Tuesday, October 04, 2005

A Different Breed

Cindi Ross Scope has laid bare the soul of modern journalism, and generally speaking, she's rapturously happy with what she sees. A self-avowed conservative, she begins by praising her own journalistic objectivity, which she says has led some readers to believe that she's a liberal. Oddly, she immediately undercuts her point by categorizing these readers as rare and misguided. "You're in the minority." she says, "And you're wrong." That'll learn 'em. You go, girl!

We've heard a lot of complaints about journalism lately, but Scoppe offers us a compendium of journalistic errancy that makes St. Augustine sound like Michael Brown.

We journalists have our share of faults....We are independent, fiercely competitive and suspicious of secrecy, and we tend to distrust and even disdain authority — characteristics that suit us well for digging out corruption but can make us act like petty children where none exists....And yes, as a group we do tend to be more socially and politically liberal than our communities. And yes, this does show up in our news coverage.
Harsh words, eh? Is there anyone in America, besides Scoppe, who, if asked to name the top three problems with the American media, would say "Their independence, their distrust of secrecy, and their disdain for authority"? Personally, I'm less troubled by these phantasms than by the trade's maudlin penchant for romanticizing itself, even as it approaches the nadir of corruption and cowardice.

To be fair, Scoppe recognizes that journalists have other faults...such as a blind, inborn distrust of Christian fundamentalism:
The concept of a "born-again Christian" was foreign to the faith traditions in which most journalists grew up (if they grew up in any), and so official journalism is distrustful of anyone who calls himself one.
In my view, it's somewhat irresponsible to use idle speculation about the religious upbringing of "most journalists" as proof of a de facto anti-born-again bias in "official journalism"; I'd argue that Scoppe's assuming a fact not in evidence in order to support a myth. At any rate, one would like to see some actual statistics to back up either side of Scoppe's claim. Otherwise, it sounds a bit like Scoppe is unwittingly presenting a prettified, sanitized version of the old claim that Jews run the media.

In approaching the next section, I'm reminded of a line from the Fall's Impression of J. Temperance: "The next bit is hard to relate/The newborn thing hard to describe." I'll do my best to describe the changeling in Scoppe's cradle, but I suspect it'll prove to be beyond my powers.
When news coverage comes across as tone-deaf to much of middle America, it's largely due to these types of limitations. To get an idea of what I'm talking about, think of President Bush's initial bumbling response to Hurricane Katrina, which grew out of his unfamiliarity with poverty rather than any animosity toward black people.
Are you perfectly clear on this? We're talking here about the reasons why journalists come across as tone-deaf to Middle America. Hold fast to this straw, friends, for the deluge is upon us.
You'd never guess this by listening to journalism's ideologically driven critics on the right, of course. To hear them talk, journalists all have a simple agenda — to skewer Republicans and promote Democrats and liberal causes....And so it has become the lens through which many Republicans view the media, taking offense when we subject Republicans to scrutiny but not seeming to notice when we treat Democrats the same way.
Alright, then. If I understand Scoppe properly, official journalists are generally distrustful of born-again Christianity, which limits their comprehension of Middle American concerns. This distrust and tone-deafness is the cause of, or is at least similar to, their alleged tendency to accuse Bush of racism, rather than explaining that he's an overprivileged incompetent who can't be bothered to educate himself about poverty in America, despite being the person who's in charge of dealing with it.

For their part, critics on the right fail to understand that journalists are working under these cognitive limitations; they assume that all journalists are actively trying to destroy Republicans, little suspecting that journalists simply have inherent blind spots that make them "naturally wicious," as Dickens' Mr. Hubble would say.

Except that on second thought, that's not it at all. Let's try again. Journalists may be "more socially and politically liberal" than their communities, and this bias "does show up" in their news coverage, but they don't allow themselves to be buffeted about by the political winds that bedevil lesser citizens; neither nature nor nuture can make them slant towards one side or the other:
Anyone who understands the journalistic mindset (see "disdain for authority," above) realizes that journalists don't care what the political views are of their targets. But most people don't understand the journalistic mindset.
I'm not surprised. If Scoppe's ramblings are supposed to be a clear explication of it, I'll stick with something easy, like catastrophe theory.

What's all Scoppe's self-contradictory talk in aid of, you ask? Well, it apparently provides the indispensible context for understanding Judith Miller's imprisonment:
The New York Times is, in the eyes of Republican ideologues, the epitome of the "liberal media establishment."

Dick Cheney is, in the eyes of Democratic ideologues, the epitome of the Republican evil empire.

And so here we have a reporter for the epitome of liberalism sitting in jail (with the support of the institution) for almost three months — protecting the reputation of the Bush administration and, perhaps, keeping a top official out of federal prison.
Quite a conundrum, indeed. My explanation would be that Miller, and the NYT, no more represent the "epitome of liberalism" than Ms. Scoppe represents the epitome of clear and honest thinking.

Her explanation, not surprisingly, is somewhat different. In Scoppe's romanticized view, Miller went to jail out of steadfast devotion to a principle that only journalists truly understand: the obligation to protect government sources, even when they're breaking the law in order to smite their enemies, and even when doing so compromises the security of the United States.
We are a different breed, journalists. Sometimes for better. Sometimes for worse. But a different breed nonetheless.
And how.


Eli said...

I think I would take Scoppe's "flawed journalists" in a heartbeat over the ones we actually have...

Cervantes said...

Oh yeah, Judith Miller is a liberal. And I'm the Emperor of Jupiter.