August 10, 2016

Where I’m Coming From

Back in the day, I wrote this:

As I learned early in my journalistic career before becoming an academic, there is no such thing as an objective point of view. And the ideal of fairness is almost as elusive. But I will always attempt to be fair according to standards that I will try to make plain. I will try to reveal my biases when I think they intrude on my critiques.

Yesterday I wrote a scathing and snarky critique of Donald Trump’s latest outrage. I did not publish it, and I will not publish it because I need to change a few things regarding the quote above.

You can use the following to decide if you think Rhetorica is worth your time during the remaining weeks of the 2016 election.

I consider Donald Trump to be a dangerous amateur, and I despair for the Republican Party that it chose this person. His candidacy is so alarming that I am unable to maintain the fiction of academic detachment. He must be stopped.

I will hold my nose and vote for Hillary Clinton. She’s just another centrist Democrat. I am sick to death of centrist Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

My track record here over the years, and the tools that I have published for your use, may be employed to determine if anything I write here in the next few weeks is worthwhile.

I will try to maintain focus on press coverage, especially regarding the glaring differences between reporting and stenography.

But I may not be able to let another scathing snark-fest go unpublished.

Just so you know.

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August 8, 2016

Covering a “Major Policy Address”

Jay Rosen has been wondering about the “interpretive challenge” the Trump campaign presents for journalists. How do you use the tools of reporting to cover a person who won’t follow the general master narratives that journalists have come to expect about how presidential candidates should speak and behave?

I contend that this interpretive challenge is made even more challenging because much of the old reporting playbook was not a playbook about reporting. Instead, it is a blank stenographers pad waiting to be filled with quotes that will not be examined as long as they fit the general master narrative.

Today I just want to call attention to coverage of a Trump campaign speech (characterized as a “major policy address”) by The New York Times:

But the economic agenda Mr. Trump described included many traditionally Republican policies that offer little to no direct benefit to working-class Americans, while giving a considerable financial boost to the wealthiest.

Now that paragraph is likely to set aflutter the hearts of those who fight liberal bias in the news media.

Is that opinion or fact?

I’m going to sidestep that question for now (I’ll get back to it in the days to come) and say that, no matter what is is, it is certainly reporting. In other words, rather than simply pass along quotes — stenography — the Times has bothered to compare what Trump said with the public and/or historical record.

It happens several more times in this article:

For example, Mr. Trump called for ending what Republicans label the “death tax.” He did not mention that the estate tax currently exempts the first $5.45 million for an individual and $10.9 million for a married couple — meaning that only the very wealthy pay even a dime. If Mr. Trump’s net worth is as large as he has says, his heirs would have a great deal to gain from eliminating the estate tax; the typical displaced steelworker or coal miner, or even a relatively prosperous retiree, would have nothing to gain.

Mr. Trump advocated reducing the corporate income tax rate to 15 percent from its current 35 percent. That proposal comes after a decade in which after-tax corporate profits have risen sharply as a share of national income and compensation for workers has fallen.

He advocated “allowing parents to fully deduct the average cost of child-care spending from their taxes.” That might sound like a boost for average workers, but the way the tax code works, it would confer the greatest advantage to upper middle-class and wealthier families, and little to no benefit for vast numbers of low-income families.

For expenses of $10,000 a year on child care, the tax deduction would be worth about $3,960 for a family in the top marginal tax bracket making more than $467,000 a year, but only $1,500 to a family making between roughly $19,000 and $75,000. And many lower and lower-middle income families pay little or no federal income tax, so a tax deduction wouldn’t help them.

A bit later in the article, the Times has this to say about other policies:

Other elements of Mr. Trump’s economic agenda lack details that would make similar analysis possible. His proposed moratorium on new regulations would certainly warm the hearts of business interests that have complained of excessive regulation in the Obama era, but it is hard to know how much of a factor regulation has been in the sluggish economic growth of the last several years.

And on energy policy, Mr. Trump reiterated his pledge to tear up the Paris climate agreement and halt the United States’ payments to United Nations for programs to reduce global warming. He said energy regulations were killing manufacturing jobs.

Good journalism unfolds over time. What we see here could be meta-reporting (I’m not actually optimistic about that): reporting about reporting that still needs to be done. The Times should consider these two paragraphs as the starting points for news assignments that will become the context in which these policies are understood the next time Trump mentions them.

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May 20, 2016

News v. Reality

As the saying goes: If a dog bites a man, that’s not news, but if a man bites a dog, that’s news.

It’s also not reality, or, rather, an odd little bit of it. The odd part is what makes it news. It’s the “little bit” that often gets lost.

