News judgment is political judgment

News judgment is political judgment

: Jay Rosen takes all the discussion around the showing of the Abu Ghraib photos — and the not showing of the Nick Berg murder video — and, characteristically, finds what is really at stake for news media.

The nut of it is that news judgment is political judgment.

When you decide what to run and what not to run because of it how might affect people, you are necessarily making a judgment about the political impact … and you should be open about it (though most are not).

Alternatively, when you decide not to run things because you think people can’t handle it, you are condescending to the people you are there to serve. Jay decries that kind of protectionist journalism:

You shouldn’t do it, because if you keep doing it you will soon be talking about “the masses” and what they will swallow. Soon after that you will be talking about what the masses should be fed. I don’t trust anyone’s argument–left, right, middle, fringe–when it assumes that others (the big audience, the mass public, the voters overall) will react with less nuance, intelligence, or critical thought than the writer and the writer’s friends. To me it’s a warning sign: anti-democratic attitude here in evidence.

You know populist me: I was whooping on the couch when I read that.

I also think the political implications in what Big Media does are often under-discussed by journalists and critics alike, while the political motivations of the gatekeepers are over-drawn. (They’re easier to speculate about, they generate more outrage, and they appear to “explain” a lot.) And along with this I believe we should all grow up a little.

Don’t be calling for self-censorhip by Big Media today when you may be hoping for less of it tomorrow — because the images have changed, and the implications are different. Be aware that if you want gatekeepers to let pass more of the news that helps your side, and less that helps “them,” then you aren’t really addressing the gatekeepers at all. In fact, you have surrendered the topic of news judgment to politics and its manuevers. You’ve politicized it.

Way, way underneath these debates I find a disturbing fact. Even the smartest people in the major news media–and this is especially so in television news–have not really determined for themselves or explained to us exactly what their role should be in the worldwide fight against terrorism. “Cover it responsibly and well” doesn’t begin to provide an answer. For it must have occured to people high up in the network news divisions that the videotape of the beheading was made not only for Bush but for them, in their professional capacity; and that is a fact they have to live with, think about, whether or not they show us the gruesome act.

We are a long, long way from coming to grips with the fact that political violence worldwide incorporates media coverage worldwide. Terrorism can be many things, but it is always a communication; and a free press in an open society “completes” the act. So it’s not true that Al Queda kidnapped and beheaded an American. Al Queda kidnapped and beheaded an American and videotaped it in order to shock and sicken us when we found out. It’s not easy to decide what to do with that if you run a news network. But there is no option not to decide. There may have been a time when news judgment and political judgment could be kept safely apart, but that was an era unlike our own.

Well said, of course.

I look at this on many levels, as Jay lays them out

: Democratic — not condescending to the audience by protecting them from news.

: Political — knowing that the news judgments you make have political sources and political results.

: Global — for even murderous, evil, terroristic slime are media savvy and every act they make is about using media and every response from media is a tactical and military response.

: Finally, on the most practical, even mundane level, this is about source material. In the old days, we the people didn’t have access to source material; one job of news media was simply to digest it all because paper is expensive and time and spectrum are scarce. But today, because bits are cheap and their supply unlimited, we do have access to source material. Thus, the role of news judgment as a selection process is diminished. And the opportunity to let the people see the source and judge for themselves is greater. So, not showing the Nick Berg murder video at dinnertime is a defensible decision, so is not exploiting it for ratings. But there is no reason a news show could not point you to it online (and it doesn’t even have to host it; all the show has to do is link to it).

This is an extreme example of the revolution journalism is facing: When the people can see the news for themselves and judge for themselves, what is the role of journalists’ news judgment? Are we merely to become a pipeline for source material? Are we merely fellow citizens, like our readers, with opinions of our own? Do we still think we know more (and better) than the audience or do we admit that the citizens know more we do?

: GRADUATION DAY: Relevant to this are comments from the graduation ceremonies at UC Berkeley.

Orville Schell, dean of the J-school, told the graduates:

:”We are at a state in journalism that may be a tipping point,” Schell told the 43 graduates of the two year program. …

“We have reached the place where journalism is considered irrelevant. The press is … no more than another lobby group.”

