The production of innocence: tale of two headlines over Gaza

Jul.
31
“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:


About five hours later the AP caught itself:


“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.

30 Comments

  1. jon says:

    “So this statement is a little saucy, a little cynical but it is accurate. ”

    What makes it “saucy,” Jay? It’s saucy because it telegraphs the reporter’s bias. It let’s them know that he doesn’t really think this is a good thing. What’s more, the phrase, “fall over each other” suggests a rush to judgment i.e. the members of Congress are rushing to support Israel without carefully considering the matter. They are politicians…creatures of the Israeli lobby…they instinctively support Israel.

    So….the second headline is better. Got it?

  2. John says:

    AP did the right thing in walking the tweet back. Seems like Rosen’s opinion is reflective of some “journalist’s” notions that some groups are so reprehensible that attacks on them are acceptable — witness a recent tweetfest between an abusive gay NYT reporter and a Heritage Foundation reseacher who supports traditional marriage: The reporter asserted that abusing the HF man was inbounds because the HR man is “hurting people” and his views are “not nice” and are today unacceptable. The AP tweeter might or might not have a similar animus against Israel, but if he or she didn’t then I was fooled. “You people” need to work better at not letting your slips show. Disdain the “born digital” media. Even if it often meant couching my phrases (and it did), I did my damnedest to keep my views to myself. Your and the AP’s doctrine of “innocence” is not only cynical, it is narcissistic. Innocence is not for the protection of your organization against criticism; innocence should be based in the belief that if we in all fairness present as many facts and truths as possible, the news consumer will be able to form his or her own views. Hiding behind your understanding of innocence betrays the kind of condecension that makes people stop buying your newspapers, quit listening to your station, and turn the channel. Note to you, to the AP and to the NYT reporter: As a journalist, you have no right to an opinion, except on well-marked pages with huge banners atop them that shout “OPINION!” (Of course as a real legacy news oldtimer, I assert that no one who writes news for news pages or segments ever has a right to a public opinion, even on opinion pages, but I’ll not be so insistent on that one; my oldfashioned joournalistic ethics are enough of a loser anyway.)

    • Jay Rosen says:

      I think you put the loss-of-voice position well:

      As a journalist, you have no right to an opinion, except on well-marked pages with huge banners atop them that shout “OPINION!” … I assert that no one who writes news for news pages or segments ever has a right to a public opinion, even on opinion pages.

      • Will Bunch says:

        When you say that out loud, “no reporter is entitled to an opinion”…I’m surprised you don’t realize how ridiculous that sounds. You’re essentially saying that “no reporter is a human being.” Let’s just speed up robot reporting and get it over with. But what you wrote is also a lie. EVERY reporter has an opinion (I know…I’ve been one for 33 years). What is fundamentally dishonest is lying to the reader and pretending you don’t have one. That’s why many of us believe it’s more honest for reporters to be open and transparent about who we are and what we believe and share that with the public, rather than chase a phony tail of innocent “objectivity.”

        • G Cookies says:

          Not ture. Reporters sometimes have opinions. Sometimes they don’t. If a guy covers a football game or some court case between two businessmen, he may not care who wins. The idea that reporters can never be fair is not true at all; it happens every day. That’s like saying a judge can’t be fair, or an arbitrator can’t be fair, or an umpire will always favor one side, or an election worker can’t count ballots accurately, or a scientist will always manipulate data. None of this means you are a robot. It means you try to be fair. You listen more than you talk. You try to understand, and have empathy for people, even those you don’t think you have much in common with. You let the facts guide your judgements, not the other way around. Those are the essential qualities of a good reporter.

          In disputes, sometimes one side is righter than the other. Sometimes neither side is. There isn’t always one truth, there are many different truths. That is certainly true with international conflicts. Trying to cut through all the different perspectives and get to what is really going on is one of the hardest things to do in journalism. But it’s also one the most essential.

