JOURNALISM

I'm not a pundit or a professor of journalism. In fact, except for a half-year English elective in 11th grade, I've never taken a journalism course in my life. I just happen to have worked in daily newspaper newsrooms for the past 22 years as a reporter and editor. So, take that for that it's worth.

The news media in a capitalist society is a two-way energy flow between producers and consumers. Consumers influence coverage by putting their money (or their exposure to advertising) into some sources, and not into others. If the media gives people too much of what they don't want -- too many naked ugly people, for instance -- the viewers will tune out. Media, on the other hand, influence consumers by, overtly or subtly, showing them certain paradigms of the world they live in. It's thanks in part to the media that we have a collective image of which people are ugly when naked.

People have varying degrees of ability to sort out that media's constant stream of "reality memes" and test them against their own experience. If CBS news tells the world there's a brushfire in your back yard, you can tell at a glance whether that assessment is ture. If it tells you Iraq is a nation in chaos, neither you nor I can tell whether that is true without seeking more media to consult about it.

People on the left say the media has a conservative prejudice and conservatives laugh at them. People on the right say the media has a liberal prejudice, and liberals laugh at them. In fact, the only remarkable people are those who insist the media doesn't have a bias. Prejudice is the first and essential precondition of what we do.

Maybe a billion discrete events happen in the world in any 24-hour period that are "news" to somebody. A plate tectonics shift spills an inhabited island onto the seafloor like a dropped Jell-O cake. Ford proposes a new line of hybrid SUVs. Crayola LLC announces a new color in the crayon box. The president of the United States gets tongue-tied in a press conference. The president of Estonia gets tongue-tied in a press conference. A Wisconsin high school announces its third-quarter honor roll.

Journalism is 90 percent the art of deciding what not to tell you. You pay us to decide what's essential to you.

I used to cover a lot of municipal meetings. They'd open with the pledge of allegiance, do old business, do new business, discuss the date of the Halloween parade. Joe Neighbor and his wife want a permit to add a garage to their house. The police chief thanks the supervisors for buying new uniforms.

Then a big lawyer gets up and makes a presentation saying that he represents a firm that wants to build 500 new homes on the last farm in the township. The supervisors tell him the proposal doesn't meet certain terms of their ordinances, and tell him to come back with a revised plan. Then they do some more business, set the date of the next meeting, talk about the local football team, and adjourn.

The only think I'm going to go back and write about from that meeting is the big development plan. I'm doing this on the premise that, unless you're Joe Neighbor or you live right next door to him, you don't care about his garage, but almost everyone is going to want to know that the last farm in the area is under consideration for development, and that someone wants to add a whole lot of new people to the census and new traffic to the roads.

That part of the meeting might have lasted 20 minutes out of 2 hours. That's reporting; a reporter is paid to recognize that stuff, and to write it on time.

When I'm sitting at the wire desk as an editor, it's not much different. AP will move maybe 300 stories in a cycle. We also get stories from the New York Times and Cox wires. Some duplicate the AP coverage, some don't. All told, there may be 500 possible stories to go in the paper (in addition to the ones generated locally) on any given day. Maybe 30 of them will get in, and some of those only in very abbreviated form.

Not only do I chose which ones people read, I decide, or help decide, which ones ought to get more prominence than which other ones.

Along the way I'll choose maybe 6 photos to illustrate the day's news, out of maybe 250 images available since the last time we put out a paper, 24 hours ago.

And the AP editors, whom I never see or interact with, already have weeded through the news to choose those 300 stories, those 250 photos, through which I move like a cafeteria customer. They might have looked at 3,000 or 5,000 articles that were written in that day, and moved only a fraction of them on the wire.

And the photographers decided where to point their lenses .... You get the idea. The news story format is a deception. Stories do not have sharp edges. A news story is a cookie-cutter pressed into the rolled-out dough of reality. If you don't notice that, it's because someone has done his job right.

A morning newspaper or an evening newscast consists of decisions made by dozens of men and women along the line. Yet it strives to appear to be a seamless presentation of the world. We put together a product you can spend 20 minutes flipping through and get a rough understanding of the essential goings-on in your world. And in fact newspapers and newscasts do appear to be the work of one mind. This can only work if the people making the decisions have, essentially, the same range of views about things. I say range of views, because there's a degree of flex in it. Two different wire editors can read the same AP political story and one will headline it: "Bush bashes Kerry," and the other: "Kerry's record questioned." But you get the same story in either case.

A journalist on any level has to operate with a confidence that his judgment will be roughly the same as the consumer of the news product. Journalists, to do their jobs, have to feel in their bones they represent the mainstream or majority of their audience, or else that they can work as though they do. It has to be second nature. There are too many decisions, and deadlines always are too near, to stop and consciously hold up every fact, every story to the template of "relevance."

Take the most basic type of news story: a building fire. Almost anyone could write one of these, and the hardest part is getting the fire chief to call you back. Once you get him on the phone, the questions are the ones we'd all ask: What burned? When did the fire start? How many firefighters were there? How long did it take to put out? Anyone injured or killed? What was the dollar figure on damages? Got an idea what caused it yet? Anyone inside at the time? Any dramatic rescues? Where's the family staying now?/when will the business reopen? Any challenges in beating it down?

