To Be Fair About It

Each morning out here in Hollywood, as the sun edges up over Griffith Park Observatory off to the east, it’s the same thing. Along with strong black coffee and the Danish pipe tobacco – the breakfast of champions – it’s time to fire up the computer and check the email. And the first order of business is what comes from back east – from the beyond-high-powered Park Avenue attorney (a former English student a long time ago) and from the News Guy in Atlanta (he and his wife were part of the core team that created and grew CNN) there are the corrections – typos and missing or transposed words and that sort of thing. If you thought the columns at this site weren’t proofread, well, you are one of those who logs on early. By the time it’s noon back east that’s all fixed. As careful as you try to be, and as nice as the spelling-grammar-usage tools are, you just don’t see your own dumbass mistakes. You need another set of eyes, or two sets.

But there’s more to it. The News Guy in Atlanta comes from the world of journalism. He reads carefully and often suggests this or that may have been distorted – Beck really didn’t say that, exactly, or so and so went on to suggest something else entirely, or, if you look up what really happened – the public record – some key facts were left out, or summarized unfairly. That sort of thing keeps you on your toes, so you often go back in and fix that stuff too – rewording this or that, or adding a paragraph or two, or dropping a contention or revising a conclusion. If you thought the columns at this site weren’t edited – a different thing than proofreading – you are also one of those who logs on early.

The issue is always the same – anyone who writes about current events and public policy points to what seems to be happening, and what people seem to think is happening, and attempts to sort out the two. Once that’s settled – never an easy matter – there’s putting it all in perspective – historical, cultural or economic. We’ve been here before, or we seem to be in uncharted waters. Then there are the what-if observations. If X is true then Y will probably follow – and we’ll all die, or we’re in for mighty good times next week. There may be heroes and villains involved – that’s a lot of fun – but they’re there to swell a progress, start a scene or two and that sort of thing.

The issue is that something seems to be going on, something important to all of us, and there are lots of ways to look at it – but one particular way seems best, all things considered. That’s provisional of course. Prufrock did say he was no Hamlet, nor meant to be. Being sure is a trap, a trap for tragic heroes, not anyone trying to figure out what the hell is going on in America and writing it all down to try to figure it out, if just a little.

That’s what makes crusading journalists so damned irritating. They want to bring the Real Truth to their readers – the big scoop that changes how we think about things and humbles the mighty and either wins them the Pulitzer or a permanent sinecure on Fox News. Bernstein and Woodward pulled it off with their Watergate reporting. So THAT’S what Nixon was up to! Nixon resigned. Fox News would like to do the same to Obama – they have Glenn Beck with his conspiracy theories about FEMA reeducation camps and the hidden messages in the frescos at Rockefeller Center and all the rest. But that’s not journalism. It’s amazing speculative invention, with chalk and a blackboard and a bit of seemingly uncontrolled sobbing now and then, as he connects the dots. It’s just that there are no dots. Reporters find and verify the dots before they connect them. The News Guy in Atlanta worked for Beck’s boss, Roger Ailes, twice, before CNN – that’s why he sometimes sends the email with the obvious suggestion. Verify the damned dots before you connect them.

That’s always good advice, but Fox and Andrew Breitbart brought down ACORN and tried to do the same with Shirley Sherrod and the NAACP –both efforts based on faulty reporting of the Real Truth, or, if you will, unverified dots. The truth in question wasn’t exactly real. The ACORN tapes were careful setups and creatively edited, and turned out to be a bit of a hit job. Shirley Sherrod was quoted out of context, to make it seem she was saying the opposite of what she said. (This is all discussed here). It seems ideology got in the way of pointing out what was really going on.

And ideology is a problem, recently explored by Jay Rosen in Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right: On the Actual Ideology of the American Press – and Rosen is the key guy on the faculty of the NYU School of Journalism.

