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The ideology problem

Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based JournalismThomas Patterson’s failed technocratic dream for journalism

Thomas Patterson’s new book on the current crises in journalism is organized around six specific problems, starting with “The Information Problem” and moving through Source, Knowledge, Education, Audience, and Democracy problems.

All problems, indeed. But, unfortunately, there is no chapter on the most crippling affliction of mainstream journalism in the United States: “The Ideology Problem.” That missing chapter would help explain the routine failure of mainstream journalism at what should be its central task in a democratic society—to analyze and critique systems of power to help ordinary people take greater control over our lives. The fact that this subject is missing helps explain the limited value of Patterson’s analysis.

In one sense, that’s an unfairly harsh judgment of Patterson and his book. Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism (Vintage Books/Random House, 2013) is an excellent account of contemporary journalism’s struggles—as long as one defines excellence within the narrow confines bounded by the ideology of the powerful. But by accepting that confinement, Patterson ensures that both his analysis of the problems of journalism and his suggestions for solutions are woefully inadequate in the face of the larger social and ecological crises that threaten the planet.

That’s why, in another sense, this judgment isn’t harsh enough. When respectable folks with status and privilege like Patterson—he’s the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University’s Kennedy School—won’t step back and critique foundational systems of power, privileged intellectuals become an impediment to progressive social change.

It’s all about knowledge?

For Patterson, the key is knowledge, or more specifically, journalists’ lack of it. He points out that unlike other professions, journalism is not rooted in a body of substantive knowledge. Unlike lawyers and doctors, for example, specialized training and demonstration of competence through exams are not required for journalists. Some journalists enter the field with areas of expertise, or develop such expertise over a career, but most journalists are generalists.

Patterson argues that journalism would be improved by becoming more technocratic, although he doesn’t use that term. Rather than taking up a critique of systems of power, the technocratic vision assumes those systems are basically sound and that experts’ role is to improve the efficiency of the system. So, what journalists need, according to Patterson, is more—and more sophisticated—knowledge so that they are not so easily manipulated by their sources, who have the upper hand in the relationship by virtue of their expertise.

Every reporter knows Patterson is identifying a real problem. To minimize labor costs, media owners prefer a newsroom that is minimally staffed by people who can be thrown into any story anytime. Only a few national publications routinely allow journalists to develop deep specialties, and for those who have found themselves covering issues they only superficially understand (that describes far too many stories I covered as a young reporter), Patterson’s point feels right. When knowledge-poor reporters talk to knowledge-rich sources, reporters often end up taking sources’ claims on faith.

On the surface, that all seems straightforward and sensible. If journalists are to be trustworthy independent sources of information for citizens, they can’t be overly dependent on sources, who inevitably have an agenda of their own.

One response to that would be for journalists to abandon the pretense of neutrality that they assert (and often also believe) in favor of a more open and honest discussion of a news media outlet’s political commitments. “Political” in this context doesn’t mean choosing between Democrats and Republicans, but rather the recognition that everyone and every institution makes choices about its relationship to power. How journalists select and frame stories is always political, in this larger sense.

Instead, Patterson argues that more knowledge would protect journalists’ autonomy and guide their judgment, in essence arguing that journalists should strive to match the technocratic level of the sources that dominate the news. That’s where the ideology problem comes in.

Ideology and obedience

This problem of manipulation-by-source is fairly new, according to Patterson, who writes that “for a long period, this arrangement worked to journalists’ advantage” (p. 33). In this apparent “golden age,” journalists could trust these official sources to help them explain the world accurately. But there was trouble brewing in paradise: “Somewhere in the evolving relationship between journalists and politicians, fidelity to truth has slipped away” (p. 58).

