Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Why Katrina Won't Change a Thing I: The Media

By now, I think everyone has fully catalogued the multitude of ways in which Katrina will change everything. Ornery contrarian that I am, I've become pretty convinced that Katrina will change nothing (except, well, New Orleans, Gulfport, etc.) in the long term. That said, the strongest candidate for Katrina Makeover so far has been: The media. The rise of a "new," "adversarial" media is the most viral meta-meme making the rounds. I predict it'll be dead before New Orleans is dry. I'll explain why, but first, a quick survey:

New York magazine: "In many ways, [Anderson] Cooper and [Brian] Williams defined a fork in the road for the future of broadcast journalism."

The New York Times (9/5/05): "CNN...and National Public Radio...both found their voices amidst the chaos."

The New York Times ("Reporters Turn From Deference To Outrage" 9/5/05): "...it is clear that television is having a major mood swing."

USA Today "Katrina Rekindles Adversarial Media" (9/5/05): "Reporters covering Hurricane Katrina on the scene showed their human — and often angry and frustrated — face as they questioned the slow response over the weekend...

"Says Fordham University communications professor Paul Levinson, 'The media rose to the occasion, shone their light on the desolation and the needy, and kept it focused there until the cavalry finally began to arrive.'

"...some observers say that Katrina's media legacy may be a return to a post-Watergate-like era of tougher scrutiny of the federal government and public policy issues.

"'If any good comes from the catastrophe, it will be that it signaled the beginning of the media's reassertion of aggressive, in-your-face reporting, in which it confronts government wrongdoing, rather than just swallowing the government's public-relations handouts,' Levinson says."

USA Today (also Peter Johnson, but later in the day): "...experts and journalists predict that mounting questions about U.S. government preparation, policies and response to Hurricane Katrina will result in intense news coverage for months.

"Katrina 'doesn't just have legs, it has tentacles,' says Bob Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. 'Its implications reach into hot-button controversies involving race, poverty, economics and partisan politics. The reach of this story will make the O.J. Simpson case look like a news brief.'"

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (9/6/05): "...reporters and anchors have been asking tough questions in combative and even angry tones."

SF Indymedia (9/6/05): "Not for decades has there been such merciless questioning of the president and his administration by the US media."

Reuters (9/7/05): "American TV reporters and newscasters are covering Hurricane Katrina and problem-plagued relief efforts with a sense of outrage and antagonism many thought had long gone out of fashion in broadcast journalism."

Chicago Tribune "A Cronkite Moment in the Gulf Story" (9/9/05): "...we might be witnessing something no one thought was possible in this age. This may be a Cronkite Moment."

Boston Phoenix (9/9/05): "...it took a hurricane to wake up the press, raise the issue of race and class, and redefine the political landscape.

"Hurricane Katrina did not simply destroy physical infrastructure, social fabric, and countless lives on America’s Gulf Coast. It blew away the ground rules that had defined post-9/11 American politics and protected the most polarizing administration in recent history...

"All the elements that George W. Bush and Karl Rove had exploited for political gain — a timid and kowtowing mainstream media, a deafening silence about America’s growing underclass, the fear that criticizing the White House in the era of Al Qaeda was tantamount to treason, and Bush’s can-do, cowboy image — were shattered by the same winds and rains that savaged casinos in Biloxi and homes in Jefferson Parish."

USA Today (9/11/05): "ABC News executive Paul Slavin [says] 'Katrina has uncovered grave weaknesses in this country's ability to handle a crisis, and we need to make sure we hold officials accountable and investigate as best we can both what happened and what might happen.'"
Salon even posted a "Reporters Gone Wild" compilation reel.

So, what does the post-Katrina news media look like? In condensed form, the storyline goes like this: Their "timid and kowtowing" nature "shattered" by Katrina, the "rekindled" media are "asking tough questions," shining "their light on the desolation and the needy" with "merciless questioning of the president and his administration" in "a return to a post-Watergate-like era of tougher scrutiny of the federal government and public policy issues" "with a sense of outrage and antagonism many thought had long gone out of fashion" and "aggressive, in-your-face reporting, in which it confronts government wrongdoing;" "something no one thought was possible in this age...a Cronkite moment," complete with "reporters gone wild."

Wow. That's amazing. And indicative of a grave misunderstanding of some elemental forces that shape news media's editorial judgment. This mistake about the media will, very quickly, come to be seen just as ironically as we now consider the post-9/11 obituaries for irony itself.

