Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Primary, Secondary, Tertiary... Quaternary?

I think our country is experiencing a massive hangover from the Bush years. Where was the public outrage over being misled into war, over our country's image abroad plummeting, over the dialog shifting from "we did not torture" to "torture is an effective interrogation tool," and over the complete media failure to challenge and hold accountable the government? There wasn't any, at least not on a grand scale.

But we woke up, head pounding. We have this nagging suspicioun that, you know, mistakes were made. We see ourselves engaged in two wars, our biggest institutions failing and bailed out, the deficit growing and growing. We see our friends, our family, our selves losing work or losing insurance. We don't remember who handed us that 5th shot of tequila, but we see who's in control now. The current powers that be may not be responsible for our headache, but we're angry, and we want to hold someone or someones accountable. We won't get fooled again.

I read an interesting article this morning (which is what spurred me on this tangent) about how the media covers Washington. George Packer writes in the New Yorker that reporting focuses solely on appearance and perception and no longer on substance. This has been the case for decades, now, and no longer surprises us. But he asks us to "imagine [Hamad] Karzai's inaugural address as covered by a DC reporter:
Speaking at the presidential palace in Kabul, Mr. Karzai showed himself to be at the top of his game. He skillfully co-opted his Pashtun base while making a powerful appeal to the technocrats who have lately been disappointed in him, and at the same time he reassured the Afghan public that his patience with civilian casualties is wearing thin. A palace insider, who asked for anonymity in order to be able to speak candidly, said, ‘If Karzai can continue to signal the West that he is concerned about corruption without alienating his warlord allies, he will likely be able to defuse the perception of a weak leader and regain his image as a unifying figure who can play the role of both modernizer and nationalist.’
It's easy to imagine an Obama speech being written about this way - political base, perception, image, etc - but, Packer asks, try to picture reporters talking about war in this manner. About the economic crisis. About foreign governments. Today's DC reporters focus on the inside game when, clearly, we're not insiders. Senators aren't meeting with us in back rooms. They're not adding special, hidden clauses in bills that provide loopholes for us...

I remember waiting for the State of the Union address, or other big stages for the president. About eight or nine pundits sat around a table (maybe they were in the "Situation Room"!) and each of them wondered, "What will the storyline be?" Everything--every democratic and republican response--was discussed for show and narrative, not for substance.

In a couple weeks I begin talking about evaluating sources. How do we sift through websites, articles, and books and decide what sources to accept and what sources to reject? Among other things, we look at whether a source is biased, timely, and useful. Is it presenting opinions or facts? Is its argument based on sound or specious logic?

Also, we look for primary sources: original documents, original reporting - not some else's analysis of that source. While a primary source is not necessarily more reliable than a secondary source (it should be subject to the same evaluation), by examining that primary source we can better understand and evaluate the secondary and tertiary sources that use its information.

How much of the reporting holds up to close evaluation? How many times has Fox news decried a poll while holding up its results as indicative of some narrative it's pushing? How many times have we seen a senator (republican or democrat) lie to a reporter but not have it challenged because the reporter is uninformed? How many times have we seen pundits use false logic, conflating causation and correlation, in order to simplify a story?

The story is on the story that is on the story. What passes as news is so removed from the original source that, as viewers, readers, and receivers of that news, we have more and more trouble evaluating it.

Unfortunately, we're still in the bathroom, heads spinning, our bodies slumped over the toilet. "Never again," we say. But are we saying "no" to the right people?

1 comment:

george rede said...

As a MSM journalist, you'd think I might tread carefully here. Just two quick points, though:
1. I absolutely agree that too much media coverage of Washington "focuses solely on appearance and perception and no longer on substance." The "story" purporting to report on Karzai's inauguration is spot on.
2. I appreciate your discussion of sourcing. The criteria you lay out are similar to what I tried to convey to the class I just taught. I had a roomful of communications majors, most of whom said they don't seek out the news, but pick it up almost by osmosis. They figure if it's big enough news they'll hear about it from a friend or stumble across it on a home page and then go seek out more information. It's hard for me to imagine that passive an approach to current events. But then I'm biased...
Anyway, August, you would have made a terrific guest speaker on that topic.