Media

A Symbolic Age

We are living in a symbolic age. Recently, as Puerto Rico had just been hit by hurricane Maria and tensions were mounting between our president and North Korea, I watched as a serious televised news panel show devoted its first 40 minutes to discussion of kneeling for the national anthem at NFL games. Over that weekend, just about every social media contact I have felt compelled to weigh in on the controversy– right to free speech vs. respect for country and flag.

Now symbols are layered upon symbols as apparently the vice president, in a pre-planned PR stunt, attended a football game in order to be seen standing during the national anthem and then walking out to protest the protestors.

This is exactly the type of thing that thrives in our current journalistic environment. More and more people get their news from social media, the same place we go to advance our public personas (personae?). The stories that thrive in that environment are stories that allow people to express their identities. Two years ago, when I first wrote about the phenomenon of news stories as identity expression, no one was taking a knee but we were debating the merits of Starbucks coffee cup design in regards to the “War on Christmas.”

The types of stories that thrive in this environment are those that lend themselves to some kind of identity building. For example, people post political stories that identify them as being like or unlike the Tea Party, or the religious, or the liberals. “I am a person who stands for…”  A story about Kim Davis who wouldn’t issue marriage licenses to same sex couples is the perfect story for this kind of news environment because it gives people an opportunity to post their commentary and present themselves as an upstanding fundamentalist or as the type of person who favors gay rights.

Do you remember the Starbucks cups? Kim Davis? Symbolic stories catch fire and burn out quickly. Unlike major policy issues such as taxation, health care, foreign relations, they are uncomplicated and require little expertise. It is easy to take sides.

Television news takes its cues from social media when determining what its audience cares about.  They call this “spicy, watchable coverage.”  But what if the public is being manipulated? What if our differences are smaller than we are led to believe and they are being stoked by trolls, bots, media personalities who thrive on conflict and international bad actors? Somehow though we can’t seem to resist playing along, using the cues to make identity claims and to associate with one tribe or another.

And by the way, I can’t stand that expression “the base” and its cousin “playing to the base.” If I were Lord High Commander of the Universe I would ban them.

When I look up polarization and culture wars I find blogs and news sources across the political spectrum lamenting the state of affairs. That we have a polarization problem is one thing we seem to agree on.

A fair portion of the commentary, however, blames the problem on “the other side.” “We need to put an end to this polarization, if only those guys would drop their misguided views…”

An example of this comes from The Federalist, which combines a straightforward call for transcending our differences with a hefty dose of blame and finger pointing, ” the radicalization of Democrats is something qualitatively different, and much more dangerous, than the radicalization of Republicans.”

A Columbia Journalism Review study meanwhile shows that polarization is “mainly a right-wing phenomenon.”

We now read and share different media sources, so those who identify with one point of view or the other each have support for the notion that it’s the other side’s fault. But really, who cares who’s fault it is? Isn’t trying to attribute blame part of the problem? If you really long for people to come together then you have to give up on the fun pass time of assigning blame for the nation’s problems on “those guys.”

It gets my back up whenever arguments devolve into talk about “liberals” or “conservatives.” If you’re arguing about what kind of person supports an idea you’re no longer talking about the idea. In fact, the act of defining a point of view as belonging to “the left” or “the right” skews our perception of how polarized we are. As The Washington Post explained in 2014, “This stems from the underlying psychology of categorization: merely labeling groups makes people see them as more distinctive than they actually are. So when people think about where ‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans’ stand, they will tend to place Democrats too far to the left, and Republicans too far to the right, which psychologists term ‘false polarization.’”

Across several different surveys, we find a large degree of false polarization. That is, when we ask subjects about where they think the “average Democratic voter” and “average Republican voter” stand, they think they are further apart than the average Democratic and Republican voters actually are. For example, on the issue of capital gains tax cuts, respondents think ordinary Americans are 84 percent more polarized than they actually are (see the second row of the graph above)… We randomly assigned some subjects to read media accounts of a polarized electorate and others to read accounts of a more moderate electorate. When subjects are exposed to media coverage suggesting electoral polarization and division, they perceive greater electoral polarization–as measured by where they place typical Republican and Democratic voters on issue scales (readers interested in the details of the analysis can consult our paper). This suggests that media coverage can make people think the U.S. is a politically polarized country even if it is not.

In many respects, calling this cultural trend “political polarization” is missing the point. To a large extent these symbolic claims have nothing to do with actual politics.

Noah Rothman, writing in today’s Commentary, critiques a Washington Post article by Michael Gerson:

Unmentioned in Gerson’s column, however, is anything having to do with the structure of American government. He deals with race, technology, social alienation, and individualism, but the word “Constitution” does not appear in the piece. Governmental policy prescriptions of any kind are peripheral to the all-consuming conflicts he inventories. The kind of separatist, ethnographic language that would typify conflicts like these in other nations is utterly absent from respectable American political discourse.

