Innocence abroad

13 Aug

Over at PressThink, Jay Rosen writes:

Alongside the production of news and commentary American journalists working in mainstream newsrooms have to continuously reproduce their own innocence. By ‘innocence’ I mean some kind of public showing that they have no politics themselves, no views of their own, no side, no stake, no ideology and therefore no one can accuse them of unfairly tilting the news this way or that.

This has come up in connection with Gaza: in particular, in connection with two tweets sent out by the Associated Press a couple of weeks ago. The first read:

The second, embarrassed, one came a few hours later:

The language has been hastily cleared up: the faint appearance of commentary expunged. As Rosen says:

The original header produced the news well enough but it failed to produce enough innocence for the AP. “Many U.S. lawmakers strongly back Israel…” is not more true than “they fall over themselves.” But it is more innocent. When the switch is made the AP feed suffers a loss of vivid. Its colors wilt. There is less voice, less urgency in the language. And the AP willingly pays this cost.

Why does it pay that cost? Because American media is different. In a newspaper culture partly defined by the vastness of the continent, US newspapers are frequently regional monopolies or part of metropolitan duopolies, operating as bipartisan fair dealers for readers of all political hues. There are almost no true “nationals”, so conceived; American papers are branded and differentiated by region, not politics. As Rosen says:

In the American setting media bias is a driver in politics, and culture war is where some people go to live. A major provider like the AP gets hit hard in the bias wars, so the principle, don’t give them ammunition! has to be built into its routines. That’s the production of innocence.

In Britain, with 22 newspapers all vying for attention in a country slightly smaller than Michigan, national distribution and monopoly status are not a problem, but differentiation is. So the market has been segmented by attitude, not region. Your paper is the one that shares your views, not your place of residence.

So, in America the culture war is waged outside the mainstream media, via new conduits – cable news, talk radio, political websites. But in Britain, the mainstream media is the culture war. The Guardian fights with the Telegraph and the Mail and Murdoch; the Telegraph (increasingly staffed by Mail veterans), fights with the Guardian and the Independent; the Sun fights with the Mirror; the Mirror fights with the Sun and the Mail.

There is no compunction about this. Everyone in Britain knows that papers are rightwing or leftwing; everyone understands that, to grasp the full UK news agenda, you need to take a conspectus of what all the papers say (or have the BBC do it for you). There is no “innocence”. But that doesn’t mean that British newspapering is unreliable – or, at least, that’s not the reason why it is.

American journalism, as Rosen indicates, is on the retreat in the bias wars, accused by the new-media right of leaning institutionally to the left. This is a vast lie: to quote HeadsUp, it is logically incoherent to claim that “the presence of a right-wing media outlet in a dyad makes the other outlet ‘liberal'”. It’s also a very unlikely charge to make against a trade as formalised and scrutinised as US newspapering. The only reason the lie gains any traction is because of the area in which all media outlets struggle not to be partial: the issue of story selection.

Reporters are never expected to be equally interested in everything. They specialise. They become immersed in defence, sport, economics, the environment, and their engagement with their subjects is what make them valuable. As they move up the ladder to the newsdesk and the editor’s office, their interests and priorities travel with them. And editing is about judgment, response and discernment; it is never rigidly judicial. It’s impossible to pretend to yourself that you care about Britney Spears more than the Middle East if you don’t. If talks are reopening over Syria and you’re short of space, then the showbiz piece bites the dust. Everyone is naturally biased for or against celebrity stories, foreign stories, crime stories, policy stories – and political stories too.

Imagine that you are coming out of morning conference with two equally spectacular exclusives: the abysmal neglect of war veterans with injuries on the one hand, and evidence of shocking violence towards prisoners by the same armed forces on the other. Walter Reed and Abu Ghraib on the same day.  Only one of them can lead page one. Which one will it be? Whichever way you decide to go, bias for or against the military – and, by direct implication, bias to the right or left – will be perceived from the moment you make the decision.

This, Rosen suggests, is all new to American journalism. Of the several questions he asks himself after the AP Twitter incident, one of them is:

Q. 6 Let’s say you junk the innocence machinery. What gets put in its place? (My bet: “here’s where we’re coming from” + make a good argument + high standards of verification beats the old system.)

He’s right. But he doesn’t have to bet, and he doesn’t have to wonder what gets put in innocence’s place. He can just look at Fleet Street.

