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How Media Passivity Is Service Journalism for the Powerful | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

How Media Passivity Is Service Journalism for the Powerful

Ferguson

Ferguson, Missouri (AP photo, Jeff Roberson) 

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

I would have called this column, “John Dean, John Dean, We know just what you mean,”

Or perhaps

John Dean, John Dean, You said it all so clean.”

Instead it was headlined “Government Whitewashing Didn’t Stop With Watergate” and yes, August 9 should be a national holiday….

And in honor of that imagined holiday, here’s Altercation “friend” Harry Shearer inhabiting Nixon in a verbatim comedic re-creation of Nixon's poignant last 6 minutes before he resigned the Presidency, on August 8th, 1974.’

Gershon Baskin , has initiated a campaign to buy 5,000 tons of Israel farm-surplus potatoes and send them to Gaza. The money must be raised by Sunday. Here is the explanation with a link to the contribution. 

Alter-reviews:

I wanted to give a shout out to the Music Maker Relief Foundation—the non-profit record label which supports traditional southern musicians living in poverty—on their 20th anniversary. They are celebrating with a book coming in September, a 2-CD set also a museum exhibition at the NY Public Library, and a Lincoln Center performance which you already missed. Tim Duffy has been called “a modern-day Alan Lomax” for having founded MMRF as a 501c3 to support artists in their communities and has put out almost 150 albums. He's dispersed grants in the thousands for instruments, heating oil, medications, and CDs for these artists to sell at their shows. Many of the artists have made debut or comeback records in their 60s, 70s, or 80s, many playing for festival crowds or traveling to Europe for the first time in their lives, realizing life-long dreams! The 2CD collection includes Etta Baker, Boo Hanks w/ Dom Flemons, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Ironing Board Sam, John Dee Holeman, and Guitar Gabriel, the latter of whom inspired the non-profit. Go here to learn more, please.

I also wanted to give an additional shout out to Liveright Books for its recent publication of Henry Roth’s Mercy of a Rude Stream: The Complete Novels.

At over 1300 pages this set of novels makes for an enormous commitment on the part of the reader but it more than justifies itself. The Roth story is almost too weird to be believed. If you’ve read Call It Sleep, then I probably don’t need to say any more. If you haven’t, then immediately read Adam Kirsch’s terrific but stupidly titled essay in Tablet, In the meantime, look at these blurbs.

“The Ur-novel at the heart of American literature—Mercy of a Rude Stream is a towering astonishment.” (Junot Diaz)

Mercy is a rare species of literary epic: an autobiography that doubles as a historical novel. The action of Mercy—set primarily between 1914 and 1928 but interlaced with dispatches from the 1980s and '90s, and including intermittent reflections of the years in between—encompasses nearly the entirety of the twentieth century…Mercy is an epic of the outsider, a chronicle of self-survival and self-discovery and the realization of the self.” (Joshua Ferris, from the introduction)

“Mr. Roth's frisson of regret provides a poignant gloss on one of the most moving and unusual of American fiction careers.” (Kenneth Turan - Los Angeles Times)

“Henry Roth has only two peers in American-English Jewish fiction, Nathanael West and Philip Roth.” (Harold Bloom)

“As provocative as anything in the chapters of St. Augustine or Rousseau.” (Stefan Kanfer - Los Angeles Times Book Review)

“The literary comeback of the century.” (Jonathan Rosen - Vanity Fair)

“[Mercy of a Rude Stream] is like hearing that Ralph Ellison is publishing a new novel forty-two years after Invisible Man or J. D. Salinger is preparing a sequel to The Catcher in the Rye.” (Leonard Michaels - New York Times Book Review)

“A wondrous, disturbing, and ruthlessly honest chronicle of the complex and often wrenchingly twisted process of assimilation. The sheer dynamism generated by the writer's act of memory and confession is awe-inspiring.” (Hedy Weiss - Chicago Sun-Times)

Sensitive fellow that I am, I also really enjoyed Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel: A Graphic Novel, by Anya Ulnich which I read in one sitting. It’s a little precious Brooklyn, but it’s wonderfully evocative and honest and teaches you things about life that only its author knows. Here is Ayelet Waldman’s review that convinced me to read it.

I am also spending some time with a new, impressively wide-ranging history of the record biz, Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry by Gareth Murphy for Thomas Dunne Books, and a new history of pop music called Yeah Yeah Yeah by Bob Stanley for Norton, which purports to tell “The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyonce” but does not begin to do justice to Bruce and so I am suspect….

