September 24, 2003
Rapidly Improving Iraq vs. Overly Gloomy Press
Charging journalists with too much bad news can be bad news for your charge. It flips a switch in press circuitry. Expect strange results.
When Bennett visited the USA a few weeks ago, he realized that, five months after the U.S. invasion, the Iraq he lives in doesn’t mesh with the bleak picture that friends here are getting from the media. ”I’m not saying all is hunky-dory,” Bennett says. ”But in the States, people have a misperception of what’s going on”…………. Peter Johnson, USA Today, Sep. 23
Is the reporting out of Iraq too negative? I don’t like this question. I think it’s up to no good. And the charge isn’t heard well by journalists, even though here and there you can find them saying: yes, sometimes we are too negative… but that’s news.
It’s not entirely fair to put it this way, but “too negative” is just too negative. For as bad as it is to distort the picture with too much bad news, the alternative in the journalist’s mind is worse: happy talk unto death. Press think has circuits. Circuits have switches. This one switches “journalism, too negative” into “journalists, be positive.” Do you want that?
When the complaint about negative news enters USA Today in the guise of a news story, critical mass has been reached. The national press admits into debate the possibility that petitioners have a point. Time magazine’s own reporter, Brian Bennett, confirms there’s a false portrait of chaos and violence being presented. Which is a different sign than bipartisan Congressional delegation, back from Iraq, says the coverage distorts what they saw, or when the talented and plugged-in blogger, Glen Reynolds, keeps Web pressure on for the thesis.
To anyone out there in agreement with these developments, I urge you more caution. Charging the press with distribution of too much bad news may trigger what literary critics call an “over-determined” plot. I know because I have been in one or two of these with the press. That’s when too many prior reasons coalesce over an event or interpretation, forcing it into existence, whether or not it belongs there.
“The portrait is too negative, it anticipates too much gone wrong, you are creating a false impression and missing good stories” is what reasonable critics of Iraq coverage hear themselves saying. But they ought to imagine their lines in the over-determined plot. There, journalists have them shouting: don’t dwell on the problems, give us more positive news, show us that things are fine, soothe and shelter us, prettify… lie if necessary. Is that what critics of the Iraq coverage mean to shout? Not at all. But it’s what they’re down for in the script.
Why journalists consult this script:
From one direction it’s the entire public relations industry, the great army of paid flacks, much larger, better paid than the press itself, and agitating nonstop for good news. These are not the forces of light. Then over another hill, there’s every nonprofit organization from the neighborhood watch to the United Way, the great volunteer army of American civil society, all thinking that their good works deserve good play—and agitating for it.
Factor into press experience the Chamber of Commerce and Rotary types, also called civic boosters. In the name of a “positive” climate for local business, they want nothing but positive news circulated. Feeling in good company yet? Now the parade of corrupt council members and greasy mayors on whom reporters have the goods, saying they’re sick and tired of all the negative news from those who just want to tear down the community. (The Angry Church of Spiro Agnew.) This week on my TV set there’s this subtle ad from Shell suggesting—good news!—the company has more environmentalists on the payroll than the Sierra Club has stamps. These things precede you.
American journalism carries by means of craft culture the memory of the Five O’clock Follies in Vietnam, where comically upbeat officials gave fake body counts. Call it the Church of David Halberstam, who was there and still talks about it. Journalism “remembers” like a tribe remembers cities in the American South that wanted bad news about race relations suppressed. (The Church of Taylor Branch?) In the recessed mind of the press, these shadows fall over the case before arguments are even presented in re: Rapidly Improving Iraq v. Overly Gloomy Press.
Tom Regan of the Christian Science Monitor: “Despite all efforts to do a balanced job of reporting the good with the bad, those being written about and their hard-core supporters will only read or hear the negative.” Here is the subliminal company you may join. You think we’re too negative? That must mean you want a free pass. Somehow you’re mixed in with the civic boosters, PR flacks, comically upbeat spokesmen and “see no evil” Southern towns of the 1950s. The press floats these ghosts, which may have little to do with facts on the ground. So you get strange results.
Equally confusing is that all this co-exists with another item in press think, a small concession to realities of newswork. “True, we assume that things gone wrong are newsworthier.” Alas, the reason lies not in newsrooms or newswriters, but in nature—the nature of news, the nature of the business, human nature:
”It’s the nature of the business,” Time’s Brian Bennett says. ”What gets in the headlines is the American soldier getting shot, not the American soldiers rebuilding a school or digging a well.”… Says the Los Angeles Times’ Alissa Rubin: ”We tend to report on areas that are most problematic, because news almost demands that. But that doesn’t reflect the whole story.”
