Quantcast

How the Media’s Process Obsession Stifles Liberalism and Undermines our Democracy | The Nation

  •  
Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

How the Media’s Process Obsession Stifles Liberalism and Undermines our Democracy


Frank Bruni. (AP Photo)

Think Again: Austerity Kills, and So Will the Sequester

My Nation column is called “Frank Bruni, the Plutocrats’ Pundit.” But happily for Mr. Bruni, and unhappily for everyone else who might like to read it but is not a subscriber to The Nation, under a new and in my view, deeply misguided new Nation policy, it is presently behind a paywall. Personally, while I am philosophically pro-paywall, I do not understand the logic of having a press column hidden from the rest of the press—along with everyone else save subscribers—but of course such decisions are made well above my paygrade.

I had a lot of music and theater to review this week, but I’m in a bad mood about the above, so here’s Reed:

Well, no, not quite yet. I do want to give props to the Playwrights Horizons Theater Company, together with the Wooly Mamouth in Washington, together with author Anne Washburn, composer Michael Friedman and director Steve Cosson, for their insanely audacious “Mr. Burns: A Post Electric Play,” which manages to combine The Simpsons, Cape Fear (both versions), the apocalypse, Gilbert and Sullivan and Grease into one unholy mess. Well, it’s a lot more than a mess. Much of it is brilliant. All of it is over the top. The Times’s rave is here. Mr. Brantley is apparently a lot smarter than I am, or a much bigger fan of Messrs. G and S, and so enjoyed the third act far more than I did. But the first two were brilliant.

Now here, (finally) is Reed:

How the Media’s Process Obsession Stifles Liberalism and Undermines our Democracy
by Reed Richardson

In our democracy, where we depend upon a free exchange of ideas and information, definitions matter. They act as an invaluable cognitive tool to help frame the polity’s thinking about issues in a broader context. When done right, they can also enable a better understanding of a complex problem confronting our country and help guide public debate toward a range of practical solutions. Settle for an imprecise or lazy description, however, and an important issue can be quickly hijacked by demagogues or bogged down in mindless minutiae. And since journalism remains our primary mechanism for dialogue between the governing and the governed, it’s incumbent upon those who practice it to think closely about how they define the issues and the context that follows.

Unfortunately, many journalists seem incapable of this nuance, even when it concerns thinking about their own profession. In a media environment increasingly unmoored from the clear-cut organizational cues of the past century, too many still cling to a clubby mindset that attaches journalistic authority to the actor, not the action. Not surprisingly, Congress has absorbed this same rigid viewpoint into its debate over a (flawed) federal media shield law. But fixating on who is a journalist, rather than what journalism is, is to miss the point. Even more importantly, the policy outcome of this narrow-mindedness could actually end up harming the robust, independent journalism that Congress ostensibly seeks to protect. Here again, definitions matter.

Still, as much as it is anathema to the First Amendment to have the government in the position of certifying who is or isn’t a journalist, we’re in pretty rarefied air here. The public, no doubt, couldn’t care less. And to be fair, they’re probably right, particularly when there’s a much larger problem plaguing journalism, one that has much more direct impact on the quality of the public’s day-to-day lives. And at the core of this problem lies another incorrect definition.

Media critics, whether professional or unpaid (or, like me, both), have long used short-hand terms like “mainstream media,” or “establishment media,” or “Beltway media” when translating individual critiques across a broader group. I’ve never really liked any of these terms and neither, it seems, do conservatives, who have their own vernacular, from the worn-out trope of the “lib-rul media” to the wet spaghetti-like wit of Sarah Palin’s “lamestream media” to Rush Limbaugh’s bombastic “drive-by media.” But except for Limbaugh’s not-so-subtly racially loaded term, all of the others fall into the same logical trap as the media shield law—they focus on the who, not the what. Mis-defining the phenomenon in this way, in effect, marginalizes and masks the critique, as it doesn’t encourage a deeper look into the faulty behavior at issue. If you think about the what of journalism first, though, you’ll find a universal thread woven throughout the credulous and irrelevant reporting and piss-poor punditry one encounters these days—it’s all about process.

In other words, it’s not the mainstream media doing a disservice to our democracy; it’s the process media. To be clear, when I refer to the process media, I’m not talking about “process journalism,” the iterative, publish-first-edit-later online news approach advocated by new media folks like Jeff Jarvis. Theirs is more of a technical, inward-looking term that refers to journalism as process. Mine is a more intellectual, outward-looking term of journalism about process. While distinct, these two phenomena are not unrelated. Process journalism’s ethos of constantly pushing content, often across multiple online channels and social media platforms, has created an almost infinite marketplace for news. While this has had the salutary effect of democratizing the news in our democracy, it has also had the unfortunate side effect of inflating what constitutes news. Thus, no campaign trail tidbit or catty Senate cloakroom comment is now too insignificant or irrelevant to publish.