          When you’re a reporter, you have a certain compact with your readers, and it says: Everything I’m telling you is true. One of the toughest things do as a reporter is to not pre-judge a situation. But it’s also the most important thing to do, because there is always the slightest chance you might be wrong about something. It has happened to me a million times. And as a reporter you should always be testing yourself, trying to make sure you are really getting to the truth of a situation. Because even when you think you know it all, a lot of times you find there is a lot more out there than you realize.

          The person who wrote this Tweet clearly has their mind made up about the Gaza war. And clearly that opinion colors how they report the facts. Nothing in their Tweet shows me that they are a fair broker of information, or, if I disagree with their perspective, \ I should trust their recitation of the facts isn’t colored by their preconceived notions. And so I wouldn’t trust them. And in the end, all a news source has is its credibility.

          When you imply the world needs more opinions in journalism, I wonder what you are reading. The Internet is full of people mouthing off. You can read all sorts of opinions on every blog post, in every comment section, on social media ad infinitum. That Tweet could have been written by any sub-Gawker blooger; why do I need to read the AP for snarky tweets? I can find far better elsewhere.

          What is rare is the news organization that can teach you things, that can give you information that you can absolutely 100 percent trust, even if you may have different points of view. That is what separates the top best journalists from the bloggers and people in comment sections. The AP hss traditionally been that kind of news source. This threatens that.

          • Tom says:

            As Glenn Greenwald has said, there are two basic types of reporting: “Politics some” and “Politics none.” The first type has solid facts with the reporter’s political opinion/angle. The second type is only facts.

            Both types of reporting are valid. Dr. Rosen is not saying that all news reports should be politicized opinions. He’s saying that when a solid report in the sense of being factual also contains some opinion, this should be valued and respected. It doesn’t suggest we should have zero completely objective reports.

          • G Cookies says:

            No one is saying that opinion journalism should not be done, or that reporters should never offer opinions. The point is whether the AP should abandon its tradition of mostly fact-based reporting and instead offer snarky Tweets.

            Let’s say that happened. People would start identifying it with a certain point of view. Which, one would assume, would make it a little more difficult for people in the Israel bureau. Which would make it a far worse news gathering service. The AP would become identified with a certain point of view. In effect, it would become the Intercept. But the thing is, the AP has a business model. The Intercept, as far as I can tell, has no business model whatsoever, and is just a billionaire’s plaything. So this post is suggesting that the AP abandon its long tradition of respected fact-based journalism to emulate something which doesn’t get the same respect and doesn’t make a penny.

            By the way, if you really like “politics some,” I have a great channel for you. It’s called Fox News. That is opinionated news on all day. And there is another one called MSNBC, if you swing that way. There is also Daily Caller, Breitbart, Talking Points Memo, The New York Post, etc. etc. So it’s not like the market is lacking opinion-based journalism.

            The question is: Do those outlets offer better reporting that The New York Times, AP, etc.? I think the honest answer is, yes, sometimes. If you agree with them, you might say a lot of the time. But really, considering how many words they have all poured out, they don’t have much really great output to show for how long they have been around. If I want the news on some hot topic, I am going to turn to the New York Times or AP, not some site that just links to what they say or tells me what to think.

            Finally I believe that Rosen made the “politics none” comment, not Greenwald – but whatever, they march in lockstep.

  3. Professor Rosen’s general points about the increasing costs and diminishing benefits of the “production of innocence” are well taken. However, using this pair of AP tweets as the premise for this discussion is flawed. Rosen asserts that the phrase “fall all over each other” is an accurate précis of the contents of the underlying story to which the tweet links. It is “supported by the information in the story,” he asserts.

    I don’t think so.

    “Falling all over each other”, to me, implies a buffoonish, pandering, self-serving, impetuous, rush to judgment. Such a mood may, indeed, be permeating the Halls of Congress as members vie to win the AIPAC accolade of Israel’s truest supporter. If so, the AP’s reporters would have done their readers a service by noting it and reporting it fully. But that was not what the AP story actually said, or even implied.

