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Post Bias, Narrative Expectation, and the "NYT Problem"
Created by John Eipper on 01/17/19 3:55 AM

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Bias, Narrative Expectation, and the "NYT Problem" (David A. Westbrook, USA, 01/17/19 3:55 am)

Within 24 hours I happened to read Gary Moore's thoughtful post (January 15th) and an old essay by my friend Jim Faubion, a philosopher and anthropologist at Rice.

Faubion remarked that one of the typical if not universal experiences of ethnographic fieldwork--which typically takes a considerable amount of time--is a reorientation and sometimes substantial revision of the beliefs and understandings that motivated and structured the research project in the first place. What George Marcus called the "slowness" of the ethnographic inquiry results in very different understandings than usually found in even very fine journalism. (I elaborate on these various temporalities at some length in my book Navigators of the Contemporary.)

Ethnography thus serves as a counterpoint to the "NYT Problem" with which this thread is concerned. From that perspective, the question becomes, why is journalism so often wrong, or if not wrong, somehow "off," which one only discovers after acquiring some substantial familiarity? The obvious answer is "bias," usually of a politically partisan sort. But, as Gary points out, while political allegiances certainly color accounts, partisan bias doesn't seem like an adequate answer.

We get more traction if we understand "bias" not just in terms of simple advocacy, e.g., for or against a current administration, but more completely in terms of narrative expectation. Journalism is about stories, narratives. And to read such stories, we need to have some kind of expectation of the kind of story we are reading, or else we are going to have to do a lot of work. That is, we in some sense generally read stories we have read already, just with different names and dates.

In a fine essay, Jeff Jarvis (a professor of journalism) analyzes the Claas Relotius scandal as an example of the dangers of narrative for news. Relotius is a prize-winning journalist, notably for the left-leaning weekly Der Spiegel (roughly equivalent to Time back in the day), who for years has published things that simply are not true, often about America. How did this happen, many Germans reasonably ask. The deeper problem, argues Jarvis, is not simply "bias" or "fake news" (although some of this was in fact fake), but the dependency of journalism, almost regardless of media, on "a good story," which has its own seductions, even for fact checkers and editors.


The point of many of Relotius' stories is that America is brutal. I have much to say on this score, but for present purposes the focus should be on German readers, expectations, rather than American conditions, descriptions. "The US is a brutal society" is a banality among large numbers of Germans. So a Spiegel article instantiating what such readers (including the Spiegel editors) already knew is hardly surprising or difficult, and therefore encounters little skepticism or critical resistance. In fact, the reader is free to admire the polish of Relotius's prose, for which he won all those prizes. "Facts" are for ornamental or illustrative purposes in what is essentially a rhetorical performance, informative like a forensics competition. Admittedly, this is an extreme case, but not unique, and the general problem is widespread.

Jarvis suggests journalists should listen more and speak less. Right. Unfortunately, news must be delivered quickly, or it is not news. And the business model of the press requires huge amounts of content. And so narrative, telling lots and lots of stories, now, is imperative, especially given a 24-hour news cycle. Even erstwhile periodicals like the New Yorker and the Atlantic report daily now. (Flip over to CNN's webpage and ask yourself how much of this is actually news.) In the process of story manufacture and distribution, what Gary calls "simplified media narratives" are required because neither writers nor especially readers have time to process new narratives. "Facts" are therefore inserted into ready-made narratives that, at least in the abstract and often in some detail preexist the news events in question. (Anybody who has been asked by a journalist for a quote or worse, background, comes to realize that the story is already almost finished.)

So what we generally read is only in a primitive, if still necessary, sense "the news." Its framing is old, and may or may not be apposite. We readers, who have no other sources, are not in a position to know. We are thus not simply biased by the will of another, but predisposed, quite literally, prejudiced. At this juncture, it might be worth remembering that "bien pensant" is not a compliment.

JE comments:  "We generally read stories we have read already"--how true.  I have the silly habit of checking Yahoo! News first thing every morning (to see if the world's still there?), and they are notorious for recycling content. Often they don't even bother to change the dates and names.  At present, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a safe bet to appear in the top 3 or 4 stories.

Even WAIS is guilty of pandering to "narrative expectation" more than I'd like to admit.  EU dysfunction anyone?  How about the sundry "declines" of economic justice, civility, and civilization itself?

The bias/expectation distinction is important.  It's easier to understand news inaccuracies if we detect an underlying agenda from an outside actor.  Bert Westbrook asks us to probe deeper--to look at ourselves.

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  • Narrative Expectation: We Need Somebody to Demonize (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA 01/18/19 3:11 AM)

    Gary Moore writes:

    Thanks to Bert Westbrook (January 17th) for his insightful confirmation
    of my "Simple Media Narratives" post.

    As a journalist, when
    digging reveals hypocrisy or blindness in mainstream media
    narratives, I get the queasy feeling of my own life and aims
    being balanced atop nothingness. And though antidote appears
    occasionally in the intrepid counter-exposé, time has shown that
    this is often one more pipe dream: A lone voice not only goes into
    the crackpot bin, but there is the deeper problem of even phrasing
    a counter-narrative when so much resistance must be replied to at
    every turn.  Bert's phrase, "narrative expectation," goes a ways toward
    explaining why large parts of journalism can be undermined (however
    privately) if the primary evidence is sifted. As Bert said, a reader
    looks for a "story," a manageable packet of meaning, and manageability
    often means it must repeat what the reader already expects--that is,
    prejudice is built in. It may be of the left or right, but unfortunately the punch
    often demands an ancient standard in human interpretation: demonization,
    somebody to lynch.

    I wrote the post after a long period of digging into a recent news theme,
    the immigrant "caravan" phenomenon at the southern US border. I didn't
    know at the outset that this was one of those periodic topics bringing out
    some of the worst in journalism, as the temptations of story-packaging
    emotion--thrilling crusade and desperate need--leap to precedence over
    inconvenient background facts, the hiding of which can seem insignificant,
    or even a badge of honor in inflated, bafflingly shallow concealers. After
    other long experiences, I think this topic was doubly doomed, simply because
    it involves that "other America," the part of North America that speaks Spanish,
    that is, Mexico and now prominently Central America, whose image is summed up
    in strategy-speak as "the underbelly"--or, more poetically by James Agee, in a bygone
    paean to supposed wanton passion, calling Latin America "that woman."

    North-of-the-border ignorance about Latin America, awe-inspiring as it is, takes strength
    from the region's own patterns of tumult, which leave examination up for grabs. That feeling
    of balancing atop nothingness multiplied as I finally wrote what would be my post on the immigrant
    caravans. Even a sympathetic reader should perhaps not be asked to wade through the resulting
    twists. Ambivalence keeps popping up everywhere: that pesky lack of a unified call to crusade.
    The post is soon to follow.

    JE comments:  The lone voice ends up in the crackpot bin--Gary Moore couldn't have said it more concisely.  Yet the "vox" in the desert is also what we demand from our heroes.  Is it the Quixote factor--both heroic...and insane?

    Gary has already sent his post on the immigrant caravans. Before the light of today wanes, it will see the light of day.

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