Friday, October 12, 2012

Today in constructivism

Common cold cured! Fractious Near East at peace! And our second-most-important story of the day at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network is ... can we zoom in on the lower left there? That's better:

A panel at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism comparing the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements was stacked with liberal journalists who offered one-sided conclusions, according to one alumnus who attended the event.

Panelists at the event, which was held on Oct. 1 in the prestigious school’s Pulitzer Hall, made “little attempt to hide their sympathies” to the Occupy movement, author Harry Stein wrote in City Journal, a quarterly magazine published by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

Or, to take another whack at the hed: Guy in Audience Still Whining About Something Panel Discussion 10 Days Ago Wasn't About. (The announced topic of the event, after all, was coverage of social movements, not "comparing" two movements.) Given the throngs that normally pitch tents ahead of time for panel discussions on Monday nights at journalism schools, you can be forgiven for marveling at this one's rise to the top of the national news agenda.

To its credit, Fox does produce a candidate for no-comment of the year, from the panel's moderator, Todd Gitlin:*

“You have nothing to do with news,” Gitlin said. “And you’re wasting my time.”

He's half right. His time was being wasted, but other than that, the story's a pretty sharp illustration of how much Fox really does have to do with news. Columbia may be "no longer Joseph Pulitzer's school," to borrow the whiner's title, but Fox went to the Charles F. Kane school of journalism, and that's alive and well.

Journalism tends to have a pragmatic and fairly scornful reaction to ideas like constructivism. We deal with the real world, after all, and we deal with it quickly, accurately, and without fear or favor, and that's all ye need to know. The idea that news is a constructed commodity that presents socially appropriate conclusions about constructed realities -- often quite well, and often at some physical and social risk to the people doing the work -- doesn't draw a lot of water. But it's the way Fox manages to sneak onto the track and look, at a casual glance, a lot like real journalism.

Constructivism works at two levels. You have to have constructs to talk about, and you have to have constructed ways of talking about them. The noon AP news digest isn't handed anew to Moses at Mount Sinai each day; it's a list of stuff that looks like the biggest news of the day to people whose job it is to tell whether stuff looks like news. Political debates tend to produce an uptick in cliches -- "gloves come off," "came out swinging," "what a difference a week makes" -- because they're not designed to produce anything substantive. But they're a very defensible choice for the frontpage because CANDIDATES TRADE JABS is what "news" looks like.

That's why the debate is the top story here, and the "Snickerdoodle" hed is the second part of the process. News judgment runs on constructs at the story level too. As Walter Lippmann suggested almost a century ago, if editors had to judge every item they saw afresh on its own merits, they'd die of excitement or overwork before the shift changed. So they stereotype. They sort stuff into categories that already make sense to people who are assembling news and to people who are watching it.** At Fox, Joe Biden is sort of like a bumbling but reliably anti-American generalissimo; he's news for his latest outrage, not for whether there's any substance behind it. Covering him as an elected executive official with some decades of legislative experience would be -- I don't know, like covering a Palestinian leader as a rational actor or something. It's not what the audience expects, so proceed at your own risk.

So how did a Monday evening panel session a week and a half ago become the world's second most important story? It's the same process that drives the War on Christmas -- or from a less partisan perspective, the War on Drugs, road rage or the Summer of the Shark. A possible road rage case somewhere in Texas has no meaning for you, unless your top editor has decided that the Road Rage Epidemic is something the press can and should cure, in which case it moves toward the front page as Another Tragic Example. In a context where the front page now includes a daily Bias Alert (lower right, usually), another random-seeming case of academic-journalistic librul scorn for everything Americans hold dear is suddenly less random. It's part of a pattern, and news is there to help you make sense of patterns.

Within that context, it's fun to try to extrapolate news routines from the evidence at hand. The story rates a byline, which is a bigger investment of time than just a random pillaging of wire accounts. Todd Gitlin didn't get a call by accident; he got a call because -- with a staff byline on the case -- all the perps got at least a passing chance to tell why they hate America. If that all looks a lot like journalism, there's a reason.

Fox is making substantial hay these recent weeks with its coverage of Hookergate and Benghazigate. That works, in part, because declaring a gate is one of those sacred events in journalism; once you call "-gate" on something, the enemy of my enemy becomes my friend, or something like that. Gate means cover-up and scandal and perdition, and we stand shoulder to shoulder against that kind of thing, right?

It works as long as nobody brings up -- hey, what happened to Crashergate? Or Climategate? Or those polls that we liked just fine until the in-the-tank media started traveling back in time to skew their samples? It's nice to see all the phone calls being made and all the "could not be reached" responses duly noted, but before too long, we come back to a simple point. Fox is running the routines on a bogus story, because Fox is run by a pack of liars, and that's the sort of thing liars do. It isn't the first, and it won't be the last, but at least it's an entertaining way to look at news routines and news practice. And if, dear reader, you find yourself in conversation with occasional random readers about the unshakable communist mendacity of the lamestream media, you should feel free to tell them that their poetry smells and kick them down the stairs.

* Who is, after all, a big-ticket expert on coverage of social movements; if that's the sort of framing you do and
you haven't read The Whole World is Watching, you need to catch up.

** If you watched the debate on Thursday night, you might have noticed that Biden's Iran bogeyman was "the ayatollah," while Ryan's was "the ayatollahs." Neither one mentioned the (term-limited) Iranian president, who's usually so salient that Fox can use him to illustrate stories he doesn't even appear in.


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