Towards A Good Samaritan World

Tuesday, February 15, 2005


An old topic, I know, but a new spin, I hope...

Here is the haunting conclusion of the New Yorker's very interesting recent article on "Why Is Everyone Mad at the Mainstream Media":

Journalism that is inquisitive and intellectually honest, that surprises and unsettles, didn’t always exist. There is no law saying that it must exist forever, and there are political and business interests that would be better off if it didn’t exist and that have worked hard to undermine it. This is what journalists in the mainstream media are starting to worry about: what if people don’t believe in us, don’t want us, anymore?

I can't agree with this characterization of the mainstream media: it distorts, it is blinded by its own agenda, and outlets like the NYT rarely surprise. I've mentioned before that I now find it difficult to read the mainstream media at all, and it's not necessarily a good thing. All I see is mediocrity overlaid with bias.

Consider two articles covering the results of the Iraqi elections. Here's "Postelection Optimism Ebbing in Iraq," from the LA Times. The story features a number of quotes from Iraqis, including this one:

"Since the elections, the situation is not so good," said Rasha Mohammed Jassim, 23, a teacher interviewed in Baqubah, a site of frequent clashes between insurgents and U.S. troops over the last year. On Friday a bomb hidden in a vegetable cart and apparently directed at Shiite pilgrims killed 21 people in a village outside the town, underscoring Jassim's sense of omnipresent peril.

"We long for the good old days of Saddam [Hussein], when we could go out at night and see our friends, and not be afraid of car bombs or the Americans," she said. "But those days are not coming back."

In the first part of the article, reporting about violence is mixed with a few neutral and some negative quotes. It creates the impression that Rasha speaks for most Iraqis. Then, near the end, there are a lot of the positive, inspiring quotes that are so familiar to those of us who read the Iraqi blogosphere. The quotes at the end cast a different light on the earlier neutral quotes, some of which were spun to seem negative only by being embedded with facts about bombs and the like. It's a cheap trick: journalists figure readers won't read to the end. Still, I have a feeling this kind of thing doesn't work anymore.

The other is the WaPo's "Iraq Winners Are the Opposite of US Vision," which argues:

When the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq two years ago, it envisioned a quick handover to handpicked allies in a secular government that would be the antithesis of Iran's theocracy -- potentially even a foil to Tehran's regional ambitions.

But, in one of the greatest ironies of the U.S. intervention, Iraqis instead went to the polls and elected a government with a strong religious base -- and very close ties to the Islamic republic next door. It is the last thing the administration expected from its costly Iraq policy -- $300 billion and counting, U.S. and regional analysts say.

Who is she trying to fool? Everyone knows by now that Sistani is a genuine democrat who does not aspire to Iranian-style theocracy. We want a free and democratic Iraq; we don't mind if it has a more religious flavor than our own society. As news analysis, this is incompetent.

But I'm a conservative, and conservatives respect tradition, and the MSM is a tradition, so I should find something nice to say about it. And it's not too hard.

The LA Times journalist moved the positive quotes to the back of the article, giving the reader who skims the beginning, or reads the headline, a false impression. But the quotes are still there. The journalist gives the other side the ammo to refute his own spin, right there in the article. Likewise with the WaPo article. The only quotes she gives from Iraqis completely belie the thrust of her article. Thus:

Adel Abdul Mahdi, who is a leading contender to be prime minister, reiterated yesterday that the new government does not want to emulate Iran. "We don't want either a Shiite government or an Islamic government," he said on CNN's "Late Edition." "Now we are working for a democratic government. This is our choice."

Why do these journalists report quotes that refute their spin? A blogger wouldn't do that. He would report the quotes that made his point. I'm not buying into the myth that bloggers are "partisan." On the contrary, I find that bloggers usually develop their own, subtle, mixed positions that don't conform to standard partisan lines: this blog, for example, is right-wing on most issues but far-left on immigration. A blogger might report positive and negative quotes because he was making a subtle point, like "amidst the joy of liberation, there's an undertoe of nostalgia for the order that tyranny provided." But he would report quotes to make their point.

I was editor-in-chief of a newspaper in grad school, and one takeaway from the experience was that journalistic "objectivity" is a preposterous charade that drove me batty. What's the first thing a high-school writing instructor will tell you. You have to have a thesis. It gets the reader's interest. It tells them why they should read. It determines the relevance and role of every sentence in the essay. The question in reporting was: to have a thesis or not to have a thesis? No thesis meant a formless agglomeration of facts. But a thesis was a bias, a spin, an angle, a slant, an opinion-- the opposite of objectivity.

But however spurious its philosophical motivation, the ethos of journalistic objectivity may engender certain merits in writing. Media bias is clumsy and transparent enough to be ineffectual. Old mainstream journalists are too clueless to realize when the quotes they're including refute their own headlines.

There's something at once admirable and pathetic about these dying traditions. Like the tsar personally taking command of the Russian troops at the end of World War I.

[UPDATE: I might as well extend this analogy. The Orthodox priests in early 20th-century Russia were much less clever than the intelligentsia, and were no match for their reasoning. Yet they were the carriers of a truth far more worthy than anything the intelligentsia possessed. That the blogosphere is cleverer than Big Media doesn't necessarily mean it's on the right track...

I also thought of an analogy for Big Media bias. I was climbing a mountain in the Czech Republic once. A beautiful place, but infested with flies. They weren't bad when you kept moving, but as soon as you sat down they swarmed you. I wanted to eat my lunch, but every time I stopped, the flies gathered and I got up again. Finally I had to eat my lunch despite the flies. They were so annoying that I hardly got any enjoyment out of a very tasty sandwich. But I still managed to eat it. Media bias is a bit like the flies: it's terribly annoying, you have to fight it off all the time, and it takes all the enjoyment out of reading the news; but it probably doesn't do any permanent damage.]


  • Funny - since I rarely read anything less than the whole article (usually searching in vain for something more incisive than a series of quotes and counter-quotes) I tend to assume that writers leave the "last word" to whichever side s/he tends to support*.

    * If any - I frequently tend to doubt the reporter cares -- or knows -- enough to have much of a slant.

    By Blogger Nato, at 9:47 PM  

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