The Newsroom's Unknown Knowns

[Julian Sanchez]

Media critic Jay Rosen has a longish new post up synthesizing his thoughts on "the Actual Ideology of the American Press"--a topic his Twitter followers will recognize as a longstanding obsession. It merits reading in full, but the upshot is that--contra the narrative favored by partisans of both sides--the real and pervasive ideological bias of American journalists is not a simple reflection of the political commitments of either reporters or publishers, but an idiosyncratic bundle of professional norms that may, incidentally, cut in a conservative or liberal direction in particular cases.

I think this is, broadly speaking, pretty on point. I also note that Rosen is here steering us back from the now-common use of "ideology" to mean some consciously held system of explicit political beliefs and toward Marx's classic definition: "They do not know it, but they are doing it." Or as Slavoj Zizek, riffing on Don Rumsfeld, likes to say: Ideology is "the unknown knowns," the things you're not even consciously aware of believing.

Suppose Rosen is right that there is a distinct journalistic ideology--whether or not we think his description is accurate in all the details. (Better, I think, to say "ideologies"--beat reporters and Slate essayists, say, may each have their own hymnals.) One obvious question is where it comes from: What determines and sustains it? Parts, to be sure, are linked to the explicit canons of ethics they teach in J-school, but other parts don't seem to be. For Marx, ideology was determined by the dominant system of production--by which he meant that it was a kind of rationalization cooked up to protect the interests of those with economic power, comparable to the idea that press bias reflects the preferences of the owners and advertisers. But we can take it a little more literally and consider how the demands of selling and producing journalism might tend to reinforce some of the tendencies Rosen's talking about.

The big obvious constraints, especially in the contemporary mediasphere, are the demands for speed and volume. A successful journalist in the modern market needs to put out a lot of copy fairly quickly and, ideally, get to the story first. (This is also why we get a lot of reporting on tactical maneuvering and short-term perceptions that ultimately don't make a lick of difference electorally--an enterprise that seems guaranteed to inculcate cynicism.) These are matters of professional pride, but that's partly because they're also--as I was reminded in my former life whenever I'd try to persuade an editor to back off for a few days so I could work on a longer investigative piece--good eyeball-maximizing strategies, especially in a world where the second paper to report a story is ever less able to count on a built-in reader base.

A lot of Rosen's ideological profile plausibly falls out of this. The journalistic sweet spot is a story that's "disruptive" or "counterintuitive" enough to distinguish itself from the pack, while remaining sufficiently rooted in a familiar narrative that it can be turned out by rote and (crucially) digested in a two or three minute news segment without a great deal of explanation. Similarly, for all the many and obvious flaws with the much-derided "he said/she said" style of reporting typically confused with "objectivity," it has this much going for it: It's fast. Actually determining which of multiple competing claims is true, on the other hand, can take quite a lot of time, effort, and expertise--the last requiring a reporter to get tied to a policy beat that may cease to be hot in a few months.

Moreover, actually trying to play referee means you're pretty much guaranteed to be wrong some proportion of the time, and to be accused of getting it wrong even when you're right by the media machine of whichever side you've debunked. If the issue is even moderately complex and the relevant players are bright enough not to make easily falsifiable claims, there's no reason to expect any kind of ultimate general vindication, since partisans and activists will always be willing and able to devote more time to the question than harried journos. Not getting it wrong in a he-said/she-said story, by contrast, mostly just requires that you transcribe accurately.

Many of the other elements of press ideology Rosen identifies ultimately serve to rationalize this approach. Take the "High Broderist" premise that the "extremes" on both sides are equivalent. It's not just this attitude allows reporters to make a show of even-handedness, it's that equivalence seems like a natural default, deviation from which would require (time consuming) justification. Moreover, a "he said/she said" approach requires some implicit consensus--and it has to stay implicit--about which players and positions are worth attending to, about which hes and shes get a say. Hence the "sphere of deviance." Otherwise, again, the individual journalist is sucked into making and justifying an evaluation about which groups are credible.

Rosen pretty clearly regards most of these ideological tendencies as pernicious, and while I'm often inclined to agree, it's also worth at least asking whether, in each case, they're any worse than the plausible alternatives. Suppose, for instance, we agree that its both delusional for journalists to cultivate an attitude of being untouchably "above the fray" and that this attitude ends up warping coverage in undesirable ways. It might yet be the case that we're so naturally disposed to tribalism that it can only be avoided by cultivating a self conception as a member of the Savvy Tribe. It would be depressing if this were true, of course, but it can't be ruled out a priori. Sometimes our delusions serve useful functions.