Thursday, February 01, 2007

USian models of news meet Mr. Full of Shit

Every day a USian news anchor or reporter says, "We are following this story...," or "There have been developments in the story of..." or some such. And the underlying story model involves a sort of baggy cluster of empirical data, maybe some recorded speech or video, rumor and early reaction. Over the course of "reporting," the story, conceived of as a moving object, is wrestled to the ground. Facts are added, rumors deflated, more reliable or firsthand sources are interviewed. The unruly protean composite of fiction and fact is pinned, straightened, detailed, purged, packaged and served.

I specify "USian" because this is the primary model of news stories here -- they are rude stones that need to be chipped away until the factual core stands, like Mike's David, confident, unveiled, ready for all comers. It's a model I'd suggest is largely essentialistic -- it involves a paring process that gets down to the facts, the real thing, which journalists still jonesing on Objectivity Juice will tend to call "fair and balanced news."

But this is only one kind of story. In other places (perhaps someone, somewhere, teaches something that could be called "Comparative Journalism," modeled on Comparative Literature? (If so, I'd be interested in hearing about it)) other models are more common. One such, more common in England and much of Europe, is a different kind of development from the fact-adding, rumor-paring mode of the US: It's more a movement from one moment in a dialectic to another, which doesn't actually add something to the first, but in certain comprehensive ways negates parts or all of it, leading to a transformation into what to USians would appear to be a different story, but to dialectical journalists is very much the "same thing," where thing is not the superficial set of facts and faces, but the underlying social, economic, political and aesthetic forces that often can only be pointed to via surface events, because they are forces, powerful but invisible, not sound bites, talking heads, or quanta.

Bear with the perversity of citing Mr. Dialectic here -- not for definition but more as allegory of the sort of example of non-USian cogitation that goes into dialectical thinking, whether in philosophy, or theory, or journalism:
The lord relates himself mediately to the thing through the bondsman; the bondsman, qua self-consciousness in general, also relates himself negatively to the thing, and takes away its independence; but at the same time the thing is independent vis-a-vis the bondsman, whose negating of it, therefore, cannot go the length of being altogether done with it to the point of annihilation; in other words, he only works on it. For the lord, on the other hand, the immediate relation becomes through this mediation the sheer negation of the thing, or the enjoyment of it. Desire fails to do this because of the thing's independence: but the lord, who has interposed the bondsman between it and himself, takes to himself only the dependent aspect of the thing and has the pure enjoyment of it. The aspect of its independence he leaves to the bondsman, who works on it.
Don't ask - it's Hegel. He'd be thrown out of any USian bar without anyone batting an eye, because he sounds like he's full of shit.

I'm not about to dispute that. All I'm saying is, here's an example of storytelling that's distinct enough from the fact-based proper-name-centered stuff of US non-fiction as to support my point: that US journalism might think that its modes of representation meet some "objective" standard of what's fair and balanced, but that judgment itself occurs inside its peculiar idiom, which, when set within the context of other and diverse idioms, is hardly grounds for universal commonsensible assent.

What might be some of the consequences of expanding our range of story models in USisn Journalism? Here's one example: A couple of evenings ago, Juan Williams, a usually rigorous senior NPR reporter, interviewed the President. (Audio; transcript).

Tonight on All Things Considered, the reactions of listeners made it clear that most felt Williams was too soft. It wasn't just that Bush had just made two national addresses in as many weeks which sort of required that he now respond to someone trying to make sense of his words; it wasn't just that Williams was somewhat gushy:
You know, people are praying for you; people – the American people want to be with you, Mr. President, but...
Some of the reax went so far as to say Williams had failed to do journalism -- dispensing with basic, tried-and-true forms of challenge and follow-up that could have offered Bush the unprecedented experience of dealing with an actual analytical human being, rather than with mechanical recording apparatus.

NPR probably feels it has done justice to its listeners, by representing their opinions. In some dumbocracy way, it has -- some of us had our say. But isn't there more to this story? Hasn't the original story - by a kind of fateful necessity - now become the story?

I for one would like to know why Williams opted for the cotton-candy approach. Who or what got to him? Did his editors advise him to take this tack? Did the condescension of the Presidential office in granting this exclusive "access" bowl Williams and his bosses over? What conversations occurred between the White House and NPR prior to the interview? What conversations went on inside Williams himself as he prepared for it? Were there any ground rules imposed by the White House that shaped what we hear, but which were not reported? Why does NPR have a preponderance of nice guy personae, reserving attack dog roles for quirky sports commentators and such?

What's called for is another story -- about why the first story failed. In some ways, it would be like our first model - more facts than we now have about something we don't understand. But in some ways, it's more like our second model -- because it would turn NPR's news sense in upon itself, and, if successful, offer insight into not just what went wrong in the production of this interview, but also into the history of the relation of this president to USian journalism, and how that history is still shaping mainstream perceptions of Bush, of the world he impacts, and of mainstream media's own bias in producing what it likes to believe is a "fair and balanced news product."

The story about the Williams interview would not be a new story, but it would be a news story -- a negation and transformation of the original story driven by forces proper to and internal to the event. USian news doesn't go there, in part because it doesn't see this as news. It doesn't see how large a part of "news" is played by the subjectivity it mistakes, by professional convention, for objectivity. In following the facts (as its 19th century positivist Corrections policies make clear), it abandons its responsibility to think. Or perhaps that's what USian media is designed to do: not think. In which case, there is always a necessary next story - the one that would undo the fabulous knot of every other story - the Cassandra story that never gets produced because it's fated never to be believed.


Post a Comment

<< Home