Saturday, January 22, 2005

Journalism roundup

Mark Kaplan, associate dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, and director of the Norman Lear Center, on the larger implications of the Armstrong Williams scandal:

By and large, neither politicians nor entertainment executives regard the press as a check on the abuse of power, or as the representatives of the public. They regard journalists as nuisances -- useful idiots.

The White House is not shy about this; the president and his people have patiently explained that they view reporters as a special interest group, one constituency among many, and the administration has notoriously issued deceptive news video press releases voiced by ersatz reporters, in the hope that local stations will confuse them with news.

Some reporters take great pains not to cross lines, and to disclose conflicts of interest when they're unavoidable. Many publications and broadcasters have codes of conduct designed to prevent even the appearance of a conflict. Professional associations in journalism and public relations, and the schools that train future practitioners, post guidelines and teach standards. And, of course, there are laws against payola and domestic propaganda.

But consider the rise of the political pundit industry, driven by the insatiability of 24-hour cable news; the advent of faux think tanks funded by right-wing billionaires; the popularity of the glossy magazines and stripstrip-syndication shows that exist to flatter; the transformation of news from public interest to profit center; the conglomerates housing news and entertainment under the same roof. It's no wonder journalism's boundaries have blurred.

These days, anyone can be a pundit or celebrity correspondent; all you have to do is put up a shingle, and find someone willing to publish or air what you have to say. And in the Internet era, everyone can be a publisher.

Seems like a good enough excuse to dive into my quote file for a selection of quotes and excerpts about journalism:

If the ... press somehow vanished, and if all of us could, through the Internet or 500-channel TV, get exactly the information we wanted, we would still want some way to compare impressions, to put things in perspective, to ask other people, "What do you make of this?"
James Fallows
Breaking the News (1996)

Why get your news from seasoned professionals when you can get half-witted rumors from random strangers [on the Internet]?
Joel Achenbach
"Reality Check" in
Washington Post (12/2/96)

Network junkies excitedly tell me that self-publishing leapfrogs over publishers, editors and broadcasters. The network passes messages from your keyboard to a thousand other monitors. It's not one-to-one communication like the telephone or one-to-many broadcasting like radio. Rather it's a many-to-many medium, a garden where freedom of speech blooms.

But the reality is that with millions of users posting messages to the network, the valuable gets lost in the dross. There are no pointers to the good stuff - you don't know which messages are worth reading. You can select by subject area, but there's no way to pick only the interesting comments. With everyone able to upload their work to the network, the Internet begins to resemble publishers' slush piles. It's up to the reader to separate out the dregs. What's missing from the network are genuine editors.

Ah, editors! The bane of writers, reporters, and publishers, editors yet serve as a barometer of literary quality and advocates for the reader. Without them on the net, you simply have no way of telling what's worth reading.

By eliminating editors, our networks demonstrate their importance. There are plenty of writers on the Usenet, but few editors. It shows.

Indeed the best newsgroups rely on voluntary moderators, serving as unpaid filters. ... Their attempts to impose order on the chaos generate resentment, accusations of censorship, and occasional subversion; but it's the moderators who give shape and direction to the newsgroups. There are so few moderated newsgroups only because nobody's willing to put in the long, unpaid hours.
Clifford Stoll
Silicon Snake Oil (1995)

Michael Schudson, a professor at the University of California at San Diego who is a prominent academic theorist of the news, has used the thought-experiment of a news establishment that suddenly vanishes, in order to show the real value of journalism.

Suppose, Schudson has said, that the elite press, which filters the news in a way may people dislike, went out of business sometime in the near future. Suppose further that, thanks to imminent advances in technology, each person could get exactly the information he or she wanted, with none of the annoying "spin" from editors or commentators. With a vastly expanded system of cable TV, each viewer could watch sessions of each congressional committee, each state legislature, each city council. Through the Internet, people at home could instantly find the latest research reports about heart disease, or AIDS, or the effectiveness of different exercise schemes. Through fully indexed online version of the Congressional Record, they could find out what any congressman said about any theme. On Court TV and its many channels [sic] they could follow all the major legal battles. If they wanted to know the crime rates for each part of town or the crash rate for each commuter airline company, they could pull up that information too. The media establishment as we know it would seem to be short-circuited. And yet, Schudson wrote in his book The Power of News, "Journalism - of some sort - would be reinvented."
People would want ways to sift through the endless information available. What is more important? What is most relevant? What is most interesting? People would want help interpreting and explaining events. ... It is hard to picture the contemporary world, even in the face of a technology that makes each of us potentially equal senders and receivers of information, without a
specialized institution of journalism.
James Fallows
Breaking the News (1996)
quoting Michael Schudson from
The Power of News (1995)

