The production of innocence and the reporting of American politics

"What those involved in it fail to acknowledge is their own investment in a permanent and unyielding image of political symmetry. But I think the high point has passed for this kind of reporting."

2 Oct 2013 7:43 pm 37 Comments

For a certain class of journalists in the United States — a dwindling class, I think — the following holds true:

Alongside the production of news and commentary about American politics they feel compelled to reproduce their own innocence. What I mean by “innocence” is a public showing by professional journalists 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 — and here we enter the realm of dread — political bias.

I have written about the production of innocence before

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!

I think it is proper that we call this quest an agenda, even though “agenda” is a loaded and abused term. The innocence agenda undermines the product. News and commentary, the picture we get of what is happening in the nation, can be fatally distorted by the journalist’s need to demonstrate even-handedness.

But there’s another problem. In the self image of the professional journalist, nothing can ever come before truthtelling, almost by definition. Because it violates this sacred and absolute rule, the production of innocence is shrouded in denial, defensiveness and mystification. We cannot have a rational conversation with the people who practice it because to admit that they practice it would be, in effect, to resign from their profession. This they refuse to do.

And so silence is the sea on which the entire subject floats. The practitioners don’t defend their practices, but that is the least of it. They won’t identify themselves as practitioners in the first place. They are tenacious in holding to the pattern, but they cannot describe, illuminate or justify the pattern because this would be to concede that “telling it the way it is” is a priority modified by other and greater priorities— like “making it super clear that we take no side.” To admit that is to admit that you are a shill, a mouthpiece.

But here comes the confusing part. For in the production of innocence you are not a shill or mouthpiece for someone else: a company, a political party, a powerful interest… but for a certain image of yourself as “above” all that. You are a propagandist for a personal conceit. The conceit is that you can report and comment on politics truthfully while always and forever splitting the difference between the two sides so as to advertise your own status as perpetually non-aligned.

What if that is not even possible? What if you have to risk the appearance of being partisan in order to describe accurately what is going on in a hyper-partisan situation? And what if you are risk adverse? As in the case of Time magazine, the PBS Newshour, NPR and CNN, just to name a few homes for the style I am describing. In a situation like that, you are going to fall back on the easy production of innocence, but you are not going to recognize that this is what you are doing.

I bring up this messy and confusing subject for reasons that are probably obvious to anyone paying attention to political news this week. The shutdown of the Federal government is one of those events where the temptation to advertise your own innocence is almost overwhelming… for a certain kind of journalist.

For more on this problem see James Fallows in the Atlantic: Your False-Equivalence Guide to the Days Ahead.

Also see Dan Froomkin: Shutdown coverage fails Americans.

The quest for innocence in political journalism means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less…

The Washington Post feels that desire. Here are some of the results:

In The inability to come together to do the right thing, Democrats and Republicans united: It’s the other side’s fault

Even before much of the federal government shut down at midnight Monday, the players were already staking out their positions in the battle to come: the fight over who was at fault.

President Obama argued that Republicans were to blame, for using a budget bill as a means of extortion to roll back health-care reform. No, the GOP shot back, it was Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) who were responsible, for refusing to negotiate.

The Post really feels it, part two:

Shutdown crisis shows Washington breakdown

Washington once again stands at a moment of crisis — only this time, Democrats and Republicans are not negotiating a way to avoid it. They are not even speaking to one another.

The cumulative effect of almost three years of governing by near-death experience is becoming clear.

Instead of bringing a resolution, each close call has left the parties further apart. These wrenching standoffs have only made them more entrenched. Their focus now rests almost exclusively on what cannot be reconciled and on scores to be settled, rather than on areas where they might actually find common ground.

Cokie Roberts of NPR feels it, as well. Here is her analysis of the situation:

I think that we’re seeing a real breakdown of government operations in Washington. The inability to come together to do the right thing in terms of the country is really dramatic now. And we’ve seen this before in our history, but this is a period that is very rough.