Speaking of Bruce, here are some books I just noticed together on my shelf: Guess the subject:

Working on a Dream
Runaway Dream
Talk about a Dream
Bruce Springsteen and the Runaway American Dream

And here are a few tweets I don’t feel like rewriting:

The first issue of BOSS (Bi-Annual Online Journal of Springsteen Studies) http://boss.mcgill.ca/issue/view/8

That schmuck, Chris Christie, subsidized this place and attacked Bruce for refusing to play at its opening. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/13/nyregion/revel-atlantic-citys-newest-and-largest-casino-is-closing.html?emc=edit_ur_20140813&nl=nyregion&nlid=46904619 …

An unhappy anniversary, thanks to Stalin's madness http://www.thenation.com/article/171974/putting-stories-world …

You Say You Don't Wike it, I say you’re a wiar… wiar..http://us.yhs4.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?hspart=ironsource&hsimp=yhs-

Could this be the end of MoDo's unbearable columnizing? A boy can hope http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/media/2014/08/8550514/maureen-dowd-joins-emnyt-magazineem-ahead-major-redesign …

Ranking US presidents, properly http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/25376-us-presidents-reconsidered-by-death-toll …

Contender for most idiotic comment of the century, future decades included: It's like the Beatles all in one person," http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/08/ted-cruz-for-president/375825/ …

The Black Album: http://www.buzzfeed.com/ethanhawke/boyhood-the-black-album …

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

What Ferguson Teaches Us: That Media Passivity is Service Journalism for the Powerful
By Reed Richardson

Boil it down; journalism tells you a story. Better yet, more of a story. Even better yet, more of a story clearly. What happened? Who did it? To whom? When? How? And why? As you move down that list, however, those questions get increasingly tougher. The press isn’t a judge or jury, of course. It can’t—and shouldn’t—presume guilt. Yet it can damn sure list the dramatis personae. Offer background. Give context. Tell you the stakes. There’s a bigger picture here it can—and should—say. Here’s how you can see it too.

Right now, there’s a big picture issue unfolding in Fergusion, Missouri. Lots of them, actually. The rampant militarization of the police, clear racial prejudice between white police and the mostly black citizenry it’s supposed to protect, rampant violations of the First Amendment. All of these. And a few intrepid journalists have put themselves on the front lines, literally, of these issues. Their coverage has been drawn back a curtain. They’ve re-awakened us to how broken our country still is in many places.

But theirs has been a rare bright light in an otherwise dark void. So much of the mainstream media has been treating the police killing of an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, and the protests that it has ignited, as a local story. That is, if they’ve covered it at all. And this speaks to a much larger, systemic problem within journalism.

It’s about the default mindset that colors much of the press. How it too often hesitates, vacillates, equivocates in the face of power. How it tells you this important detail in a way that obscures that one. That’s breaking the compact. That’s taking a side. Yes, this sometimes takes the form of a partisan bias. But most of the time, it’s simpler than that. Most of the time, when journalists pull their punches, it’s the status quo that gets the benefit of the doubt. The powerful already enjoy many advantages in this country. Count a too deferential, too credulous press corps among them.

This passivity manifests itself in ways big and small. To simply ignore a story—like the impending 2008 economic collapse—is one way. Routinely burying a story contradicting the conventional wisdom—like the case against WMDs in Iraq—is another. So is a heavy reliance on government sources—who trade their access for the chance to peddle anonymous spin and unverifiable scoops. And then there’s the granular level timidity that pollutes the language journalists use in their writing everyday.

The last of these can sometimes be the hardest to detect. It’s easy to develop a blind spot. Certain stilted turns of phrase, certain establishment-friendly narrative frames are so popular that journalists now employ them almost instinctively.

Case in point: this Fox TV news report on the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, in Ferguson, Missouri last Friday:

“A shooting in Ferguson has tensions riding high between residents and police. Saturday afternoon, a police involved shooting occurred at the Canfield Green apartment complex in the 2900 block of Canfield. A teenager was shot and killed. An officer from the Ferguson Police Departmentwas involved in the shooting.

 

At the request of the Ferguson Police Department, the St. Louis County Crimes Against Person Unit is taking over the investigation of the shooting. The police officer involved in the shooting has been put on paid administrative leave.” [emphasis mine]

 

On Twitter, Media Matters’ Jamison Foser made an astute observation about the counterfactual: “Hard to imagine a black guy killing a cop being described simply as ‘involved in the shooting.’ I’m sure it’s happened, but…” I called this ambiguous phrasing a shameless example of “passive voice” that distorts the truth.

Now, grammatically speaking, what I wrote wasn’t really accurate. Most of the highlighted sections above are not in the passive voice. And in my research for this post, I discovered linguistics professor Geoffrey Pullum, who routinely corrects these kinds of mistakes on his blog, Language Log. He’s even written a sort of anti-pedantry manifesto: “Fear and Loathing of the English Passive.” In it, he takes on George Orwell’s classic on clarity in writing “Politics and the English Language.” (In an ironic twist, Pullum calculates Orwell’s essay uses the passive one-and-a-half times more than the average writer.) In addition, Pullum carves up one of journalism holy scriptures, Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style.” Time and again, he cites examples of S&W unfairly maligning the passive voice.

