Friday, November 18, 2011

Why Our System Is Broken: Media Narratives

We can break our society into pieces, not like the "estates of the realm" as in the Middle Ages -- the clergy, the nobility, the commoners -- but into well established sectors. We've got the public sector, comprised of government and its related functions, the private sector, which constitutes most of private enterprise, and the media, which can be both public and private, obliged to report current events and document history.

I no longer think of religion as a sector of society. In the American system, religion does not belong in the public sector; therefore its home is in the private sector, even if its special tax status sets it apart.

In any event, the role of the media, especially in a media-centric world, is vital. That's why our founding fathers put freedom of the press alongside freedom of speech and religion among our first guaranteed rights.

Now, I've studied enough history to know that the press has not always been sacrosanct and safe from the scourge of error or misguided opinion. I understand the vitriol that was thrown back and forth in the press during the political battles in early America was of such a nature that we would blanch if subjected to it today. Current TV political ads do stoop quite low, but they are not technically media in the sense of journalism.

But something has gone very much wrong with our media today, and until we fix it we will suffer from it. What's wrong with the media today stems, at best, from a misconception: that the media needs to be impartial. It also suffers from just what impartiality means.

Here might be a good example. If a man shoots a cop while trying to escape capture in the aftermath of a crime, it's fair to report that "witnesses said they saw the suspect emerge from the car guns blazing. The police officer appeared to be hit several times by that first barrage." It would not be proper to continue to say "witnesses were unclear on whether the officer made any attempt to duck or whether he 'had it coming'," you know, just to provide balance.

Unfortunately, that how a lot of our reporting, especially political reporting is managed today. And I do mean "managed."

Where it's most grating is in the reporting of political processes in which one side is clearly engaging in obstruction, while the other is attempting to fulfill a policy that has broad support. For example, it's clear that the Republican members of the deficit-reduction so-called Super Committee are not proceeding in good faith when they raise some taxes (finally) while cutting enough taxes for a net loss of revenue, and then still call for substantial cuts in social programs. It's also clear that the Democrats have signaled a willingness to cut spending on social programs AND raise taxes to reach deficit reduction goals.

That's essentially what's been happening. But to hear the media reports, it's a "both sides have been unable to come to any meaningful compromise that would satisfy the majority of Americans who reside in the middle of the American politique."

We hear this even though the Democratic deficit-reduction plan is actually a centrist position. What's more, polls routinely point out that strong majorities favor this position.

Another current maddening example is that the Occupy Movement has no leaders and no explicit goals or principles and thus can't bring meaningful change. While it's true that no strong leaders in the movement have emerged, it's absolutely clear that Occupiers have a very clear principles and goals: they are unhappy that the wealthiest 1% of Americans control 40% of our country's wealth. The 99%ers are unhappy that the banks are foreclosing on thousands and thousands of homes to a great extent because they made it too easy to borrow money. A good solution would be to make it easier to pay back these loans. Everybody wins: banks make some money, and people keep their houses.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. We all know what the 99%ers want, and a lot of us want that, too. Even the tea partiers, whose inchoate message was eventually amplified by astro-turf organizations and their money, would and should agree with a lot of the message of the Occupy Movement.

Here's another example of the damage media narratives do. If the NYPD says that they worried about public safety, and that's why they're going to shut down the camps, well, the media just dutifully reports it. If a media outlet can cobble together a handful of reports that support the idea that the Occupy Movement has turned violent, then that's what you'll hear: endless reports of a fight here and knife drawn there, and murder that took place near an encampment, no matter whether it's eventually shown to be unrelated to the movement or its adherents. When the media ordains a narrative, it's hard to get them off it. This is how editorial directors gets so much power. If Bill Keller thinks the OWS folks are dirty hippies, they'll be dirty hippies, as if that's a bad thing.

Here's Paul Krugman:
Right now, the campaign against OWS basically tries to get working Americans to turn on the movement, even though most people support the movement’s goals, by trying to make it seem as if the protestors are people not like you — whereas the plutocrats are. Hey, this has worked many times in the past; that’s the whole point of “What’s the matter with Kansas.” And it can operate in many directions: OWS should be shunned because they’re dirty hippies, Elizabeth Warren is not-like-you because, horrors, she’s a Harvard professor.
 Pretty much. And Glenn Greenwald:
As Stelter correctly noted: “Much of what is said on television about the Occupy Wall Street movement is opinion. Some is factual. And sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference.” That is at least part of the reason that public opinion is souring on the movement. But as usual, the problem isn’t that people are watching falsehoods from Fox. The problem is that so much of what Fox spouts is also found — often first — in The New York Times.