    Agreed, it is true that the second tweet is more innocent than the first. I disagree that each tweet is an equally accurate summary of the underlying article: the former introduced a new concept that did not exist in the original reporting.

    • Don says:

      I concur that the first tweet was needlessly and inappropriately judging. But the second is inferior because it removes a significant fact – the difference in world opinion from Congressional positions. That is news, and it’s news that is rarely well-reported in the US.

      Removing bias words is a proper application of the craft. Removing facts and information is not.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Thanks. Andrew.

      I don’t believe I used the term “more accurate.” I said it was a defensible characterization, supported by the facts in the story and by the long history of support for Israel. Saucy. Voicey. Cynical, I said it was. But not a cheap shot. A well aimed one.

      I also said the wilted version is not more truthful.

      My real purpose is to make visible the motion of the innocence meter, so if you see how the second tweet is more innocent than the first the goal is largely met. And if I made clear the increasing costs and diminishing benefits of the “production of innocence,” I’m good.

      • G Cookies says:

        Right. So why not say, “American Opinion Leans More Toward Israel Than the World.” (A not exactly earth-shaking observation, by the way.) It makes the exact same point and stays true to the AP’s brand without coming across as a blanket condemnation of a) Israel, b) Congress, c) America, or purporting to speak for “much of the world.”

        So let’s say if the AP did more of these, and started to sound like Gawker. Why wouldn’t I just read Tweets by Gawker? They will almost certainly be funnier. Isn’t the point of the new world we are in to have many different styles, and not just one (knee-jerk snark)?

  4. Given the craven and almost unanimous support by Congress for Israel’s actions despite the latter’s unquestionably having committed war crimes, “a buffoonish, pandering, self-serving, impetuous, rush to judgment” seems only fair and accurate reporting.

  5. Massoumeh Torfeh says:

    It is about good journalism and bad journalism, or tabloid journalism. If you sensationalise an issue, even if it is true, it remains sensationalised and tabloid journalism. “Falling all over each other” is one of those sentences. It sounds tabloid. So AP were absolutely right to edit it since tabloid is not usually their style.

  6. I think a distinction needs to be made between a reporter having an aprioi bias, which will color or flavor or influence the reporter’s judgment, vs. that reporter expressing a journalistic judgment that results from a level-headed evaluation of what the reporter sees, hears, learns, and determines. That a reporter expresses an opinion (shock! horror! foul!) does not equal expressing a bias. Every person involved the reporting chain has to exercise judgment and make decisions that inevitably reflect “personal opinions” … whether the motive is innocence or provocation. To boldly and blatantly deny that opinions and judgments are inherent to the process at every level reveals …. well, innocence of the unknowing sense.

  7. “Make a good argument + high standards of verification” sounds like a sine qua non for a journalist of any stripe, not just in a post-innocence shop. Imagine how much better David Gregory’s Meet the Press would be — even were he to maintain his steely quest for innocence — if only he made coherent arguments and made sure he verified his generalizations.

  8. Jeffrey Weiss says:

    The first Tweet suggests an accidental or mindless action — clumsy and potentially inappropriate. If the story supports that POV, the Tweet is fine. If not, the Tweet is neither cynical nor saucy. It’s wrong. Or at least there’s no evidence it’s right. I’m thinking that even journalism with voice needs to have evidence? Plus Twitter is a crappy place to try to offer nuance.

  9. Deborah Gordon says:

    This is a great post, and the concept of the production of innocence in US journalism is useful in that it connects journalism to statecraft and American exceptionalism. I’m going to use the post in a course I teach this fall on the construction of the Arab Middle East as the constitutive other of the West. Thanks.

