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If journalists listened to media scholars…
By Rick Perlstein
Art by Allen Carroll

…and media scholars listened to journalists, would the standards of reportage change? Or would news-bringers and news-theorists continue to ply their separate courses?

The University of Chicago Chronicle article announcing the scholarly conference “Constru(ct)ing the Current: Theorizing Media in a New Millennium” offered a textbook case of newspaper journalism. The “hed,” as it’s called in journalese, was attention-grabbing: “Alumnus Hersh, who broke stories on My Lai massacre, torture in Iraq, will join scholars to examine media.” The “lede” was punchy: “In this week’s issue of the New Yorker magazine, Chicago alumnus Seymour Hersh broke the story of a top general’s secret report. …” The “nut graf”—the paragraph summarizing why readers should read the story—enticed: “Beginning with the assumption that news is neither a natural nor self-evident category, but the product of selection and representation, the two-day symposium will bring scholars together in an effort to understand how news comes into being.”

IMAGE:  Illustration by Allen Carroll

It was a textbook case of newspaper journalism—except for one thing: a news story shouldn’t predict. In fact, Hersh, AB’58, didn’t show. The lede of a post-event article on the May 14–15 conference sponsored by Chicago’s Political Communications Initiative might have run something like this: “The different worlds of reporting and academia collided at International House this past spring, and the result resembled nothing so much as a black hole: it produced a deeply meaningful absence.”

The nut graf would explain: “In a conference on how news comes into being, the spectacle of the star attraction missing the show because he was on deadline for a hot scoop served almost as an allegory. Again and again, the assembled media theorists—sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, literary scholars, and a lone law professor, from 14 universities—lamented how their attempts to win the ear of the journalists they scrutinize, and would like to inform, were stymied by the very different values of news gathering and academic scholarship.”

The story would continue: “Few journalists were present to hear the lament: a veteran newspaper reporter, two radio producers, a magazine writer, and a couple more. Except for the keynote speaker (Nation magazine Washington correspondent John Nichols, filling in for Hersh at the last minute), journalists weren’t on the program. And when they rose to speak during question-and-answer sessions, they complained about the baffling jargon the scholars used, or that their blue-sky theorizing should take into account the time pressures working reporters face. Then the journalists were gone—back to the office to crash the next deadline.”

That rainy weekend in May, conference-goers—about 50 in all, the tiny contingent of journalists overwhelmed by scholars, students, and some Hyde Park residents—learned that when communications professionals and the scholars who study them try to communicate, communications break down. Those breakdowns draw out questions about what kind of stories best serve truth and democracy. The questions remained, of course, unanswered. But they left in their wake some common ground: a sense that journalists and scholars can improve each other’s work—if only they could learn to listen to one another.

image:  boat

Sentimentalization of the news makes the audience feel at home in their social skins, not challenged by the demands of citizenship.

First, the professors. When media scholars get together, they talk structures: the conventions that prevent journalists from having to reinvent the wheel (hed, lede, nut graf) every time they sit down to craft a news article, produce a news segment, or bark out a radio dispatch. Structures, social theorists like to say, not only constrain, they also enable. They let us get out of bed every morning and have a meaningful day. But structures can be manipulative: grooves that direct us this way instead of that. Often the grooves are invisible to the naked eye, revealed only through research and sustained reflection. Such revelation is the goal of critical scholarship.

Another purpose of critical scholarship is to demonstrate that people are never as autonomous as they think they are. By understanding the structures they unthinkingly reproduce, they can better free themselves from such constructs, or at least begin to create better, richer structures that provide access to better, richer truths. It frustrates scholars, as Adel Iskander of the University of Kentucky put it, that such ideas are “not being reflected back to the media profession.”

