Sunday, July 19, 2009

De mortuis: On clues and having them

A couple of examples -- all right, two papers' treatments of the same ill-conceived "analysis" -- from today's Cronkite coverage suggest some of the systematic ways in which news coverage goes consistently wrong.

First up, Charlotte:

Nightly news isn't comfort it used to be
Our nation has gone from the single, solid voice of Cronkite to a free-for-all cacophony.

No offense, gang, but when you buy out or lay off everybody over 40, you eventually end up with a newsroom for which history begins around 1986. Hence the deck above, which takes a vague assertion in the text and amplifies it into a wild generalization about the happy days when "our nation" turned to a "single, solid voice." There was no such time.* When Tom Lehrer sang about World War III, he invoked Brinkily and Huntily -- not just to rhyme with "frontally," but because of the prominence of NBC's nightly news broadcast. Before there was "and that's the way it is," there was "Good night, Chet; good night, David." That doesn't diminish Cronkite's importance, but it does raise questions about why journalism does so poorly at putting importance into context.

Which leads us, more or less, to the stranger assertion in the Freep deck above: "Everyman's newsman delivered empirical truth." It's drawn, poorly, from the highlighted clause here:

News has become a two-way street, something to create community around.

That can be at once productive and perilous.

It gives an exhilarating voice to the voiceless. Yet it also can foster consensus reality. If enough of us say it loudly enough, it must be so.

In the '60s and '70s, Cronkite was seen as the everyday incarnation of empirical truth – “a voice of certainty in an uncertain world,” as President Obama put it Friday night.

Catch the point? In Cronkite's heyday, news reflected reality itself, rather than the "consensus reality" of the Twitters and Intertubes that threatens us today. And that's a truly strange -- I'm trying really hard not to say "objectively absurd" -- assertion. Interactivity hasn't made news a social construct. News has always been a social construct. It was as true in Cronkite's day as it was in Benjamin Harris's as it is in ours. This graf from the Washington Post obit sums up the contradiction neatly:

Cronkite was often viewed as the personification of objectivity, but his reports on the Vietnam War increasingly came to criticize the American military role. "From 1964 to 1967, he never took anything other than a deferential approach to the White House on Vietnam," Gitlin** said, but added, "He's remembered for the one moment when he stepped out of character and decided, to his great credit, to go see [Vietnam] for himself."

The sociologist's "deferential approach" is the reporter's "objectivity": information from authoritative sources, resting on carefully selected empirical evidence and reflecting elite opinion. The routine of objectivity helped construct the reality of Vietnam in the same way it helped construct the reality of Iraq. Some of the bottom-feeders would have you believe that Cronkite was the father of Librul Bias, which is nonsense, but he wasn't the father of pro-authority bias either. He was a careful, hard-working, even-tempered (I think his disdain for the EyeWitlessActionNews genre accounts for a lot of the affection, and I can't disagree) journalist who played by the rules of social construction that journalists at the national level know and respect.

So why do bizarre assertions about "empirical truth" go unchallenged in wire stories -- let alone brain-twisters like this?

In 2009, trust itself, at least in the public realm, is an uneasy notion. We still desire it. But in an age of wholesale, instantaneous, unprecedented lying, trust may not be wise in evaluating information sources.

Probably because this story was presented as a "news analysis," and the problem with that is not that journalists shouldn't be allowed to have opinions, but that we don't have a mechanism for distinguishing smart opinions from dumb ones. From the sound observation that all opinions are nonfalsifiable comes the absurd conclusion that all opinions are equal.

Since it's a nice afternoon and I'm looking for ways to show that I'm not procrastinating, I'll go ahead and offer a suggestion. Journalism needs to stop carving its categories vertically -- into news, analysis, opinion, comment -- and start carving them horizontally, into competently constructed arguments and incompetently constructed arguments. The problem with news is not that it's socially constructed, or that it reflects human judgment in cases where Opinions Are Forbidden, but that it doesn't distinguish shaky evidence and bad argument from sound evidence and good argument.

I don't mean to suggest that that's true of all journalists, and Cronkite's Tet commentary seems a good example of trying to get things right through the fog. But it is the mechanism by which a "Some Say" story at Fox can be made to look and sound so much like real news -- or why a Trudy Rubin or a Tom Friedman (who, no matter what you think of his flat-world ramblings, knows a hell of a lot about the modern Middle East) ends up on the op-ed page next to a Cal Thomas (who simply makes stuff up when he runs short of evidence).

It might mean more work (and, as John McIntyre said last week in a different context, it might even require a bit of judgment). But I think we'd get better news pages and better opinion pages out of it. Care to give it a try?

* Not true of all systems, especially the BBC and its descendants. In its single-channel heyday, the main Israeli newscast could pull two-thirds of the population around the old electronic hearth. The interested reader is referred to Katz et al. (1997), 20 years of television in Israel: Are there long-run effects on values, social connectedness and cultural practice? Journal of Communication, 47(2), 3-20.
** Todd Gitlin, author of "The Whole World is Watching."


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