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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Friday, March 18, 2005

Defining journalistic ethics into submission

Journalism, like politics, is a necessary evil. And, like politics, it is every bit as evil as it is necessary.

One aspect of this evil is that, unlike other callings - plumbing and interior decoration, for instance - both journalism and politics have as core activities the manipulation of message [1].

And both - but journalism more stridently - deny that very plain and obvious fact.

But they have fall-back positions. When admissions prove impossible to avoid - Jayson Blair, for instance - they are carefully tailored to limit the damage, and, at all costs, protect the citadel [2].

Armstrong Williams is Jayson Blair II. Another Bad Nigger whose vice was not leisure but lucre; a Victorian melodrama villain in garish slap. And didn't the DEWDROPs boo and hiss like goodun's?

All misdirection, of course.

Consider motive and method:

The motive of media companies is profit (we know that the business of America is business - they are merely avoiding being un-American!) and subservience to USG (of whichever stripe [3]) is best for growing shareholder value.

The main motive of journalists is career progression: there are plenty of outlets for strenuous opposition, but most political journos aspire to the Times or the Post. To be identified as an oppositional hack not the best thing, since both rags are trying to narrow the bias target presented to their enemies. But avoiding a Brent Bozell-style barrage of orchestrated complaints also counts for something (even Dana Priest mentioned complaints in the Michael Massing piece of two years ago).

As to method, the toolbox for dealing with inconvenient news a paper simply can't ignore is jam-full: burying inside is a favourite; putting inconvenient elements in the inside jump; surrounding with a bodyguard of anonymice; false equivalence; semantics.

The most powerful tool is the foremost artefact of news: with time, it stops being news. It's not only old men who forget. If the story drops off the front page, then ipso facto it has ceased to be a story. It has been buried literally - in the morgue [4].

(The strange death of the bankruptcy bill as a story is notable.)

The fact that journalism can be radically corrupt with nary a brown envelope changing hands is not something the media would be delighted to have widely believed.

When some day it may happen
That a victim must be found,
I've got a little list...

Can some day be long postponed?

  1. I'd stipulate to their being plenty of manipulative plumbers around. But it is possible to practice plumbing without manipulating messages. Not so, politics or journalism.

  2. Blair the perfect scapegoat: all the sins of journalism assimilated to Blair's filing reports datelined Outer Mongolia from the comfort of his Lay-Z-Boy. Like Newsweek darkening OJ Simpson's skin when they put his photo on its cover, Blair was appointed by the media as the guy qui tollis peccata mundi. (He was the Bad Nigger stereotype that still proves so useful, even in these days when it cannot speak its name.)

  3. Explain the Clinton press crusade, then! Taken from Daniel Hallin's Uncensored War (p115ff): in objective journalism, still the model today, though followed with less devotion, there are there three spheres: the Sphere of Consensus, in which the journalists are advocates (democracy, say, or freedom of speech); the Sphere of Deviance, as occupied once by Communists and now by Islamists, against which journalists are advocates; and, in between, the Sphere of Legitimate Controversy, in which journalists are stenographers.

    With Clinton, the executive and (part of the) legislative branch were at war, so, between these equally legitimate actors, the media interpleaded.

  4. Is morgue still used by hacks for their papers' archives? They certainly act like it.


The foregoing inspired by a Philly Inquirer piece.

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