Few people truly want raw data, they seek information, taste, even wisdom. Filtering the Net gusher is essential, and finder software continues to improve beyond the simple key-word seekers of today. But these still take our scarcest resource: time. Often gobs of it.
Gregory Benford
"A Scientists's Notebook:" in
Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (6/96)

[The] real purpose [of journalism] is to satisfy the general desire for information to have meaning. People want to know the details, but they also want to know what the details mean. ... What we read in the papers and see or hear on TV and radio should provide context that gives meaning to information.
James Fallows
Breaking the News (1996)

At a time when people are being bombarded daily with more and more headlines and more and more information, they are, ironically, becoming less informed.
Henry Luce
prospectus for the creation of Time magazine

In a world glutted with information, constant updates are not only a diminishing asset, they are becoming a dangerous distraction. Watching could be hazardous to our health. ... Since the dawn of time, humans have constructed a quilt of community understanding out of new information. In a world of information scarcity, messenger-journalists performed the vital service of acquiring and transmitting fresh data. ... Then information came into abundance. Data is now so plentiful that consumers face the curious hazard of an information glut. We cannot keep up with the information we produce. ... Today's challenge is to manage the vast quantity of information we already have stored up ... to share this information with each other, to manage it thoughtfully, and to transform it into knowledge inside millions of individual brains. This is not so much fact-hunting as it is data-gardening.... Journalists who limit their role to news flashes are absolving themselves of their overarching obligation to the audience. In our new world, reporters must become more like teachers, and we all must learn the skills of the librarian. Information management is the fuel for our thriving civilization.
David Shenk
"More Is Less" in the "Idees Fortes" section of
Wired magazine (2/97)

When asked what they do, journalists can offer all sorts of answers. At times we'll say we're there to provide information, to report on an ongoing debate, to "keep the people informed." At other times we'll say we exist to be "watchdogs" on the people in power - to make sure they don't abuse it or lie or steal. Sometimes we'll say our main obligation is to "fairness" and "balance." Other times we'll say our goal is to push politicians beyond their normal back-and-forth and challenge their assumptions, their facts (or non-facts) and the hidden purpose behind their rhetorical gambits. Sometimes we speak in grand terms about our obligations to "the people" or "democracy" or "free speech." Other times we'll speak mainly in terms of professional ethics, focusing on our obligations to live by certain rules and well-worked-out conventions. Sometimes we'll revel in our stance as the friends of the underdog, defining our role as involving "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable." Other times we'll vehemently deny bias in favor of the down-and-out and insist that we are thoroughly fair and accurate in assessing the good and the bad in even wealthy and powerful institutions. Sometimes we'll acknowledge that the media has commercial purposes - we make our money, after all, by winning large audiences and selling them to advertisers. Therefore, we often have to entertain as well as inform. Other times we'll argue passionately that money does not affect what we do, that we report the news without fear or favor and don't care whom we might offend.

It can be argued, of course, that each of these statements is true as far as it goes. ... Yet journalists themselves, when not under fire, readily concede that there are some real contradictions in their own rationales for what they do.
E.J. Dionne, Jr.
They Only Look Dead (1996)

[R]eporters have the naive notion that if they tell some of both sides of a story, their readers will know who was lying.
Saul Green
"Pseudoscience in Alternative Medicine"
Skeptical Inquirer (Sept/Oct 97)

When distant and unfamiliar and complex things are communicated to great masses of people, the truth suffers a considerable and often radical distortion. The complex is made over into the simple, the hypothetical into the dogmatic, and the relative into the absolute.
Walter Lippmann
The Public Philosophy (1955)

The fact that your voice is amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the country to the other does not confer upon you greater wisdom or understanding than you possessed when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other.
Edward R Murrow (1965) (attributed)

The art of writing is in fact largely the perversion of words, and... the less obvious this perversion is, the more thoroughly it has been done.
George Orwell
[presumably from] "New Words" (essay, 1940) in
Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell (1997)
ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus

Much of what passes for journalism is in fact mere titillation or dressed-up gossip or polite prejudice. The media have abandoned civil society for the greater profits of the private sector, where their public responsibilities no longer hobble their taste for commercial success.
Benjamin R. Barber
"Securing Global Democracy"
Jihad vs. McWorld (1995)