Does the American press have an ideology? Is everyone just pushing their particular ideology? Rosen points out that everyone says so:

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 his column Rosen had links to illustrate these three views, but you probably don’t need those to sense this is true. It all plays out on cable news every day. But Rosen says it’s more complicated than that, political journalists are actually cosmopolitans:

For example: If we were able to survey their opinions on the issues that divide left and right, we would undoubtedly find that the people in the political press – the Gang of 500, as Mark Halperin calls them – are much more liberal than the population as a whole. We would also find that they are typical of the population in the cities where they work, which formed the basis for this famous column by Daniel Okrent: Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?

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 they run from conventional ideology:

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.

Rosen argues no journalist is a “true believer” thuse days, just out for a juicy story. That would exclude Andrew Breitbart. But Rose does offer this taxonomy of political journalism, starting with the Church of the Savvy:

This is my name for the actual belief system that prevails in political journalism. … Prohibited from joining in political struggles, dedicated to observing what is, regardless of whether it ought to be, the savvy believe that these disciplines afford them a special view of the arena, cured of excess sentiment, useless passion, ideological certitude and other defects of vision that players in the system routinely exhibit. As I wrote on Twitter the other day, “the savvy don’t say: I have a better argument than you… They say: I am closer to reality than you. And more mature.”

Now in order for this belief system to operate effectively, it has to continually position the journalist and his or her observations not as right where others are wrong, or virtuous where others are corrupt, or visionary where others are short-sighted, but as practical, hardheaded, unsentimental, and shrewd where others are didactic, ideological, and dreamy.

Rosen considers that insidious –” it tries to hog realism to itself.”

But then there’s the Quest for Innocence, which is the agenda to serve the public and claim to serve no one’s agenda:

Innocence is a determination not to be implicated, enlisted, or seen by the public as involved… The quest for innocence in political journalism means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus “prove” in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade.

And add the Regression to a Phony Mean, which Rosen says is “an especially dubious practice that is principally about self-protection” of course:

Journalists associate the middle with truth, when there may be no reason to… 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 truth-telling impulse at all, but a refuge-seeking one, and it’s possible that this ritual will distort a given story.

And then there is the View from Nowhere, which some journalists use as their claim to legitimacy:

Occupy the reasonable middle between two markers for “vocal critic,” and critics look ridiculous charging you with bias. Their symmetrical existence feels like proof of an underlying hysteria. Their mutually incompatible charges seem to cancel each other out. The minute evidence they marshal even shows a touch of fanaticism. It can’t be that simple, that beautiful, that symmetrical… can it? …

When you have an obligation to remain outside the arena, it is also tempting to feel above the partisans who are struggling within that arena. (But then where else are they going to struggle?) You learn the attractions of a view from nowhere. The daily gift of detachment keeps giving, until you’re almost “above” anyone who tries to get too political with you – or at least in the middle with the microphone between warring factions. There’s power in that; and where there’s power, there’s attraction.

The analog is He-Said, She-Said Journalism:

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 means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them. The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes. When these five conditions are met, the genre is in gear.

Watch CNN for that, or watch Fox News for 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.

Man, those are a lot of sins to avoid! But forewarned is forearmed – and there is the News Guy in Atlanta to help out.

And Rosen complicates this further in a second column:

Is there a distinction between journalism and ideological argument?

Yes, there is. Or to put it another way: journalism is not just “politics by other means.” The simplest way to illustrate this is to picture a journalistic situation like a labor union newspaper, where the reporter and editors are likely to share with members and leaders a strong commitment to the labor movement and a general suspicion of its traditional adversaries – companies like Wal-Mart, legislation like right-to-work laws, and politicians like Mitch McConnell. If they were in dramatic philosophical conflict with the union publishing the newspaper, they probably wouldn’t get the job. Shared ideology is a condition of employment.

Once hired as journalists, however, their job – if they are real journalists – is to tell the members what is happening and cover the issues union people care about and ought to know about, regardless of whether the news so reported supports the arguments leadership is making at the time. If, say, Wal-Mart, aware of its poor reputation, has recently shown some openness to union organizers or dealt fairly with them, a good union newspaper would report that (in proportion) even if it makes for some cognitive dissonance among the membership.

