July 20, 2010

Punditry As News

Peter Baker’s column in The New York Times on Sunday provides a textbook example of journalistic blindness. He discusses how politicians and pundits attack opposition quotes to score political points.

In this case, pundits and politicians attacked this quote from White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs: “There’s no doubt there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control.” He was speaking about Congress.

Baker writes:

With that, the noise machine cranked into high gear. The White House had admitted it might lose the House. Never mind that it was a simple statement of fact and that Mr. Gibbs was not saying he wanted the other side to win or thought that they would. No one has found the political professional who genuinely disagrees that the House could go either way. But the mere fact that Mr. Gibbs said it launched a thousand ships of speculation, analysis, attacks and counter-attacks.

And my question is this: What role did journalism play in amplifying the noise machine? (I’m using the term “journalism” instead of news media because the latter encompasses organizations whose link to journalism is now merely nominal.)

That some bloggers, pundits, and politicians twist quotes and communicative intentions for political gain is not at all surprising. Are these tactics news?

Baker is writing a column — a bit of opinion journalism. But he fails to tell us what he thinks of the role of journalism in enabling the noise machine:

This is what passes for political discourse in Washington these days. Someone in a position of authority, or at least celebrity, says something modestly interesting and someone on the other side — or sometimes even the same side — blows it up into something resembling a full-fledged contretemps. It’s politics by slip of the tongue.

This at a time when the issues confronting Washington could hardly be more consequential. Yet explaining the new financial regulation bill that passed last week or the new health care program slowly coming into effect is complicated compared to the media catnip of a good partisan spat.

What could have followed these paragraphs: A withering examination of the role of journalism in allowing these silly little spats to become “news.” Instead, Baker indicts “political discourse” as if journalism plays no role in it.

3 Responses

  1. Tim 

    re: What role did journalism play in amplifying the noise machine?

    I like the use of media as the megaphone of the “noise machine”, and journalism as (should be) media’s volume control. Some punditry/polemics/demagoguery SHOULD be amplified and examined by custodians of fact practicing a discipline of verification (i.e., “whisper campaigns”). Others seeking attention SHOULD NOT be amplified if sensational without being information serving the primary purpose of journalism.

    This reminds me of a famous statement by a very smart observer of journalism:

    How it happens is particularly interesting considering that there are no cogent definitions of “news.” What is going on in the herd mind? Gans got a glimpse of it in his book Deciding What’s News. What he saw was a particular culture that is effective in socializing its members. But a definition remains elusive. That’s a problem because you and I might decide a thing is not news, but if the news media cover it then it must be news. And if you complain, well, you’ll be told you don’t know what news is.

  2. Tim 

    Another smart quote:

    These shows fail ethically by failing journalism’s primary purpose. And to fail in terms of facts is to turn potentially important civic discourse into (entertaining) partisan blather.

    Also, could you explain what this spreadsheet represents?

    http://rhetorica.net/docs/DistributedNewsCoverage.xls

  3. acline 

    Tim… Thanks for the nuance. I was in simplistic mode.