The way post-innocence journalism works, at its best, is this: the news list is biased, but the articles are not. Once your organisation’s political preferences have dictated which story goes on the front, that story, once written, will be impeccable. It will contain documentary evidence, well-sourced quotes, pre-publication legal editing and an authentic right of reply.  The news editor will enforce that on the reporter; the subs’ desk will enforce it on the news desk; and the editor will enforce it on everyone. All those people will be empowered to raise objections; some of them will be empowered to stop the story outright. Everyone involved will remember that nothing is more potentially dangerous to a paper than a story it wants to be true.

British readers are untroubled by a newspaper’s partisan loyalties. Of course the Mirror wants to yell about fat cat pay, we think; of course the Mail always flies into a rage about NHS waste. In the hypothesis above, to no one’s surprise, the Guardian would splash on Abu Ghraib and the Telegraph on Walter Reed. A paper’s underlying motivations are taken as read: the quality of the story is the only thing that matters. We don’t care where the story is “coming from”; we only care that it can back up its claims.

You can be partial in what you choose to write about, but not in how you choose to write it.

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9 Responses to “Innocence abroad”

  1. Picky August 17, 2014 at 2:22 pm #

    Yes, although the picture you paint of the British press more or less ignores that substantial part of it which is regional or local, and which operates on a similar basis to the Americans.

    http://www.newspapersoc.org.uk/top-ten-facts-about-local-media

    • edlatham August 17, 2014 at 3:00 pm #

      Yes, good point. I suppose everywhere has a local press, and then some kind of media apparatus for cultural discourse overlaid on top.

  2. Poicky August 17, 2014 at 5:14 pm #

    The other point I would make is this. The story that alleges that some poor chap in GCHQ is charged daily with reading my emails; or on the other hand the story that assures me that countless thousand east Europeans are heading my way so as to enjoy the benefits of British A&E; those stories may be individually as accurate as human hand can fashion them . Added together over a period of time they become a sort of lie, though, don’t they?

    • edlatham August 17, 2014 at 6:39 pm #

      Oh, do you think? I’ve always felt that it was the untrue stories that poisoned the well – the straight-banana Brussels stories and the like, with their well-known capacity for getting halfway round the world. I’ve always felt the true ones won’t let you down?

      • Picky August 18, 2014 at 12:50 pm #

        Yes, but we’ve decided to cross our fingers and ignore the Banana People haven’t we – we’re imagining a world in which the story is impeccably written. In that world I could (sufficiently resourced) find a story a day about some cock-up or catastrophe somewhere in the NHS, all of them true, and print them. The unstated unproven concomitant (the lie) would be that the NHS, reeling from the government’s cuts, is about to collapse. Or I could by examining the bureaucratic tomfoolery of the European Union find a story a day, all of them true, about the latest bit of ineptitude. The unstated unproven concomitant (the lie) would be that we are ruled by a bunch of Napoleonic idiots in Brussels out to destroy Tunbridge Wells. See what I mean?

        To what extent can we trust ourselves to reliable respond day after day, year after year, “Oh yes, but that’s just the pinko Tribune” or “just the Torygraph” when the Tribune or the Torygraph is the only paper to pop through our letterbox? And should we have to? Or, if we are imagining the perfect world in which the Banana People have somehow vanished, would it not be better to be as tedious but well-meaning as the AP?

      • edlatham August 18, 2014 at 2:04 pm #

        Yes, it’s true – ‘silo’ news has always been a problem for British newspaper readers, and it’s only going to get worse: online technology makes it very easy to only get the news you want to read.

        But what I was really trying to say about tediously well-meaning outfits like AP and the BBC is that, though they strive to be unbiased, they can’t be. The simple choice about whether to run a news item on a subject is a political one when part of the row is about whether there should be a debate at all.

        For example, the BBC has decided – to my chagrin as a thoroughgoing pinko – that concern over immigration is legitimate and is giving airtime to rightwing organisations that I find distasteful. On the other hand – to my pinko gratification – it will not offer a serious platform to anyone who wants to bring the death penalty back, even though there is polling data to suggest that such a policy has considerable public support. As it tries to steer a centrist course, it veers to the left on some issues and on the right on others; it can’t help it. That’s why the Great Fox Lie was able to take root.

        But you’re right: there are large potential problems with both systems. I only hope I haven’t been foolishly ignoring the threat facing Tunbridge Wells.

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