If there's a rescue or a fatality, you lead with that. If not, just stack up the facts, bada-bing, and you're done. And you've satisfied the curiosity of about 95 percent of the people who will pick up a newspaper about that smoke they saw or those sirens they heard. You don't need four years of j-school to do that.

But even there, you'll have excluded some people from your consensus of what is essential in the news. Firefighters, for instance, will want to know what equipment was used on the blaze, the names of the firefighters who led the crews, the tactics they employed. You won't have space to go into that, and it won't matter to most of your readers, so you cut it out. That's a prejudice.

The house fire is easy. But what do you do if your beat is politics? In its pure form, reporting from the centers of power probably would be limited to what the president signs or what Congress enacts. But you won't get far in this business sending back to the news desk daily updates on the progress of House Bill 21056792, dealing with procedures for disposing of road-kill snail darters. So you start to write about the behind-the-scenes, the game of politics, the personalities, the agendas.

How do you do that, in our bipartisan culture, in a value-neutral way, or with a sure sense that your judgment is in tune with the balance point of the consumers? The self-reported political and social attitudes of journalists in study after study come out dramatically further left than most Americans. Here's where the prejudice starts to count. It's impossible to entirely weed out the preference for one set of politicians over another.

The prejudice is compounded as you move up the scale from story to page to section to newspaper.

Even before you sit down to begin putting together a newspaper or a nightly newscast, you're working on a consensus. Certain ways of seeing the world are essentially excluded from the media: flat-earthers, for instance, are not taken into account when a reporter writes about the Space Shuttle. People who think that cell phone towers are alien homing devices turn up only in the letters to the editor page, if there. You won't see an article on a car crash that says, "the Hand of God protected the passenger, who was not injured." (Somebody might say that in a quote, though.) You won't see news items that take for granted that the Jews are trying to rule the world; or that meat is murder; or that the universe will end Thursday.

And that leaves somebody out, and they will cry bias. I recently read a list of complaints to the BBC by a British Muslim group about the Beeb's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Muslims asserted bias. But they didn't claim the facts were wrong; they complained bitterly because the BBC, every time it mentioned the occupation of the West Bank, didn't call it "illegal" (the Muslim group cited the usual laundry list of U.N. resolutions). Just so, Chomskyites complain because the American media doesn't call the current Iraq project "illegal and unjust," and some Democratic Underground types no doubt would have us refer to the president every time as "so-called President Bush."

The mass media is part of the public definition of the wall between "mainstream" and "fringe." Yet when the journalistic core contracts, or shifts in one direction, valid views can get excluded, get marginalized, get taken off the table.

In the minds of the people who accept it and consume it, the mainstream mass media both defines and inhabits "the center," the core, the range of acceptable views of the world we live in. However differently these views may shade away from each other (the Bush-Kerry headline quibble), they are essentially coherent, logical, and consistent with facts.

Prejudice is not the only force that shapes the news, emphasizing some things and omitting others. If you tour the sausage factory, it's an ugly business. The amount of news that's delivered is not determined by the amount of important things that happen, but by the amount of time in the newscast or the size of the newshole in the paper after all the ads are placed. It's almost a Murphy's Law of journalism that the days the world is dead dull you'll have a huge paper to fill (trot out that thumbsucker piece about the effect of airport noise on seal-mating in Alaska), and when the world comes on like gangbusters you'll be short of space.

It's also true that the collective liberalism of the news staffs is somewhat tempered by the general conservatism of the owners and corporate holding companies. None of this is realized deliberately from moment to moment, but you rise in the media hierarchy by proving you make the safe call at the key moments, and when you're low in the hierarchy you're playing by the rules of those higher in it. This generally is not expressed as a political matter. It is, however, what keeps cuss words and obscene pictures from getting published.

The weight of the decision-making changes from place to place. The high school honor roll is news to the Sheboygan Daily Calumniator, but not to the New York Times. Overarching media like CNN now feel themselves as a worldwide conduit, and think in global terms. This naturally filters down to their decision-making, and you end up with the situation summed up by the quote "When I’m reporting, I am a citizen of the world,” which drives some Americans up the wall and strikes others as perfectly natural and right. It certainly explains the death of the Ernie Pyle style and its rebirth, in a somewhat zombied form, as Fox News.

Journalism depends on consensus, or a rough understanding between the readers and the journalists about what is important. Chomksy is usually partly right, and he's right about this. The process of journalism not only relies on consensus, it helps cement it. Certain questions will never be asked in the press, because certain ways of thinking that would lead to them do not exist in the press. Swaths of information that some people consider crucial never will be presented because editors won't recognize how they fit into the world view.

The mistake Chomsky makes is in believing that his view ought to be enshrined in the meda in place of the current soft, leftish "center." When people protested against Fox News during the GOP convention, they told it to "get off the air." Chomskyites tend to want to replace "corporate media" with "Amero-phobic media." This ignores the symbiotic relationship of viewers and the media. It presents the viewers as passive recipients of propaganda.