  • chuck

    Hmm, I followed the link, and although the coverage was minimal, the main impression I got was of self congratulation. The heroic press, defender of democracy, soldiers of a higher morality, scourge of government, and folks who can’t be bothered to read us are just dumb. The usual graduation stuff, although I suspect these poor souls actually believe it.
    I don’t buy it. Haven’t bought it since the 60’s when I saw first hand how the press covered events at Columbia … shaping the story, bringing in disconnected commentators to talk with the university as a backdrop. Later experience has done nothing to improve my opinion of the press. My biggest gripe, apart from reporters making stuff up to improve the story, is the lack of news and information. I have the impression that reporters are too busy to keep in touch with what is going on.
    In any case, the press _is_ becoming less relevant, it _is_ more and more a lobby. And it seems that reporters are encouraged to blather on and on expressing their opinions and prejudices as news. I find it annoying and insulting, and the pompous conceit of a higher calling that comes with it is just maddening.

  • truth squad

    Don’t forget, there are hundreds of photos and videos of prison abuse by Americans that we haven’t seen yet because they are being withheld by the Bush administration.

  • It sure is easy to claim something exists by saying it’s “being withheld.”

  • sbw

    > I look at this on many levels
    But that doesn’t mean you see it clearly. No one so far has mentioned the simple difference between Push and Pull media.
    Our newspaper, a Push medium, is in the home and available to people we do not feel need the graphic representations implicit in the Berg video terrorism. We feel we can convey the message sufficiently without the image. And readers are welcome to go to Pull media like the internet and drill down to the grisly detail — although it seems unnecessary.

  • Angelos

    Re: “…although that seems unnecessary”. I agree that a front-page photo of Berg’s head being held up would be too much to publish. A still of the executioners before-hand, while delivering the speech, however, is a valid thing to print, and an important one, because there are many people who wouldn’t be able to find out more on the internet, due to lack of access or lack of clue.
    What bother me is that, on MUCH less sensitive material, the media nearly always makes the wrong decision, based either on cowardice, laziness, or greasing the 10 “offended” squeaky wheels instead of “listening” to the thousands of subscribers who didn’t complain.
    One newspaper didn’t run Doonsebury during the week where the guy got injured, so as not to hurt local feelings, because someone in the community had just come home with injuries. That was the excuse the publisher gave me when I contacted them.
    In my home paper today, someone complained that the abuse pictures, and a related editorial cartoon, had “no place in the media of our country”. WHERE THE HELL SHOULD IT BE??
    Look, any item of bad news is going to bother somebody, somewhere. Some loser will take take offense to this joke, a different loser will take offense to a different joke. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, so throw it out there, and let people make their own choices.
    If the newspapers stop printing news and become all Sports and “Life and Leisure” or whatever they call it in your neck of the woods, they’ll be officially obsolete.
    The PC pussification of the American people must be stopped.

  • And what would be the grandiose rationale justifying not showing the Palestinians celebrating and passing out candy after 911?
    I think I’m witnessing a little hypersensitivity to the criticism of exploitation of Abu Grhaib and minimizing and reduced coverage of the beheading.

  • AST

    The press shows shocking photos, like the nude Vietnamese girl running after being burned by napalm or the guy holding a gun to the head of a kneeling Viet Cong captive, when it will disturb people in a way it thinks they should be disturbed, but otherwise they just say it’s too upsetting.
    I don’t know if all those people running searches on Nick Berg were looking for more news on the story that they weren’t getting from the mainstream media or just wanted to watch a video too gruesome for the nightly news. I didn’t want to see it, but the fact that the story disappeared in one day while the Abu Ghraib story instantly morphed into a “-gate” story that had all kinds of investigative reporting going on to somehow link the abuses to Don Rumsfeld and George Bush illustrated what bugs a lot of people who think this war is fully justified and needs to be won.
    How can anybody read the NYTimes and not feel that the newspaper’s editors and reporters are opposed to the war? You don’t need to read the Op-Ed page. Its opposition to Bush and his policies is blatant and getting more so. It wouldn’t be nearly as offensive if they didn’t keep denying it. How dumb do they think we are? And if they can’t see how slanted they are, how dumb are they?
    I remember seeing Bernard Goldberg on the Newshour with Marvin Kalb. Kalb was dismissive, of course, but he so angry I wondered where his objectivity had gone. This wasn’t the reaction of someone who merely disagreed with a critic, it was the bitterness most people would have for a traitor. That’s what impressed me. Goldberg was being treated not as someone who had a different point of view, but as someone who was working for an enemy. If the news business is about merely reporting the news, why the defensiveness?

  • Your comment posted to “Publishing is Political” in Camera/Iraq-a clearing house for news and opinion on image practices in Iraq