Gerson has hit on exactly why politically active Americans (as opposed to those who shrewdly ignore the fractious day-to-day on cable news) are at one another’s throats. He has also, though, identified why this factionalism is shallower than it appears. None of it is really about government.

In identifying two divergent “trends,” Business Insider senior editor Josh Barro incisively identifies the extent to which America’s political dialogue has become divorced from actual politics:

One is a fixation on small concerns that have little or nothing to do with official actions of governments, such as whose statues should be displayed in public and what NFL players do during the national anthem. The other is a fixation on concerns so large and amorphous they cannot obviously be addressed by public policy: for example, the more expansive versions of the ideas of white supremacy and structural oppression for the left; a sense of “losing our country” for the right.

Both trends have led to a politics that’s not very much about government anymore — and a politics where politicians make promises about cultural matters outside their control, setting themselves up to disappoint the voters.

Voters are responding to social trends—both the piddling and unfathomably complex—but nothing that the U.S. government can or should do anything to address.

Research published in Political Psychology by scholars Schatz and Levine found that “national symbolism evokes a psychological attachment to the nation as an abstracted social entity, but not as a concrete functional system.”

And by the way, I have a pet peeve about the notion that there actually are two distinct poles on any issue. Most of the things that we have to decide as a nation are far more complex than that. There are many sides, and by making them into team sport, where there are only two sides and you must agree with one or the other, you limit discourse and constrain the ways of looking at a problem.

The way we talk about these issues increases our perception that there is no room for agreement and that the only answer, therefore, is to eliminate the opposition.

I would make the humble suggestion that as a start the cable news networks could stop following internet trends to decide what stories should lead. Leave the identity building symbolic stories to thrive in their natural environment, social networks, and don’t dignify them with lead story status. Especially as it seems clear that these divisions are being amplified by outside forces.

Alain de Botton, writing in News: A User’s Manual said:

The most significant fact of political life, which almost no news organization will dare to acknowledge – because it would at a stroke exclude half of its speculations and disappointments – is that in some key areas of politics, nothing can be achieved very quickly by any one person or party; it would be impossible for anyone – not simply this fool or that group of cretins – to change matters at a pace that would flatter the expectations of the news cycle; and that in the case of certain problems, the only so-called ‘solutions’ will have to await a hundred years or more of incremental change, rather than a messianic leader, an international conference or a quick war.

Noah Rothman, over at Commentary, calls this making politics boring again:

It would help Americans to have a realistic understanding of governmental functions in a country that no longer teaches its citizens basic civics. It would also allow the press to neutralize the efforts of politicians to incite controversies that exacerbate these tensions. In the process, however, that approach would murder a lucrative industry that has turned societal divisiveness into a sport.

On the basic structure of their government and the conduct of public affairs by its civil servants as outlined in the Constitution, Americans might find more common ground than they’d suspect.

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“Spicy, Watchable Coverage”

I happened to notice today on Facebook that a particular story was trending, a story about a reporter who was suspended over something she tweeted.

It is precisely the type of story that tends to trend in social media (as I mentioned in my last post). It gives sharers the opportunity to make an identity statement– agreeing with the original tweet: “House passes bill that could limit Syrian refugees. Statue of Liberty bows head in anguish.” Or arguing vociferously against it. It allows people to express outrage either at her suspension or at her opinion.

Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple was the reporter who called the tweet out as an example of partisan bias. He said it was out of character for CNN, which positions itself as the nonpartisan news channel. This is what set the whole thing in motion.  I agree. It was editorializing, and it did not sit well with how CNN wants to position itself. CNN wants to be the unbiased netowork. This is how it distinguishes itself from its competition FOX and MSNBC.

There is something that troubles me in this, however, and it is a bit difficult to articulate. It is the whole question of what is “partisan.” There is something disconcerting in how we assume people will respond to particular issues and that they will have clear political or ideological poles. This comes from our social media use of news as a vehicle for self-expression and fears of expressing points of view that differ from our peers.

It bothers me that responses are predictable enough that expressing an opinion on certain kinds of stories will inevitably identify you– rightly or wrongly– with a particular “team.” So a person might not express a point of view out of fear of assumption creep. If I express an opinion that you associate with a particular political pole you will assume that I am saying everything else that people in that camp are also saying. The fear of offending team A or team B accepts and reinforces existing polarities. We accept, en masse, that certain topics are by nature fodder for partisan confrontation. By making something “partisan” then you can avoid dissent by anyone but people who are assumed to be your enemies and they can just be written off.

The Huffington Post ran a story comparing another opinionated tweet by the same reporter criticizing President Obama that did not result in a suspension. I do not believe the difference was a political bias on the part of management. It was simply that a well-known media critic called out one of the tweets and not the other, which could simply be a product of when he happened to log on to twitter on a particular day.