The confusion of fact and opinion in public debate was the focus of a powerful 1994 essay in the New York Times by Michiko Kakutani. "Throughout our culture," she wrote, "the old notions of 'truth' and 'knowledge' are in danger of being replaced by the new ones of 'opinion', 'perception,' and 'credibility.'" She argued that "as reality comes to seem increasingly artificial, complex and manipulable, people tend to grow increasingly cynical, increasingly convinced of the authenticity of their own emotions and increasingly inclined to trust their ideological reflexes. ..." In such a situation there are no arguments in the sense of an engagement over ideas and evidence but simply a clash of assertions. In this climate, said Kakutani, "the democratic idea of consensus is futile." We are witness to the creation of "a universe in which truths are replaced by opinions."
E.J. Dionne, Jr.
They Only Look Dead (1996)

The function of a good newspaper and therefore of a good journalist is to see life steady and see it whole.
Charles Prestwich Scott (attributed)

Call it the "whoops factor," a phenomenon that starts with shoddy research or the misinterpretation of solid research, moves on quickly to public outcry, segues swiftly into the enactment of new laws or regulations and often ends with news organizations and some public policy mavens sounding like the late Gilda Radner's character, Emily Latella, as they sheepishly chirp, "Never mind!" ... Underneath the embarrassing retreats from what in hindsight seems shabby research, superficial journalism or a triumph of politically motivated public relations lies a much deeper problem: Americans' willingness, almost eagerness, to accept a Hobbesian view of man as a brutish thug who if left unchecked will sow chaos and destruction. In this atmosphere, even reports like the one claiming that a quarter of all female college students are raped each year are readily believed. ... Cramped by space and time, and usually not having much knowledge of statistics, journalists are often bamboozled by "experts" bearing impressive numbers or they fail to put the numbers in historical or demographic perspective.
Steven A. Holmes
"It's Awful! It's Terrible! It's ... Never Mind"
Sunday New York Times Week in Review section (7/6/97)

Journalism is not mere entertainment. It is the main tool we have for keeping the world's events in perspective. It is the main source of agreed-upon facts we can use in public discussion. The excesses of journalism have been tolerated because no other institution can provide the benefits journalism can.
James Fallows
Breaking the News (1996)

In abandoning standards of "objectivity" or "fairness" and embracing a certain style of controversy, the press and television may have produced livelier formats without actually enlivening the public debate. The liveliness is, in some sense, artificial. It involves people tossing epithets and one-liners at one another as weapons. Combat between gladiators is not the same as an argument between citizens. Genuine argument involves a real exchange of views and information.
E.J. Dionne, Jr.
They Only Look Dead (1996)

It's absolutely correct to say that there are objectively occurring events ... Speeches are made, volcanoes erupt, trees fall. But news is not a scientifically observable event. News is a choice, an extraction process, saying that one event is more meaningful than another event. The very act of saying that means making judgments that are based on values and based on frames.
Cole Campbell
editor, Virginian-Pilot (newspaper)

Mainstream journalism proudly honors objectivity, balance and accuracy. Buts its execution often sifts these values through the filters of prevailing opinion, new knowledge, old prejudices and standard assumptions about who's worth quoting.
Abe Peck
"Don't Ask, Don't Print" in the
New York Times Book Review (11/3/96)

The press is committed - properly, though sometimes with weird effects - to neutrality on matters of policy. They confine themselves to matters of presentation, which they chew over and reduce to a single piece of consensual wisdom with astonishingly speed. ... These judgments are entirely based on style points, though, because style is a matter it has been granted to the commentators in the press and television to judge. A position may be wrong-headed, but the candidates cannot be marked down for that. He must be marked down for failing to connect with the American public, for speaking in jargon or abstractions, for repeating himself, or for looking at his watch. Positions on the issue can be brought into the equation only when they are sufficiently disreputable for the press to feel professionally comfortable about criticizing them...
Louis Menand
"Dole's Three Strikes" (10/17/96) in
New York Review of Books (11/14/96)

Even more than broadcast coverage of national or world events, local TV news suggests an environment of generalized menace that cannot really be understood but that viewers should try to insulate themselves from. ... The accumulated impact ... [is] to give citizens a nightmarish view of life in their own community.
James Fallows
Breaking the News (1996)

If it bleeds, it leads.
media consultants' recommendation to local TV news to
feature crimes, fires, autowrecks, etc (c.1990)

The nation whose population depends on the explosively compressed headline service of television news can expect to be exploited by demagogues and dictators who prey upon the semi-informed.
Walter Cronkite
A Reporter's Life (1997)

Update: Check out Kid Oakland (on Daily Kos) on "George Bush and the failure of the U.S. Press":

Our Press has failed our nation, our citizens, our Constitution and, most importantly, the truth. The problem is structural, longstanding and ongoing. The delivery of the News to our citizens....the delivery of the facts that our Democracy must debate to come to a consensus, to make our choices and our broken.