At Time magazine agendalessness is always on the agenda. Their take:

Shutdown: Obama and Republicans Trade Blame as Deadline Is Crossed

Federal agencies were ordered to beginning shutting down late Monday evening amid finger-pointing between Democrats and Republicans as to who was responsible for the United States’ first government stoppage in 17 years.

What unites these treatments is the eagerness to blame both sides. The emphasis is on things like “the inability to come together to do the right thing” and other hyper-symmetrical images like the “shutdown blame game” and “finger-pointing between Democrats and Republicans.”

That is the innocence agenda at work. What those involved in it fail to acknowledge is their own investment in a permanent and unyielding image of political symmetry. But I think the high point has passed for this kind of reporting. It still exists, and deserves to be called out, but with the critique of “false equivalence” now a part of the journalist’s daily life and the rise of point-of-view reporting to normal status online, the artifice is shakier than ever. New entrants like the Guardian’s U.S. edition and aggressive newsrooms like ProPublica and McClatchy’s Washington bureau simply don’t treat the production of innocence as important. Eventually it will be seen as dragging the quality of news down, and the best people will be embarrassed to practice it.

So let Cokie Robetts wax on about “the inability to come together to do the right thing.” Meanwhile, the AP’s David Espo described the situation fairly without resorting to claptrap like that.

Time running short, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed urgent legislation Friday to avert a government shutdown early next week, and President Barack Obama lectured House Republicans to stop “appeasing the tea party” and quickly follow suit. Despite the presidential plea – and the urgings of their own leaders – House GOP rebels showed no sign of retreat in their drive to use the threat of a shutdown to uproot the nation’s three-year-old health care law. (Hat tip, Media Matters.)

When you know what you’re talking about, you don’t need to advertise your own innocence.


Yes, because it’s inconceivable that someone would actually find fault on both sides. They’re supposed to think exactly the way a privileged, liberal NYU professor does. Anything less can be chalked up to the “view from nowhere.” This coming from someone who is totally neutral I take it? Your argument is self defeating due to your inability to separate your Obama infatuation from your analysis. And before you go there, the difference between what they do and what you do is that they include actual reportage, an idea you only write about.

Puhleeze. I’m a left-liberal who despises Obamacare because it will likely make it harder, not easier, to get real change in our health care system. I also don’t agree with everything Rosen writes about media issues.

But, you’re just wrong. Ted Cruz and other titty babies, who apparently believe they’ll be unable to gain control of the Senate in 2014, then the presidency after that, have decided to hold their breath long enough to try to make the nation’s collective face go blue.

The best proof is to quote the Republicans themselves. John McCain would agree with the above, and so would, in fact, Ted Cruz. The GOP shut down the government because they want to stop Obamacare, and that is both radical and unprecidented.

Jason, you seem not to have understood a thing Mr Rosen has said. He’s describing what he has observed in reporting, not advancing an argument about who is responsible for the shutdown. Your interpretation of what you’ve read is full of bias and the usual logical flaws that accompany lack of self awareness. … Sarcasm is coin of the realm here on the internet. To have real value requires more than mere wit and willingness. Cleverness, delivered with a twist of intellect spends easily most anywhere, regardless the color of ones money. You, Jason, seem to have come up well short. Please make another deposit and try again.

Abadman says:

No, actually he is advancing an opinion on who is responsible for the shutdown, hence David Epso “described the situation fairly.”

The Fallows and Froomkin links are explicit arguments for its the Republican’s fault.

Logically if one states there is asymmetry in responsibility and then only gives examples of it being the Republican’s fault an argument is being made, no matter how obtusely.

Simpering condescension is as much the coin of the realm on the internet as sarcasm.

The point was very simple. Sometimes one “side” is “wrong” and forcing nonpartisan impartiality means you can never describe one side as wrong. That’s silly. Have an interpretation of reality based on fact and present it with intelligence and rigor.

