The new journalism

This is a bit of a diversion from my usual posts, but I think it's important. Jay Rosen recently wrote a ripper article dismantling many of the ways that political journalists tend to distort, rather than promote, quality political debate.

Going far beyond a typical analysis of left and right bias, Jay identifies six pathologies of political journalists (PJs).

I actually believe most of these pathological behaviors can be linked to a single source. Observe:

  1. PJs are paid to be unerringly savvy in interpreting political events. By extension, this implies that they must understand "the truth" better than others.
  2. PJs constantly try to prove that they have no agenda and serve no other master. This is necessary to prove their savviness (see #1), since bias clouds objectivity.
  3. Since PJs cannot have a point of view of their own (#2), or uncritically accept another's point of view (#1), they must always report on multiple points of view, no matter how rare or wingnut these alternate points of view may be.
  4. Because identifying one of the multiple points of view (#3) as "correct" would open the PJ to charges of having an agenda (#2), they must demonstrate their understanding of "the truth" (#1) by reporting the debate about the issue, rather than reporting on the issue itself.
  5. Any points of view not explicitly catered for in the analysis about the debate (#4) become unreportable, since including them would open the PJ up to charges of not knowing "the truth" (#1), having an agenda (#2), or being a poor journalist (#3). Memorably termed the "sphere of deviance" by Jay, this most commonly occurs when the major political parties disagree with each other, providing the required multiple viewpoints and thus framing the terms of the debate.

The unfortunate upshot of all this is that "hard hitting journalism" becomes "gotcha" reporting, where those involved in the debate can only keep their credibility by parroting the viewpoint the PJ aligns them with. Any change from their initial point of view becomes a "backflip" or a "broken promise"; misquoting a fact from memory makes them "ill informed" or "incompetent". The worst thing is that the existence of this kind of reporting by the PJ class stifles debate in all forums. Even genuine questions get batted away with a rote response if there is any chance of the answer being reported by the PJ class as showing "conflicting views within the party".

I actually believe that the influence of political journalists is on the decline, and that politicians need to start trusting the electorate to evaluate the debate on their own terms. This won't be easy though because any politician who ignores or attacks a PJ is striking at their very core of self-belief, in the PJ's mind demonstrating a lack of respect for "the truth". Ironically the one thing that is likely to produce a merciless attack from a PJ is when someone questions whether they are discharging their duty the right way.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (who guards the guardians)

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