A few left-leaning press thinkers (not an oxymoron) have written some interesting pieces lately on the sorry state of US journalism, which is highlighted during this week's Government shutdown.
According to NYU Professor Jay Rosen, the biggest problem facing the media is the fallacy that journalists "have no politics themselves, no views of their own, no side, no stake, no ideology and therefore no one can accuse them of — and here we enter the realm of dread — political bias."
He calls it the production of innocence:
But here comes the confusing part. For in the production of innocence you are not a shill or mouthpiece for someone else: a company, a political party, a powerful interest… but for a certain image of yourself as “above” all that. You are a propagandist for a personal conceit. The conceit is that you can report and comment on politics truthfully while always and forever splitting the difference between the two sides so as to advertise your own status as perpetually non-aligned.
We have all been here before. Trying to not take sides hallows out news stories because it leaves out much of the blood and guts of politics. It is, actually, taking sides, these critics would argue.
In the current political crisis, this is what not taking sides looks like, per Dan Fromkin in Al Jazeera America.
Blaming everyone — Congress, both sides, Washington — is simply the path of least resistance for today's political reporters. It's a way of avoiding conflict rather than taking the risk that the public — or their editors — will accuse them of being unprofessionally partisan.
But making a political judgment through triangulation — trying to stake out a safe middle ground between the two political parties — is still making a political judgment. It is often just not a very good one. And in this case, as in many others, it is doing the country a grave disservice.
In an earlier post, Rosen quotes the New Yorker's George Packer, who critiqued a 2008 piece by David Broder on Sarah Palin. Packer's critique stands out for pinpointing what is wrong with political coverage in the US press:
Broder wasn’t analyzing Palin’s positions or accusations, or the truth or falsehood of her claims, or even the nature of the emotions that she appeals to. He was reviewing a performance and giving it the thumbs up, using the familiar terminology of political journalism. This has been so characteristic of the coverage of politics for so long that it doesn’t seem in the least bit odd, and it’s hard to imagine doing it any other way.
Packer's point is that while war and financial crisis are not treated as performance art by the US media, why is politics?
My own two cents. These stories have a lot of moving parts, which makes it difficult for journalists to keep the public educated on. However, the type of reporting detailed by Packer and Fromkin is how the press has decided to solve their problem: Let the participants lead the stories with quotes, access, etc. rather than the other way around.
I just heard an NPR top-of-the-hour briefing which quoted Barack Obama and John Boehner with dueling quotes on what day four of the Government shutdown will bring. Instead of the media offering any analysis or weighing of proposals, readers are provided he said/she said narrative that only instills partisan rancor and doesn't educate anyone.