The True Failings of the Journalistic Enterprise

If there is one thing we should have learned from the Shirley Sherrod fiasco, it’s to beware of snippets posing as journalism — particularly from sources of ill-repute. It is a lesson we should have abided then, and one we should remember now as the “Journolist” faux-scandal continues to flex its wings. Alas, many, including TMV’s own Logan Penza, have managed to forget that lesson literally within minutes of such a stark reminder.

We’ll put aside the fact that “someone on Journolist says something bad” is qualitatively different from “Journolist, as an institution, promotes bad.” As Jonathan Chait has correctly noted, the shared method of operation of both Breitbart and the Daily Caller was to (deliberately?) splice together out of context conversational fragments to portray an image at odds with the message actually being articulated in the original, in order to serve partisan (or at least sensationalist) ends. As several folks who actually provided the context compellingly note, not only do the Daily Caller allegations not hold up under scrutiny, there is no way to even make the argument they’re putting forward if one does not omit the surrounding posts. A UCLA law professor (not a journalist) did wonder if the FCC could yank Fox’s permit, but he was condemned by an (actual journalist) Journolist member and the topic was dropped. Some folks did use JL to help roundup petition signatories, but Ezra Klein the next day decided that was on ethically borderline territory, and immediately banned the practice. The Daily Caller had access to the emails verifying these accounts, but deliberately chose to exclude them — and for many, the snookering seems to have held (Breitbart, for his part, claims he received the video already selectively edited. While that doesn’t speak well of his journalistic instincts, if true it puts him in a different category than the Daily Caller, which had the exculpatory material and made a conscious decision to omit it).

All of these failings aren’t new, which makes me wonder why we’re repeating them over and over again. The problem, I think, isn’t really about bias in the media. It’s about the way we talk about bias in the media — specifically, the way we deeply misunderstand it. We want the simple pleasure of believing the media is biased against us and in favor of their side, and will rush to embrace any story that verifies our intuition (no matter how weakly grounded). The truth is far more complex.

Logan identifies the Journolist phenomenom as paradigmatic of “liberal media bias”, the inevitable end result of “journalists voting for Democrats at rates above 90% and repeated scandals like ‘RatherGate’ where ‘mainstream’ and ‘objective’ journalists pursuing obviously partisan agendas….” There’s plenty of bias in the media alright. But, excepting folks who (more or less) are relatively overt in playing cheerleader for their favored side (Keith Olbermann, Megyn Kelly), anyone who tries to break it down along partisan dimensions is selling you a bill of goods — probably with a partisan axe of their own to grind, free of charge (RatherGate was 10 years ago. The Sherrod scandal happened this week. The ACORN fiasco was within the year. We all have our legitimate gripes. Get over yourself.).

It’s unsurprising that journalists tend to echo the political opinions of their own socio-economic context: highly-educated city-dwellers from generally wealthy backgrounds who move in elite circles tend to be socially liberal, economically moderate, and foreign policy hawks who vote Democrat, and that, more or less is the outlook of most journalists (I grew up in precisely that sort of environment, and a socially liberal, economically moderate, foreign policy hawk is precisely how I would have described myself as recently as four years ago). And so it is true that the media is considerably more friendly towards gays and lesbians and gay rights initiatives than the general public is — I say that as an adamant supporter of gay rights who has been quite painfully reminded by voters across the country that not everyone is ready to grant Americans equal rights without respect to sexual orientation. It’s also true that the media is a sucker for a good war — as anyone who observed the pre-Iraq War coverage has to admit (another area where I was “snookered”, though to my credit I was still in high school at the time).

But while noting that most journalists are Democrats might raise the question of bias, it doesn’t answer it, any more than noting the overwhelming White male tilt of the journalistic profession proves that the industry’s coverage is biased against women and people of color. That’s something that only be evaluated by the work product itself. Politically speaking, the main shortcomings within journalism aren’t a partisan slant in favor of one issue or another. They lie within two other, distinct factors. The first is a relentless “both sides” framing that strives towards objectivity and ends up making a joke of itself. And the second is a slavish devotion to simplistic narratives that rarely do justice to truth, and in fact normally are active obstacles to its ascertainment.

