December 27, 2004

Does journalism have a class bias?…

I may be adding a tenth bias to the list of structural biases of journalism. I say “may” because I’m not yet sure how it fits with the others on the list. And I’m not yet sure it even qualifies as a bias. Perhaps Rhetorica readers can help me sort this out.

Background: My wife gave me Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? for Christmas. I read it in two sittings. Interesting book.

What I find most fascinating about it is this: Frank, whether he knows it or not, considers the same thing George Lakoff considers in his book Moral Politics–what/how liberals and conservatives think and the moral values that unndergird that thinking.

Frank is dealing with “Cons” (working class conservatives) and “Mods” (wealthy moderate Republicans) as they exist in Kansas today–especially in the western suburbs of Kansas City. I am very familiar with this situation from having lived 20 years in Kansas City during much of the action that takes place in Frank’s book.

He’s trying to sort out a question that perplexes liberals: How is it that the Republicans convinced working class people to vote against their own economic well-being? You do not need to read Frank to discover an answer to this question. Lakoff answered in years ago, and it has to do with the role of moral values in political thinking.

Okay, my point here is not to enter a debate on moral values (unless you want to talk about how we articulate moral values and why we articulate them in certain ways). As long-time Rhetorica readers know, I think highly of Lakoff’s book and have used some of his thinking in compiling the information on the Media/Political Bias page. It is in the context of the parallels I see between the two books that I am wondering about adding to the list of biases.

Does journalism have a class bias?

When this question first occurred to me in compiling the original list, I dismissed it as simply a part of the status quo bias. But the status quo bias is really about power, not class. Here’s what got me thinking about it again, a quote from Barbara Ehrenreich on page 194:

For working-class people, relations with the middle class are usually a one-way dialogue…From above come commands, diagnoses, instructions, judgments, definitions–even, through the media, suggestions as to how to think, feel, spend money, and relax. Ideas seldom flow “upward” to the middle class, because there are simply no structures to channel the upward flow of thought from class to class.

I disagree with that final assertion because I think the internet (blogs) and civic journalism might be such structures–but that’s another discussion. What she’s saying here isn’t new. Any rhetoric scholar of my era can talk to you in overblown academic language about exactly what Ehrenreich identifies: a conduit metaphor of rhetoric and communication in which information and knowledge travel from a discourse community with power to one without power. It’s painfully obvious that this model accurately describes the situation (it describes the whole Aristotelian model of rhetoric). And it’s equally obvious that this situation quite rightfully upsets working class people who experience the content traveling through this conduit as intellectuals and the “elite” dumping derision upon them.

The conduit in the metaphor is complex. On one academic level it is language. But on an experiential level it is the media. Ehrenreich’s appositive just exploded off the page at me–one of those “well, duh” moments.

It is now routine for those who would practice journalism to earn a college degree, which puts them in an elite intellectual class and all but assures them admittance to the middle class. Those who practice it at its most visible levels make a solidly middle class income and above. None of this is surprising or new.

What I had not considered in compiling my list of biases is the very thing that some media critics have been discussing for years–the role of class in the production of news. For me, however, it is more complex than simply saying that middle class people with middle class concerns are going to cover the news in middle class ways.

Instead, I see this as a rhetorical problem–one that could be changing with the noetic field. Civic journalism and the internet (e.g. weblogs and open-source journalism) are destroying the conduit metaphor. Interactivity of all kinds is destroying the conduit metaphor. And the moral value system of the conservative working class (correctly and rightly) rejects the conduit metaphor. But the conduit metaphor is a founding pillar in the structure of the rhetoric of journalism–one-way communication from those who know to those who don’t.

12 Responses

  1. Tim 

    re: I disagree with that final assertion because I think the internet (blogs) and civic journalism might be such structures–but that’s another discussion….Civic journalism and the internet (e.g. weblogs and open-source journalism) are destroying the conduit metaphor….But the conduit metaphor is a founding pillar in the structure of the rhetoric of journalism–one-way communication from those who know to those who don’t.

    I immediately thought of this exchange and I hope you’ll forgive me not putting this off for the other discussion: This Summer Will Tell Us If We’re Serious: Tom Bettag brings Realism Before the Tribe of Murrow

    Xixi: The mechanic at my gas station, the checker at my grocery store and the lady at the cleaners all offer more balanced insights into the news than do the ‘talking heads’ of mainstream media.

    Tim: “There are a whole bunch of Monday morning quarterbacks who live in Washington and feed a lot of these reporters. People use the press as a giant instant-message board.”*

    People? What people? Not the grocer or mechanic Xixi mentions.

    The self-infatuation with themselves and “newsmakers”, plus the voracious demands of 24/7 cable turns the press into IM for the corporate and connected.

    re: Perhaps Rhetorica readers can help me sort this out.

    Composite bias?

    Much of what passes for political bias is actually caused by one or more of the structural biases and not a conscious or unconscious effort on the part of journalists to slant the news.

    I wonder if the class bias, or moral bias, is also a composite bias?

    Class bias or Moral bias? I really think that so much of the “voting against economic interests” is poor theory based on incomplete “truths”. I wonder, and I’m no expert, how much of this disconnect on the left finds its roots in the populist movement of the 19th century and Marx theory modeling unruly voters as Homo economicus (aka Homo economus)? I thought Megan McArdle offered some interesting insights about three conditions of poverty (which I think extends to class understanding disconnects) in a review of welfare reform.