In this particular case, the Tea Party radicals are hijacking Democracy. There is an excellent opinion piece by a self described “common sense Republican” that coherently makes the case that ACA is a bad law but a bad law legally and Democratically implemented and the Tea Party existential threat argument amounts to a hijacking of DemocrAcy.

That is certainly the case but in this case we are talking opinions so simply asserting the other side is wrong doesn’t quite cut it.

We know the CLASS long term care part of it was wrong as it has been suspended.

We know that you can keep your doctor promise was wrong.

We know the cost estimates were wrong

We know it will lower insurance costs was wrong

we know it will reduce the deficit was wrong

We know it was wrong for some favored groups so they got waivers

We know it was wrong for big business so it was postponed a year for them

So nice of you to concede a side can be wrong which seems from the evidence to be your side.

so maybe we agree it is a bad law. The republicans are using a democratic process to try and change or repeal it. I don’t really like it any more than you do, but the rules allow it. Then again I really did not like the process used to pass it either ‘democratic or not”

oh an hijacking democracy that is a good one,
right up there with you have to pass it to know what’s in it

actually, i understand perfectly what he wrote. And I find your criticism slightly hilarious and extremely hypocritical since you go on to be snarky. But to the point, Rosen has done nothing but defend Obama and criticize Republicans since the start of the administration. You need to educate yourself on whom you are reading. Rosen can claim all he wants that it’s not about bias. As he said on Twitter, “You post that the alternative to artificial balance is the reporter’s partisan or personal take. That’s not our argument” That’s funny, because Rosen clearly avoids issues that challenge is ‘personal take,’ and not just when it comes to domestic politics. Ask him about the situation in Palestine and you’ll get all the proof you need.

“Ask him about the situation in Palestine and you’ll get all the proof you need.”

I started writing professionally in 1986. As far as I know, in 27 years I have never written a word about the situation in Palestine. The only reason you would say something like that is because you are a vicious troll. The other possibility: an anti-semite. But let’s go with the more likely one: vicious troll.

You are not welcome here, “Jason.” You have nothing to contribute. If I see your name, or your IP address (the back end of wordpress shows me that) your comments will be killed. Goodbye.

Odd premise: Any reporter who notes that Obama has done something with a positive impact – or that his detractors have taken improper or unconstitutional action – must therefore be biased in Obama’s favor.

Only a critique that equally attacks ‘both sides’ would then be ‘legitimate.’

jason–you are welcome to assess your own view of the view from somewhere, and you have done so: this person is a liberal NYU Professor, therefore I think x is not true in all likelihood.

and in so doing, you’ve made Professor Rosen’s point. you’ve used Professor Rosen’s quite clear self-identification (that is, unhidden explanation for why he sees the world the way he sees it) as a way to help you parse his writing.

that’s good. that’s what you should do.

imagine that when i watch Fox News, i use the same filter. Or more interestingly, when i read National Review, because unlike Fox News National Review isn’t just a propaganda mill but allows for real excellent reporting at (rare) times. I apply my NRO filter which allows for me to find something of value there every 37th article, and voila…Robert Costa!

Zvyozdochka says:

As usual in these situations, I think the comedians are doing a better job of analysis.

This is because the comedian’s device naturally needs to have emphasis on an absurd or failing side for comedic value.

Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart with their writers are doing what a real 4th Estate should be.

I’ve heard this sort of analysis of what is wrong with the press for years. In accepting this sort of psychological explanation, you are being as willfully naive as the reporters you describe.

What is actually going on is this: the reporters are deliberately ignoring the behavior of the Republican party because that is what they are hired to do by the rich owners who have taken almost total control of American mainstream media thanks to Reagan’s deregulation of press ownership. We didn’t get to where we are today quickly- it is the result of a plan laid out by the liked of Grover Norquist and Richard Viguere, which has borne such splendid fruit that even in the face of the most blatant sedition and sabotage by the Republican party, the press continues to pretend that the problem is some mythical lack of comity in Washington.