It’s all in USA Today. But how does the overdetermined plot, which rejects you’re too negative, square with unforced observations like these, which tend to confirm it? That depends on where the squaring is done. In press think, journalists choose the watchdog who growls too much over the cheerleader with plastic smile, and they believe these to be the relevant choices. You may not like that switch, but then you may have flipped it.
Eluding the overdetermined plot is harder than it looks. For example, if one moment you are praising John Burns of the New York Times for guts in saying: the press undersold Saddam’s terror, (which means it was not negative enough) but later the news out of Iraq is too negative for you… well, the plot has worked.
…what’s unfortunate about the slanted (and lazy) nature of most of the reporting is that it doesn’t point out real problems in ways that can let them be fixed, and that will bring them to the attention of people who can fix them. When the coverage continues to come from the same tired Vietnam template, applied to a very different situation, it’s not terribly useful.
Maybe the complaint is not with covering the problems; it’s the narrow range of problems seen in the news. Maybe you’re not missing the positive note so much as proper warning signals about what could go wrong, if we’re not alert. Preventative journalism, (one possible alternative) talks openly about problems; it also has tacit confidence they can be solved, which is a democratic attitude.
I don’t think the press is too negative. But it is at times too unimaginative to tell me what’s going on. Personally, I want to know about problems on the ground in Iraq, a country my country has occupied; and if it takes relentless problem-scouting by special ops in the press, I want that too. But relentless problem-solving is what’s needed on the ground and in the atmosphere of Iraq. This much we know. There’s a big story in wait out there, but journalists do not necessarily know how to tell it.
See this column by John Leo of US News, summarizing the case that press coverage has been too limited, and citing Reynolds role in opposition.
Latest from PressThink: See: “Unbuilding at Ground Zero and Rebuilding in Iraq.”
For illustration of much of what I discuss here, see Scott Rosenberg’s Links and Comment, over at Salon.com: “See no evil, hear no evil, report no evil.”
See also this Fox News interview by Brit Hume with Rep. Jim Marshall (Democrat).
Posted by Jay Rosen at September 24, 2003 1:23 AM Print
So if I undertstand correctly, you're saying that the press is bipolar. If we criticize it for being too depressive then it will switch to manic?
Is it to much to ask for a snae press that reports what is actually going on?
Posted by: John Davies at September 26, 2003 10:21 AM | Permalink
Finally, a voice of reason in the forest. I like to read this kind of writing, where problems and possible solutions are discussed. I'm tired of reading stories that have that feeling of "oh, there's this problem, and that problem, and by god, there's nothing we can do about these". Whatever happened to the American can-do attitude? We need to get back to this type of thinking.
The problem is not whether the press is too negative or too positive, but whether it presents an accurate picture. At the moment the press appears to be peddling an inaccurate picture, and it appears to be doing so with a purpose. Let's not pretend there's no bias in the reporting of news. Years ago I heard an ad for the New York Times on the radio that claimed one of their purposes was to "shape public opinion". Does anybody have a hard time guessing what opinions the Times would like us all to hold?
Posted by: Tom Bowler at September 26, 2003 11:31 AM | Permalink
The problem isn't that the press can't be accurate. It's that the press can't be accurate about certain kinds of stories. The vast majority of stories -- cop saves kitten, congress votes on bill, war in Gondwanaland -- have mo more than two discernable sides, a clear chain of events (or at least no more than two competing hypothesized chains), a THIS and a THAT and NO MORE. And to the extent that they deal with an ongoing situation, it's a situation that is or needs changing.
And the press can handle that. The canonical news story -- "this is the situation. This is what one person (proxy for one side) thinks. This is what another person (proxy for the other side) thinks. The situation continues, alas, won't someone do something!" -- serves it well. The majority of events can be handled. Nobody claims that the press is biased when it reports a burglary or an obituary, of which there are vastly more than (for instance) major events in the Iraq war.
The problem is that the stories that don't fit the press's model tend to fail badly. "This situation, though bad, will only get worse if meddled with" is not a thought that the press is capable of expressing -- there is simply no way to convey that message in journalism. Similarly "there are two sides, but both are wrong" or "there are two sides, but both are right" are utterly beyond traditional journalistic treatment.
Even if the press were staffed with fundamentalist conservative flag-humpers it would have these biases. It would still report shark attacks as more dangerous than auto accidents. It would still report social problems as needing direct approaches and active solutions. It would still develop a culture of going into blind panic whenever told that it is doing things wrong. It would, in short, still be unsubtle, bipolar, and defensive. And this would continue to be irrelevant to the majority of stories and deadly to the few that require subtle, more-than-two-sided, gentle handling.
