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The number – and story – of the Beast

Acerbic media critic and NYU journalism prof Jay Rosen (PressThink and Assignment Zero) says right out loud what most thinking journalists merely, well, think: our campaign coverage sucks and it’s nobody’s fault but our own. Our horse-race approach to election coverage yields a diet of ‘news’ that is shallow, misleading and quite often ends up being just plain wrong. Meanwhile critical issues about power and policy, about right and wrong, and often about life and death, go unexamined, unreported, and so remain out of the public sphere precisely at the moment when the public has a voice in those issues and desperately needs information. 
It’s not a new complaint — and it’s one often voiced by members of the political press themselves — but Rosen’s piece goes deeper than complaining, and takes a run at explaining what seems like mindless behaviour: we all know it’s wrong, but we do it over and over and over.

"By mindless I generally mean: No one’s in charge, or “the process” is. Conventional forms thrive, even if few believe they work. Routines master people. The way it’s been done “chooses” the way it shall be done."

Rosen points to some of the usual reasons: fear (of missing ‘the’ story), arrogance (believing we have some special expertise or knowledge about politics) and a convergence of judgement among journalists on the campaign trail.
But then he makes an insightful addition to our understanding of the problem: we focus so much on "pre-empting" the voter’s decision because it’s the only safe thing to do, the only easy way we can maintain our distance from the process, and cling to our much-vaunted objectivity.

He points to an exception, a Boston Globe feature
that quizzed candidates on the limits of the executive branch power ( a
critical issue given the recent abrogation of executive power
undertaken by Bush and Cheney ). But the piece is, inevitably, both a
journalistic AND a political act. And that is a scary thing for many.
The post is well worth the read – it’s rich in context and links and certainly thought-provoking.
My only suggestion is that he has perhaps missed another, critical,
reason we (and especially the US media) cover politics as sport: it’s
the narrative.

(Whoops. Wrong again – Jay covered this off very ably in a post on the "Master Narrative" back in Sept 2003. Well worth reading.)

It is impossible to underestimate the importance of narrative in
shaping our society, our lives and our understanding of our world. As
much as we are social animals, or tool-using animals, humans are story
tellers. We are hard-wired to construct meaning by constructing
And much of the pack behaviour of the political press is an attempt to
find the narrative, the story of the campaign that will give it
meaning. Politicians understand this well and they struggle mightily to
build their story during a campaign, and to link it to the one story
that Americans seem powerless to resist – the story of themselves.
It is that story, the story of the candidate, the story of the race,
that voters are harkening to when they mark their ballots. Not a
detailed understanding of the issues or even one issue, but which story
they want to be the American story for the next four years. No amount
of logic or analysis or intellectual rigor will alter this.
Ironically the shallow stories the boys (and girls) on the bus chase so
hard end up shaping that over-arching story and determining how people
will vote. So the refuge of objectivity, of distance, is once again
shown to be a sham and the story-telling an overt political act.
I’ll close with another quote from Rosen:

There’s nothing to prevent these rules from being changed, of course.
Nothing, except for the fact that the media has no mind and so can’t
easily change it.

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