Abadman says:

asymmetry, the effort to delegitimize opposing views.

The House has compromised twice and The President and Reid continue to refuse to negotiate.

The House is putting forward individual funding measures the Democrats in the house are blocking, but the

But David Epso describes it fairly.

Or Dan Froomkin:

“And holding the entire government hostage while demanding the de facto repeal ofand not even bothering to negotiate is by any reasonable standard an extreme political act.”

The underlying assumption seems to be that since it is “a president’s signature legislation” it is inviolate. Never mind that it is unpopular, unfair, and likely fiscally unsustainable.

And since the president has already unilaterally postponed the Employer mandate a year for big business why is asking for the individual mandate postponement unreasonable?

Claptrap indeed

Abadman says:

Sorry Froomkin”s quote should have been

“And holding the entire government hostage while demanding the de facto repeal of a president’s signature legislation and not even bothering to negotiate is by any reasonable standard an extreme political act.”

Mr. Wonderful says:

“The House has compromised twice”

Uh-huh. The way hostage takers will release two kids and the pregnant woman to demonstrate their “fairness.”

The law is the law. The way to change it isn’t to hold the budget or the government hostage and then whine about how nobody’s “negotiating” with you. And it’s not “both sides” doing this. It’s a radical claque of far-right Republicans, enabled by their weakling leadership. These Tea Party members are the soccer hooligans of Congress and should be so labeled by all journalists. Even the insufferable Cokie Roberts.

Abadman says:

The law is the law unless it is the DOMA, or Prop 8, or citizens united decision, or the second amendment.

The law is the law unless the president wants to delay the employer mandate, or give a waiver or special dispensation then it is executive privilege or what ever else can be dreamed up.

I am sure name calling feels good, but the hostage stuff is a little overwrought.

there is a legitimate dispute over Obamacare, the way it was passed along party lines, the way waivers have been given, the way the president picks and chooses what he will and will not implement in the law.

Democrats have admitted the law is a POS, a “train wreck” yet their leadership is just a adamant that it will not be changed. As the minority party, the Republicans, are using what leverage they have to be heard. Many were elected on the promise to repeal Obamacare, so yes coming down from that promise to delaying it for a year is compromise.

Hostage takers, terrorists and so on are attempts to delegitimize, and dehumanize the opposition. To justify ones feelings and actions.

You really haven’t made an argument just strung together a bunch of assertions with ad homonym insults

On Monday, on NBC Nightly News, White House correspondent Chuck Todd characterized the stalemate on Capitol Hill as a partisan standoff between the Republican-majority House and the Democratic-majority Senate. On Tuesday, Todd changed his emphasis to the internal politics of the House Republican Caucus, characterizing the stalemate as the result of the Tea Party’s success at insisting that the Speaker John Boehner should not untether a Continuing Resolution from the caucus’ opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

I fail to see how Todd sacrificed any innocence by this change although, presumably, PressThink would criticize Monday’s report and applaud Tuesday’s. Even on Tuesday, Todd splits the difference between two sides: he replicates the same dispute — should healthcare repeal be tethered to continued operation of the government or not? — and scrupulously demonstrates that his is above taking sides.

It is just that on Tuesday, the two sides are not Senate and House…but House leadership and Tea Party.

The fact that Cokie Roberts was unable to perform the same switch as Todd — in the direction of precision — does not make her more innocent. It just makes her more sloppy.

Abadman says:

I like your formulation of the dispute as,

“should healthcare repeal be tethered to continued operation of the government or not?”

Which to me leads to the question should the press weigh in on this, favor one side more than the other?

And if yes, what gives them the expertise or authority beyond that of my next door neighbor?

“…favor one side more than the other…”

But it turns out there are not two sides, after all:

One says: “If it takes a shutdown of the government to make sure that the Affordable Care Act remains in effect, then so be it.”

The other says: “As long as the Affordable Care Act remains in effect, the government should be shut down.”

