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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. Still, Reynolds was onto something here:

…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 “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