“Members of Congress fall over each other to support Israel,” the AP said on Twitter. Then the AP decided that it could not say that. Why?
It’s early in the game. I have only been writing about this concept for four years. Okay, nine. Whatever! I keep at it. This is a work of pressthink that I am still trying to render properly for readers. Starts like so:
Alongside the production of news and commentary American journalists working in mainstream newsrooms have to continuously reproduce their own innocence. By “innocence” I mean some kind of public showing that they have no politics themselves, no views of their own, no side, no stake, no ideology and therefore no one can accuse them of unfairly tilting the news this way or that.
It’s not enough to proclaim innocence: we have no party, we take no side. In the style of journalism I’m talking about — still the house style at the AP, CNN, NPR, the BBC — innocence is a production requirement. If the requirement isn’t met, the work fails, and it can be sent back to the shop.
Sometimes innocence is built into the form. On CNN’s Crossfire, circa 2005, the show would open like this:
ANNOUNCER: From the left, Michael Kinsley… From the right, Mary Matalin.
This simple routine is a load-bearing feature of the show’s design, balancing the stresses on CNN’s reputation and restoring innocence nightly.
Any fan of NBA basketball has seen defenders put their hands up in the air ostentatiously, with funny facial expressions to match. It’s meant to show the refs: See? I’m not pushing. In news there are moves like that, and this is what I’m calling the production of innocence.
On July 29, the Associated Press sent out this bulletin:
As much of world watches Gaza war in horror, members of Congress fall over each other to support Israel: http://t.co/DepO2etLQS
— The Associated Press (@AP) July 29, 2014
About five hours later the AP caught itself:
— The Associated Press (@AP) July 29, 2014
“Members of Congress fall over each other…” is a characterization of the facts chosen by the AP writer and supported by the information in the story. If there’s any situation in American politics where they “fall all over each other” it’s support for Israel in the United States Congress. So this statement is a little saucy, a little cynical but it is accurate. The AP nonetheless decided it was “too much.”
The original header produced the news well enough but it failed to produce enough innocence for the AP. “Many U.S. lawmakers strongly back Israel…” is not more true than “they fall over themselves.” But it is more innocent. When the switch is made the AP feed suffers a loss of vivid. Its colors wilt. There is less voice, less urgency in the language. And the AP willingly pays this cost. Why? Lots of reasons. I isolate these two:
* In the sociology of newswork one of the first things you learn is that a firm involved in news production is uniquely vulnerable to public criticism and prone to costly mistakes. A news report is a first draft, an improvised understanding. It is frequently wrong or blind. Therefore an established firm in the news business needs regular and reliable ways to protect itself from the criticism it knows will come, including some criticism for which there is no good defense, nothing beyond: I know, but we didn’t have time!
* In the American setting media bias is a driver in politics, and culture war is where some people go to live. A major provider like the AP gets hit hard in the bias wars, so the principle, don’t give them ammunition! has to be built into its routines. That’s the production of innocence. I’ve rendered it this way:
AP SOCIAL MEDIA TEAM: “Members of Congress fall over each other to support Israel.”
INNOCENCE METER BOT: Headline script approved on accuracy. Failed on innocence. Please try again and re-submit.
AP SOCIAL MEDIA TEAM: “Many U.S. lawmakers strongly back Israel in Gaza war.”
INNOCENCE METER BOT: Headline script approved on accuracy. Approved on innocence. You are cleared to post.
William James used to call it the “cash value” of the concept. What can you do with it? Well, you can ask good questions.
Q. 1 The production of innocence has benefits that are obvious. Risk-reduction. Haven from criticism. But it also has costs. Loss of voice, loss of nerve. How do we know when the costs exceed the benefits?
Q. 2 And what if costs are rising in the field of innocence production? Isn’t that the whole point of making culture war on the media, to drive those costs up?
Q. 3 What advantages do born-digital newsrooms gain over legacy newsrooms when they decide they no longer care about the production of innocence– as say, Gawker, has?
Q. 4 When you finally come to the conclusion, there is no haven from criticism, the world doesn’t work that way any more, are the costs of producing innocence alongside the news still justifiable? (“BBC Trust says 200 senior managers trained not to insert ‘false balance’ into stories when issues were non-contentious.” Expensive!)
Q. 5 I know, I know: advertisers like the signs of innocence and advertisers pay the bills. How’s that going?
Q. 6 Let’s say you junk the innocence machinery. What gets put in its place? (My bet: “here’s where we’re coming from” + make a good argument + high standards of verification beats the old system.)
Q. 7 As they mount, reports that get “approved on accuracy” but “fail on innocence” represent colors of truth the news provider feels it cannot provide. Is that a trustworthy system?
Q. 8 Suppose you junk the production of innocence due to mounting costs and diminishing value. Now you have fewer means for avoiding criticism. Which means you have to reply more to criticism. But how do you do that well and still have time to produce the news?
I don’t know. But as I said, it’s early times.