Thanks to CNN suspending the reporter, her statement got far more exposure than the tweet ever would have.  (I happen to agree with her assessment, but that is not really the point for my current purposes.)

What really struck me in the commentary on this story was a description of CNN’s editorial policy from media critic Wemple in New York Magazine.

“CNN strives for a tricky balance in its news programming. It wants spicy, watchable coverage enlivened by perspectives and opinions — but no partisan biases from its corps of reporters and anchors.”

“Spicy, watchable coverage” is perhaps the best– and also the most worrisome–summation of the “entertainment” bias in television news I was describing in a previous post.

I couldn’t really put my finger on what I found so troubling in the notion of “spicy coverage” until later in the day when I happened to turn on MSNBC where I saw a reporter talking about the latest ISIS propaganda video, a slick, well-produced video showing a Hollywood quality special effect of the Eiffel Tower being downed.

The talking head tried to downplay the threat in the video by saying that it was created as propaganda. “They are designed to grab attention and to get the media to show them,” she said and then with seemingly no self-consciousness whatsoever she played the video and it played on a continuous loop on a split screen as she interviewed an expert on the other end of the screen. Incidentally, studies show that news viewers react more strongly to the images on television than to the verbal content. It didn’t matter much what the talking head on the other side of the screen had to say. What people saw and internalized was a vision of ISIS taking down a beloved landmark in a way that conjured memories of the destruction of the Twin Towers.

Let me repeat this point: She said “ISIS created this video so the media will show it” and then went on to carry out ISIS’s wishes as if the network had no say in the matter. We have to put it on, it’s really dramatic, and if we don’t, people will tune into CNN or FOX to see it…

Modern war of the ISIS variety is made up of a series of television friendly events. Mass shootings are media events. They are performed by angry, violent young men who feel powerless and ignored and they want attention.

I don’t care much that Elise Labott thinks that the House vote to make it more difficult for refugees to come to America is contrary to our values. Nor do I much care that the same reporter thought Obama was “wining” at the G-20 summit instead of proposing real solutions.

None of that has the kind of real world implications like the automatic nature of our reporting on the visually exciting, dramatic and cinematic. ISIS sent us a video, and it is really scary. Now that is spicy. Let’s get it on the air fast!

Conflict and fear are dramatic. Stoking them is good for ratings. It is entertaining television. It does not make for good public discourse.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote in The Intercept, “In the wake of Paris, an already-ugly and quite dangerous anti-Muslim climate has exploded. The leading GOP presidential candidate is speaking openly of forcing Muslims to register in databases, closing mosques, and requiring Muslims to carry special ID cards. Another, Rand Paul, just introduced a bill to ban refugees almost exclusively from predominantly Muslim and/or Arab countries. Others are advocating exclusion of Muslim refugees (Cruz) and religious tests to allow in only ‘proven Christians’ (Bush). That, by any measure, is a crisis of authoritarianism. And journalists have historically not only been permitted, but required, to raise their voice against such dangers. Indeed, that is one of the primary roles of journalism: to serve as a check on extremism when stoked by political demagogues.”

There is a French saying, “qui ne dit mot consent.” He who says nothing consents. To put a camera on someone as he plays to fears and to say nothing is to normalize it. To say nothing is to consent. It puts it within the realm of acceptable and reasonable discourse.

In the future will we say about this time?

“We will not walk in fear, one of another,” Edward R. Morrow said. “We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine; and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular.”

 

 

The Medium and the Message

tv

The other day I was watching the news with my mother and she pointed out that all of the commercials on the cable news channels were for the AARP and for drugs. “Don’t young people watch the news?”

Indeed, I believe that they don’t. Young people are more apt to get their news from the internet and from social media feeds.

I should mention, by the way, that this doesn’t mean– as one friend of mine lamented– that young people only read about Justin Bieber. (Who I am reliably informed is avoiding Charlie Sheen.)

This observation got me to thinking about how the medium affects the type of news that gets broadcast and received.

Television news has a finite number of broadcast hours and it can only point its camera in one direction as a time. So viewers are at the mercy of news producers to determine what is newsworthy. On the internet, people can choose for themselves what stories to follow and they can, therefore, find out about everything that is happening in the world. (And yet generally they don’t.)

In both environments certain types of stories get attention. The television news channels have a bias. It is not a right or left bias, as people on either side of the political divide sometimes claim.  It is an entertainment bias. (I hate it when Fox News pundits complain about the “mainstream media” when they are the most watched TV network in America. Isn’t that the standard definition of “mainstream?”)

