June 5, 2009

Bass Fishing for Journalists

Allow me to state the obvious: Sound-bite media driven by sound-bite culture (or is it the other way around?) create(s) sound-bite thinking. Sound bites are enthymemes — truncated arguments that require the audience to supply the missing logic and/or information. Sound-bite thinking is the construction and maintenance of ideas (e.g. but not limited to ideology and common sense) based upon electronically-mediated (electronically-encouraged) enthymemes.

Question: Of what value is journalism if it merely passes along the sound-bites?

Observation: Talking Points Memo is an excellent example of online journalism. But of what value is it when it publishes sound bites without the necessary reporting, i.e. journalists operating as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification.

Exactly what does Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) mean when he says of President Obama: “I just don’t know whose side he’s on.”

Sometimes I think journalists are like largemouth bass — easy to catch if you dangle something flashy in front of them. Electronic media are designed to gather and disseminate sound bites. Such gathering and disseminating is not journalism. To be journalism, an editorial act must be inserted between the gathering and the disseminating. An editorial act is an act of judgment (and we can certainly argue about what should constitute an editorial act) about news value. It is also an intervention into the reportorial process — an intervention that includes checking, promoting, and protecting facts so that one may construct information and knowledge.

Let me suggest that Inhofe’s assertion is entirely meaningless without the participation of a partisan (or interested) audience (of any kind) to interpret it (I could actually make this claim about any assertion, but lets not go there right now). But that assertion sure is flashy! Set the hook!

I understand that TPM is passing along raw data as it arrives in its gathering system. That’s blogging, not journalism (although blogging can be journalism).

Of what value is this sound bite without at least an attempt at applying an editorial process. None — except, of course, it gives TPM’s generally liberal audience (assumed from its content) something to huff about. Did anyone ask the Senator: “What do you mean by that”? Did anyone press for something more than the usual blather.

Here’s what we get from The Oklahoman, the original source:

Sen. Jim Inhofe said today that President Barack Obama‘s speech in Cairo was “un-American” because he referred to the war in Iraq as “a war of choice” and didn’t criticize Iran for developing a nuclear program.

Inhofe, R-Tulsa, also criticized the president for suggesting that torture was conducted at the military prison in Guantanamo, saying, “There has never been a documented case of torture at Guantanamo.”

“I just don’t know whose side he’s on,” Inhofe said of the president.

It is unclear from this reporting (a little meta-reporting please) if Chris Casteel, of the paper’s Washington bureau, asked the Senator to explain himself or is simply speculating. I tend to believe the cynical latter. In any case, The Oklahoman gives us reasons by way of some (entirely inadequate because we don’t know what it is) editorial act between the gathering and disseminating. What Inhofe apparently means is (given the limited information of Casteel’s reporting): Obama is not a Republican and, therefore, is not really on America’s side. We may certainly debate whether or not Obama’s policies will, among other things, keep us safe or advance our legitimate foreign policy goals. But such debating is much harder to do — takes a different kind of thinking — than casting a flashy sound bite to a hungry news media.

The reporter and his editors just could not resist a shiny lure —  one that does not further the primary purpose of journalism, which is to give people the information (something quite different from a sound bite) they need to be free and self-governing.

It’s one thing to hear nonsense such as this on TV or read it on the internet. Newspaper journalism, no matter in what medium it is practiced, is supposed to be better than this.

But you may be asking: Isn’t the fact that he said it news? Yes! On the same order as celebrity “news” IMO. (It may also be news in the context of examining Republican party tactics to regain power and influence. This is an ongoing story of vital importance to citizens. Tossing sound bites without context, however, does more to raise questions than to answer them.)

3 Responses

  1. Brent 

    There is a fine line between passing a bite and adding editorial content. Journalist’s job is obviously to convey the true story, which doesn’t include their opinion, but most things need explaining. Where’s the explain/editorialize line? Take a look at this video on Obama’s speech http://www.newsy.com/videos/obama_s_balancing_act to see some middle ground. Yes it’s soundbite, but does it’s analysis and cross examination make it more comprehensive reporting?

  2. acline 

    Brent… Answer to your final question: yes. What I mean by journalists operating as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification has nothing at all to do with opinion.

  3. Senator Inhofe has an extraordinarily long record of making statements that TPM’s audience would find preposterous and which cannot be easily verified. How would you find facts to support the allegation that nobody was tortured at Gitmo?

    I worked quite a lot with Senator Inhofe when he was mayor of Tulsa in 1983-84. In public, he was well-informed and patient, polite and measured, even with his adversaries. It’s been surprising to me that he’s become what he appears to be.