Where on this graph would you put most political coverage:
It comes from a speech Why Political Coverage is Broken by Jay Rosen who explains the grid:
Bottom left: Appearances rendered as fact. Example: the media stunt.
Top left: Phony arguments. Manufactured controversies. Sideshows.
Bottom right: Today’s new realities: get the facts. The actual news of politics.
Top right. Real arguments: Debates, legitimate controversies, important speeches.
It is much easier to cover stunts and sideshows than to report and seriously analyse real news, debates, legitimate controversies and important speeches.
Rosen blames this on what he calls three impoverished ideas: politics as an inside game; the cult of savviness and the production of innocence.
The inside game is :
When journalists define politics as a game played by the insiders, their job description becomes: find out what the insiders are doing to “win.” Reveal those tactics to the public because then the public can… well, this is where it gets dodgy. As my friend Todd Gitlin once wrote, news coverage that treats politics as an insiders’ game invites the public to become “cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement,” which is strange. Or it lavishes attention on media performances, because the insiders are supposed to be good at that: manipulating the media . . .
He explains the cult of savviness as:
In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane. Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.)
Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political. And what is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Or knowing who the winners are . . .
. . . Now in order for this belief system to operate effectively, it has to continually position the journalist and his observations not as right where others are wrong, or virtuous where others are corrupt, or visionary where others are short-sighted, but as practical, hardheaded, unsentimental, and shrewd where others are didactic, ideological, and dreamy. This is part of what’s so insidious about press savviness: it tries to hog political realism to itself.
But even more insidious than that is the positioning effect . . .
On the production of innocence he says:
. . . I mean ways of reporting the news that try to advertise or “prove” to us that the press is neutral in its descriptions, a non-partisan presenter of facts, a non-factor and non-actor in events. Innocence means reporters are mere recorders, without stake or interest in the matter at hand. They aren’t responsible for what happens, only for telling you about it. When you hear, “don’t shoot the messenger” you are hearing a journalist declare his or innocence . . .
Rosen uses examples from the USA and Australia but it wouldn’t be hard to find many here too.
But he doesn’t only identify problems, he has a better idea for political reporting, based on the grid above:
My suggestion is to report appearances as just that: mere appearances. Which would be a way of jeering at them, labelling them as not quite real. So the appearances section would be heavy on satire and simple quotation. . .
Appearances, then, means downgrading or penalizing politicians who deal in the fake, the trivial, the merely sensational. In other words: “watch out or you’ll wind up in the appearances column.”
Under realities we find everything that is actually about real problems, real solutions, real proposals, consequential plans and of course events that deserve the title: political events. This is the political news proper, cured of what Tanner calls the sideshow .
But then there’s my other axis. Arguments and facts. Both are important, both are a valid part of politics . . .
. . . Now imagine all of today’s political news and commentary sorted into these four quadrants. This becomes the new portal to political news. Appearances and realities, arguments and facts. To render the political world that way, journalists would have to exercise their judgment about what is real and what is not. And this is exactly what would bring them into proper alignment with our needs as citizens.
We have some very good political journalism in New Zealand which treats appearances and arguments for what they’re worth and deals seriously with realities and facts.
But we’d all be better served and informed if there was a lot more of that.
Hat Tips: Dim Post and Larvatus Prodeo.