaming “NO FAIR!” over and over and over does make people wonder about you. And the recent complaints that Obama is too popular, and too good a speaker, and too well liked around the world as someone who could make others really like America again and want to work with us, and that he’s too cool, calm and collected, and certainly too articulate – well, that too makes some wonder. Do we want the opposite? That’s an odd argument.

 

In any event, even the New York Times says you shouldn’t believe everything you see in the news. See John Tierney with Ten Things You Should Scratch from Your Worry List:

 

For most of the year, it is the duty of the press to scour the known universe looking for ways to ruin your day. The more fear, guilt or angst a news story induces, the better. But with August upon us, perhaps you’re in the mood for a break, so I’ve rounded up a list of 10 things not to worry about on your vacation.

 

Now, I can’t guarantee you that any of these worries is groundless, because I can’t guarantee you that anything is absolutely safe, including the act of reading a newspaper. With enough money, an enterprising researcher could surely identify a chemical in newsprint or keyboards that is dangerously carcinogenic for any rat that reads a trillion science columns every day.

 

What I can guarantee is that I wouldn’t spend a nanosecond of my vacation worrying about any of these 10 things.

 

This is worth a read. Here are three of the ten:

 

1. Killer hot dogs. What is it about frankfurters? There was the nitrite scare. Then the grilling-creates-carcinogens alarm. And then, when those menaces ebbed, the weenie warriors fell back on that old reliable villain: saturated fat.

 

But now even saturated fat isn’t looking so bad, thanks to a rigorous experiment in Israel reported this month. The people on a low-carb, unrestricted-calorie diet consumed more saturated fat than another group forced to cut back on both fat and calories, but those fatophiles lost more weight and ended up with a better cholesterol profile. And this was just the latest in a series of studies contradicting the medical establishment’s predictions about saturated fat. …

 

3. Forbidden fruits from afar. Do you dare to eat a kiwi? Sure, because more “food miles” do not equal more greenhouse emissions. Food from other countries is often produced and shipped much more efficiently than domestic food, particularly if the local producers are hauling their wares around in small trucks. One study showed that apples shipped from New Zealand to Britain had a smaller carbon footprint than apples grown and sold in Britain. …

 

5. Evil plastic bags. Take it from the Environmental Protection Agency: paper bags are not better for the environment than plastic bags. If anything, the evidence from life-cycle analyses favors plastic bags. They require much less energy – and greenhouse emissions – to manufacture, ship and recycle. They generate less air and water pollution. And they take up much less space in landfills.

 

So even the Times is saying you cannot believe everything you see in the news. McCain should lighten up.

 

But then, even if everyone recognizes the power of a major newspaper to influence how other media organizations do their reporting, and what they report, they are dying – readership is way down, advertisers looking elsewhere, profits slipping and slipping and everyone laying of as many reporters as they can, hoping the money they save by running less news will save them. Every major newspaper is in trouble. The readers went away, or slowly died off.

 

In Slate, Jack Shafer thinks about what is happening and comes up with What’s Really Killing Newspapers. His answer – “They’re no longer the best providers of social currency.”

 

Someone should tell John McCain.

 

And what Shafer means is this:

 

Not that long ago, the daily newspaper was an indispensable coiner of social currency, and it gave its readers piles of the stuff in each edition. The phrase, which comes from sociology, is often used to describe the information we acquire and then trade – or give away – to start, maintain, and nurture relationships with our fellow humans.

 

Take, for instance, the voluminous results of newspaper sports pages. Terrific for sports fans, of course, but the sports pages have been used to grease sales calls, break ice on first dates, and fuel water-cooler bonding for a century. Even folks who don’t care for sports skimmed the sports pages for a little something about the games and athletes so they could engage in essential small-talk.

 

So the newspaper was once what Shafer calls the primary hub through which we all interacted:

 

Oh, people might have talked to the shoe-shine man or their broker about what they heard on the radio or saw on television, but nothing could beat the newspaper as a source for socially lubricating conversation. How many times have you heard a conversation start, “Didja see that article …”?

 

By sniffing the bits of social currency an acquaintance had withdrawn from the pages of his daily and was trying to cash – say, a quip about that picture of an egg frying on a city street the paper published; or a comment about a movie review or comic strip; or an opinion about local government based on a piece by a political columnist – the sniffer could learn reams about his social contact.

 

And Shafer is not alone in thinking this way, citing an Associated Press study – the news can “be used in a variety of interpersonal situations – to look smart, connect with friends and family and even move up the socio-economic ladder” and “maintain relationships.”

 

And he asks you to think of how the newspapers had it made:

 

Whether by design or chance, the social currency found in a newspaper has a relatively short shelf life. If you don’t think so, try bringing up a pivotal play from a week-old baseball game over coffee or invoke a weather story from two days ago. Newspapers thrived, in part, because reading just one edition provided only a few cents’ worth of social currency. Compounding your earnings requires that you read the damn thing nearly every day. Ignore a couple of issues, and you get left behind. …

 

But to read a newspaper and then keep your trap shut is to miss the point: Newspapers are designed to be read and argued over. You’ve got to spend social currency to make social currency.

 

But now he says other institutions do far better jobs at issuing social currency these days:

 

What is Facebook but the Federal Reserve Bank of social currency? And it’s all social currency you can use! Like cocktail chatter, a Facebook posting – be it a link, a list, a photo, or travel plans – conveys the message, I am here. Listen to me. A well-executed Facebook presence, like a superb pontification at the bar or a great phone-in to sports talk radio, demonstrates one’s status within one’s existing social network. If skillfully wielded, a Facebook page can increase a person’s status by attracting “cooler” or more influential friends. These days, you can’t raise your status more than a bump by carrying the Wall Street Journal under your arm.

 

If one of the great attractions of the newspaper was that it brought people together to rub noses, how can it compete for readers’ time with sites like Facebook, which can also give you a real-world news dump if that’s what you crave? Thanks to the Web, no interest need be esoteric any longer. Right now there isn’t a Facebook group about one of my favorite topics, “meth mouth,” but there is sure to be one a couple of minutes after I post this piece, with meth heads, dentists, and social workers networking through it.

 

Then add in instant messaging, micro-blogging, and e-mail. The newspaper lost its real reason for being:

 

You no longer need to rely on a paper for the social currency that a weather report, movie listings, classified ads, shopping bargains, sports info, stock listings, television listings, gossip, or entertainment news provide. As falling circulation indicates, fewer do. And the newspaper isn’t the only media hub suffering in the new era. Radio, which once served a similar social role with its menu of music, news, and talk, is plummeting.

 

Shafer sees no cure for what’s ailing newspapers. There may be no cure. But the problem is not crappy journalism, or fairness or unfairness.

 

So John McCain can rant all he wants about the New York Times. The world has moved on. He hasn’t.

 

But just to be fair, I’ll add Digby’s new Standard Disclaimer:

 

Note: No one should construe this as a criticism of McCain’s heroic service in Vietnam or infer that he isn’t entirely color blind and above any kind of racial bias. Neither should this be seen as any kind of attack on him for his age or an accusation that he isn’t always a straight talker of unwavering principles. He has a heroic and unimpeachable character and I would never imply otherwise.

 

Does that help?

 

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Fair and Balanced, McCain and the Press, McCain versus the NY Times, Newspapers Dying, Obama as Messiah, Obama: Celebrity, Obama: Uppity, Objective Journalism, Press Bias, The New Media. Bookmark the permalink.

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