The two propositions appear to concur, resulting in the current situation.

As to your question about how the press should weigh in, my answer — above — was that the press should weigh in on the side of precision (Todd on Tuesday) as opposed to sloppiness (Roberts on Monday).

Abadman says:

thank you for your answer.
I initially thought you had ducked the question but on further consideration I see some truth in what you say.

Not really a view from nowhere, more of a professional dispassionate view. You do not need to say it is objective because it is accurate, precise, innately objective.

And if you have to tell someone your objective you have already lost the trust battle.

I had not looked at the situation like this before. thanks again for a different viewpoint.

Tim Schmoyer says:

Thank you, Andrew. I really appreciate your analysis and look forward to your comments.

Excellent job of deconstructing the innocence agenda, Jay. As I’ve shared many times with you, money is at the core, as it is with most things. Why do TV stations, for example, begin new news programs prior to elections? Because “news” is what politicos buy, and if you happen to be in a swing state, hey, the more the merrier. This is not cynicism; this is reality. Innocence has value when it comes to political advertising, and we can’t ever forget that.

At local TV news stations, the production of innocence will no doubt roll along. For the reasons you mention.

A public service announcement:

If you come here to inform me and others that:

* you are to the right of the author of this site; and

* you think that those in national politics who call themselves conservatives are generally more correct about things than those who term themselves liberals or progressives; and

* in your view political journalists are liberals who let their politics influence their news accounts; and

* you are angry, disgusted or fed up with liberal bias in the news media; and

* I am obviously part of the problem because….

If you are here to inform me of these things and express yourself upon them, it might interest you to know that I do not care and have nothing to say back to you. There is no view taken about the American press that I am more familiar with than this one. I have heard it literally thousands of times. Whatever instruction I might take from it I have long ago taken. It is at this point like listening to a dentist’s drill stop and start, endlessly. And so I treat it as an idée fixe,

i·dée fixe
ēdā ˈfēks/
1. an idea or desire that dominates the mind; an obsession.

If you wish to know what I think about the ideology of the American press and the conservative critique of the mainstream media, I did write a bit about it here:

Beyond that and this public service announcement, I have nothing to say on the points I marked with a *. No argument to make, no reply, no attempted refutation, and no interest.

This concludes the public service announcement.

Contrary to your impression, while I do think conservatives are in general more correct, I think ideas are important as well.

See Andrew Tyndell’s comments.

You may disagree with his formulation of the problem but I do not think it is a view from nowhere.

But it doesn’t support your asymmetry thesis as it acknowledges both sides have to be willing to shut down the Government. The belief that Obamacare will irreparably damage the country is no less honorable or valid than the belief it is a good thing. It comes down to a value judgment. Mr. Tyndall’s formulation strips out the value judgment

You certainly can put the value judgment back in, as you are advocating, but I disagree that you will get a truthier truth. The problem is Froomkin, Fallows, and Espo’s articles are inaccurate, more for what they leave out as for what they say. Or are you proposing that they are telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

You appear to be staking out claims of truth based on a belief system, in this case the virtuousness of Obamacare, and that to assail it is unreasonable.

The converse is also true and people just as smart, moral and articulate as you believe it as well.

To propose that you don’t have to acknowledge or engage their arguments and opinions, Facts if you will just as your arguments and opinions are Facts, seems unethical to me in a profession supposedly dedicated to truth.

For what it is worth I think the shut down is a crappy way to change a crappy bill. A little more humility on all sides and a true concern for all citizens on all sides would have gone a long way toward fixing it.

I think shutting down the national parks and monuments is petty and small which is what I have come to expect from our government and that I have come to expect it makes me sad.

I thought about this while watching cable news coverage of the shutdown today. You’re right on.
One question for Jay and the commenters here: Does the work of journalists like Glenn Greenwald have the potential to resonate with big news orgs such as those you’ve mentioned? More clearly, can a successful journalist with a clear viewpoint move the bar on this issue? or will it be dismissed as coming from the ‘fringe’?

