Sunday, August 15, 2004

Media Bias Frames

Thanks to Tim in the comment to "Journalism, Patriotism and Containers" down below. He pointed me to a couple other Jay Rosen columns, one of which I'd already read. (His "Joe Moderate" column.) The other column looks at how charges from the left and the right end up creating a middle-ground dynamic where the press takes up residence:
In the media id of the Left, temptation lives. Dumping everything to the right of The Nation magazine into the "conservative" bin is an intellectual temptation. When it happens, journalists at ABC can plausibly become "right wing" in the observer's eyes. And they actually are to the right... of The Nation. Progressives, people on the Left, call it the corporate media, which dispenses captured news, news that is essentially propaganda for the system and its rich friends, or a distraction from unjust things happening all around the world, which do not get reported.

In the media id of the Right, temptation also lives. It wants to call everything to the left of the Washington Times the "liberal" media. When that happens, journalists at ABC can become "left wing" in the observer's eyes And why not? They are in fact to the left... of the Washington Times. Conservatives, people on the Right, call it the liberal media. The liberals who run it are hostile to traditional values, intoxicated with their own social agenda, eager to expand the power of government, reflexively anti-Amercan, and we see it all over the news.

To Jennings, this is all quite odd. ABC News, he firmly belives, isn't left or right, pro or anti-war. It isn't "political" at all in that way-- it's a professional news operation, "designed to question the behavior of government officials on behalf of the public," but equally designed not to take sides. He and his colleagues do not let political temptation color the news; they work hard at curing their reports of any undue bias-- failing often but only because they're human. That kind of caution is basic to how we operate, he says, second nature to any journalist. The public's failure to grasp this struggle in the journalist's soul makes possible a common charge like, "you're the anti-war network."

In the ritual of this exchange, it's forgotten that all three parties can be for truth, if you understand what each is saying.

* Mainstream American journalism actually is to the right of The Nation and it pushes against the left's view of the world to engineer its own balance. This creates hostility, as shown in my cartoonish dialogue above.

* Mainstream American journalism actually is to the left of the Washington Times, and pushes against that worldview too-- for balance. This creates hostility from the "opposite" direction.

* Mainstream American journalism actually is neither left nor right for the people who make it. But it pushes against both sides, and against others who can help in the performance of news balance. This tends to create hostility, which will baffle the balancers. Pretty soon it's the critics who are unbalanced people.

But even in objectivity there is id. Temptation for Jennings and his colleagues does not involve taking sides. It does not mean "coming out" as anti-war or pro-Rumsfeld or skeptical about American power in the Middle East. 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 marshall even shows a touch of fanaticism. It can't be that simple, that beautiful, that symmetrical... can it? Temptation says yes.
He also helped me to "get" the idea of corporate media. If you look at the national news shows, you'll see only a smattering of news about the products and people that the media owners want to sell you. But, if you go down to the next level to the Today and Good Morning America shows, you see a big jump in the number and length of stories about media celebrities, products and services, and concepts they want you to adopt. (Travel, lifestyle purchasing, impulse buying, media consumption, health and mental health issues as treatable illnesses, etc. But go down another level, to the Entertainment Tonight and Celebrity Justice shows, and its all media self-referentiality. Everything is reduced to emotionalism and consumability.

Newspapers are a self-contained version of this multi-tiered world. Every Wednesday and Sunday (and now Friday) come the flood of ads. Fridays and Saturdays have the media blitz. Sunday is lifestyles.

It's that news collection and reporting is expensive to do right. The marriage of news to business is understandable. But business is an amoral thing. It's only concern is the creation of profit. It pushes and pushes at every available opening to find more. Every opportunity is probed for fresh profit. That's not a bad thing in the same way that a garden gone riot is not a bad thing. It's just growth, competition and opportunity.

Newspaper love to tell you that the business side has no influence on the reporting side. That, obviously, is not true. The bulk of the pressure goes to the publisher and top editors, and production designers, but its there. Simply step back and look at the design and layout of the paper itself.

So, yes, there is corporate media influence. But when it comes to what to write about, how to cover it, where to place it, what words to choose, which opinions to feature and which to deprecate, which narrative to use, that is almost completely in the judgment of the writers, reporters and editors. And there, time after time, studies show that the newsrooms of America are significantly to the left of the masses of America. Corporate pressures may lead to favorable business and civic planning coverage, but beyond that there is free rein for reporters.

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