Katrina became a media storm for a very simple reason: Its sheer magnitude overwhelmed the fundamentally flawed media levee known by the misnomer of "objectivity." My personal theory is that Watergate, rather than inspiring investigative journalism, inspired a generation of people who became journalists not to challenge power, but to gain the fame that comes with journalism's podium.

Look past the headlines of the stories I've posted above, and you'll see in them the seeds for the return of old-time, useless "journalism." Here are a couple important points SF Indymedia made, though I think the author missed the meaning of the former:
"Never before, say some observers, have US reporters been so emotionally involved in a story to the point of being enraged.

"They are not just telling a story, they have become part of it.

"'Has Katrina saved the US media,?' asked BBC reporter Matt Wells who sees the shift in tone as a potentially historic development.

"A number of US journalists who cover federal politics, especially television presenters, had become part of the political establishment, says Wells.

"'They live in the same suburbs, go to the same parties. Their television companies are owned by large conglomerates who contribute to election campaigns.'

"It's a 'perfect recipe' for fearful, self-censoring reportage, he says, but thinks 'since last week, that's all over'."
No, it's not. And the reason is that after Katrina, the same reporters who were emotionally engaged, and outraged, will return to their desks and their bureaus. And their suburbs. And their parties.

The emotional root of The New Adversarialism is just one reason it will be short-lived; such high-pitched feelings can't and won't last (and shouldn't: Journalists who really cared about Katrina's victims would have wept less afterward and done more boring, public-policy stories beforehand). Nikki Finke in the LA Weekly attributes the death of The New Adversarialism to corporate politics. But even more profoundly at work here is the dynamic of how the media engage not with emotion but with the nature of reality itself.

Yes, this was the first time many of these reporters and journalists saw such conditions on U.S. soil, but the reason that translated into outrage had to do not with emotion, but fact and objectivity. This was the first story in which a critical mass of high-level, decision-making media were on the ground to witness X and have government officials tell them to their face "-X."

It was the first time they were directly, personally cognizant of the Bush administration's willingness to lie to their face about matters they could verify instantly with their own eyes.

This was a shocking event. It was an outrage. Look at who was outraged: Primarily reporters on the ground. The schism at Fox News was not between secret liberals and true conservatives, it was between Shepard Smith knee-deep in reality and Bill O'Reilly back in the studio.

Katrina changed the nature of media coverage because it overcame the media not emotionally but epistemologically. If human suffering were the sole trigger for media outrage, why have the past few years' rising poverty rate -- casting millions of Americans into squalor and despair -- not unleashed the same fury Katrina did? It's because the causal nature of the former is more elusive than the latter. That cognitive distance between cause and effect guarantees the old media will return far too soon.

Why? Media decision-makers don't understand very well themselves why Bush budget policies are factually, objectively, inarguably biased toward the rich: Hence, they won't articulate, let alone explain, that position to their viewers. Media decision-makers don't understand very well themselves not just why evolution is real but must be real: Hence, they wrongly assume they're fulfilling their responsibilities by presenting "both" "sides," when they're actually abdicating their responsibilities by treating one "side" as though it's credible. A journalist's job is not merely to say, "He said/She said." A good journalist says, "He said/She said, but our investigation/analysis revealed that Her numbers have a greater claim to factuality and He has a history of twisting facts." Katrina did the journalism for them by literally swamping journalists with irrefutable, unmistakeable facts.

Without a hurricane at their doorstep, the flow of facts fueling The New Adversarialism will dry up. Don't believe me? It's already happening. Ask Larry Johnson. Already, and on the issue of Katrina itself, he's allegedly been informed by MSNBC that verifiable, quantifiable, empirical matters of fact are actually matters of "opinion" and "perspective."

On the Daily Show, one of the newest and last TV outlets of genuine journalism, Brian Williams, The Transformed Man, was asked who was at fault. "I'm gonna let that one go," he said. "I don't do opinions, I'm going to leave it to others." But Brian, dude, it's not an opinion. It's a matter of law and statute and the performance of public officials under same. Williams mistakes it for opinion because he'd have to convey it in the same way he would an opinion: Not with video of a starving flood survivor, but with nothing more than his assertion that, yes, NBC has assessed applicable laws and statutes and determined that Agency X bore primary responsibility for evacuation coordination and State Department Y was legally in charge of initial law-enforcement response and X only provided 72.3% of buses needed and Y failed to implement maximum-response measures. It feels like an opinion because it can be disagreed-with (out of dishonesty or ignorance) but that doesn't obligate Williams to treat it like an opinion.

