August 24, 2009

Stenography, Again

Reporters must make a choice: Be a reporter or be a stenographer. And they must make this choice despite the very real economic pressures that constrain their work. They must make the right (ethical) choice in order to try to fulfill the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

Mark Adams complains, on American Street, that his two dollar newspaper sucks. By that he means:

Enter journalism Professor Jay Rosen of NYU, Twitter Guru and one of the few old guys who gets new media.  He rails against press “curmudgeons” clinging to the old models every day.  Barbara at Mahablog noted his take on the inanity of typical “he said-she said” reporting, the kind of infotainment that led Jon Stewart to virtually destroy CNN’s “Crossfire” program — covering the controversy, the shouting match, instead of digging through the noise and exposing/explaining/truth-telling.  This was the subject of Neal Gabler’s fine piece at the Los Angeles Times which sparked both Barbara and Jay to chime in.

Stenography causes these problems (short list) for citizens trying to find the kind of information that will help them be free and self-governing:

1. Sounds bites get substituted for facts and rational argument.

2. Mere partisan contention becomes news pushing out context (series: part 1, part 2, part 2 supplemental) and proportion (bad kairos).

3. Intentional falsehoods achieve a cultural force equal to facts and (something like) the truth.

A practical example is all the hooey about “death panels.” Journalism, properly and ethically practiced, would have slam-dunked that nonsense instantly.

The upshot here is not that some politicians and pundits are bad people for trying to win politically (an entirely reasonable goal). The upshot is, as Adams says:

That’s his two parts of the print media’s deadly perfect storm, online flight coupled with recession, but there is a third systemic problem — and it’s the stuff right in his lap. He described the elements of this perfect storm in a way that conveniently removed any responsibility on the reporting and editorial staff — and thus any ability for improvement by the talent, the product the producers of news provide.  Excellence in journalism is not rewarded in his analysis, nor mediocrity discouraged.

As in: A big part of what’s going wrong in the MSM is the fault of journalists. Yes, the business model has failed. Yes, there’s new competition for the attention of citizens. Yes, economic times are tough. Yes, editors and reporters are tempest-tossed by these and other economic realities. But also yes, stenography —  apparently the preferred “reporting” method today — is:

1. Boring.

2. Difficult to understand.

3. Elevates hooey to the level of facts and truth.

4. Manipulates citizens.

Returning to the “death panels,” this falsehood was not a myth as Doug Thompson claims. Calling it a myth seems to suggest that the “death panel” idea simply existed out there in the culture and was picked up and shouted to the world by pundits and bloggers.

No. Mainstream journalism — primarily on television — helped promote these wild accusations by focusing on the fact that people were making them rather than digging up the facts of the matter and playing the facts with far more prominence than the falsehood. Mainstream journalism took entirely too long to call bullshit.

There’s an easier way to say all of this. A failure to report the facts and seek the truth thus fails the primary purpose of journalism. And that is unethical.

13 Responses

  1. Tim 

    The academic and occupational concern over the “death panel” pushback against “reform” of health care is telling.

    How does this differ from the handling of pushback against “reform” of social security from 1999-2008?

    A sample:

    1999: President Ties Program’s Future to Stocks

    2002: Democrats’ Ad Has Bush Mistreating Elderly

    2004: Kerry Falsely Claims Bush Plans To Cut Social Security Benefits

    2008: Obama’s Social Security Whopper

  2. Tim 
  3. Tim 

    Status of the Social Security and Medicare ProgramsSocial Security’s current annual surpluses of tax income over expenditures will begin to decline in 2011 and then turn into rapidly growing deficits as the baby boom generation retires.

  4. acline 

    Tim… The “death panels” coverage is just the latest example of an ongoing problem that affects issues of concern to all political factions. The specific issue is irrelevant. What’s important is that the press has shown itself repeatedly incapable of resisting stenography.

  5. Tim 

    I think the specific issue is relevant to which “wild accusations” journalism chooses to call bullshit, how loudly, and how long it takes.

  6. acline 

    Tim… Journalism does a poor job of calling bullshit. That it certainly does call bullshit inconsistently regarding certain kinds of issues simply makes it worse.

  7. Tim 

    How does “a poor job of calling bullshit” and “call[ing] bullshit inconsistently” relate back to a “rhetoric beat“?

  8. It seems to me there’s good [effects of] stenography and there’s bad [effects of] stenography. Bad stenography is the death panels stuff, it spreads disinformation. But good stenography would create a written record that Joe Smith said Y, that someone a few years from now (when it transpires that not-Y had been true) could use, to hold Smith accountable.

    is there a way that we could enable “good stenography” yet squelch “bad stenography”?

  9. acline 

    Tim… Good question. I should really post an answer on the main blog. Remind me if You don’t see it by Friday.

    Anna… Didn’t you make that point earlier? 🙂 I seem to recall it. And the answer is yes. Or, perhaps, there ought to be away to refer to the “proper stenography” w/o using that term. Hmmmm…

  10. Tim 

    Hi Andy … you asked me to remind you.

  11. acline 

    Tim… Yes. And I’m on it. Thanks!

  12. Tim 
  13. acline 

    Tim… Excellent find. I’m going to use that in class tomorrow 🙂