September 4, 2009

How We Got Here

As long-time readers of Rhetorica know, I get a rather perverse enjoyment out of writing headlines that promise far more than the post beneath them will deliver. There’s a good reason for that.

The headline on the lead story of the Springfield News-Leader this morning declares Obama Speech Shows ‘Polarized’ Society. A secondary story packaged with it discusses the reactions of parents and educators locally. I imagine there will be similar sorts of articles running on the front pages of many local newspapers this week.

Both articles show a lot of reporting effort. But both miss a part of the big “why” in all of this.

Why should a presidential address to children cause such a furor? (And just in case you think I think liberals would act any differently if the circumstances were reversed, think again.)

Neither story bothers to ask. It’s taken as a given that we live in a polarized society. These stories begin with that as an unremarkable premise (although a couple of the sources lament this state of affairs).

Allow me to gently suggest that how we arrived at this state of affairs is partly the fault of American journalists and the choices they have made over the past 40 years. This is partly the fault of journalists failing to come to grips with the narrative bias of journalism (especially combined with status quo bias). They have failed to come to grips with it because, as a lot, American journalists are poor critical thinkers about their own craft.

The enculturation process — it begins in journalism schools — teaches a mythology of the craft (pp. 45-68) that is rarely questioned in any critical way.

This mythology is so engrained, so accepted, so entrenched, so understood as professional common sense, that I am wasting my time  writing these…

4 Responses

  1. My guess is that the narrative bias may be almost entirely a result of economics. The media hires people with undergraduate degrees in journalism or communications, not wanting to spend the money for people with sufficient subject matter expertise to be credibly critical and who are also good writers.

    The legal profession has the same kind of problem. Rather than finding substantive solutions, lawyers work in the adversarial mode in litigation, focused on procedural wrangling, or, with respect to transaction documents, burdened with a tradition of really awful styles of writing for which the term “legalese” is too kind.

  2. acline 

    Harry… Subject matter expertise comes with its own set of problems in journalism, but I do think journalists ought to be more broadly educated. And a journalism degree is not necessarily a requirement.

  3. Jason 

    Keep being the flag bearer for honest journalism, Andy. 🙂

  4. Daniel 

    I am just saying.. Imagine recent republican presidents addressing children. Bush would spend twenty minutes speaking short, meaningless sentences with plenty of hilarious grammatical errors — but not a good example to children. Reagan might start talking about aliens, cowboys, or something also hilarious but lacking any saliency to childrens’ education. Ford.. well, I can’t do a Chevy Chase impression in ascii.

    Obama and Clinton can both speak coherently and appropriately. I did not listen to Obama’s speech. I don’t really like him much. But I doubt he said anything drastically political. however, the extremists on his opposite side will just cast this as indoctrinating their children into socialism.

    I do give republicans credit in that Nixon likely would have made the best speech possible to children.

    Which is ironic, really.

    … But this is basically how these things would all likely end up portrayed in what passes as journalism today.

    As you pointed out this problem rests neither on the proverbial right or left, I also don’t think it solely reflects an American problem. Most of western media seems to be falling.

    Instead of reporting what the president said, they will report the extremists in society because that reflects conflict. Like any good fiction writer, this new breed of journalist seeks to create a riveting feature by seeking social conflict between extremes rather than focusing on substantive material.

    I suppose it would be interesting to objectively write about the extremists on either side who fuel this conflict. But that kind of introspection does not seem to sell.

    This is just my own opinion, of course, and I am no journalist. But I do have to wade through the muck every single day to find facts.