The ultimate evidence that this is not a Cronkite moment comes from the simple fact that Cronkite's moment was his declaration of U.S. woes in Vietnam. It became a Cronkite moment because Cronkite did not have the luxury of video proving him right but put his credibility on the line to warn America what the reality was even though Americans could, out of ignorance or ideology, reject his assessment in a way they could not reject video. Katrina gave American media the safety net of objectively indisputable, immediately verifiable reality. Vietnam did not. Katrina will actually prove to be the anti-Cronkite moment. If today's media wants a Cronkite moment, they already have had several years of opportunity to claim that moment: In Iraq.

That they have failed to do so, that they still embrace and mistake omni-subjectivity as objectivity, indicates that we're already returning to the "who-knows-what's-true" school of anti-journalism journalism that nurtured the growth of neglectful government that made possible the post-Katrina woes over which those same journalists wept. And already it makes those fleeting days of early September -- of direct confrontation and confident assertion of fact -- seem positively antediluvian.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking along the same lines - epiphanies don't always produce immediate transformation - if, indeed everyone involved has truly had an epiphany.IOW, people naturally resist change - & how can news reporters be any different?

Everyone roused for a while, but soon it'll be back to routine - tho I DO suspect some folks in the corporate media will NOT be the same - perhaps a critical eye or 2 will stay focussed on this admin.?

The wheels of progress grind exceedingly slow.....

Ryan said...

Not disagreeing with you - very well written and interesting. But within this view of modern journalism, how does one explain reporters and editors' adversarial/antagonistic behavior towards the Left and its figureheads? It's not as if there are no Democrats fraternizing with journalists at cocktail parties; Washington Democrats give the media the same access and taste of power Republicans do. Yet something tells me that if a Democrat makes it to the White House in 2008, he/she won't enjoy nearly the same fawning coverage Bush currently does.

Anonymous said...

Excellent observations. However, I believe that the real shift in media was not due to Watergate but academics. Previously most TV journalist were just that, journalist. They majored in journalism in school and learned the what the “profession” of journalism. Now we have are bunch of communication majors saying they are journalist. These are people that studied media to be part of media

Petty Larseny said...

Regarding journalism...I can't claim to know what portion of journalists originate from media or communications programs now versus the portion that once originated from journalism programs. To my mind, the most important factor is that, regardless of educational background, they're no longer outsiders, the "fuck-offs" and "misfits" of Hunter S. Thompson's formulation. They're now part of the establishment with no motive or instinct for scrutiny of it.

Anonymous said...

Jonathan,

Thank you for your insights - I think (sadly) you are dead-on.

However, I would really like your take on Ryan's point because I think he is pointing to an additional factor which is also at work here. There is some kind of strange antipathy towards the Democrats/Progressives (which has been going on and getting stronger since the Carter/Reagan election) and which you see clearly in TV commentators (like Chris Matthews for example) who can't be accused of being ideologues like those on Fox News, but whose sympathies lean clearly right.

Can you really pawn this off to simply "corporate" ownership of the media - it seems more viseral than that......

Petty Larseny said...

I'm actually NOT citing corporate media ownership as the causal factor here. But you raise a good point about the reality that news media react to the two parties differently and (as you correctly point out) in a way that seems viscerally different. I do have some thoughts on why this may be, and if you check back in a few days, I hope to have them up for you in some coherent form. Thanks for checking out the site.

Anonymous said...

Now that Rita seems to be at the forefront of news coverage, the Bush Administration seems to be more alert to the dangers and is finally taking the lead. I assume that the corporate media will immediately hop on this and tout it to the skies as proof of Bush's "leadership" abilities. They will most certainly see it as an opportunity to erase the disgraceful lethal incompetence which was brought to light by Katrina.

It will be interesting to see how much more efficiently the post-Rita recovery is handled. Let's not forget - The Governor of Lousiana is a Democrat; the Governor of Texas - well, need I say more? You can bet that Texans will be very well taken care of.
Maryellen

Anonymous said...

Brilliant analysis, well done.

sukabi said...

one thing that's never mentioned - and I don't believe it has ever been resolved or discussed much is what was discovered by the Church Committee regarding the CIA and the media -- namely that they had "disinfo journalists" planted in several major media outlets to "shape" the news...

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/JFKintelligence.htm

Gary Hart (junior senator on the committee) was interviewed recently on Democracy Now and briefly mentioned the Church Committee's findings of CIA and the "news" industry... and stated that none of the operatives or their sponsor organizations were ever publically named...

so is it just an inability to learn, or is it a deliberate effort to spin?

sukabi said...

crud, here's the link

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