September 9, 2008

Ezra States the Media Conundrum

In many ways, the  blogosphere's raison d'etre is to dissect, analyze and criticize the way the traditional media works in the United States.   Someone in the distant past noticed that the "stories" in the news generally fit inside a narrative arc, much as individual episodes in a television program fit inside a broader narration,  a narration defined not just by plot, but by characters, their interactions and the other material in a show's "bible."  George Lakoff, first,  and then Jeffrey Feldman wrote about the fact that politicians were aware of the importance of this overarching narrative, and that they therefore tried to create "frames" around events of the day that was meant to influence, even control, that narrative.  Peter Daou worked out the idea of the Triangle, the need for the politicians, the traditional media, and the netroots coming together as the necessary conditions for offsetting the narratives Republicans had established using think tanks and talk radio.

I could go on. I could talk about the Froomkin Flap, when the White House wanted Dan Froomkin's  White House Watch on the Post website marginalized, and sent Jim vandeHei and John Harris to management to arrange it.  There we learned a lot about the way in which the White House managed narratives by manipulating reporters with access and selective leaking. We learned still more at the Libby trial. 

Learning more and more about this, blogospheric derision and anger directed  toward the traditional Washington Media grew and grew.  The Village simply seemed to have no interest in accuracy, but rather in some kind of 4th dimensional Broderian Balance.  The journalists, derisive in return, dismissed the dirty hippies as ignorant losers, justifying their retention of the electronic equivalent of a mailroom intern protecting them from the full force of their readers' criticism by focusing on vitriolic messages, and willfully ignoring the substantive commentary that was arising through blogospheric natural selection.

I always found this willful ignorance baffling. The arguments that bloggers like  Glenn Greenwald and digby were making were very easy to follow, and were obviously based on sound principles and clear logic.  But these arguments were dismissed without engagement.

Yesterday,  Ezra Klein pinpointed a key reason for this.   His argument is too elegantly made to summarize well, s0 I'll just excerpt a couple of paragraphs.

First, the journalist's task today is not so much as finding information as it is prioritizing and organizing it:

(T)here's too much information, and so consumers largely rely on the press to arrange that information into some sort of coherent story that will allow them to understand the election. And the press assumed that role -- they didn't create some new institution, or demand that the cable channels be credentialed differently and understood as "political entertainment."

They fill this new role through the methods storytellers have always used to tell stories: the repetition of certain key themes and characters, which creates continuity between one day's events and the next and helps the audience understand which parts to pay attention to. It's sort of like a TV show: If Friends had had an episode where Ross and Rachel hooked up, but never mentioned it again, that would've been weird, but their tryst wouldn't have been a big part of the story. Since they mentioned it all the time, and came back to it, and fit future events into that context, it was a big story. Similarly, if the press reports something and never mentions it again, the public knows to forget it. It's not important. If they mention it constantly -- "I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it" -- they know it is important. The job of the media, in other words, is now to also emphasize the right parts of the story.

Second, the media cannot admit that this is now their role:

The press isn't allow to admit that they construct these narratives at all, and so can't transparently justify why they choose to use one and not another. Which creates mistrust and anger.
This is the basis for the derisive treatment of the Village. They are obviously constructing narratives, and bending stories to fit those narratives. A narrative spreads like kudzu, and in no time everyone is writing about Al Gore's difficulty telling the truth.  But since the media can't admit that they construct these narratives, and really can't admit that they practice a kind of group-think, we're left with what Jane Hamsher has called a "titanium bubble" surrounding the Beltway.

Third, they really can't admit their role in constructing the narrative because that means they are no longer, in their eyes,  reporting the campaign. But in many ways, they are the campaign:

 Ambinder waves this media conversation away as a "Greenwaldian debate about the duties, obligations and frustrations of the press" because he thinks of all this as media criticism. But this isn't about the press, it's about the campaign. And he's the guy we all look to for that type of coverage. His job is to report on the motivations and actions and effects of the major political players in the election (and he's among the best at it). But there is arguably no political player as important in the election as the aggregate media. But the media won't report on itself. Which means they can't really report on the campaign: They can only report on the campaign-minus-the-media, which is an impossible thing to do, and requires them to invent all sorts of explanations for how the things that they're doing are happening

This is another thing that drives us batshit crazy.  Michael Scherer or Jay Carney (update: or Mark Halperin) will write a story or a post in this weird passive voice, as if they are not making a decision about what is important to write about and what is not, but rather as if there were an intervention by the Angel Moroni sometime in the night that determined the universally received wisdom.  At times they seem, to us, like Kipling's bander-log, who say it must be true because we all say so.  But it is not what they are saying. It's what they are doing that matters.   

So when it is said that the campaigns are trying to "work the refs," this is not the right metaphor.  The press does not consist of putatively impartial observors, keeping both sides honest. They are, instead,  fully engaged participants in the process of determining the dominant narrative,the setters on the volleyball team. It's interesting that this participatory role is increasingly taken for granted, with roles for political operatives like Karl Rove, Markos, Mike Murphy,  James Carville and Bill Kristol as putative political commentators.  

These guys are all a far cry from David Brinkley.


Paul Dirks said...

The press isn't allow to admit that they construct these narratives at all, and so can't transparently justify why they choose to use one and not another. Which creates mistrust and anger.

I think we're underestmating the degree to which this process is unconscious. One of my slogans is "Stories are the currency of thought". If you think about the limited sensory contact we each have with the world and contrast it to the vast amout we know (or think we know) about it, it becomes clear that 'running narratives' both inside our own skulls and in our culture really have incredible power over how we view things.

We can all see clearly how Michael Scherer is completely beholden to certain specific narratives and characterizations, but he, on the other hand thinks that he is simply viewing the world as it is.

Knowing this goes a long way in explaining the exceedingly odd relationship between DFH's and Villagers. We really do operate in different realities.

Jay Ackroyd (@jayackroyd) said...

I think there is something to that Paul. But maintaining this cognitive dissonance in the face of a great deal of evidence that they really are not what they say they are approaches some line of intentionality.

Look at Glenn today, who is working the same themes. You know they read him; they wouldn't speak of him derisively in their parlors and salons if they didn't. You can criticize him, if you want to, for being prolix, but certainly not for being unclear, or writing without supporting evidence.

stuart_zechman said...

This is honestly one of the best posts on this subject that I've read outside of Prof. Rosen's blog.

Thanks so much, Jay.