Thus, process media stands as a definition better suited to the egalitarian realities of today’s press coverage. No doubt, the reporters and the editors and—Lord knows—the pundits at the New York Times routinely suffer from an obsession with the political process. But to lump everything everyone does for the Times into the same critical bin is unfair to the substantive, world-class reporting and writing it produces everyday. By the same token, the listicle-loving, Twitter-mad website BuzzFeed might ordinarily escape the scrutiny of press watchdogs, but that too constitutes an injustice. There is perhaps no beat more process infested than a presidential campaign, and as the feckless press coverage of 2012 demonstrated, a tidal wave of process Tweets from BuzzFeed can now drown out real policy discussion just as easily as a muddle-headed Times columnist’s op-ed.

That modern journalism—and political journalism, in particular—has gravitated toward a process-first, meta-news model is perhaps not surprising. After all, journalism itself is a never-ending activity in striving toward an always elusive goal, as it says right in the first tenet of the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Principles of Journalism: “‘[J]ournalistic truth’ is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts.” [italics mine]. As a result, the Washington press corps might naturally come to judge granular snapshots of Capitol Hill ephemera and presidential credibility as more worthy than long-gestating stories about the real-world impact of Congressional obstruction or foreign policy negotiations.

The allure of the process-media mindset is undoubtedly strong, as it handily reinforces a kind of unthinking objectivity on the coverage. For instance, if I’m just content to report dueling talking points between House Republicans and Obama on a topic like funding the government, without any adding any broader context about how a shutdown might harm the country and cost thousands of people their jobs, I can avoid being criticized as favoring a specific policy outcome or of being biased toward the president. (Or I might also say debunking Republican myths about Obamacare isn’t my job either.) Of course, a free-thinking, reality-based press corps should be courageous enough to say economic hara-kiri isn’t in our democracy’s best interests, but this calculus doesn’t add up within the process media world.

In fact, rather than offering a safe harbor of objectivity, this process-media mindset actually brings with it a number of deeply-rooted biases. The first of these is an inherent passivity and predisposition for the status quo. Forgive my pedantry, but process media coverage—as opposed to enterprise or advocacy journalism—needs, well, a process to cover. It’s simply not in the process media’s DNA to champion an unpopular or overlooked issue on its own. Instead, it prefers topics already endorsed by the DC conventional wisdom.

As a result, process-obsessed media pundits on Sunday morning news shows freely agitate for unnecessary austerity measures like deficit reduction and entitlement reform—long-time talking points for Republicans in Washington. And yet they mostly ignore legitimate crises like climate change and gun violence—both of which, sad to say, have mostly been abandoned by both parties. (If you want proof of the short and selective attention span of the process media, check out this chart of gun control coverage over the past year.) A press corps that is always reacting, however, will have a much harder time holding accountable those politicians that it relies upon to make news.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

But while the process media is itself reactive, its most elemental prejudice in those it covers is toward action—confrontation over compromise. Doing something—anything!—boldly, draws more attention and praise from the process media, no matter how foolhardy or counter-productive the end result. Thus, it literally took years before the process media felt comfortable offering up even the mildest critiques of President George W. Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq. But when Obama wisely backtracked from his original, horribly ill-conceived plan for unilateral military airstrikes in Syria, the process-media poobahs wasted no time in pouring their derision over him. As this Washington Post op-ed ably demonstrates, however, their anger wasn’t directed at the substance of his policy decision—of which, Greg Sargent notes, there was almost no discussion—just the circuitous process by which he made it. Likewise, after the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard earlier this week, one could find another Post pundit bravely wallowing in the process without ever taking a stand on the actual issue of gun control.

Over time, this misguided fascination with the micro- and the meta- of news has a pernicious cumulative effect on both politicians and the public. Thanks to this process bias, the ostensibly objective press slowly but surely signals its subjective preference for one set of policy choices, as defined through the positive or negative feedback loop of its coverage. Thus, shock-and-awe military strikes routinely draw more favorable press treatment than slow-motion diplomacy. Obstruction enjoys the press’s tacit approval, though it claims to favor negotiation. Grandstanding pays off more than legislating. Insiders matter more than outsiders. Powerful over the powerless.

It is worth pointing out that all of these biases tend to tilt against policy solutions favored by liberals. In fact, when viewed through this process media frame, one can easily see how a press corps mostly populated by individuals with socially liberal views could nonetheless be co-opted into facilitating a broad-based conservative policy agenda for the past thirty years. But just as it isn’t in our nation’s long-term interests for one of its two main political parties to willfully abandon its role in governance to embrace spiteful self-destruction, neither is it healthy when our press corps abdicates its constitutional duty to enrich the discourse by obsessing over trivial palace intrigue.

To be sure, our republic will always be a work in progress, as the Framers acknowledged in the very first line of our government’s founding blueprint. But recall that immediately following the humble talk of forming “a more perfect Union,” the Constitution lifts its gaze beyond the day-to-day machinations of government to clearly articulate broad principles—Justice, domestic Tranquility, common defense, general Welfare, and the Blessings of Liberty—that still define success for our country and its citizens 226 years later. It’s long past time our press corps relearn why these definitions still matter.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.