January 2, 2008

When the Press Fails, part 2

Continuing my as-I-read-it review of Lance Bennett’s new book

Chapter 1 posits the idea that in the “unwritten rules of the Washington news game…it is important to recognize that what carries a story is not necessarily its truth or importance, but whether it is driven by dominant officials within institutional decision-making arenas…”

I think this is accurate, but Bennett fails to note–in fact even tries to subvert the idea–that this is the epistemological structure of all of American mainstream journalism from the Podunk Weekly Bugle to The New York Times. The circumstances under which journalists will accept non-powerful sources as legitimate are few and well known to any news consumer, including (but not limited to) human interest features and breaking hard news in which the journalist is witness. Otherwise, the press tends to stick to official scripts unless a challenge comes from people with enough power to actually change the course of events. (Bennett does spend a lot of ink discussing when this doesn’t work as described.)

The conclusion he draws is: “This propensity of the press to stick to official scripts makes it far more an instrument of the government’s public opinion management than an institution dedicated to holding government accountable.”

I think this may be overstated. I’m going to reserve judgment now, but I’ll take it up again because this point is central to the purpose of the book. 

The theory is the thing–what the press does and why. And I’ll concentrate on theory as I continue this review.

Coming up next… What should the press be doing?


Part 1

5 Responses

  1. Tim 

    When did “the press” become an “institution”?

    When was this institution “dedicated” to holding government accountable?

    If the public holds the government accountable through elections of representatives, and the separation of powers between check-and-balance branches is the mechanism for government to hold government accountable … what is the institutional process for “the press” to hold government accountable?

    It’s not overstated, it’s a myth.

  2. Tim…

    Are you responding to Bennett or to me? It’s unclear to me what the problem is.

    Institution = a well-established and structured pattern of behavior or of relationships; any familiar, long-established person, thing, or practice. In this sense, the press is certainly an institution. When it became “dedicated” to holding government accountable is generally accepted to be after WWI. The institutional process to hold government accountable is by reporting and publishing accounts of what government does. It is then believed that by doing this the people have the information necessary to hold government accountable through the vote. And, yes, it’s largely mythology. An excellent description of this mythology may be found on pages 55 to 61 of Herbert Gans’ Democracy and the News.

    Bennett’s operating theory of the press’ role in democracy fits Gans’ description. His theory of the epistemological importance of power in how the pres operates seems to be right on to me, although I’m uncomfortable with how he states his conclusions.

    In the first iteration of this post, I did say (again) that the press’ operating theory of democracy is a myth, but I edited it out because I though it was getting off topic.

    I still have lots to say about chapter 1.

  3. Anonymous 

    re: “In this sense, the press is certainly an institution.”

    I’ll ask again, when did the press become an institution? Was it the pamphleteers and partisan papers of the 18th and 19th century? Was it the penny papers and yellow journalism of the early 20th century? The advent of radio? Television? World wide web?

    I’m guessing it was an institution with a recognizable pattern of behavior (genre) before WWI ended and its behavior was dedicated to holding the government accountable before Lippmann‘s Public Opinion(or Dewey).

    The “institutional process” you describe is stated by Bennett? Where?

  4. Tim 

    I hit “publish” instead of “preview” above.

    My name should be attached to the comment above and I’d edit one of the sentences to read:

    Was it the penny papers and yellow journalism of the [mid-19th to] early 20th century?

  5. Tim… OK, I get it now. I was a bit foggy on what you were asking because I know you know what an institution is 🙂 Hmmmmm… good question. Michael Schudson’s book Discovering the News would have an answer. I’d need to check it to be sure (I’m not at home), but my guess is that the press reached institutional status with the penny press. Although the press of the revolutionary period might be thought of as an institution of a different kind.

    The institutional process I described is my own interpretation of material presented by Gans and Schudson. I just started chapter 2 of Bennett in which it appears he’ll deal with this. We’ll see.

    Have you read it? If so, you’re obviously ahead of me. I’m attempting a more experiential review– as I read it. So I suspect there may be surprises ahead.