Call it what you will, the bottom line is the press – the objective, truth-seeking kind that we think of as the mainstream media – is failing American democracy to a far greater degree than the shills on cable TV or talk radio.
We see Bill O’Reilly and Al Franken for what they are: partisans with varying degrees of professional integrity and few journalistic skills or ethics. We flock to them for information that confirms our own views.
But we turn to the mainstream media with some hope of objectivity, some hope that we’ll get the facts we need to make an informed opinion.
The CBS memo scandal undermines that hope, but Philip Gourevitch, who writes books about issues largely ignored or abandoned by the press, suggests the mainstream press following the candidates are failing us to a much greater degree than we might realize.
“A presidential election is a like a gigantic moving television show,” he said. It is the extreme opposite of an overlooked event.
The show takes place inside a bubble, which is a security perimeter overseen by the Secret Service. The bubble is a physical thing: a threshold your body crosses. If you are part of the traveling press corps, sticking with the candidate through the swing states, then you have to be swept–screened for weapons and explosives–or you cannot be on the bus. If you go outside the bubble for any reason, you become a security risk until you are screened again by hand.
But just as real, and interacting with the security bubble, is another kind, more akin to a thought bubble above a cartoon character’s head.
“The press moving as a pack confirms its own take on things,” Gourevitch said. (That’s as well as I have heard anyone put it.) There are many names for this take. It’s called pack journalism. Conventional wisdom. The herd mentality. The script. The frame. Master narrative. It’s the story you agree to accept because it tells you and everybody else what you (and everybody else) are doing on the bus.
Cheesy package tour. That was Gourevitch’s first impression about traveling with the campaigns. You sign up. You get on the bus. It hits all the major sights. Crowds of people get off at each one. Then they get back on. The campaigns tell you what the schedule is. The campaigns tell you where the pick up will be. The campaigns feed you, get you to the airport, take you from the airport.
“Right there they have you,” Gourevitch told our crowd of about 50 journalism students and faculty. “Outside the bubble you cannot go because then you’re dirty again and have to be checked by the Secret Service.” Under these conditions, he said, “no spontaneous reporting is possible.”
You cannot jump into the crowd with an audio recorder and find out why those people were chanting what they were chanting before they were shown away by security guards. Accepting this limitation–a big one–becomes part of the bubble.
It must have struck Gourevitch at a certain point that he had seen these conditions before: in the captive press of other countries he had reported from. For if the people on it do not have freedom of movement, in what sense is the campaign bus the carrier of a free press? The reporters who travel with the candidates come close to being captives in a “campaign machine,” as Gourevitch several times called it.
“There’s a lot of fear in the press,” he said. Fear of editors, of audiences, of losing access, feeling isolated, being out of step. “Part of the problem for the campaign press is, this is your social world”– which is a different kind of bubble. Journalists hang out with journalists and politicos. They marry each other, and many are also wedded to the game, to politics. These are just factors, he said. Atmospherics that favor outcomes but cause nothing to happen.
The Note calls them the Gang of 500. I say tribe. Gourevitch tended to say pack. The pack way is not a form of journalism, really. It’s a state of mind that competes with journalism. Sometimes what people in their occupation most want is not to look like a jerk in front of peers. Not to be the one who gets caught out. Bigger factor than you think, he said. Especially around George W. Bush, but not only then.
Gourevitch said the President was a master of school yard bullying disguised as amusing banter (to which no one can object without sounding like a prig.) “Which means we laugh at his cruelty,” he said. A lot of reporters, including many liberal journalists, “have a weird fatalism about the election– that Bush and the Republicans just know how to do all this.”
The excerpts above from a post by Jay Rosen, whose Press Think blog provides one of the most thoughtful – if protracted — insights on today’s news media, has much more on Gourevitch’s talk to NYU journalism students. I recommend the entire piece.
Gourevitch also confirms a point I’ve made before.
I’ve heard from a number of people – usually those criticizing my references to the latest campaign scandal – saying that I should be more concerned about the important, overarching issues of the day. But when scratching the surface of some of these criticisms, I find little interest in learning about theses issues. They sometimes seems interested in only hearing “discussion” that confirms there own prejudices. In short, the point that Gourevitch confirms is that the principal enemy to an informed discussion is us. We’re not considered too smart or curious enough to tolerate the ways of the wonk.
[Journalists] feel the answers to most policy questions require a language and knowledge base “that are essentially the property of elites.” That is why there is limited interest in issues that connect to our troubles.
Gourevitch believes that nobody involved in the system wants included in presidential campaigning–at this stage–the kind of engaged and informed debate that would tax the viewer, cause the readers eyes to glaze over, repel the listener, push buttons in the wrong voters, screw up the schedule. The candidates, the staffs, and the press all have their reasons–stated and never stated–for maintaining a “pretend” discussion.
Sure, the press may think they’re the elite, but we accept the “’pretend’ discussion” because if we didn’t – if we really wanted analyses of issues, the media would give it to us. After all, whatever it takes to increase circulation or subscribers is what media companies will deliver.
How do we do that? I have no silver bullets. But with email so convenient, it seems it would make sense that we at least fire one off, with some regularity, to the top editors or ombudsmen at media companies asking for such coverage. We could alert our friends to the few good articles on issues they should read. And we should thank the media that provides the coverage we’re looking for.
But if we ask but don’t read, plead but don’t watch, their numbers will show it, and we’ll go back to coverage from lazy elitists behind drawn curtains on the campaign bus.