  10. Lance says:

    My reading of this, er revision, is that the first headline was corrected by someone higher up who said to the first writer/intern (now likely dismissed): “You’ll not be talking that way about Israel or the US Congress–now get back in line. How dare you call it like it is?”

    (like it is = a buffoonish, pandering, self-serving, impetuous, rush to judgment, + AIPAC outsized influence — aka tabloidesque to some ears)

    Remember, the AP is a fiction; it’s a bunch of variously motivated humans who work under the aegis of something called the AP who manipulate language and images for mass consumption.

    Innocence and objectivity are red herrings anyway, and the function of the AP is not to project some false standard–it is to preserve the status quo and not rile up the masses while our masters continue their plunder. That’s why the headline was changed, not because of these ideals Mr. Rosen pretends are really at play here.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      That’s why the headline was changed, not because of these ideals Mr. Rosen pretends are really at play here.

      Ideals? Where did I introduce that?

      Reducing risk, avoiding criticism is not idealistic, it’s a practical accommodation to pressure. Pretty much the opposite of an ideal.

      I agree, however, that one factor I did not discuss here is called “social control in the newsroom.” Higher rank people discipline and control lower rank people by taking away their right to expressive language. (Link.)

      • Lance says:

        I said ideals, not idealistic (i.e. Pollyannaish, pie-in-the-skyistic; naive). Rather, innocence and objectivity are ideals (do not really exist).

        My point was I don’t think you really think those ideals are really behind AP’s maneuvers. In other words, I don’t think you think AP’s larger goals are to strive for linguistic or journalistic perfection–that’s the pretending part I saw.

        The people atop the AP pyramid are motivated to reduce risk, sure, but risk of what? My read is that the reins slipped a bit. The social control I meant was broader than just the newsroom. Seems to me that much if not all of our so-called expressive language is taught us, indoctrinated even, via mass media outlets like the AP. To wit, with AP’s re-vision we were just re-minded what appropriate expression about Israel and Congress is.

        I may have been too harsh in my post–I think you do excellent work here, and have been a long time reader.

  11. Art says:

    I don’t really get it, media, NEWS publishing in any format, should be the voice of a sector of the population. The concept that ONE shop can come with ALL the versions of society , can represent all those different versions and POV’s is just too arrogant. I have ONLY seen this happen in the US, not even Canadians that are so careful to make sure they include all corners of society in everything they do, pretend to be so arrogant.

    This self imposed “innocence” by US News organizations is driven by the false pretension that they are larger in readership, opinion creation, official record, of all events. It is like walking through those mirrors at the attractions parks, that makes you look much larger than what you are…

    Just look at the numbers, the largest audience for News in the US actually prefers the British outlets ( DailyMail.com or Theguardian.com ) than the local media.

  12. John Lee says:

    Rosen’s piece and many of the comments that follow are just so much intellectual titillation. There are two central, knowable truths here: a) Israel is an occupying force in a land that’s being brutalized, and b) the US media are condemned whenever they report that truth. So the innocence in Rosen’s sense is a social instrument. In moral terms, it’s a conscious process of knuckling under to various pressures to enforce the non-reporting of knowable truth. And that, to be blunt about it, is a disgrace.

    • Lance says:

      Now, John, didn’t you get the memo (not even via osmosis)? We’re supposed to avoid tabloidish calling-it-like-it-is-isms. We are supposed to strive for innocence and objectivity in these matters–you know, imperial momentum and all. We gotta get our war on, ya know?

      • John Lee says:

        Problem is, Lance, that the occupation is nearing the 50th anniversary, and it’s becoming more not less brutal and the US press appears to be less not more courageous. At what point do we drop the illusion and pretense? Perhaps it’s too much to hope that any of it will happen during my lifetime.

  13. halfkidding says:

    Well at least Gaza is deemed news. Unlike the conventional war with mobile infantry and heavy weapons being fought in Europe now.

    http://vineyardsaker.blogspot.com.br/2014/08/aug-1-sitrep-from-colonel-cassad-two.html

    Taking innocence to a whole other level and the most important one I think. Maintaining innocence by what is not covered.