Now for the journalists. In 1996 Pierre Bourdieu, the late French sociologist, wrote a slender book, On Television, a bestseller and media cause célèbre that examined “the hidden constraints on journalists, which they in turn bring to bear on all cultural producers.” Journalists, who had eagerly embraced Bourdieu when he dissected the French educational system and academic intellectuals, were outraged when he turned his sociological eye to their profession: they read his book as an attack on their autonomy, an accusation directed at their undue influence. “It should go without saying,” Bourdieu replied indignantly, that his agenda was “not to denounce those in charge or to point a finger at the guilty parties,” but only to understand structures—in this case the structures responsible for what he termed journalism’s “demagogic simplification.”

No wonder the reporters were angry. Reporters pride themselves on their ability to simplify information for a mass audience. The conventions by which they do so may not be the most intellectually sophisticated, but at their best those conventions are matchlessly efficient at bringing the news—sorting through an infinity of information and reducing it to the most essential facts, sometimes when the powers that be would rather have us not know at all. At the Chicago conference’s closing session, University of Maryland political scientist Christian Davenport, who delivered a paper on human-rights media coverage, noted how easy it was for the Rwandan government to cover up its depredations by manipulating “journalists and naive academics.” His phrase wounds a journalist’s pride with its clear implication: all journalists are naive, only some academics.

Hersh might have had something angry to say about all that—were he not busy at exactly that moment exposing U.S. human-rights abuses in Iraq. There was a journalist on hand at that moment to represent his tribe, a polite old gentleman who stood up to express how pleased he was that academics were thinking so hard about how his profession might become more self-critical. But, he said, he’d found most of the conference sessions “bewildering.”

“There is a historic hostility between media theorists and media people,” reflected Andrea Wenzel, a Chicago journalist who dropped by the conference. She should know; she’s seen it from both sides. Wenzel, AB’99, AM’99, did her senior thesis on the news program Worldview, produced by local National Public Radio affiliate WBEZ. As a scholar of the show she did the same thing many of the conference-goers do in their research: endeavored to get journalists to reflect critically on their news judgments. Then she was hired as a Worldview staffer, and she tried to continue in that critical role. This being NPR, not some supermarket tabloid, her colleagues were glad to hear her out. “But I encountered a bit of, ‘Oh, that’s unrealistic. That’s all nice, but we don’t have time for that.’ And I was like, ‘We can make time for this.’ And it hasn’t really happened.”

In a session called “Meditations Inside Media: Cultures of Journalism,” Cornell University anthropologist Dominic Boyer, AM’94, PhD’00, provided an emblem of the contradiction. Boyer’s talk, based on his fieldwork at a regional East German television station, contained plenty to confound the stereotypical newsroom ink-stained wretch. He began by examining the conference’s deconstruction-flavored title, “Constru(ct)ing the Current,” a meditation that delved into the Latin word construere and included several more words a newsroom denizen might only grudgingly acknowledge belonged to the English language. Then he delivered a sharp kick in the pants to any academic confident he could do a journalist’s job.

image:  boat

Sorting through an infinity of information, reporters pride themselves on their ability to simplify material for a mass audience.

The East German news director had explained to Boyer that his office received and evaluated about 2,000 news bulletins and hundreds of press releases a day (“And 99 percent of the time it’s just self-promotional crap,” his informant said). He read it all, Boyer said, demonstrating how he plows through all this paper first thing in the morning, some 300 documents in 30 minutes. Raising his left hand, then his right, Boyer mimicked how the news director read dispatches nearly two at a time. Some scholars’ eyes widened: journalists reflecting critically on the structures that constrain and enable their practices? The German news director doesn’t even have resources to send reporters to a story’s scene—the exception being the time the station’s own studios were about to be flooded by the Elbe River.

“Academics have so much time,” Wenzel said wistfully. “Until we can carve out time,” she said, journalists are stuck with their current structures. “It’s the habits we practice as we get by.” Unknowingly, she had dredged up a concept straight out of Bourdieu, who coined the term habitus to describe how social structures work. The word has a double significance: it refers to “habits” and to the social habitation that habits build: a sense of normalcy, of feeling comfortable, at home, when people conform to social structures, in contrast to the discomfort they feel when behaving at odds with those norms. Thus people reproduce social structures every time they act “normal”—simply by acting out the “habits we practice as we get by.”

