Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Journalistic Narrative

My latest piece for the Carleton Progressive is online. I reprint it here for your reading pleasure. Some of the references are to Carleton-specific institutions like The Lens, but I think the point of the article comes across just fine.

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Last week, in an editorial written in response to the funding controversy for The Lens, The Carletonian made an interesting set of claims about the role of media in society. Defending their reporting from charges of bias, the Viewpoint Editor Patrick Reis laid out a vision of what their obligations were, as journalists, in service to the Carleton community. By far the most interesting was their assertion that they had no duty to screen the accuracy of quotations attributed to individuals. In fact, Mr. Reis argued, to do so would be "the essence of editorializing, a violation of journalistic ethics." Instead, the only legitimate end of the Carletonian is to find differing perceptions among the student body, and accurately report those perceptions.

This is not a viewpoint limited only to the Carletonian. I'd wager that most mainstream media sources abide by it as well. This vision is one of a mirror, a value-less object that uncritically and dispassionately reflects the world around us. In its faux-neutrality, it represents a seductive vision of non-partisanship and objectivity. But progressives around the country are increasingly discovering how the "objective" newspaper is a myth, and how conservative activists are exploiting these journalistic norms to spread falsehoods and lies.

We live in a world of narrative, a world in which things are told as stories. A story, by definition, is only a partial truth--it is impossible to incorporate every viewpoint or perspective into one's tale. But yet, we know that the inclusion of marginalized voices can drastically change our perception of a story; Hamlet seems far less straight-forward to anyone who has read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In political narratives, the stakes are even higher; where the addition of one fact can change intuition greatly, the decision to include or exclude that fact, or any other, is extraordinarily significant. Because every perspective is important, and not all perspectives can be included, any narrative (including newspaper stories) is definitionally biased from the start. Narratives also serve to constrain our perceptions of the world around us--unless constantly challenged, they subconsciously shape our assumptions of political and social actors. There are infinite narratives floating around at any given moment, all which exercise real power--even though the world is too complex to be contained within overarching generalizations. Democrats are dovish wimps, Republicans are manly hawks. Republicans hate gays, Democrats hate Christians. Democrats want to spend lots on social programs, Republicans are stern minders of the deficit. The list could go on indefinitely, but it represents a false picture of reality. For example, there are many hawkish Democrats, and there are excellent reasons to argue that Republican "hawkishness" is actually making our country less safe. However, the former function of narrative--selective inclusion/exclusion of facts--acts to reify the latter; all else being equal, the average reader will default to her pre-existing perceptual horizon when interpreting confusing or controversial events. By not challenging these forms, the media is not acting "objectively" but instead acts in the service of deception.

Two examples might serve to illustrate. Jonathan Chait wrote a spectacular article ["The 9/10 President," The New Republic, 3/10/03] detailing how Republicans gained their advantage on the "national security" issue in the wake of 9/11, despite virulently opposing virtually every security initiative put forth by Democrats in the aftermath of the attack. President Bush and congressional Republicans opposed increasing funding for Hazmat security, securing loose nuclear material, port inspections, communication improvements--in fact, Bush, the president who still has yet to veto a bill, threatened to do just that if congress spent more than the original emergency $20 billion dollars passed immediately after the attacks. At the same time, Democrats, led by Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, proposed establishing a Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Bush immediately announced his opposition, only to reverse himself several months later when faced with overwhelming popular support for such a program. But Bush wasn't content to work with Democrats. In a move of astonishing hubris, he then proceeding to accuse the very Democrats who proposed the program in the first place of obstructing it, painting them as opponents of America's national security. The actual point of contention was absurdly superficial and clearly concocted to provoke a fight--Bush wanted to eliminate union protection for future DHS employees, Democrats wanted to preserve it. But the media went dutifully along, reporting Bush's attacks on Democrats while failing to note his previous opposition to the bill or Democrats' vociferous support of it.

