The Quest for Innocence and the Loss of Reality in Political Journalism

"The quest for innocence means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus 'prove' in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade. But this can get in the way of describing things! What's lost is that sense of reality Isaiah Berlin talked about..."

21 Feb 2010 5:19 pm Comments Off on The Quest for Innocence and the Loss of Reality in Political Journalism

This is a post about a single line in a recent article in the New York Times: Tea Party Lights Fuse for Rebellion on Right.

Before I get to the line that interested me, I need to acknowledge that the investigation the Times undertook for this article is wholly admirable and exactly what we need professional journalists to be doing. Reporter David Barstow spent five months—five months!—reporting and researching the Tea Party phenomenon.

He went to their events. He talked to hundreds of people drawn into the movement. He watched what happens at their rallies and the smaller meetings where movement politics is transacted. He made himself fully literate, learning the differences between the Tea Party and the Patriot movements, reading the authors who have infuenced Tea Party activists, getting to know local leaders and regional differences, building up a complex and layered portrait of a political cohort that doesn’t fit into party politics as normally understood.

This is original reporting at a very high level of commitment to public service; it is expensive, difficult, and increasingly rare in a news business suffering under economic collapse.

So I want to make it absolutely clear that I treasure this kind of journalism and indeed devoured Barstow’s report when it came online. (Although I wish it had been twice as long.) And I have no problem with his decision to confine himself to description of the Tea Party movement, rather than evaluating its goodness or badness. The first task is to understand, and that is why we need reporters willing to go out there and witness the phenomenon, interview the participants, pore over the texts and struggle with their account until they feel they have it right.

“A narrative of impending tyranny.”

As Barstow said in an interview with Columbia Journalism Review, “If you spend enough time talking to people in the movement, eventually you hear enough of the same kinds of ideas, the same kinds of concerns, and you begin to recognize what the ideology is, what the paradigm is that they’re operating in.” The key words are spend enough time and begin to recognize.

Now to the part that puzzles me:

It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny. This narrative permeates Tea Party Web sites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and YouTube videos. It is a prominent theme of their favored media outlets and commentators, and it connects the disparate issues that preoccupy many Tea Party supporters — from the concern that the community organization Acorn is stealing elections to the belief that Mr. Obama is trying to control the Internet and restrict gun ownership.

Running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny…That sounds like the Tea Party movement I have observed, so the truth of the sentence is not in doubt. But what about the truth of the narrative? David Barstow is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter for the New York Times. He ought to know whether the United States is on the verge of losing its democracy and succumbing to an authoritarian or despotic form of government. If tyranny was pending in the U.S. that would seem to be a story. The New York Times has done a lot of reporting about the Obama Administration, but it has been silent on the collapse of basic freedoms lurking just around the corner. Barstow commented on the sentence that disturbed me in his interview with CJR:

The other thing that came through was this idea of impending tyranny. You could not go to Tea Party rallies or spend time talking to people within the movement without hearing that fear expressed in myriad ways. I was struck by the number of people who had come to the point where they were literally in fear of whether or not the United States of America would continue to be a free country. I just started seeing that theme come up everywhere I went.

It kept coming up, but David… did it make any sense? Was it grounded in observable fact, the very thing that investigative reporters specialize in? Did it square (at all) with what else Barstow knows, and what the New York Times has reported about the state of politics in 2009-10? Seriously: Why is this phrase, impending tyranny, just sitting there, as if Barstow had no way of knowing whether it was crazed and manipulated or verifiable and reasonable? If we credit the observation that a great many Americans drawn to the Tea Party live in fear that the United States is about to turn into a tyranny, with rigged elections, loss of civil liberties, no more free press, a police state… can we also credit the professional attitude that refuses to say whether this fear is reality-based? I don’t see how we can.

As a matter of reported fact

Now we can predict, with a reasonable degree of confidence, what the reply would be from the reporter, his editors (who are equally involved here, as the Times is a very editor-driven newspaper) and his peers in the press. The reply is the reply that is given by the common sense of pro journalism as it is practiced in the United States. “This was a news story, an attempt to report what’s happening out there, as accurately and fairly as possible. Which is not the place for the author’s opinion.” Or: “I was trying to describe the Tea Party movement, and to understand it, which is hard enough; I’ll let others judge what to make of it.”

Sounds good, right? But this distinction, between fact and opinion, description and assessment, is not what my question is about. It may appear to be responsive, but it really isn’t. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, but… as a matter of reported fact, is the United States actually on the verge of tyranny? That is my question. Would an honest depiction of the American political scene by the Washington bureau and investigative staff of the New York Times lend support to the “impending tyranny” narrative that Barstow observed as a unifying theme in the Tea Party movement?