So, shark bites blond female child off coast of Florida and we go crazy worrying about shark attacks because, well, shark attacks are in the news. Never mind that your blond female child is far more likely to die in a traffic crash. Want to be afraid of something? Be afraid of your car.

Other stuff gets blown out of proportion, too. Today The New York Times ran an op-ed by 

In this highly charged election, it’s no surprise that the news media see every poll like an addict sees a new fix. That is especially true of polls that show large and unexpected changes. Those polls get intense coverage and analysis, adding to their presumed validity.

The problem is that the polls that make the news are also the ones most likely to be wrong. And to folks like us, who know the polling game and can sort out real trends from normal perturbations, too many of this year’s polls, and their coverage, have been cringeworthy.

Men are, apparently, biting dogs like crazy.

Or at least that’s what the press sees.

And the stories they tell themselves about their practice maintain that what they see is real.

This op-ed is just another in a long list of attempts to point out the damage the press does reporting polls as if they were so many men biting dogs, as if they were real.

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March 2, 2015

Journalism and Class Bias

I go long periods of time forgetting to update the oldest document on this website: my examination of structural bias in the news media. Jay Rosen’s post at PressThink today reminds me, again, that I need to add #10 to the list: class bias, specifically middle-class bias.

Rosen is writing about his recent appearance on CNN to discuss the situation with Bill OReilly at FOX News and why O’Reilly isn’t “in trouble” with his employer for fabrications similar to those made by Brian Williams on NBC. Here’s an important moment in his published notes:

Here, Roger Ailes exploited a weakness in establishment journalism that in 1996 was dimly understood by its practitioners— or not understood at all. There was a submerged ideology in American newsrooms, populated as they were by people who were more cosmopolitan than “country,” more secular than religious. Journalists in the U.S. were vaguely progressive in the sense of welcoming social change (up to a point) and identifying (up to a point) with those who had grievances against traditional authority. Certainly there weren’t many denizens of the American newsroom eager to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop,” or who had supported the Vietnam War, or who saw Ronald Reagan as a cultural hero. And there weren’t many alert to the ideological undertow in a mission statement still popular among journalists: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Critics on the left are correct to say that if this is liberalism it is very weak tea. But critics on the right are correct to say that it sure isn’t neutral professionalism. Roger Ailes understood that the “mainstream” journalists his network was built to attack had an ideology that they were unwilling to defend, because they had never recognized it as an ideology. Instead they used terms like “news values.” They talked about standards and credibility and objectivity and being a good professional. They still do this.

It’s not that these terms didn’t mean anything, but they couldn’t capture enough to account for the world view that did in fact prevail in American newsrooms and did in fact conflict with the way a portion of the country — the conservative portion — saw things. That is the conflict that gave rise to Fox News. It was partly due to a misrecognition by journalists of their own belief system. They aren’t as liberal as the cartoon characterizations that are now commonplace on the American right, but they aren’t successful at taking the view from nowhere, either.

Long-time readers of Rosen’s work will recognize this — before arriving at the third paragraph quoted — as his continued criticism of the “view from nowhere.” That view, along with many of the nine structural biases, creates much of the approach to news that some conservatives identify as liberal bias. I’m still on the record asserting this:

The press is often thought of as a unified voice with a distinct bias (right or left depending on the critic). This simplistic thinking fits the needs of ideological struggle, but is hardly useful in coming to a better understanding of what is happening in the world. I believe journalism is an under-theorized practice. In other words, journalists often do what they do without reflecting upon the meaning of the premises and assumptions that support their practice. I say this as a former journalist. I think we may begin to reflect upon journalistic practice by noticing that the press applies a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events.

In Rosen’s quote above he identifies what I call middle-class bias — a socio-economic position driven in large part by the particular kind of education journalists achieve, i.e. “liberal” in the academic understanding of that term.

Middle-class bias structures professional practice in journalism because, as with the other structural biases, journalists understand the world through the lenses of their educations, their incomes, and their professional mythology — a narrative that springs directly from middle-class understandings of journalism’s role in a democratic republic. For more on the latter, Rhetorica readers should once again check out pages 55 to 61 of Herbert Gans’ book Democracy and the News where Gans identifies the parts of journalists’ theory (I call it mythology) of democracy:

In logical order, the theory consists of four parts: 1) the journalist’s role is to inform citizens; 2) citizens are assumed to be informed if they regularly attend to the…news journalists supply them; 3) the more informed citizens are, the more likely they are to participate politically…; 4) the more that informed citizens participate, the more democratic America is likely to be.

Middle class ideas. Middle class concerns. A middle class story.