If your job is lobbying for the union, representing it in negotiations, or acting as its spokesman, then ideological argument is what you do. You make the case for the union. If your job is editing the news section of the newspaper, you inform people of what is going on in the world of their union. You equip them to understand it without illusions, and to participate in it – including participation in argument. So, yes, there is a difference between journalism and ideological argument, and this difference would show up even when there is broad agreement on ideology and no hint of a View from Nowhere, as in my example of the union newspaper.

And there’s this:

If your job is to make the case, win the negotiations, decide what the community should do, or maintain morale, that is one kind of work. If your job is to tell people what’s going on, and equip them to participate without illusions, that is a very different kind of work. To put it a little more sharply, power-seeking and truth-seeking are different behaviors, and this is what creates the distinction between politics and journalism. The work of the journalist cannot be done without a commitment to the act of reporting, which means gathering information, talking to people who know, trying to verify and clarify what actually happened and to portray the range of views as they emerge from events.

A primary commitment to reporting therefore distinguishes the work of the journalist. Declining to express a view does not. Refusing to vote does not. Pretending to be ideology-free or “objective” on everything does not. Getting attacked from both sides? Nope. But a commitment to reporting does.

And this seems to hit upon what the columns at this site try to achieve:

It’s incumbent on them to level with the users. If that means backing up to say, “Actually, it’s hard to tell what happened here,” or, “I’ll share with you what I know, but I don’t know who’s right,” this may be unsatisfying to some, but it may also be the best an honest reporter can do. Portraying conflicting accounts or clashing interpretations is an exacting skill, which does require a certain detachment. But there is no necessary connection between that skill, or that kind of detachment, and the ritualized avoidance of all conclusions, such as we find in He Said, She Said and the View from Nowhere.

So detachment is not an evil in journalism:

To say so makes no sense. To stand back and look at a situation dispassionately is vital to accuracy, and in a sense, to intellect itself. My almost foolproof measure of intellectual honesty is the ability to paraphrase the arguments of another such that the other recognizes his or her view in the paraphrase. That takes a certain kind detachment, and political reporters are often called upon to do exactly this: summarize the views of others. I have no quarrel with these practical uses of detachment. It’s the theatrical ones I mistrust.

Ah! Watch the Fox News drama queens for what not to do, and do the right thing:

Be strongly for transparency, which means our ability to see into the house of power. It is part of a commitment to transparency that one respects what is genuinely private, distinguishing it from what is truly public.

Be strongly against opacity as a tool of power.

Be strongly for accountability in government and civil society, especially where public money, human lives and people’s livelihoods are at stake. …

Be strongly against demagoguery (that’s when a leader makes use of common prejudices, false claims and false promises in order to win power…) which means trying to raise the cost of participating in it.

Yep, do that and you will lose readers, as any blogger will tell you – but readers of blogs want red meat – but maybe blogging isn’t journalism at all.

Nevertheless, the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder has even more rules.

Recognize trade-offs:

Spend as much time questioning judgment as you spend questioning motivation. Both drive decision-making. Motivation is more elusive, and often less concrete, and as a way of adding value to context, it is often meaningless: why did Vice President Dick Cheney consolidate national security authority in the Office of the Vice President? Why did he employ draconian secrecy measures? Why did he subscribe to the unitary theory of executive power? Most people who have pondered these questions focus on Cheney’s motives. We still need solid reporting on his judgment. What worked about his arrangement? How did his experience influence the structure of his decision-making?

And study cognitive science:

Figure out how minds work. Be suspicious about patterns and be knowledgeable about probability.

And don’t be self-righteous:

Journalists working for big newspapers, magazines, television networks, or websites are privileged to have the platform and should be humble about using its power.

And be humble about conclusions:

This is not to say that you can’t make them. It is to say that if your conclusions aren’t provisional, then they probably are not correct. Sarah Palin may not be ready to be president today, but that doesn’t mean she won’t be ready to be president tomorrow.

And brush your teeth and comb your hair and stand up straight and be kind and courteous and help little old ladies across the street.

But of course all of these are not really rules for journalists or bloggers. They are rules for life in general. And of course no one follows them.

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.
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