Why consensus, not "best interest?" Because media aren't required viewing. It's not a Big Brother world yet. Newspapers and TV networks compete in a market. If you stop being relevant to people, and start hectoring them, they'll go elsewhere. If people wake up to the fact that you're not telling them about the world, but trying to change it, they'll look at you differently -- if they keep looking at you at all.

And the failure to appreciate that, I think, reflects a fixation with the importance of the major mass media which is natural in a man of Chomsky's generation. In the 1960s, with only three network channels and international print coverage in America driven almost entirely by the AP, UPI, and the New York Times, the worldview of the majority of Americans could be shaped by a few twitches in the top newsrooms.

Now, you get the Internet. You get Fox News. You get NPR. You get Radio America. Hell, you can all but duplicate my copy desk job of sorting through the AP wire and the AP photo desk; it's all online. I'm waiting for the day my boss figures out that all this material, for which we pay tens of thousands of dollars per year as a "member" of the Associated Press, is available for free to anyone with a laptop and a phone jack.

But that's the rub. Most people don't have four hours a day to sort through the AP, Reuters, AFP wires and photo desks. They'll pay 50 cents for a newspaper, or sit through 10 minutes of dull TV commercials, for the sake of letting someone do it for them.

The inherent prejudice of the media is not in the details of a story. It's in the shape of the world that the media lives in, and presumes you live in, too. It's not the painting, it's the shape of the canvas.

That defined space of "what is presumed to be true" shifts over time, both among the public and in the press. Views on race that would be unacceptable today once were commonplace in headlines, north and south and west. Sexuality issues that never would have been encountered in the news 60 years ago are routinely covered today.

It's easier to be sure of the center in a nation where there is one. It's arguable -- and I would argue it -- that America is more polarized in the last 15 years (with a brief, sharp reversion to unity right after 9/11) than it was during the Cold War.

In that climate, the prejudices of the media will be more striking to more people. Not just the Chomskies will find themselves outside the cookie cutter. And for those of us who grew up trusting that the people doing the news lived in the same world we did, the awakening can be a bitter experience.

Since the 1970s, "journalism" has become not just a trade practiced by random people who couldn't hold down real jobs, but a profession, one for which you train since high school. Such schooling has the tendency to streamline herds into phalanxes. It weeds out misfits. It ensures the editors and reporters who do make it through have a common background that focuses the range of their world-views.

It's a lifetime process, because the people who hire reporters and editors tend to embrace people who think like they do. Managing editors (the ones who do the hiring) are products of the newsroom culture. They moved up through the ranks (in part by not making trouble for the herd mentality) till they got to the point where they can replenish the gene pool. And they'll choose people who resemble themselves.

It's a natural human trait. I'm sure editors are no different than other bosses. If they interview a job candidate and scent someone who has a way of seeing that is dramatically different from the boss's own, or from the group of people he's already hired, that candidate is not likely to get the job. It's just inviting trouble for yourself, as a boss, as someone trying to guide a group of people to cooperate intensely to get something done every day on short notice.

If the political polarization of the public expands, while that of the media shrinks, this is a problem. And if the media center not only narrows, it tilts in one direction, so that its world view loses touch with realities and in some ways itself resembles the "fringes" it typically excludes, then this is a crisis.

I believe we're in that crisis now. I find it amazing that people consider the media to have a "conservative" bias. If by that you mean, "Peter Jennings is not actively promoting Maoist revolutionary rhetoric," then yes, that's true. But according to a Pew Research Center survey reported in "Editor & Publisher," the official publication of the U.S. news media, the proportion of self-defined "liberals" in newsrooms is increasing much faster than that of self-defined "conservatives," and the ratio is well out of proportion to the nation as a whole.

At national organizations (which includes print, TV and radio), the numbers break down like this: 34% liberal, 7% conservative. At local outlets: 23% liberal, 12% conservative. At Web sites: 27% call themselves liberals, 13% conservatives.

This contrasts with the self-assessment of the general public: 20% liberal, 33% conservative.

Pew found that, over time, not only is the media more polarized, but the liberal voices are more numerous. Since 1995, at national outlets, the liberal segment has climbed from 22% to 34% while conservatives have inched up from 5% to 7%

This is a self-assessment. Most of the journalists, like many Americans, describe themselves as "moderate." But from my experience, the majority of journalists who describe themselves as "moderates" actually break toward the left on most issues. If you consider the schism between newsrooms and the rest of the U.S., it's not surprising that a "moderate" in the subculture will be a "liberal" in the larger culture.

The rise of the Internet has thrown open the curtain behind the act. News consumers can read the transcript of a White House press conference online and compare it to what the L.A. Times or the Washington Post made of it in a news story. They can discover the shape and size of the journalistic cookie-cutter, and at times (though less often than most people believe), they can get a flash of insight into the mind that made the story, and see the shape of a world that is not quite the same one the reader inhabits.

INDEX - AUTHOR


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© 2005 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"