Stories The Media Tells
Paul Krugman shines a bright light on the foilbles of the media. His column yesterday recommends reporters and pundits to seriously consider the critique of the dailyhowler.org, compaigndesk.org and mediamatters.org as they reports the news. He points out that cable in particular is guilty of reading from scripts and how a script can used to rewrite history.
But the real power of a script is the way it can retroactively change the story about what happened.
On Thursday night, Mr. Kerry's speech was a palpable hit. A focus group organized by Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, found it impressive and persuasive. Even pro-Bush commentators conceded, at first, that it had gone over well.
But a terrorism alert is already blotting out memories of last week. Although there is now a long history of alerts with remarkably convenient political timing, and Tom Ridge politicized the announcement by using the occasion to praise "the president's leadership in the war against terror," this one may be based on real information. Regardless, it gives the usual suspects a breathing space; once calm returns, don't be surprised if some of those same commentators begin describing the ineffective speech they expected (and hoped) to see, not the one they actually saw.
So much of what is being written is definitely following a script. One of the reporters interviewed for On The Media was asked to explain why the questions asked by the reporters seemed to be so irrelevant.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what's with the irrelevant questions? Where do they come from?
MIKE PESCA: Desperation. [LAUGHTER] Sheer desperation. Flop sweat? I can't totally blame the media, because when the politicians, when the parties create the convention, what they're trying to do is pre-chew the news; then regurgitate it right back into the mouths of the viewers via the media. And you know, the media has to do something to stop that process, so what they try to do is they try to create some conflict and drama.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some of these pressing questions seem to be plucked directly from the talking points of the Republican National Committee.
MIKE PESCA: Well, there are these little shadow delegations of the opposition party, and they're cranking out press releases all the time. I mean the GOP dot com web site is cranking out a press release a day. Often, they just don't get picked up. During the convention, I've been to that site every day. I've been to the room where they craft the message, and I have to say I've seen, somewhere in legitimate media, almost every one of those press releases represented. You know that the people asking the questions wouldn't have had the idea without it being planted in their minds, but you know the Democrats are going to do the exact same thing.
So what could the reporters do instead? Perhaps cover some of the content of the speeches. As it is, for Democratic convention, the most alive reporting came from the bloggers and the best TV coverage came from CSPAN where no reporters getting in the way.
Not all journalists are driven to be one of the gang or to "keep" access to the power players. The American Journalism Review reports that the incredible team of William Strobel and Jonathan Landay have won the Raymond Clapper Memorial award from the Senate Press Gallery for their reporting before and after the Iraq war. Strobel and Landay who write for Knight-Ridder have consistently provided the best reportage on the bad intelligence leading to the war and out-scooped all the bigger papers throughout the last couple of years. The AJR piece lists the articles written by the pair as well explaining the fortitude they and their editors showed by following the story. So why did they get the story right when so many others did not? Because they worked with the mid-level bureaucrats in the government agencies rather than cultivating the "senior administration officials". Like Seymour Hersh, Strobel & Landay have eschewed the popularity contest and do not seek to be part of the pack to which so much of the national media runs. Thus, they are to be congratulated and honored for getting the biggest story of the decade right.
The AJR also has a report that shows that although the information about Abu Ghraib was known and some stories written about the conditions, the story had no legs until the photos became public. This leads to the question if a story has no pictures, is it a story? One reason Michael Moore's F9/11 was so powerful was because it showed pictures of the death and destruction which was mostly ignored by our media for so long.
Anyway, one hopes that the US media follows the example of Strobel, Landay and Hersh and takes the advice of Paul Krugman. Yet, I suspect that the media watchdogs will be busy pointing out the misuse of the "media scripts" for a long, long time. The lure of power and money makes it very hard for the upper crust of the media elite to sacrifice their easy access by asking hard questions.