December 26, 2007

When the Press Fails, by W. Lance Bennett

I’ve begun reading Lance Bennett’s new book, When the Press Fails, and I’ll post my thoughts and reactions as they seem appropriate. You may recall (and I hope you’ve read) Bennett’s famous textbook, News: The Politics of Illusion. It’s part of my required reading list for journalists.

Bennett and co-authors Regina Lawrence and Steven Livingston examine what they believe is the failure of the press to act as an effective government watchdog in the run-up to the war in Iraq. As they say in the introduction:

The story here is that the press has grown too close to the sources of power in this nation, making it largely the communication mechanism of the government, not the people.

Depending upon how the authors mean this, I may agree. We’ll see.

One of the ways they mean this–and I agree–is that journalism is far too dependent upon official sources of information for confirmation of reality. This is an ethical problem that I tackled in my essay (with Doug McGill and Jeremy Iggers) in the current issue of the Journal of Mass Media Ethics. Journalists tend to need confirmation–even second hand–of the first-hand experiences of non-official sources. In other words, for journalism, it often ain’t real until someone in power says it’s real.

And if two people in power disagree, then the reality is (the news is) that they disagree–not that one of them might actually be wrong and one of them might actually have the facts.

Political journalism as currently practiced in the United States lives in very strange epistemological territory.

They further state:

The heart of our concern in this book is why information that may challenge and even undermine official accounts of events is so often screened out of the mainstream news unless there is an opposing official to be the champion who brings it into the story.


The ironic result is that the U.S. press system works best when government is already working well–debating alternatives, responding to challenges from citizen interest groups–and when elected opponents publicly hold each other accountable.


…when other officials inside circles of power…fail to speak out against prevailing government claims…there is no engine to drive critical news coverage.

Bold claims. We’ll see.

Journalism is not entirely a failure. But I do think political journalism–arguably the most important kind–is largely a failure today. Bennett is exploring two important reasons: political journalists are too close power and put too much trust in official sources (status quo bias). Although he does characterize it specifically in the introduction, a third reason following from the previous two is the curious invention strategy of the rhetoric of so much political journalism today: stenography.  

4 Responses

  1. Tim 
  2. Tim… The hindsight bias material is particularly interesting. I’m working on a project right now, with psych prof at MSU, about hindsight bias as it impacts journalism.

    So far, Bennett’ book is interesting. One problem I’m having with it is the kairos–I’m not sure the Iraq war is a good case study (i.e. too close in time and to raw in emotions).

  3. Tim 

    Andy, studying journalism re Iraq is not an issue for me unless it is the sole anecdote narrowly used to confirm a larger bias; one that is easily disproved by widening the context and/or using a different anecdote.

    What I find fascinating is that within a two to three year timeframe (2002-2004), journalism underwent significant introspective criticism based on two significant events (9/11 and Iraq).

    Even with that rich contrasting material, these authors managed to write a predictable fable based on their confirmation bias and hindsight bias. That’s not a problem with kairos, IMO.

  4. Tim… I’ve only read the introduction so far 🙂 I’ll write about what I think as I’m going. And I’ll certainly be on the lookout for those biases.