As an advertiser supported medium, news channels owe their existence to capturing an audience that could be watching Kardashians and keeping their attention. That means that the stories that lead have an element of drama. You are not likely to hear “Our lead story tonight, an analysis of the proposed budget.” (Snooze) The news will lead with a bang– literally, or a courtroom drama, or a downed airliner, a celebrity scandal or the disappearance of a woman who looks like a model and the networks will do their best to figure out what interests and entertains us and deliver it. Television news is the perfect environment to foster a reality television star’s presidential campaign.

The types of stories that trend on social media are slightly different. People post links to stories on their Facebook feeds and on Twitter as a means of self-expression. Each story shared is in some way a reflection of the person who posted. The types of stories that thrive in this environment are those that lend themselves to some kind of identity building. For example, people post political stories that identify them as being like or unlike the Tea Party, or the religious, or the liberals. “I am a person who stands for…”  A story about Kim Davis who wouldn’t issue marriage licenses to same sex couples is the perfect story for this kind of news environment because it gives people an opportunity to post their commentary and present themselves as an upstanding fundamentalist or as the type of person who favors gay rights.

The red Starbucks coffee cups are a social media driven story. There is almost no content to the story at all. It is just a vehicle for people to showcase their opinions and their sense of humor. “I am offended by secularization” or “I believe in diversity” or “People are so superficial, and I am deep enough that I can point it out.”

So what are the ramifications of news as self-building? It must surely be a factor in the increasing political polarization we see and the rise of the “no compromise” style of governing. But there must be other, less obvious, consequences of how we spread the news.

 

 

 

 

What CNN Leaves Out

CNN ran a front page story today about baggage handlers caught stealing from airline checked bags.

A CNN analysis of passenger property loss claims filed with the TSA from 2010 to 2014 shows 30,621 claims of missing valuables, mostly packed in checked luggage. The rest occurred at security checkpoints. Total property loss claimed: $2.5 million. John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York topped the list of airports with the most claims of thefts from luggage, followed by Los Angeles International, Orlando International and Miami International, according to the data.

As I read the story, there was something that I wondered. I couldn’t find it anywhere in the reporting (even though it is credited to three journalists). So I looked this up myself:

Baggage handlers are paid an average of $11.92 an hour, a little more than $23,000 a year. The U.S. federal poverty line for a family of four is $24,250. A person in this income bracket qualifies for food stamps.

Maybe it’s a bad idea to put people who are paid below the poverty line in charge of making sure passengers valuables get on the plane safely.

This should at least be part of the discussion.

The Media Could Try… Reporting

What if
Meet the Press engaged in a bit of counter-factual speculation this morning. It produced a video to demonstrate what the coverage of the Walter Scott shooting would have looked like if a bystander had not caught it on video.

(This is my workaround for the limitations on embedding videos into Word Press. If you click on the screen cap above it should take you to the segment content, which you can then play.)

What struck me about this segment was how the media organization that produced it seemed to dismiss out of hand the idea that they could have done some independent reporting. The video represents “how television would have been stuck covering the story with no video…and it had to rely entirely from information from the North Charleston police department.”

I was struck by how little self-reflection there seemed to be on the role of journalists in facilitating a culture in which police shootings of civilians have been largely unscrutinized and rarely prosecuted. If police departments have sometimes made official statements with more concern for public relations than truth creating an environment of mistrust between police and the communities they serve, and if this has been the case for years, then surely the media, in not digging into the facts, deserves some share of the blame.

For almost six minutes the panel discusses the mis-information that was officially released by the police department as if there were only two possible options for a news organization– relying entirely on official and perhaps biased accounts or hoping a citizen will come forward with a shaky Iphone video. The panel seems to be in agreement that the only way the public can know what happens with police is to put body cameras on them. Only David Brooks near the very end of the segment suggests that it is incumbent upon journalists to independently verify reports from official sources. He expresses hope that the media would have done its job in this case. Given how little soul searching “the press” seem to have done on this program, I am skeptical that this would have been the case.

We are starting to have an important conversation about poverty, authority, policing and race. But there is an important element of his story that I think deserves a great deal more discussion. In an article last month The Guardian lamented what it called “the slow death of the great American newsroom” in an article that opened like this:

In the past decade, as a percentage, more print journalists have lost their jobs than workers in any other significant American industry. (That bad news is felt just as keenly in Britain where a third of editorial jobs in newspapers have been lost since 2001.) The worst of the cuts, on both sides of the Atlantic, have fallen on larger local daily papers at what Americans call metro titles. A dozen historic papers have disappeared entirely in the US since 2007, and many more are ghost versions of what they used to be, weekly rather than daily, freesheets rather than broadsheets, without the resources required to hold city halls to account or give citizens a trusted vantage on their community and the world.

For a decade or more we have been laying off all of the watchdogs and making professional news into an increasingly entertainment-driven medium. If TV news would have been “stuck” covering the story with only police reports it is because we’ve dismantled the means by which we could question those accounts.