It’s a key point, so let me state it again: Based not on a subjective assessment of the Tea Party’s viability or his opinion of its desirability but only on facts he knows about the state of politics and government since Obama’s election, is there any substantial likelihood of a tyranny replacing the American republic in the near future?

I think it’s obvious—not only to me but to Barstow and the journalist who interviewed him for CJR—that the answers are “no.” For if the answers were “yes” it would have been a huge story! No fair description of the current situation, nothing in what the Washington bureau and investigative staff of the New York Times has picked up from its reporting, would support a characterization like “impending tyranny.”

In a word, the Times editors and Barstow know this narrative is nuts, but something stops them from saying so— despite the fact that they must have spent over $100,000 on this one story. And whatever that thing is, it’s not the reluctance to voice an opinion in the news columns, but a reluctance to report a fact in the news columns, the fact that the “narrative of impending tyranny” is ungrounded in any observable reality, even though the sense of grievance within the Tea Party movement is truly felt and politically consequential.

A faltering sense of reality

My claim: We have come upon something interfering with political journalism’s “sense of reality” as the philosopher Isaiah Berlin called it (see section 5.1) And I think I have a term for the confusing factor: a quest for innocence in reportage and dispute description. Innocence, meaning a determination not to be implicated, enlisted, or seen by the public as involved. That’s what created the pattern I’ve called “regression to a phony mean.” That’s what motivated the rise of he said, she said reporting.

I explained the quest for innocence in a 2008 essay on campaign coverage for (It also ran in Salon.)

But the biggest advantage of horse-race journalism is that it permits reporters and pundits to play up their detachment. Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because “who’s gonna win?” is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession. This is experienced as pleasure by a lot of mainstream journalists. Ever noticed how spirits lift when the pundit roundtable turns from the Middle East or the looming recession to the horse race, and there’s an opportunity for sizing up the candidates? To be manifestly agenda-less is journalistic bliss. Of course, since trying to get ahead of the voters can affect how voters view the candidates, the innocence, too, is an illusion.

The quest for innocence in political journalism means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus “prove” in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade. But this can get in the way of describing things! As it did in Barstow’s account. Now let’s speed up the picture and imagine how this interference in truth-telling happens routinely, many times a day over years and years of reporting on politics. What’s lost is that sense of reality Isaiah Berlin talked about. In its place is savviness, the dialect of insiders trying to persuade us that they know how things really work. Nothing is more characteristic of the savvy style than statements like “in politics, perception is reality.”

“For some reason, American political coverage is exempt.”

And in fact frustrated observers of political journalism have complained about this loss of the real. The latest to groan about it is George Packer in the New Yorker. He was commenting on how David Broder of the Washington Post, the dean emeritus of political reporters, had written a surreal column about Sarah Palin that nonetheless seemed entirely normal if you know the genre:

Broder wasn’t analyzing Palin’s positions or accusations, or the truth or falsehood of her claims, or even the nature of the emotions that she appeals to. He was reviewing a performance and giving it the thumbs up, using the familiar terminology of political journalism. This has been so characteristic of the coverage of politics for so long that it doesn’t seem in the least bit odd, and it’s hard to imagine doing it any other way.

Italics mine. Packer’s point becomes clearer when he transplants this kind of reportng to Afghanistan with the sense of reality dropped out. “Imagine Karzai’s recent inaugural address as covered by a Washington journalist,” he writes:

“Speaking at the presidential palace in Kabul, Mr. Karzai showed himself to be at the top of his game. He skillfully co-opted his Pashtun base while making a powerful appeal to the technocrats who have lately been disappointed in him, and at the same time he reassured the Afghan public that his patience with civilian casualties is wearing thin. A palace insider, who asked for anonymity in order to be able to speak candidly, said, “If Karzai can continue to signal the West that he is concerned about corruption without alienating his warlord allies, he will likely be able to defuse the perception of a weak leader and regain his image as a unifying figure who can play the role of both modernizer and nationalist.” Still, the palace insider acknowledged, tensions remain within Mr. Karzai’s own inner circle.

This sounds like politics the way our journalists narrate it, but as Packer notes, “A war or an economic collapse has a reality apart from perceptions, which imposes a pressure on reporters to find it. But for some reason, American political coverage is exempt.” Exactly. That’s the exemption Barstow was calling on when he wrote. “… running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny.” Somehow the reality that this narrative exists as a binding force within the Tea Party movement is more reportable than the fact that the movement’s binding force is a fake crisis, a delusion shared.

I leave you with a question: how the hell could this happen?