The difference between journalists and ‘the media’

I often try to draw a distinction between being a journalist, what I consider myself to be, and being a member of the ‘media’. Suw sometimes accuses me of splitting semantic hairs, but I really do believe that there is a difference. I think it’s highlighted in an exchange between Chris Matthews and Tom Brokaw. (from Glenn Greenwald):

MATTHEWS: Tom, we’re going to have to go back and figure out the methodology, I think, on some of these [polls].

BROKAW: You know what I think we’re going to have to do?

MATTHEWS: Yes sir?

BROKAW: Wait for the voters to make their judgment.

MATTHEWS: Well what do we do then in the days before the ballot? We must stay home, I guess.

BROKAW: No, no we don’t stay home. There are reasons to analyze what they’re saying. We know from how the people voted today, what moved them to vote. You can take a look at that. There are a lot of issues that have not been fully explored during all this.

But we don’t have to get in the business of making judgments before the polls have closed. And trying to stampede in effect the process.

Look, I’m not just picking on us, it’s part of the culture in which we live these days. I think that the people out there are going to begin to make judgments about us if we don’t begin to temper that temptation to constantly try to get ahead of what the voters are deciding.

I’m not opposed to journalists providing analysis. That’s part of good journalism, but media punditry is another beast entirely. To me, good journalism can weave a good narrative and present the facts in a broader context, but so often I see the media attempting to impose a narrative.

I was asked by a colleague before New Hampshire if rumours in the British media that Hillary Clinton would become Barack Obama’s running mate were true. It would be a perfect story: A black man and a woman. I said like so many stories in the media, it is an appealing story, but I don’t see any basis in fact for it. If you want to follow the line of interesting, albeit completely unsubstantiated tickets, it would be interesting to have a ticket of Barack Obama and former New Jersey governor and EPA administrator Christie Todd Whitman. It might also head off a Unity ’08 bid by Michael Bloomberg. But that’s a fantasy football ticket, not one based on any insider knowledge or actual facts. However, as is often said of hacks and members of the media, never let the facts stand in the way of a good story.

Glenn Greewald asks:

Are Gloria Borger and Chris Matthews and Howard Fineman and Wolf Blitzer suddenly going to abandon their desire to impose shallow, melodramatic narratives on our elections and spend their time, instead, analyzing the candidates’ responses to Charlie Savage’s questionnaire on presidential power, or the dominant, corrosive role lobbyists and large corporations play in our political culture, or the widening rich-poor gap, or the strain and stain on our country from our imperial policies? The question is so absurd, so laughable, that to ask it is to answer it. None of them could remotely do that even if they wanted to, even if they were allowed to, and they don’t and aren’t.

And I think this is why there is popular anger towards the media and journalists who confuse literary journalism with literary fiction. It used to be one of my points of pride when I worked for the BBC that in the wake of the Nato bombing of Serbia, that Serbian National Guardsmen rose up in part because there was a disconnect between the propaganda on the state media and coverage provided by the BBC. They said they could see what was happening with their own eyes, and they believed the BBC. That’s the power of journalism.

The media only deals with substantive issues in the guise of the coverage of political palace intrigue and the horse race of elections. It’s sexy to the insider but is only of interest to journalists and their political sources. It trivialises politics and public policy into little more than a who’s up, who’s down, who’s in, who’s out farce. News flash to people inside the major capitals of the world – of which I’ve lived in two, London and Washington – most people don’t care about politics as much or think about politics the same way as you do. People accuse George Bush of only living in black and white, but the media inhabit that same world, portraying only binary opposition with no complexity or nuance.

I think it’s why we’ve seen the rise of citizen media. People don’t trust the narrative being shoved down their throats by well-coiffed, over-paid gossip mongers. The media rail away against unpaid people’s punditry in part because it shows what a common commodity their stock and trade is. Already the US and British media have got the story wrong on the US elections, and we’ve only just begun. The media is obsessed with obesity and a good diet, and yet the state of our dysfunctional democracies reflect the quality of our media diet.

But the media will simply say that they provide people with want they want and that they have the ratings or circulation to prove it. It is one of the frequent defences, and it is not without truth. And I know that overly worthy journalism has a small audience. It’s difficult to tell a complex story well, and journalism needs to sharpen its game. It’s always easy to appeal to audiences with simplistic stories made up of strong emotions and angles.

But people fed up with the media also need to vote as I did. I changed the channel, or often just shut off the television. We have unprecedented choice to create our own ‘channel’, and not simply to hear what we agree with but get the information we need. I not only buy the publications I think do good journalism, but I drop some coin in the PayPal jar of people who commit random acts of journalism and promote vigorous public debate. It’s a lean-forward, not a sit-back choice of media. But in the end, I find my media diet more satisfying.

It’s an election year in the United States, but already people have voted with their attention on the quality of the media. It’s not just a vast wasteland, soon it will be a lonely one.

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