Mike the Mad Biologist

A few days ago, I discussed the ‘doughnut model’ of journalistic bias that Jay Rosen described. Thinking about it some more, both Rosen and I got it wrong. Ultimately, the problem isn’t that certain views and policies are ruled out of the political discourse (although that is a real problem). The problem is that the type of bias Rosen mentions leads to bad journalism.

Before I get to that, if we’re attempting to convince journalists that they need to be more responsible regarding the public discourse, well, good luck with that. Appealing to the national political press corps for better stewardship of the national discourse won’t work, since they’ve proven to be nothing more than a collection of bottom-feeding narcissists and sociopaths (probably more narcissistics than sociopathic).

But you can reach them if you point out that they’re missing a good story. To use an example in the earlier post, Congressman Stark’s healthcare plan, which would cover the most people and save, far and away, the most money, has been deemed ‘politically unviable.’

That’s the story.

‘Politically unviable’ doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s not like saying that the sky is blue or gray. Someone made it politically unviable. It’s not like Stark’s plan is ‘liberal’ but otherwise a middling plan (in which case, there’s no reason to be discussing it). According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, it’s the best plan, yet Republicans still oppose it.

That’s your story right there. Wouldn’t it be great if some journalist asked a bunch of Republicans (and blue dog ‘Democrats’) why they oppose the Stark plan, which, according to their own analysts, covers more people at a lower cost?

The bias isn’t a good thing for including different points of view, but it’s also bad journalism.

That’s how we reach the traditional media.

Comments

  1. #1 Dunc
    January 23, 2009

    You mistake is to assume that they care more about quality journalism than they do about receiving paychecks and keeping the boss happy.

    I presume you must have read Chomsky & Herman’s Manufacturing Consent?

  2. #2 Mike the Mad Biologist
    January 23, 2009

    Dunc,

    I agree: they are careerists. Which is why letting them know that they’re missing a story that could help raise their profile might work. Of course, if their editors and publishers will not run the story, that’s a separate issue.

  3. #3 Mark P
    January 23, 2009

    They won’t pay any attention to you because they already know the real story, and it’s the one they are reporting. After all, they are the experts. Why else would people hang on their every word and stay glued to the TV every Sunday morning to hear them explain it all? People do glue their ears to the TV, don’t they?

  4. #4 Jay Rosen
    January 23, 2009

    Wait, what exactly am I wrong about? I don’t mind being wrong, and I often am wrong–thanks for your post–but I like to know if I am wrong about something I said, or something you read.

    “Ultimately, the problem isn’t that certain views and policies are ruled out of the political discourse (although that is a real problem). The problem is that the type of bias Rosen mentions leads to bad journalism.”

    Did I say that having a mental bin for deviance and putting certain views in that bin is the problem we ought to focus on? I don’t think I did (but you tell me… ) In my interview with Glenn Greenwald I tried to say the opposite: journalists cannot avoid making these “sphere placement” decisions, but they can and do avoid recognizing their role; they refuse to explain certain decisions or engage in argument about the wisdom of those decisions–during or after the fact, in action or reflection–which in turn means they often make bad decisions.

    This is from my post, Atomization Overcome.

    “That journalists affirm and enforce the sphere of consensus, consign ideas and actors to the sphere of deviance, and decide when the shift is made from one to another— none of this is in their official job description. You won’t find it taught in J-school, either. It’s an intrinsic part of what they do, but not a natural part of how they think or talk about their job. Which means they often do it badly. Their ‘sphere placement’ decisions can be arbitrary, automatic, inflected with fear, or excessively narrow-minded.”

    In other words: bad journalism! Do I leave it as a concept, without examples to refresh the point? I do not. Slipping David Brody of CBN into Meet the Press without saying why or recognizing that something shifted when you did that… is bad practice. Failing to examine Bush’s case for war, bad practice.

    Mine is not a post about media bias (in the classic sense) at all. I think the word “biased” is used once. It’s about how mental categories bear on performance, and how “reference group politics” works in the messy business of framing issues for public debate.

  5. #5 abb3w
    January 23, 2009

    Mike the Mad Biologist: Wouldn’t it be great if some journalist asked a bunch of Republicans (and blue dog ‘Democrats’) why they oppose the Stark plan, which, according to their own analysts, covers more people at a lower cost?