Greenwald obviously has a position on the subject he’s been reporting on and his coverage has been top grade, at least in my POV.(I know others have criticized him) But can these examples transform reporting on government, or is it too deeply ingrained?

“Can a successful journalist with a clear viewpoint move the bar on this issue? or will it be dismissed as coming from the ‘fringe’?”

Here is some evidence on that question:

NPR’s Folkenflik reported on this issue today, quoting Fallows and Costa.

Richard Aubrey says:

Sy Hersh (aka “who?”) used to be a hero. Now what?
How’s he on the profession of innocence thing?

Very interesting piece, thanks for writing. This relates to a question I’ve been wondering about… I’m a college student and I’m not sure if I want to go into journalism or politics. If I get a job or an internship on a political campaign, will that prevent me from covering politics (either at a more traditional outlet like the Post or a more aggressive outlet like the Guardian)? If I have political campaign experience, is that something I should try to hide from potential journalism employers?

AnonyMouse says:

In the late 90s when I worked at a trade as a young reporter & had a Hill press pass, I attended a seminar at the National Press Club where an esteemed journalism professor from American University (now retired) strongly argued for the “down the middle” method.

I had just that day come from a rather difficult hearing and told him so.

Then I asked: “So if the GOP committee member assures me that the moon is made of green cheese, while the Dem member insists that the moon is a glass ball pushed by an angel, are you really telling me to report sum up by saying that angels sell moon pieces at the cheese counter in Whole Foods?”

And he argued that yes, I had to do that, to let readers use their own critical faculties, to make up their own minds.

“But can you make a rational critical judgement based on sets of totally incorrect facts?” I asked. “I mean, I have the GAO figures right here, the data points in a different direction altogether. How is triangulating error to arrive at error helpful at all?”

And he looked at me with great kindness, saying “Your career really depends on you doing it like this.” Meaning it’s what your editors want, and what the Members themselves demand.

What I love is that conceit of the “reader using his own critical faculties”. You present two pieces of propaganda, and then pretend that since it’s in the dual, you aren’t in fact propagandizing but simply “presenting”.

Of course, no matter what you do the reader is going to “use his own critical faculties”. The journalist doesn’t produce that, or get credit for that. The journalist is presenting that reader an argument — and if it’s a trash argument that simply repeats a narrow band of propaganda, if the journalist is “good”, he will lead a large number of his readers to reach a false conclusion despite their usage of their critical faculties.

Hell, Pravda presented “arguments” that readers used their critical faculties to analyze. The point was that the narrow band of arguments and the lack of counter arguments from across a wide spectrum tended to undermine the readers critical faculties. In some ways, “he said, she said” is more dangerous because it mask the narrow band of arguments and will capture a much greater part of the readers who are using naive critical tools (like say young people, or folks living in communities with little internal dissidence such as political players in DC)

This is cultural, structural and personal. American culture ultimately posits an adverserial model for the resolution of (all?) questions. This exists on a constitutional plane, on an economic plane, all the way down to personality formation (Not all humans are like that).

Now, that functions when in fact the disputes are small compared to the common understanding — see technical court cases, for example. The world can then be treated as a high-school debate, with a proposal and a rebuttal, with one side winning but in the process a synthesis being formed (see old Hegel and Karl for people who were willing to openly speak about these mechanisms).

The overwhelming consensus in court cases is represented by a judge, for example. The press acts similarly when this process functions correctly — theres a “progressive” pushing a new political program, a “conservative” rebutting it, and the press above it all deciding who wins and who loses by summarizing the cases, which is then confirmed by a jury, the audience.

Of course, when a dual-party adversarial system start to fail, judgeship will also fail. When the questions become too large to reduce to “proposition, rebuttal”, all the roles go to crap and start to look absurd — and the harder you try to force it into that analogy, the more insane you look, which leads to a further degradation of the process.

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.