  2. Tim… I’ll take up the other discussion soon, seeing as how I begin to discuss it, despite my own protests, at the end of the entry :-)

    Before I add anything to the list it has to pass a few tests, perhaps the most important being: Does this bias structure the practice of journalism? Now, because I’m talking about a rhetorical maneuver of long-standing use, my first answer is “yes.” But I have other tests :-)

    Further, a class bias is made troublesome, or my articulation of it anyway, by my desire to separate it from the kind of ideological bias most ranters espouse. I’m a little shaken by an interesting contradiction that’s creeping into my thinking today–a fight between how a general class bias (political-economic power) might affect practice compared to my claim that specific ideological biases for the most part do not affect practice or are simply “caused” by other biases.

    And yes, the economic disconnect is also problematic for some of the reasons you site.

  3. rgrafton 

    At what point should non-academic news consumers say “so what?” to the bias rationalizations? At what point does it become immaterial whether the bad reporting is caused by narrative bias, regional bias, class bias or bias against left handed crippled Catholic dwarves? From what I can tell, only 30-some% of the public believes the press tells the truth. Should the press spring into action when it reaches 20%, 10%, or when donkey’s fly? It’s nice, and a luxury, to just be able to “think” about things, but at what point does it become useless, and just another intellectual exercise? Will the fact that the press may have a “class bias”(if proven) change anything? Doc, I know it’s your job to think about things,(and you do it very well ;-) but when does the press move beyond the abstract into the concrete? In other words, when does thinking become doing?

  4. rgrafton 

    Furthermore, I am looking forward to Thomas Franks’ new book ” What’s the Matter with Manhattan (NY not KS) – Why Liberals Vote Against Their Interests and Why Rich People Love High Taxes. HEE! HEE!

  5. Tim 

    re: the other discussion

    When you do, it would be great to elicit comments from Seth Finkelstein and Anna if possible. Just as “new” is “destroying” the (conduit metaphor of) legacy – the “new” mimics the legacy.

    I would be interested in the relationship with Seth’s insights on power law (Utility sorters and resource shifters) and Anna’s (conformity enforcers and diversity enhancers) in discussing “new’s” Global Brain (BlogThink) and legacy’s (PressThink or MediaThink?).

    The enabling technologies of the Obvious Society, while intriguing, are irrelevant. What’s critical is that it promises to free us from the smoke we blow up each others’ asses and, with a little bit of luck, make “isms” obsolete. (link added)

    R – In other words, when does thinking become doing?

    I wonder if it is not a combination of entreprenuerial risk based on “think” that “does” and consumerism that rewards (or not)?

  6. R- Good questions re: when does something get done? I suggest you ask a journalist. I am not a journalist. I merely criticize them for a living ;-)

    My contribution to change: thinking about this stuff and trying to teach the next generation of reporters how to do a better job based on that thinking. It’s what academics do.

    T- You’ll need to give me a little time to work on this.

    R- Yes, because Franks is a liberal you should discount 100 percent of what he says. Me too, for that matter. I am a part of the liberal machine! I PRETEND to take an academic and balanced stance to suck the unsuspecting into the liberal web where we will suck the life out of them (i.e. high taxes). Buwhhahahahahahaha! :-)

  7. Tim 

    re: You’ll need to give me a little time to work on this.

    Well, if I was in a position to manage your time, I would gladly, willing, and enthusiastically do so. I’d say something like, “Sure, Andrew, take the time you need to do it right, but don’t let important things like your job or family suffer, and make sure the quality of the product reflects the time spent, blah, blah, and anytime tomorrow will be fine.”

    But I’m not, am I?

    And yet, you the writer, the publisher, the expert, the giver of free ice cream, have basically put me on notice that I’ll need to be patient about the flavor of ice cream I’m interested in. Or is it an interest we share?

    God, I love this blog-thing! More specifically, this blog.

    Anyway, Jay Rosen had an important retort to power law mentioned above:

    Here’s the long tail article about the importance of the many smaller blogs that has gotten so much attention and will be turned into a book. I recommend it if you have not read it yet. Seth: why so much about the power law, and so little about the long tail? I don’t find in the recent history of Big Media anything resembling the long tail of the blogging world. Do you?

  8. Tim… Readers are important–especially good readers who read carefully and think about what they’re reading. Such readers make it easier for me to do my job (on this blog, in the classroom, in academic research, etc.). So I try to cater to the requests of such readers. It’s an interactive world, you know :-)

  9. Change “class” to “subculture,” and picture society not as layers of unmixed strata (as Ehrenreich seems to) but as a Venn diagram with lots of overlapping circles.

    I see journalism as a subculture, which like all others, must be at least somewhat self-reinforcing to survive. The same tendencies that keep it together, however, both limit its appeal as an occupation to a relatively narrow range of personality types and place constraints on its output that limit its credibility among other subcultures.

    Again, all subcultures have such traits, but in journalism they’re more obvious, not to say more painful, because journalists are trying to describe reality to the rest of us. If most of the rest of us don’t identify with journalists, we won’t believe them.

    Perhaps journalists should be drafted from the general population by a random lottery. ;^)

  10. Tim 

    Perhaps journalists should be drafted from the general population by a random lottery. ;^)

    LOL … MONKEYS, TYPEWRITERS, AND SHAKESPEARE

  11. Jay… I don’t think “class” and “subculture” are exclusive here. Plus, in the American context, class has rarely been unmixed strata. Movement among them has nearly always been possible. I think the internet is mixing strata in exactly the way Ehrenreich believes can’t happen.

    Re: “Again, all subcultures have such traits, but in journalism they’re more obvious, not to say more painful, because journalists are trying to describe reality to the rest of us. If most of the rest of us don’t identify with journalists, we won’t believe them.”

    Yes. This is exactly the problem with the conduit rhetoric of modern journalism. I think that rhetoric is changing, and journalism must change with it.

  12. I think that rhetoric is changing, and journalism must change with it.

    Open Source Journalism Comes a Step Closer in Greensboro: A Plan is Shown