“You must realize that having to portray an illegitimate debate fries the circuits of the mainstream press.”
Here’s how The Economist introduced its interview of Jay Rosen:
JAY ROSEN is a professor of journalism at New York University and an insightful critic of the media. Earlier this year he wrote an essay on “the actual ideology of our political press”, which we praised and discussed on this blog. Mr Rosen has a blog of his own, PressThink, and his work has been published in Columbia Journalism Review, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others. He has also written a book, titled “What Are Journalists For?“, about the rise of the civic-journalism movement. This week we asked him some questions over email about the press and its failings.
Rosen wrote a terrific comment for my August 29 post, “What’s the difference between climate science and climate journalism? The former is self-correcting, the latter has become self-destructive.” Since it was #52, I suspect many missed it, so I’ll repost it below.
First, though, here are a couple of choice excerpts from Rosen’s Economist interview that readers identified:
I do not think journalists should “join the team”. They bridle at that, for good reason. Power-seeking and truth-seeking are different behaviours, and this is how we distinguish politics from journalism. I think it does take a certain detachment from your own preferences and assumptions to be a good reporter. The difficulty is that neutrality has its limits. Taken too far, it undermines the very project in which a serious journalist is engaged.Suppose the forces that want to convince Americans that Barack Obama is a Muslim or wasn’t born in the United States start winning, and more and more people believe it. This is a defeat for journalism””in fact, for verification itself. Neutrality and objectivity carry no instructions for how to react to something like that. They aren’t “wrong”, they’re just limited. The American press does not know what to do when neutrality, objectivity, balance and “report both sides” reach their natural limits. And so journalists tend to deny that there are such limits. But with this denial they’ve violated the code of the truth-teller because these limits are real. See the problem?
… When journalists get attacked from the left and the right, they take it as confirmation that they’re doing something right, when they could be doing everything wrong. There’s a certain laziness that creeps up too, which you can hear in phrases from the commentariat like “extremists on both sides”. No attempt to actually examine centre and margin and compare them across parties; instead, this sorry act of positioning, in which the political centre is associated with truth, common sense and realism. This is a very common prejudice in political journalism.
I might add that even I routinely get attacked from both the left and the right, but somehow I don’t think most journalists would conclude that I’m in the political center — even though from a hard-nosed climate science perspective, I am, in many respects.
Here is Rosen’s comment on my post. Note: I asked Rosen if he had any tweaks — since the commenting process does not allow edits — and what follows reflects his changes:
Thanks to Chris Mims for mentioning my work in the context of this debate about climate science and science journalism. (Click here for the essay I wrote on the actual ideology of the press.) I cannot weigh in on the merits of the dispute with Andy Revkin, since I do not know enough of the underlying science and have only followed the debates about climate journalism from a certain distance. But I thought I would add some speculations on what might be causing these disputes. That is all I can add: my speculations. Participants would have to decide how well they apply to the given case.
One factor to consider is “¦ how does a journalist establish authority in an area like climate change that is different from the kind of authority a scientist-or for that matter an elected politician-can claim? Speaking not about Revkin but a hypothetical beat reporter following the story, there may build up a kind of dissatisfaction with the role that is left to the journalist. After all, the scientists produce the new knowledge and have the important debates. The politicians have to interpret public opinion and decide on social policy. What’s left for the journalist to do? Merely to summarize what these other actors are doing and interpret arcane studies to broader audiences? Maybe that feels insufficiently grand.
And please note that as the scientific consensus gets stronger, these feelings may run deeper. In that context, a narrative like “scientists behaving badly” solves the status anxiety problem, which our hypothetical journalist may not even be aware of. Because a story like that is not going to be told well by the scientists involved, and policy-makers may be unaware of it, while the public certainly won’t know without being informed by the journalist. Now there’s a chance to recover a kind of authority unique to the journalistic class. Remember: the more educated and informed our beat reporter is, the greater this “itch” to carve out a special role may be.
A second factor I would like to mention involves a phrase we have probably all used at one time or another. “There’s a legitimate debate to be had about”¦.” I invite you into this phrase. A typical construction might be, “There’s a legitimate debate to be had about how high marginal tax rates should be, even if the goal is to re-distribute income”¦.” The operating system for mainstream journalism knows what to do when there’s a legitimate debate to be had. But when there’s an illegitimate debate going on (and getting louder) that same system tends to break down, especially when the culture war and partisan divide are confounded with the issue, as they are here.
A New York Times, Washington Post, Time magazine, NBC or CNN reporter receives from his professional peers and traditions no clear instructions for how to handle an illegitimate debate, meaning one that should never have arisen, because it is based on phony selection, manufactured doubt, and highly ideological reads of the available evidence. The louder the din, the more wary the mainstream journalist is of “choosing sides.” But what if choosing sides is exactly what the journalist would have to do to portray things as they really are?
This leads to a third factor. Let me repeat my question: what if choosing sides is exactly what the fair-minded journalist would have to do to portray things as they really are? Here, I’m afraid, self-image conflicts with reality. That’s painful. People flee pain. The reality is it is very, very hard for a mainstream news person to say, “These people have the facts on their side, these people are manufacturing doubt and manipulating the case, and everyone should realize this is a phony debate- okay, is that clear?” This almost never happens. But in the mind of our hypothetical reporter, portraying things as they really are-that, is, truth-telling-always and everywhere trumps all other factors. The very bedrock of their self-image is “let the chips fall where they may, we tell it like it is.” Giving that up would be like saying to the self, “my career has been a waste.” Or: “I am a fraud.”
And so it is very likely that the enormous institutional pressures against declaring, “These people have the facts on their side, while these people are manufacturing doubt, so everyone should realize that this is a phony debate”¦” are going to be obscured somehow in the mind of our hypothetical journalist. Rationalizations will creep in. You must realize that having to portray an illegitimate debate fries the circuits of the mainstream press. It’s cognitively dissonant in the extreme. Therefore when something comes along that promises relief from that situation, it is likely to be seized on with a certain enthusiasm, or even abandon, that will look very strange to outsiders. When those outsiders point this out, there is likely to be hot resistance. Consider the stakes: the whole of a professional self.
I hope these speculations are of some assistance in bringing clarity to the situation. Let me repeat once more: I cannot say that any of the factors I mentioned bears on Revkin’s work but they do, I think, enter into the difficulties the press has had in reporting well on climate change.
- How the status quo media failed on climate change
- Must-read Harvard study: How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics “” “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.”
- And the 2009 “Citizen Kane” award for non-excellence in climate journalism goes to “¦
- What if the MSM simply can’t cover humanity’s self-destruction?