That concept was at the heart of the journalists’ discomfort in the face of Bourdieu’s book. Journalists’ habits play an outsized role in helping determine other citizens’ habits: they tell the stories that help communities define what is normal. Bourdieu, reporters felt, was accusing them of being inordinately powerful—and, simultaneously, of being mere servants to the powers that be. A symbol of the trouble was on display at the Chicago conference. University of Pittsburgh sociologist Carrie Rentschler, discussing how therapeutic ideas about managing trauma have influenced journalism (for the worse, she thought), criticized the New York Times’ “Portraits of Grief” series—those capsule obituaries of September 11 victims that ran in the back pages of the stand-alone “A Nation Challenged” section. In all the series’s melodrama, she argued, it served as a rhetorical bludgeon “to help legitimize going to war.”

Reporters, who often feel powerless themselves, would no doubt argue that it wasn’t their job (or that they didn’t have time) to critically direct the rhetorical wallop of the package; instead, they practiced the habits journalists employ to get by, one of which is, when called upon to write about the dead, to tell sentimental stories. Is it fair to imply that their comforting profiles for a grieving nation had anything to do with the country’s military policies?

At another session, Chicago political-science doctoral student Deva Rashida Woodly, AM’03, voiced annoyance at what she detected as a similarly accusatory tone in other conference papers. “If journalists are complicit, with whom are they complicit?” she asked. It was one of the weekend’s open questions. A wide range of theories concern the complex relationship of agency to structure, some radically pluralist in their implications (locating the sources of power everywhere and nowhere), some nearly conspiratorial. Hashing out such differences makes up the warp and woof of any humanities or social-science conference. Out of the resulting fabric can come concrete insights about the world—for the scholarly aficionado, a deeply pleasurable thing to watch. But to become an aficionado requires time, training, and patience: just what the journalistic habitus has not found space for. It’s part of the explanation for the historic hostility between media theorists and media practitioners, part of the reason for all the bewilderment.

But sometimes media scholars say things media professionals need to hear. Sometimes scholarly excavations of how journalistic structures get unthinkingly reproduced reveal necessary insights. For sometimes such structures are not efficient in bringing the news but rather get in the way—a process only critical scholarship, for all its complexities and abstractions, can explain. A paper by Melani McAlister, an associate professor of American studies and international affairs at George Washington University, “The Personal Is Political: Television News and the 1979–1980 Iran Hostage Crisis,” was the conference’s standout example.

The hostage crisis was a watershed event, argued McAlister, changing the way the media, especially the electronic media, brings the news of national trauma—as sentimental morality tales glossing over historical and political background. To prove her point she unpacked an utterance by Walter Cronkite: one night in February 1980, the CBS anchor referred to “the gigantic puzzle for the last 103 days that has been Iran.” But the event, McAlister stressed, even if criminal and monumentally uncivil, was not a puzzle. The militants who had taken over their nation were explicit about their aim: to overthrow what they saw as a feckless and cruel native elite, in hock to the West. They were even more explicit about the goal of their hostage taking. They demanded extradition of the Shah from the United States to stand trial in Iran. What rendered the events puzzling, McAlister demonstrated, was their misrepresentation on television news, packaged in an innovative, if questionable, new genre of sentimentality.

ABC led the way with its popular nightly wrap-up, America Held Hostage (which later became Nightline). McAlister chalked up its success to the ascension of ABC’s flashy sports producer Roone Arledge to head up the news division—fresh from leading ABC’s 1976 Olympics coverage. Arledge’s revolution? Telling the hostage story through the same “up close and personal” tropes by which he had revolutionized TV sports. The other networks, spying ABC’s ratings, followed in hot pursuit. A new cultural figure saturated American television screens (and still does): the grieving family member—a moving part of the story, even an essential one. But soon it became the cornerstone of practically the only story broadcast news was telling. McAlister described one clip in which a reporter asked a little girl what she wanted for Christmas—knowing full well that the answer was to have her Daddy back.