I don't doubt that the media creates narratives as a tool to package stories in order to organize the story for its listenership, readership, or viewership. In that, I'm sure they often mean well (exception that proves the rule: Fox News). The problem is that narrative creation and management are so open to manipulation, and even well-intentioned editors can create narratives that are counterproductive to the service they wish to provide.

What's painfully true is that these narratives can go off the rails. The run-up to the Iraq War is a case in point. You don't need me to remind you of how that worked. Another painful example: the "Mission Accomplished" debacle with Bush on an aircraft carrier was accompanied by a narrative that this cowboy deserved his swagger because he "looked at home in a flight suit." Everyone was too enamored of the narrative to ask the question, "What mission was accomplished?" We all too soon found out. Thousands of lives later and nothing has been accomplished for certain.

To wrap this up: This quest for fairness in the media has caused a portion of viewers, listeners, and readers to issue knee-jerk reactions, such as "THAT REPORT WAS BIASED. THE NEWS IS SUPPOSED TO BE BALANCED. LIBERAL MEDIA AT ITS WORST@!!" Unfortunately, consumers these days mistake reporting for opinion and vice versa. And we have the media to blame for that.

If the Republicans are full-bore obstructionists, report that. If Democrats are milk-toast negotiators that reveal their hole cards right at the beginning and thus always end up losing, then report that. If the result of that is going to be another defeat for Obama, then report that.

If the cops start busting heads at an otherwise peaceful demonstration or occupation, report that. Don't report that "Mayor Bloomberg has finally lost patience with the demonstrators and has, in spite of his respect for free speech and right to peacefully assemble, decided for public safety's sake to clear the park." Especially don't say that if, in fact, he sends in police in riot gear with pepper spray in hand and truncheon on the belt ready to bust heads in the middle of the night while cordoning off an area of New York as a "no press zone." That shows no respect for the First Amendment whatsoever.

What you can do:
  • Watch carefully for the narrative and see how it's forming. Test the narrative and its various components. If the facts don't bear out the conclusions upon which the narrative rests, ditch the whole thing and compose your own narrative.
  • Accept that reporting can express facts and draw conclusions. A sentence like "The Republicans continue to resist all efforts to raise taxes as part of any package and have, in effect, shut down the entire process, leading many observers to voice concerns that chances of any solution are slim to none," actually is reporting that includes a logical conclusion drawn from observable facts. It's not opinion foisted on us by the "lamestream media."
  • Accept opinion for what it is. I don't care for David Brooks, but he is an opinion writer and thus has a right to free expression. Wise men accept this with grace (okay, I occasionally swear at him when he's on the TV) and don't confuse reasoned opinion with the kind of wild distortion of facts as practiced by professional bamboozlers like Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh. Their stock-in-trade is truth distortion. Without it, their whole jig would be up.
  • Educate yourself. If you hear that the Fed is going to enact QE3, find out what that means. Figure out if it's fiscal or monetary policy at work. Find out if it makes good sense to you. Become knowledgeable about the things that will help our society work better. The Internet is, obviously, a great place for this research. Start by reading the economics blogs listed on the right sidebar of my blog.
 As an example of educating oneself, I offer a page on the Internet I found at a site called on media and political bias. Read the whole thing (not long), but here's a tease:
Narrative bias: The news media cover the news in terms of "stories" that must have a beginning, middle, and end--in other words, a plot with antagonists and protagonists. Much of what happens in our world, however, is ambiguous. The news media apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events suggesting that these events are easily understood and have clear cause-and-effect relationships. Good storytelling requires drama, and so this bias often leads journalists to add, or seek out, drama for the sake of drama. Controversy creates drama. Journalists often seek out the opinions of competing experts or officials in order to present conflict between two sides of an issue (sometimes referred to as the authority-disorder bias). Lastly, narrative bias leads many journalists to create, and then hang on to, master narratives--set story lines with set characters who act in set ways. Once a master narrative has been set, it is very difficult to get journalists to see that their narrative is simply one way, and not necessarily the correct or best way, of viewing people and events.
 Rhetorica is the site of Dr. Andrew R. Cline, Assistant Professor of Journalism at Missouri State University.

 Update. Dan Beucke of BusinessWeek actually offered what I view as a balanced analysis of OWS so far. Check it out.

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