Point taken. The passive voice gets a bad rap in journalism. Indeed, it can serve as a kind of red herring, a superficial standard that distracts the press from what it should really avoid: intellectual and narrative passivity. When reporting intentionally divorces actor from action; the who from the what, it puts distance between the reader and the story. Adopting the formless, gormless language of officialdom, which can deny agency and muddy the narrative, forces the reader to infer rather than be informed. It raises as many, if not more, questions than it answers. It risks misinterpretation. Who shot whom? All we’ll tell you is a police officer was involved.

To be clear, this wasn’t an isolated example. Plenty of news organizations adopted this same affected, procedural language when discussing Mike Brown’s death. One could argue this kind of phrasing is a harmless affectation. I disagree. Over time, this subtle, yet endemic bias toward the voice of authority functions like death by a thousand cuts. It drains stories of their novelty, while at the same time helping to mask a systemic problem, like unarmed black men being accosted and shot dead by white men or police with guns. Search the coverage of the deaths of Mike Brown or Trayvon Martin, or, from just this past Tuesday,Ezell Ford and you this familiar, ambiguous sentence in all three: “A struggle ensued.”

Sadly, this happens all too often across journalism. One of my pet peeves: the media’s preference for using the maladroit phrase “a gun went off” to describe accidental shootings. Absolving human error from the equation imbues these (often deadly) incidents with a natural disaster feel. As if we’re helpless in the face of the epidemic of gun deaths plaguing this country.

Similarly, when the New York Times changes a headline after the fact to be less clear about an Israeli airstrike, it speaks volumes about our national discomfort with challenging the foreign policy status quo. That was the case last month following a deadly attack in Gaza that left four boys dead. Within a few hours after publishing a story with this headline: “Four Young Boys Killed on Gaza Beach” the Times backtracked, and ran this sickeningly mealy-mouthed alternative instead: “Boys Drawn to Gaza Beach, and Into Center of Mideast Strife.” And while it’s true the Times has a reputation for loving these two-part headline constructions, there’s little doubt some editor felt the first version might provoke the paper’s powerful pro-Israel audience. So, ambiguity to the rescue!

Politicians and their pundit enablers do this all the time, of course. Ronald Reagan pioneered the use of the ne plus ultra of passive, gutless excuses—“mistakes were made”—nearly 30 years ago. As the Iraq war descended into chaos, George W. Bush embraced the phrase too. In fact, it’s become such a well-worn chestnut among the no accountability crowd in Washington that books have been written on it. And this compulsion to shirk blame and weasel out from under the truth is a hard habit to break, apparently. Just this week, Times columnist and war cheerleader David Brooks trotted out this surreal howler about Iraq: “The last four presidents have found themselves drawn into that nation…” That’s right, the most powerful country on the planet simply has no self-control when it comes to the prospect of bombing or invading a Middle East country. So much for American Exceptionalism.

Over in England, the BBC has a news platform, Newsround, aimed at children aged seven to 11. Back in 2006, after a gruesome school shooting here in the U.S.—which, tellingly, is all but forgotten by now—the network offered some editorial guidance on how to cover unsettling news for this audience. The solution? Strive for a kind of antiseptic, watered-down coverage by following these two important precepts: “don’t dwell on the details” and “use passive constructions.” So, as a helpful example, the guidance noted the BBC would report: “Five girls have died.” rather than “The man went in and shot five girls.” Sound familiar?

In other words, what would be considered infantilized news coverage by the BBC is what American news audiences are treated to everyday. This dumbing down and spiffing up of the news takes a toll. Each day, it slowly eats away at the truth and ever so slightly widens the chasm between the powerful and the powerless. Boil it down: journalism tells you a story. But the story’s not worth much if, by telling us more, it ends up saying less.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

The Mail

David Ellis
Northern California

Dear Mr. Richardson—Thank you for your article in The Nation [“High Price of Surveillance…”].

In Chalmers Johnson's book "Nemesis—The Last Days of the American Republic" he states the republic is failing because of the breakdown of constitutional law and militarization. I think government surveillance of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, without a court order, is a sign of the breakdown of constitutional law, a violation of the fourth amendment.

One thing that is totally absent from the great writers of our time, who provide marvelous descriptions of problems with our democracy and also provide well-thought-out solutions, is nobody writes a blow-by-blow, step-by-step, description of how to implement a solution. Since you are such a deep thinker and an articulate writer, perhaps you can change that long-time practice.

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