The hostages’ status “as good people and good family members, good to their children”—never their simultaneous status as officials of a country with which the militants believed themselves at war—preempted grown-up debate about whether the problem had anything to do with previous American Middle East policy. Instead the news got trapped into a habitus saturated with sentimentality—“the cultural work of privatization,” McAlister summarized it, this insistence on some inherent American “right to live our lives unmolested by politics.” Such coverage has had repercussions: “Why do they hate us?” Americans asked during the hostage crisis as much as after 9/11. Not for any reason TV news took upon itself to examine.

Because it became so habitual for a story’s most maudlin aspect to become a story’s dominant aspect, McAlister stressed, TV news—and as the New York Times’ “Portraits of Grief” series suggests, most news in this country—becomes an ongoing saga of individual Americans, living their lives in exemplary ordinariness, being set upon by inexplicable outside forces. Sentimental family scenes have become this TV segment’s substitute for the newspaper nut graf, and analysis rarely goes any deeper. McAlister wasn’t the only scholar to stress the political effects of the news’ increased reliance on this trope. It evolved as one of the conference’s unintended themes. Mark Pedelty of the University of Minnesota made a convincing case that during the 1980s Salvadoran civil war, the supposedly sentimental genres of rock and folk music changed places with the supposedly unsentimental genre of TV news: listeners got more useful political information from the songs than from the news stories. Meg McLagan of NYU, meanwhile, demonstrated how the very aspirations of the Tibetan freedom movement had been scaled down by a human rights–oriented media strategy that stressed the suffering of pitiable innocents (monks and nuns) in lieu of a more politicized struggle for national liberation.

Wenzel lamented journalism’s overreliance on sentimentality. But “it’s just really hard,” she said, to imagine ways beyond the now-familiar tropes. “Those sorts of stories are easier. I’d like to see scholars come up with ways to help us with this issue in a practical way.”

It isn’t easy, and it’s a question of habitus. The conference’s arguments about sentimentality relied on decades of intellectual labor on “sentiment” and its psychic, historical, political, existential, and phenomenological determinants—work that dates back to the scholarly examination of how women in the 18th century, seen as the natural bearers of “feeling,” pushed themselves into the political sphere. One scholar whom McAlister cited, Chicago English professor Lauren Berlant, has led the way in describing how such sentimentalism has evolved to become a dominant mode of participating in public life today. Berlant provides richly theorized accounts of the myriad psychological steps by which we match the stories we see on our screens to stories we recognize in our lives; the ways that the news makes us feel comfortable—emotionally at home—in our social skins, not challenged by the demands of citizenship.

“The history of U.S. political modernity has registered a shift of priority within normative, performative power styles from the rational circuit of opinionated argument to the visceral performance of moral clarity,” Berlant writes in one recent paper. “Television has elaborated these norms of what we might call emotional humanism, relying on the successful broadcast of scenes of intense emotion to serve as a lubricant for social belonging....” As a result, “the airwaves are saturated with incitements to keep citizens linked to each other through beliefs that the version of experience they see digested on screen is composed of their own, the public’s own, simultaneous, spontaneous, identical, and transparent sensations in response to events deemed clearly worthy of noticing.”

These are arguments every journalist should have to contend with. But it’s not practical to explicate passages like Berlant’s on deadline. It’s a far less practical project to imagine how media scholars might persuade journalists to buck the complex interrelated system of structure, agency, ideology, money, and power that keep these sentimental stories getting told. In a word, it would be hard to bring journalists into the embrace of academic theorists—even if it would improve their craft. Better lines of communication, however, would be a start. Journalists might risk the occasional attendance at scholarly conferences on their profession—though they might have to muster some mighty patience, even some swallowed pride, to do so. Editors and executives might slow their breakneck demands long enough to give reporters time to take the risk. And scholars, for their part, could work harder to meet journalists halfway. Both sides could shed some naïveté about what it means to bring the news.

Rick Perlstein, AB’92, is chief national political correspondent at the Village Voice and author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (Hill & Wang, 2001).


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