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February 21, 2015

Narrative Bias and Superstition

This article in The Atlantic calls it magical thinking or superstition. I call it narrative bias.

If Bohr couldn’t resist magical thinking, can anyone? One recent study found that even physicists, chemists, and geologists at MIT and other elite schools were instinctively inclined to attach a purpose to natural events. When the researchers subjected the scientists to time pressure (reasoning that this could expose a person’s uncensored biases), they were twice as likely to approve of statements such as “Trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe” than they were when they had time to respond more deliberately [1].

I’ve discussed narrative bias as one of the structural biases of journalism. That isn’t exactly accurate. It’s really a human bias that journalists cannot escape, and, therefore, it plays a structuring role in their practice.

Here’s the bias stated, perhaps, more correctly: People apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events.

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January 15, 2013

Crisis Actors in the Twilight Zone

In a post-fact world, all you have to do to stir up the rubes is suggest conspiracy. The conspiracy doesn’t have to make any sense at all; it simply needs to conform to ideology. It now appears that the rhetoric of conspiracy today demands a high level of pathetic outrageousness to get attention.

Take the whole “crisis actor” thing as an example. Gene Rosen is caught up in this now because many anti-government gun nuts so want the Sandy Hook massacre to be something other than what it actually is that they are willing to point fingers at parents and other residents. The claim: they are actors working for the government.

You can scratch your head until it bleeds. There’s no making any sense of that.

Here’s what would happen if the government actually tried to use actors to deal with the press: Even in the current sorry state of American reporting (stenography, actually), the press would find out and have a gleefully good time pointing it out after much huffing and puffing about being hoodwinked.

But, obviously, to the anti-government gun nuts, the press is a liberal tool of our socialist president. Nothing — not even a list of biases worse than partisan bias — will change fevered minds.

Crisis actors do exist, but they are far more likely to be employed by public relations firms than government. The case of Nayirah — a person acting as a young nurse giving testimony to the non-governmental Congressional Human Rights Caucus on October 10, 1990 — provides an excellent example.

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October 31, 2011

Journalism and Poverty: The Draft Essay

My recent essay about poverty and journalism is ready for Rhetorica readers to review. Here’s the link to Google docs.

I rely heavily on a criticism made by sociologists Herbert Gans and Michael Schudson — that journalism routinely fails to offer citizens “actionable” information. I largely agree with their assessments. So perhaps it is interesting that providing the poor and working class “actionable” business and economic coverage is exactly what I think newspapers should do to correct the (middle)  class bias of journalism.

Take a look. Let me know what you think.

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June 17, 2011

The Heroic Graphic Me

One of the first things I wrote for The Rhetorica Network almost ten years ago was the Media/Political Bias page. It’s still a work in progress, yet it has brought me and this weblog more attention that anything else I’ve written.

You will find the latest mention in Brooke Gladstone’s new book The Influencing Machine. It is a graphic, non-fiction book about the media. Here’s one of my panels in the chapter about bias:

Last fall I did a segment with Ms. Gladstone for On The Media about crisis reporting. We were chatting before the recording began, and she told me that I was in her forthcoming book. I made some wisecrack about hoping the artist drew me in a properly heroic fashion. And now you can see the results.

Now compare to the real things. Pretty close I guess 🙂

I’ll start reading the book soon and write a review. A quick flip through it demonstrates that despite its graphic approach the book is thoroughly serious. Hmmmmm… do I have an anti-graphic book bias?

Oh, never. There’s nothing about a graphic approach that suggests a lack of seriousness. We’re still talking words here. But more, just take a look at the panel above. Notice what you can read in drawing. The hunch of my shoulders and the tilt of my head suggest that I think I’m stating the obvious but am baffled why no one seems to get it. I’ve got a steady hold on that rocking boat of bias and a steady gaze because, by gum, I just know I’m kinda sorta in the ballpark with this whole bias thing. And, perhaps, the hunch of my shoulders also betrays my being disconcerted that my little gem of obviousness — everyone’s little gems of obviousness in a rolling sea of motivated obviousness — is making Ms. Gladstone hurl.

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February 22, 2011

POV in Online News: Hypothesis

From a comment of mine in the discussion of Willful Misinterpretation, this hypothesis:

A lack of fact-checking (and/or engaging in willful misinterpretation) becomes more tolerable (and/or more rhetorical) on the part of the offending journalist/online news organization as audience self-selection replaces scrutiny with acceptance.

I assert this hypothesis as a step toward understanding how it is online news organizations with clearly defined points of view are able to get away with (what I consider to be) blatant violations of the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

(There’s much work that needs to be done to ensure that claim is more than just my impression.)