Starting with “both sides”, consider this passage from a WaPo article on the Sherrod issue.

The controversy comes on the heels of another one surrounding the Justice Department’s decision to scale back its 2008 voter-intimidation lawsuit against a group known as the New Black Panther Party.

Suspicions on the right that Obama has a hidden agenda — theories stoked in part by conservative media and sometimes involving race — have been a subplot of his rise, beginning almost as soon as he announced his campaign. They lie beneath many of the questions that conservatives on the political fringes have raised about his motives, his legitimacy and even his citizenship.

On the other hand, some of the president’s allies on the left have at times reflexively seen racism as the real force behind the vehemence of the opposition against Obama’s policies and decisions.

This came hot on the heels of the Post’s Ombudsman chiding the paper for not focusing more on allegations that the Obama administration condones anti-White discrimination. Let nobody say they aren’t respective to criticism.

But anyway, the above passage takes pains to present two sides, equally flawed. On the one hand, some conservatives have stoked beliefs that Obama has a “hidden agenda”, and in fact may not be a legitimate President (or even a citizen). On the other hand, some liberals “reflexively seen racism” as the driving force behind Obama’s policy. Two sides! So neutral!

Except not. In neither case does the Post give us any clue who or what it’s talking about. If you’re going to make claims like that, you should name names so we can evaluate it. Who are the liberal allies who have “reflexively” blamed racism for all of Obama’s ills (how does one know if such blame is “reflexive” in the first place)? Maybe they exist — I’d be interested in knowing! But the Post doesn’t say. And same for the conservatives, except that it’s pretty well established that a not-insubstantial chunk of the conservative movement has at least flirted with “birtherism”. The figures include Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), and a host of other prominent politicians, such as Rep. Nathan Deal (R-GA), Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ), Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R). This is very well known. But I don’t think the Post actually has any names in mind that they’d be comfortable alleging “reflexively see racism as the real force behind the vehemence of the opposition against Obama’s policies and decisions.” And hence, naming names of prominent conservatives who have flirted with birther politics would ruin the symmetry. Two sides. So equal (see also Publius’ legendary post about the Scales of Broder).

And second, we have the bias of narrative. This is something I’ve been harping on for a long time. Basically, the media has already typecast its players into preset roles, events into well-trodden storylines. And then it runs with them, come hell or high water. Republicans are manly hawks, Democrats are spineless doves. Republicans hate Black people, Democrats hate White people. Republicans are belt-tightening deficit hawks, Democrats are spend-thrift bleeding hearts who want to give away the national treasury to the poor.

Does anyone remember the Democratic electoral strategy from about 2002-4? It was to outflank the GOP on security issues. They made hay over the Bush administration’s lackluster support for needed Homeland Security initiatives. They noted how the Iraq War had been politicized, which was responsible for our failure to achieve total victory. They argued that the Bush administration was neglecting Afghanistan. And so on.

Substantively, it was a perfectly valid tactic. But the media simply couldn’t wrap their heads around it. The idea that Democrats might be better on security than Republicans didn’t compute. It didn’t fit in with their pre-set narrative, which was that Republicans were tough on security if anything to a fault (as Grover Norquist colorfully put it: “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.”). If Democrats were challenging Republicans on something that fit a pre-existing narrative of a Democratic issue (say, insufficient attention to the plight of the poor), that they could handle. But they simply couldn’t countenance such a radical departure from their preset frames.

These two factors feed into each other. The media will present “two sides” in the form of clashing ideologies within which both sides play their prescripted parts, but won’t ever a) let one side actually win or b) let it deviate from its role. The recent flap over renewing employment benefits was cast as Democrats trying to help the unemployed while Republicans minded the deficit. Never mind that some prominent Republicans had an alternative rationale — that unemployment benefits only benefited the lazy. And never mind the utter absence of any evidence that Republicans care one whit about the deficit. Democrats care about employment. Republicans care about deficits. That’s the way it is, that’s the way it must be.

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