    Of course, some ambitious blogger might also do such asking.

    Mind you, I’d give them enough rope to hang themselves with.

    Q: “Congresscritter Smith, do you oppose the Stark plan because you disagree with the results of the CBO analysis that it will cover the most people and cost the least, or for some other reason?”

    Assuming they disagree with the results…

    Q: “Congresscritter Smith, do you disagree with the CBO because of particular assumptions made in their model, the accuracy of the inputs, or for some other reason?”

    Proceed to probe for specifics from there.

  6. #6 Joshua
    January 23, 2009

    I recently read The Rum Diary, because I enjoy Hunter Thompson’s non-fiction stuff, so I figured what the Hell. Anyway, this bit about the editor of the protagonist’s English-language San Juan daily seems to be true of just about everybody involved in the modern mainstream news media:

    He seemed to think that as long as he knew the score, that was enough. The idea that he should pass on what he knew to anyone else, especially to the public at large, would have struck him as dangerous heresy.

    So, yeah, I’m going with the narcissism theory.

  7. #7 MattXIV
    January 23, 2009

    There are several obvious reasons why the Stark plan would be politically controversial that have nothing to do with “compulsive centrism.”

    The Stark plan lowers overall healthcare spending because because it sets the price at Medicare reimbursement levels, meaning that doctors would be making a lot less money. This, understantably, doesn’t go over so well with doctors, who already complain quite a bit about how goverment reimbursement rates sometimes not being enough to cover the average cost* of a procedure.

    Also, while the estimate of total associated with the Stark proposal is, it also has the largest projected increases in spending by the federal goverment and by employeers. So employeers and those likely to be on the recieving end of the requisite tax increases are going to be more opposed to it than other plans.

    Thus, it’s pretty easy to see why there would be substantial political opposition to it.

    Also, where is this CBO data? The report from Yglesias’s post was from the Lewin Group and commissioned by the Commonwealth Fund.

    An econ aside: If the price of a good is above the marginal cost but below the average cost, producers will continue to make it in the short run due to sunk costs, but will gradually move out of the industry, driving the price back up to above the average cost. If the price is fixed at a level below the average cost (such as by goverment mandate), then producers will continue to exit the industry until circumstances decrease the average production cost to below the price – this is one of the major hazards of price controls.

  8. #8 Comrade PhysioProf
    January 23, 2009

    I agree: they are careerists. Which is why letting them know that they’re missing a story that could help raise their profile might work.

    Problem is, career success for these craven asshole “journalists” depends much more on sucking corporate and government dick than it does on not missing stories.

  9. #9 Mike the Mad Biologist
    January 23, 2009

    Professor Rosen,

    I think the problem–and I made the same mistake–is the focus on delimiting what is acceptable. That is a ‘first derivative’ effect. I’m a believer (perhaps naive) that a good, important story is the most important thing a journalist can give us (and I don’t mean that in any snarky way–my grandfather was a newspaper editor).

    For me, the issue of limiting the debate is less important than missing the story–that is, not asking the question that needs to be asked. In other words, I think the focus is wrong–better reporting is the primary issue, not what it does to our discourse.

  10. #10 Jay Rosen
    January 24, 2009

    I don’t understand a word of that, and it appears to ignore everything I said in my comment. Cheers.

  11. #11 Comrade PhysioProf
    January 24, 2009

    In other words, I think the focus is wrong–better reporting is the primary issue, not what it does to our discourse.

    The problem is that the entire “journalism” industry is built on an incentive foundation that rewards loving fellatio of multinational corporate and government dick, and punishes quality reporting. Any solution must involve curing this deep festering sickness of the “journalism” industry, which is now nothing more than another arm of the corporate/government bread-and-circuses propaganda operation.

  12. #12 magic
    August 22, 2009

    very thanks for article

  13. #13 Tim
    October 4, 2010

    Glad someone is challenging Rosen. He’s regularly wrong and seems intent on contributing nothing to the next stage of journalism, only tearing it down. You should hear how his students complain about his constant pessimism.
    Good work!

  14. #14 brad
    October 6, 2010

    I’ve heard Jay Rosen suffers from a condition called micropenis. Is that true?