  14. terry anderson says:

    The problem with the discussion comes at the level of truth – the first tweet is in fact more truthful, and because of that very fact, less palatable in what we loosely call public discourse in America. The AP is part of the social pact that says we may not be absolutely truthful about Israel, or the U.S. Congress’ shameful, and yes, buffoonish, pandering to it. We must instead cover the truth with some kind of false “balance” that is in fact a bias toward Israel that avoids the kind of public lynching that follows any true report on the subject. I have seen exactly one small report that, while Mr. Kerry pretends to be searching for a “compromise,” just as in all previous attacks by Israel on Gaza and Lebanon (2002), the U.s. is rapidly shipping in bombs and shells to Israel lest, God forbid, they run out before they’re done killing people. By the way, I don’t single out the AP, bless her little heart. There is NO recognized American media outlet that dares be truthful about Israel. How’s that for “fair and balanced.”

  15. G Cookies says:

    The problem is the AP has a certain brand, and that brand, is for the most part, “just the facts.” With this tweet the AP broke its compact with its readers. There are plenty of places, and certainly plenty of Twitter accounts, where I can get snarky little summaries of the news. But there is only one Associated Press.

    What most readers of the AP account want, I can imagine, is to learn things. They want to hear what is going on in the world. I don’t always need to hear people’s opinions on everything; I can make up my own mind. But what I can’t do is be everywhere, and that is why we need organizations like the AP to tell us what is going on.

    The first Tweet doesn’t teach me anything about the Gaza War. It teaches me about what that Tweeter feels about the Gaza War, and frankly I don’t care; I have heard enough opinions on this conflict to last several lifetimes. And what gives their opinion weight? For all we know, they are just an intern watching things on TV like the rest of us. And while they have every right to their opinion, but not to offer it under the banner of the Associated Press, which made its name on reporting, not Gawker-style snarkiness. Because I can get that many other places.

    I don’t understand the revulsion people have to reporting that tries to be fair to different points of view, as if fairness is a sign of moral weakness, or if all conflicts were like a baseball team where people have to choose sides. That doesn’t mean that if people learn something troubling, they should not report it. But readers will only trust that reporting if the news sources earns a certain credibility. This threatens that, because it says that our point of view is more important that the facts.

    A reporter should be like a judge. Yes, you may go into a court case with a point of view, but if you have two litigants arguing, you have to be fair to both sides, and ultimately stick to the law. A true reporter has to stick to the facts. That doesn’t mean you don’t have opinions; it just means that you try not to let your opinions color your perception of what is really going on.

    The idea that all news now has to be uber-snarky (or “saucy,” as Rosen says) and opinionated like Gawker or Jay’s hero Glenn Greenwald is like saying if a court reporter thinks one side in a lawsuit is wrong, they can insert their opinions in the transcript. Sometimes your job is just to deliver the facts; we don’t always don’t need to hear what you think.

    If news organizations constantly color things to their bias, then people who don’t share that bias don’t trust them. And that makes getting to the truth even harder, and that is what this ultimately should be about.

    One of the good things about the Internet is that we don’t have just one type of news now, we have many types. If I want things straight, I can go with the AP or similar kind of service. If I want opinion, I can go to Fox News or MSNBC or al Jazeera or Ynet or the ten million Gawker clones or what have you. I don’t understand what void you think that Tweet was filling. There is no shortage of opinions on the Israel/Palestine issue on the Internet. There isn’t even a shortage of I/P opinions of my Facebook feed. In many ways this celebration of sophomoric “sauciness” just as limiting as the old “strictly objective” model.

  16. Ed Latham says:

    Late to this excellent piece: has inspired lengthy thoughts of my own

    http://tenminutespastdeadline.wordpress.com/2014/08/13/innocence-abroad/