July 15, 2008

Journalism and Political Mythology

The essay I’m writing for the ISSEI conference picks up where Edward Pessen left off in his book The Log Cabin Myth: The Social Backgrounds of the Presidents. Pessen covers Washington through Reagan. I’m picking up with Reagan, Bush, and Clinton.

The focus of my essay is how this myth operates in autobiography after the political usefulness of claiming a humble origin no longer matters. (George H. W. Bush is a fascinating anomaly. He just tossed aside the idea of writing an autobiography as unnecessary and instead published a compilation of letters and other writings. No claims of humble origin for this guy.)

What I wanted to share with you today is a quote by Pessen that will be of particular interest to Rhetorica readers. Pessen says that, among other things, his research into the social backgrounds of the presidents

suggests that the [news] media, which play so great a role in shaping the public’s consciousness, are perfectly willing to propagate myths likely to have a stabilizing effect on our political life, no matter how slight the factual basis of these myths.

[Ed. Note: Pessen confines his remarks to political “consciousness,” which is not indicated by this truncated quote. With that qualification in mind, I agree with his statement. I have claimed before — and I’m sticking by it as unremarkable — that most Americans experience presidential politics through the news media.]

Recall from my work on the primary instability paradox (here and here) that a stable political system is an undemocratic political system, i.e. a stable system gives the illusion of choice and the illusion of unpredictability. When journalists’ reporting helps stabilize a political system they are harming democracy.

Call it mythology. Call it master narrative. Call it bad journalism.

The cure: Journalists must be custodians of fact and operate with a discipline of verification. That means questioning EVERYTHING (including the system itself).

Tags: , ,

6 Responses

  1. Jason 

    “The cure: Journalists must be custodians of fact and operate with a discipline of verification. That means questioning EVERYTHING (including the system itself).”

    Wow…powerful and true. Well said, Andy.

  2. I think many Americans, and not a few journalists, see themselves not in the terms you lay out, but as reversing Pessen’s premise: the news media, which play so great a role in shaping the publicÂ’s consciousness, take a salacious pleasure in puncturing the myths and beliefs that encourage social cohesion and have a stabilizing effect on our political life.

    “When journalists’ reporting helps stabilize a political system they are harming democracy.”

    But when journalists’ reporting helps overturn the apple cart while offering no new place for people to get apples, are we helping democracy?

    Probably we’re thinking of different examples. Did the journalists who helped cover up FDR’s philandering do more to help democracy than those who exposed Bill Clinton’s?

  3. “Journalists must be custodians of fact and operate with a discipline of verification. That means questioning EVERYTHING (including the system itself).”

    Would “everything” also include the importance of telling the truth at the moment you discover it, no matter the consequences? Does it extend to questioning journalism’s ability to tell broad and complicated truths and get them across to the nation, using the tools it has chosen for its craft?

  4. acline 

    V- Good questions!

    re: Everything.

    Everything.

    And re: infidelity in the White House

    This is slightly off-topic, i.e. not where you were going, but it gives me the opportunity for a mini-rant 🙂 I’ve never considered such things news in regard to the job of being president. The only way I can see presidential sex being news is if the behavior affects the job. There’s been a lot of sex in the Oval Office. Not news. That’s not to say people are not interested. They are. But I resist defining news as any information of interest to people.

    Re: apple cart

    What is the apple cart? Who gets to say? In whose interests does it exist? Whose interests are ill-served by its current structure? In other words, one man’s apple cart is another man’s yoke-and-burden. Obviously, it is a political position to favor an unstable system. I do not necessarily want journalists to adopt the politics of this. Rather, I simply want them to do their jobs in ways that keep the system unstable.

  5. Perhaps it’s a function of me being 48 and having kids and a mortgage. Instability is not so appealing to me as it once might have been.

    I’d rather have us keep the system honest than off-balance. But they fail to do that. As witnessed in 2004 in Pennsylvania when the Democratic pols kept Ralph Nader off the ballot using taxpayer money to challenge his petition signatures. I’d have uss get that right before we go off half cocked trying to make the system more overthrowable or more vulnerable to demagogues.

    The apple cart is civic, national, or cultural community. The idea that America has virtues and ideals built into it and that we have obligations to work for them and protect them. That we collectively built them and pass them on. It might even include the dread word responsibility. And the idea that each person or group’s interest is not the highest of ideals to promote.

    Who annointed us truth-tellers? A commercial newspaper or a corporate TV newscast is a most imperfect vehicle for communicating “truth.” There are a million truths. Which do you tell? To an audience that is not required to read or watch? In the 900 inches or 27 minutes that you have to do it?

    Journalism has that mote in its eye.

    The First Amendment wasn’t meant to guarantee us truth. It was meant to guarantee us politics. Probably sex in the White House was closer to its meaning than social justice.

  6. acline 

    C– Just a quick response because I’m getting ready for my trip: The concept of stability in political affairs does not refer to balance or lack thereof. Think of it as a combination of predictability and inevitability. Generally speaking, in a stable system, the game is won before it is played. In an unstable system, you have to play the game to see who wins. Stable systems are not truly democratic.

    Otherwise, I’m with you on the balance of your comment.