The era of negotiated news

August 6, 2004

News is a messy and elusive form of information. Reporters don’t just stroll through a meadow of stories in bloom and pluck a bouquet. What gets reported first depends on what journalists hear about. Then the story must seem interesting, significant or both. It has to be something that the journalists have the brains, will and resources to pursue. And they’ll want to know what rival organizations make of it, what sources they routinely rely on say about it, and a multitude of other things.

Plus, news is a collaboration. It’s a team effort, and regardless of how strictly the team is run, news reflects the collision of values, perspectives and passions of the people who create and produce it — and their guesses as to what the reality they’re chasing actually consists of.

That’s a long way of saying that journalism is crude, tentative and fumbling, that it always involves compromise, and that there’s a healthy measure of give-and-take in the process of producing it.

But anybody who enters the profession makes a core commitment to do his or her best to determine and tell the truth. And I think that commitment is now under assault.

The attack doesn’t come from ideologically committed journalists and commentators who put together reports clearly selected and spun-dry to sell a political line. There’s a transparency of motive here that, as long as they retain some minimal respect for fact, may even work to enrich the variety of information and interpretations available to all of us.

The more compelling danger concerns news organizations in the so-called mainstream. By that I mean those that aim to deliver a broadly informative report on current affairs to a demographically diverse audience that isn’t defined by some overriding ideological predisposition. These are the country’s best-staffed and most influential news organizations, and they’re losing their nerve.

I understand why. It’s hard now even to write for publication without being uncomfortably aware of just how thoroughly what you say is going to be inspected for any trace of undesirable political tilt and denounced by a free-floating cadre of rightist warriors.

If that’s apparent to me as a mere columnist, I can only imagine the current mindset of supervising editors: If we give prominence to this story of carnage in Iraq, will we be accused of anti-administration bias? And – here it gets interesting — will we therefore owe our readers an offsetting story, perhaps an inspirational tale of Marines teaching young Iraqis how to play softball?

Now, both stories may well be integral to news of Iraq. If so, both should be told. The problem arises when the softball story is nothing but a Pentagon publicist’s brainstorm seized on by right-wing bloggers — and the pressure to tell it comes not from a principled desire to deliver a factual account that is broadly emblematic of significant happenings in Iraq, but from a gutless attempt to buy off a hostile and suspicious fragment of the audience base.

The underlying problem is that news then becomes a negotiation – not a negotiation among discordant pictures of reality, as it always is, but an abject negotiation with a loud and bullying sliver of the audience. News of great significance becomes not an honest attempt to reflect genuinely contradictory realities, but a daily bargaining session with an increasingly factionalized public, a corrupted process in which elements of the news report become offerings — payments really — in a kind of intellectual extortion.

The performance of this country’s finest news organizations in the run-up to the Iraq invasion of March 2003 will be remembered as a disgrace. To be sure, it was an angry, fearful time, and independent-minded reporting might not have been heard above the drumbeats of patriotism and war. But it’s hard to read the hand-wringing confessionals from news organizations that now realize they got the pre-war story wrong without concluding that the real problem was they were afraid to tell the truth.

Resisting undue outside influence is part of what news professionals do, even when that influence comes from the public they’re honor-bound to serve. It’s hard enough to get the story right, without holding it hostage to an open-ended negotiation with zealots who believe they already know what the story is.

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