Jay Rosen has argued that FOX News is a political organization. Following the same line of thinking, it appears the same can be said for many online “news” organizations, although many of them display the “courage” that Rosen says FOX lacks, i.e. willing to declare point of view.

Perhaps that “lack of courage” is a key here. TMP certainly has it. Is this part of what allows POV to go spinning out of the bounds of reality (as defined, at least partly, by a reverence for facts and an intolerance for misinterpretation) without follow-up?

To take this in a different direction, would John Stewart (be able to) make as much fun of FOX News if its slogan were something like “News From The Right Side”? (Stewart is hard on CNN, too, but in a different way? Would he be hard on FOX in the same way if its slogan were different?)

I wonder how FOX and TPM compare in audience trust with the rest of the news media?

Hmmmmm…

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February 16, 2011

Willful Misinterpretation

[Editor’s Note: The following critique is based on journalistic texts as presented and not a deeper examination of original source material of those texts, i.e. the stories as presented to the audience.]

Willful misinterpretation of a message is not a tool of opinion journalism.

Willful misinterpretation is a tool of punditry and propaganda.

Willful misinterpretation is one bad byproduct of our new view-from-somewhere age. I’m all for viewing events from particular points of view and being open with the audience about those points of view. But willful misinterpretation falls outside the bounds of the ethical practice of journalism informed by one’s point of view.

Willful misinterpretation is the deliberate misreading of a message — in order to distort the message — of a source or other news-maker. Such an act would simply fall into the realm of punditry if it weren’t for the added twist of distorting a message for partisan reasons.

Let’s look at two recent examples from Talking Points Memo. (Several online news sites from across the limited left-right axis have turned this style of “reporting” into a high art.)

Example #1: South Dakota Bill Could Legalize Murder Of Abortion Providers

No, it couldn’t. Anyone with a modicum of interpretive skill can see that the bill does nothing of the kind. It really seems to do nothing at all. Consider:

Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones first reported on Tuesday that HB 1171 would amend the current law to include the following language (bold parts are new):

Homicide is justifiable if committed by any person while resisting any attempt to murder such person, or to harm the unborn child of such person in a manner and to a degree likely to result in the death of the unborn child, or to commit any felony upon him or her, or upon or in any dwelling house in which such person is.Homicide is justifiable if committed by any person in the lawful defense of such person, or of his or her husband, wife, parent, child, master, mistress, or servant, or the unborn child of any such enumerated person, if there is reasonable ground to apprehend a design to commit a felony, or to do some great personal injury, and imminent danger of such design being accomplished.

At first blush it appears to do exactly what the inflammatory headline suggests. But pay more careful attention to the bill’s language: “resisting any attempt to murder” and “commit any felony upon him or her” and “reasonable ground to apprehend a design to commit a felony, or to do some great personal injury.”

The only way to read this as a potential legalization of killing abortion providers is to completely ignore that language. It’s a far more cogent critique of this law to say that it attempts to create “personhood” for the unborn, which would be real news if achieved.

I’m not claiming anything about the intention of the bill’s sponsors. I’m claiming that the reporting and textual evidence does not add up to “legalizing murder.”

Example #2: Bachmann Blasts First Lady And ‘Nanny State’ — For Promoting Breastfeeding

No, she didn’t. Here’s what she’s quoted as saying:

“I’ve given birth to five babies, and I’ve breastfed every single one of these babies,” Bachmann said. “To think that government has to go out and buy my breast pump for my babies, I mean, you wanna talk about the nanny state — I think you just got the new definition of the nanny state.”

She legitimately questions the use of government funds for a specific purpose: buying people breast pumps. She claims to have breast-fed her own kinds and says nothing about the general promotion of breastfeeding by the First Lady. One can disagree with her, but one (i.e. the journalist writing this story and the editor writing the headline) ought not distort by amplification. There is no logical link between questioning policy regarding breast pumps and a general “blasting” of the First Lady and the “nanny state” for promoting breast feeding.

I’m not claiming anything about Bachmann’s position on breast feeding. I’m claiming that the reporting and textual evidence does not add up to “blasting” the “promotion” of breast feeding.

Journalism — even journalism practiced on the web and practiced from a transparent point of view — must not violate the primary purpose of journalism (to give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing) by distorting events based on willful misinterpretation. I call it willful because the writers and editors of TPM (and other liberal and conservative web operations) know better. They know what good journalism is. They are choosing not to practice it.

But worse, they are choosing to misinform the public for partisan reasons. And that takes their work out of the realm of journalism (or opinion journalism) and into the realm of propaganda.

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