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.