It's just the nature of the press. The Iraq occupation will seem to be a perfect beacon of light or a steaming quagmire. The conflict there will seem to be between a monolithic Coalition and a monolithic Opposition. The concerns of people who question this dichotomy will seem to be assaults on press freedom. It doesn't matter who the press is, this is the way it will be.
It part that's why the decentralized blogosphere is so useful: While it can't handle cop saves kitten, congress votes on bill, or war in Gondwanaland with the comprehensive literacy of the "real" press, it is capable of more-than-two-sided analysis, subtlety, and self-correction.
Maybe some day the concept of the press will adapt to the realities of the world. But I wouldn't be on it: The majority of stories will continue to be two-sided, unsubtle, and susceptible to active solutions, and the press will keep doing them well. It is readers who must understand that the traditional press is the wrong place to look when things get multifaceted, subtle, or complicated.
Posted by: Grant Gould at September 26, 2003 2:26 PM | Permalink
'This one switches “journalism, too negative” into “journalists, be positive.” Do you want that?'
Posted by: John Anderson, RI USA at September 26, 2003 3:05 PM | Permalink
The viet Nam war discredited the government. No one believed them anymore. Everything was some kind of cia/exxon inspired plot.
The Iraq War is now discrediting the media. I don't believe you any more. 85% of you are Dem's who hate Bush so much that nothing will make you see any part of the Iraq war in a positive light.
Rationalize it any way you want because soon you'll just be writing for each other. No one else will believe you.
Posted by: Robert Finch at September 26, 2003 4:17 PM | Permalink
The problem is that the "press," after Watergate and Vietnam, found itself thought of as "Important," as opposed to "just there." Journalists became Advocates and Crusaders, out to Shine The Light Into The Cracks and Expose The Evildoers. In reality, mass media has two purposes: to advance the publishers' Agenda, and to put eyeballs on the page/screen/monitor...the better to sell papers/advertising. Anything that draws those eyeballs is worth telling. And just like it's human nature to stare at a car wreck, bad news is what draws the eyeballs. There are very few thinking mass media consumers. It's why Time outsells Foreign Affairs.
Posted by: Stan Smith at September 27, 2003 1:58 AM | Permalink
On a slight tangent here, is it not reasonable to ascribe any of the "blame" to people at large, the "consumers" of the media?
As has been well pointed out by others here, large media outlets often have trouble relaying shades of grey and nuance. It seems to me though, for those willing to put in a bit more effort beyond the "headlines at the top of the hour" on cable news, a more balanced view of the situation in Iraq is discernable even in the "too negative" or too "plastic smile" areas of coverage.
I'm certainly no journalistic historian, but I'd imagine this has long been an issue - likely more so with 24/7 "snippets" and soundbites, but I don't imagine the public's commitment to educating itself and seeking information beyond the key talking points fed to them has changed drastically -- is that reasonable? Or has the deluge of (largely shallow) information these days worn people down?
In other words, is it fair to blame *just* the media and its headlines, and not the people (largely) blindly following them without giving the matters any scrutiny? Or is it, (given the media's prominence) considered their duty to nail it in headlines and soundbites, and the public should not have to parse and consider it -- ie the media is screwing up unless it's perfectly balanced?
I guess I've become confused on exactly who is largely criticizing the lack of balance - primarily journalists self-examining, or public outcry?
I don't believe it's as much as a partisan issue as hinted at above by R.F. - it's not like there wasn't any coverage of "Monica-gate" and other Clintonite goings-on. It's more of a positive progress vs. negative events situation.
Posted by: Todd Grimason at September 27, 2003 5:30 PM | Permalink
The press has lost all sense of context in its Iraq reporting. Americans intuitively know that when the local morning news reports a robbery, murder, or car crash, it is safe for us to assume that 99.99% of the residents of our community were not involved in such unfortunate activities, and the reported disasters are in fact exceptional and "news." We had no context like this in the aftermath of what was a major war. The exceptional thing about this war was that the death and destruction were so localized that for the reporters it did not seem any different than a typical urban beat; the vast majority of Iraqis did not have to fear being hurt by this war, and the vast majority of American GIs are not in significant danger, so they report every casualty as a murder. The real "news" is that 4 months after a major war 90% of Iraqis are better off than they were before the war, and American GIs in a war zone are statistically safer than they would be in some of our cities! This is beginning to be recognized even by on the scene journalists, and we may yet see a story headlined "Iraqi family gets through another day OK!"
Posted by: Rich Doc at September 28, 2003 10:07 PM | Permalink