First, over the last decades the News became more and more entertainment. Then it became not just entertainment but, in the last years, it became polemical entertainment. And while this process played out, the News also became a small part of Very Big Business; our news rooms, newpapers and radio stations became the adjunct outposts of huge corporate conglomerates whose interests are closer to the Board Room and the Club House than to Main Street or Broadway where newsies used to hawk the latest editions.

Both political parties played into this environment with relentless hype and of them taking advantage of it fully, the other playing the role of the aggrieved, passive victim....both of them, however, always playing into the cutthroat game of the ever quicker cyclone politics of the news cycle.

Either way, the fact is....the context...the framework of the delivering the facts to the American public has fundamentally changed.

George W. Bush and his cohorts lie, distort and spin. Those lies and distortions get picked up and spun forward by countless AM radio jockeys and the FOX network and its Cable copycats, oftentimes using interviews with paid GOP shills....and before the American public has read a single fact check....a single piece of independent investigative journalism...a kind of national freeze has set in. A consensus has formed before the facts have hit the pavement.


The fact is, during the first term of President George W. Bush, the Press failed America. No individual reporter could stem the tide of what has been a systemic change in how our citizens perceive the truth...but, as a whole, the large organizations could have and should have taken stock of this new environment...and fulfilled their responsibilty to the Constitution, the citizenry and the Truth.

We all know, that did not happen. "The News" is everywhere, but it is more often than not... tripe about murders, disasters and celebrity.

In this context, the administration of George W. Bush has played the game of the "big lie" with impunity. Even when they are doesn't mean anything because the bulk of perception has already been shaped and spun.

It is not enough for the Press to blame the marketplace for the fact that Americans don't have their facts straight. Simply put, making sure Americans have their facts straight is their job and their moral duty.

I'm sorry, when I see George Bush spewing his palaver about where he plans to take our nation and our world...and hence, how he plans to lie and deceive us for another four years....I can only think of one thing....

where is the Press? Will they be AWOL for another four years?

Amen, brother.

Ed Fitzgerald | 1/22/2005 07:19:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


Ed Fitzgerald

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11/04/2007 - 11/11/2007
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03/16/2008 - 03/23/2008
03/23/2008 - 03/30/2008
03/30/2008 - 04/06/2008
06/01/2008 - 06/08/2008
09/21/2008 - 09/28/2008

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Bullshit, trolling, unthinking knee-jerk dogmatism and the drivel of idiots will be ruthlessly deleted and the posters banned.

Entertaining, interesting, intelligent, informed and informative comments will always be welcome, even when I disagree with them.

I am the sole judge of which of these qualities pertains.

All e-mail received is subject to being published on unfutz without identifying names or addresses.

I correct typos and other simple errors of grammar, syntax, style and presentation in my posts after the fact without necessarily posting notification of the change.

Substantive textual changes, especially reversals or major corrections, will be noted in an "Update" or a footnote.

Also, illustrations may be added to entries after their initial publication.
the story so far
unfutz: toiling in almost complete obscurity for almost 1500 days
2005 koufax awards


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*Crooks and Liars*
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2004 koufax winners
2003 koufax award
"best blog" nominees
the proud unfutz guarantee
If you read unfutz at least once a week, without fail, your teeth will be whiter and your love life more satisfying.

If you read it daily, I will come to your house, kiss you on the forehead, bathe your feet, and cook pancakes for you, with yummy syrup and everything.

(You might want to keep a watch on me, though, just to avoid the syrup ending up on your feet and the pancakes on your forehead.)

Finally, on a more mundane level, since I don't believe that anyone actually reads this stuff, I make this offer: I'll give five bucks to the first person who contacts me and asks for it -- and, believe me, right now five bucks might as well be five hundred, so this is no trivial offer.

original content
© 2003-2008
Ed Fitzgerald


take all you want
but credit all you take.

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