The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The Joy of Stenography: there's a reason why it's all over

There's a lot of good stuff over at CJR Daily (the erstwhile Campaign Desk - confusingly, the URL has stayed the same) and it gets regularly linked here (what greater honour?).

But there is a certain Pollyanna-ish tinge to the amply-justified scepticism that would be touching in a high school publication, but is annoying in the work of adults.

For example, yesterday there was a piece by Susan Stranahan [1] on an upcoming Bush trip to Madison County, IL to boost tort reform. Stranahan complains that the coverage has been stenographical.

To which the instinctive reaction is, Amen, sister!

But at least two reasons explain why it is so:

First, the journos given the story almost certainly have no expertise or specialist knowledge about the subject. They would be unable to offer an opinion on their own recognizance without weeks of hard research, for which the time and budget are simply not available.

(Not so with the Big Three - NYT, Post, LAT - one would suppose - Stranahan doesn't cite coverage from any of those. Did they deploy specialists?)

Stenography - to review briefly - is designed to achieve two main goals:
  1. to minimise the cost of coverage (by using off-the-rack general political reporters, not specialists); and

  2. to minimise the waste of management, editor and journalist time by enabling the inevitable barrage of complaints from pols and spinners to be answered with boilerplate replies.

It's a business strategy, employed for sound reasons.

A further, more nebulous, element is reader appeal: like most political issues - relating to prescription drug benefit, say, or social security 'reform' - those surrounding tort reform require a good deal of political savvy and hard work seriously to get to grips with. (I haven't made the attempt on tort reform, for example, but I'd be counting on investing at least half a man-week's work.)

There is no evidence that readers wish to make that sort of investment in any issue currently in contention. Not even the war in Iraq that's maimed or killed 10,000 Americans - and counting.

Newspaper editors don't get paid to conduct adult education courses; but, even if they were, courses on tort reform would be pretty sparsely attended!

I'm not convinced it was ever much different: I'd be looking for studies of the US public's investment of time in the news of the war during World War 2 (the closest to total war - or total anything - that the US has got, at least in living memory) and the level of comprehension that resulted from such an investment. Despite the censorship regime of the time, an enormous amount of information on the war was made available: how many followed Stalingrad or Monte Cassino with any great study [2]?

What we get instead is stenography and talking-points. Talking points fill up dead air (the Prime Directive of cable TV news, of course) without the need of anyone talking to them needing the least bit of knowledge of the subject at hand. Fatuous, certainly; boring, inevitably.

But the cure of choice is switching channels. If the shout shows kicked out the Rentamouths and substituted folks who knew whereof they spoke, would the viewers really stay to get wised up?

I think not. (Though I'd be delighted to be proved wrong.)

  1. That is, Susan Q Stranahan dans le texte: how many journos are there called Susan Stranahan, for crying out loud? And - quick question - what does the Q stand for?

  2. In pre-war and wartime Britain, one notes the existence of a particular class who embraced political education - names like the Left Book Club, Penguin Specials, the WEA, the Army Bureau of Current Affairs are redolent - and who supposedly were the vanguard before the multitudes that swept Labour to electoral victory in July 1945. But how many? A few hundreds of thousands at the very most - LBC membership peaked around 50k, from memory: that was before the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, I'll be bound!

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