Rather than challenge Bush's clearly fictional commitment to national security, the media viewed the matter as one of two competing perceptions in which it could not objectively take sides. But by not taking a side, the media took the Republican side, because it elevated their lies and distortions to the level of Democratic fact. And when neither side's credibility was challenged by the media, Americans simply assumed Republicans were right. Top conservative strategist Grover Norquist explains that the public perception is that "Republicans are tough on crime to the point where they'll take away your civil liberties. Republicans are so tough on foreign policy that they'll flatten cities." The argument, then, that Republicans might actually be weaker than Democrats on these issues was viewed by most Americans as so far-fetched as to be laughable. Indeed, the facade was so successful that Democrats themselves began to adopt it as truth. In the 2004 election, there was a "resume" handed out that listed President Bush's "achievements" during his first term. One such "achievement" sarcastically listed was "the largest increase in federal bureaucracy of all-time, the Department of Homeland Security." I was forced to lecture countless Democratic activists that a) the program was a Democratic initiative, and b) it was actually a good idea.

Alas, the problem gets no better when there are actual "facts" proving one side to be correct. Chait tells the story of then-Governor Bush's promotion of his promised tax cut on the 2000 campaign trail. One of the key Democratic responses was that his cuts were slanted heavily to the wealthy. Vice President Al Gore cited non-partisan analysis using treasury department models which showed that Bush's tax cuts would give 40% of its benefits to the wealthiest 1% of tax payers. Bush responded with his own analysis purporting to show that only 22% would be so directed. But Bush's analysis was done by his own hired flunkies, and, more importantly, reached its figure by omitting the impact of the estate tax and upper-income bracket cuts--the very cuts most likely to slant toward the rich. Under the Carletonian's standard, "objective" media sources should not challenge Bush's assertion in their coverage of the story, despite the fact that he blatantly lied. And sure enough, the media dutifully reported both "sides" of the debate, with The New York Times reporting that "the richest 1 percent of taxpayers would get between 22 percent and 45 percent of the tax benefits, depending on how the calculations are done." Again, with the media refusing to critically challenge the validity of Republican statements, Americans defaulted to their pre-existing narrative structure--one in which Democrats had no credibility on tax issues. And so the tax cut was passed even though most Americans, when informed of the actual properties of the plan, were clear in their opposition.

Does this mean that media sources should just abandon their pretense of objectivity, and openly advocate for favored political views? Not at all. However, it does mean that these sources must be cognizant of the world around them, and how their powerful function in a democratic society serves to shape popular opinions and perceptions. Both challenging a falsehood, and refusing to challenge it, are equal manifestations of bias. Both incorporating a narrative structure, and attempting to dismantle it, are equal manifestations of bias. Given that reality, why not make truth the tie-breaker? Why not try and paint a more accurate picture of the world, rather than blindly follow the voices of the charlatans? If completely apolitical reflection is impossible (and it is), then journalism as a profession needs to find a new raison d'etre. I submit that purpose be to inform and educate the population.

The Carletonian justifies its reliance on "he-said/she-said" journalism by arguing that it "allow[s] the reader to determine validity for him or herself." Presumably, most mainstream media sources who follow the same paradigm would agree. But most people don't have the tools to determine the validity of a political debate any more than they have the tools to determine the validity of a complex mathematical proof. Or more accurately, they view the media as that tool, and thus see an unchallenged quote present in a story as not just any perspective, but a valid perspective that is in some respects "true." In a world where all actors are arguing in good faith, this might work. But we don't live in that world. It is simply impossible to argue that the media's complaisance with lying gives us a fairer, more deliberative, more informed, or more effective democracy. Refusing to challenge deliberate falsehoods isn't objectivity. It's a bias in favor of slander, an abdication of professional and social responsibility, and it hurts progressive causes in America and around the world.

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You can access this and more liberal articles at the Carleton Progressive's website.

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