This period of “fidelity to truth” apparently includes the Red Scare of the late 1940s and ‘50s. Instead of reflecting on mainstream media’s role in the anti-democratic repression of that period, he mentions only the way in which the demagogic Sen. Joe McCarthy took journalists for a ride with his absurdly false claims, suggesting the McCarthy episode was an aberration in an otherwise healthy relationship between journalists and the people who ran the world back then. Patterson acknowledges that the potential for McCarthy-style destructive behavior always was there, “but it was kept largely in check by informal understandings. Journalists expected politicians to be reasonably honest and high-minded, and politicians expected journalists to act with a reasonable degree of trust and restraint” (58).

That description will sound strange to the many Americans in the 20th century who, while organizing for social and economic justice, ran into resistance not just from McCarthy but from most of the politicians in the Democratic and Republican parties, law enforcement officials from the local to the federal level, corporate America, and most mainstream journalists. Elites’ use of anti-communist hysteria to target any challenges to U.S. domestic and foreign policy was opposed by people on the margins, the ones official sources were denigrating with the help of mainstream journalists. The “trust and restraint” did not extend to anyone offering a deep critique of social and economic systems.

The profoundly anti-democratic nature of the post-WWII Red Scare (and its World War I-era predecessor) had little to do with knowledge and everything to do with ideology. Journalists’ support for, or failure to challenge, elites’ criminalizing of critical voices wasn’t due to a lack of knowledge but to an allegiance to the ideology of the powerful. There was plenty of knowledge that reporters could have drawn on from critical movements, but those sources were ignored as journalists fell into line. It was not the absence of knowledge but the presence of ideology that explains the failed coverage.

So, the crucial “source problem” is not that journalists routinely draw on the greater expertise of others, which is inevitable in the practice of daily journalism, but that sources who reflect the views of concentrated wealth and power are, on average, given far more credibility and visibility. That produces a fidelity to ideology, not truth.

Another example that Patterson offers—mainstream journalism’s failure to scrutinize the false claims made by U.S. officials to justify an illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003—leads to the same conclusion. That coverage certainly was a low point in the news media’s performance of recent decades, as he points out, but once again the problem is not that journalists were outgunned by sources, but that journalists’ unquestioned acceptance of an imperial ideology blinded them to other interpretations and to the sources who could have provided evidence for those views. There was a robust anti-war movement, nationally and internationally, which included a wide range of people with extensive expertise on issues of weapons, diplomacy, and Middle East history. The problem was that most journalists reflexively allowed sources with power to define the issue and create the “facts.”

“The Ideology Problem” afflicting mainstream news media is readily evident, that journalists consistently accept two key components of the worldview of the powerful:

--On economics, the naturalness of corporate capitalism is unchallenged. Issues such as wealth inequality, hunger, and child poverty must be framed as unfortunate problems to be solved by elites’ adjustment of the system, not as an evitable outcome of a pathological system that leaves economic decisions in the hands of a relatively few people.

--On foreign policy, the naturalness of U.S. domination of the world system is unchallenged. Direct U.S. violence and support for the violence of client regimes must be framed as actions that are necessary to maintain order in a chaotic world, not as imperialism designed to expand U.S. power and enrich elites.

Knowledge, politics, and values

To offer readers and viewers an accurate account of the world, journalists need all the knowledge they can get, of course, but the failures of journalism are not primarily a problem of insufficient knowledge. These foundational questions of economy and nation are not primarily about knowledge, but about values. A technocratic journalism that brackets out such basic questions is, by default, a journalism that will be limited in its ability to analyze and critique systems of power because it will not reflect on its own values.

Certainly reporters covering economics and business need basic knowledge of how capitalism and corporations work, but does that mean that technocratic knowledge of conventional economic theory and business doctrines is the key? Do we want journalists who repeat the “knowledge” that is generated by dogmatic economics departments? Or would journalists covering the economy be better served by a deeper knowledge of the political struggles against hierarchy?

Certainly reporters covering the world need basic knowledge of other regions of the world, but does that mean that the U.S.-centric view of the world that U.S. technocrats promote is the key? Do we want journalists who repeat the “knowledge” that comes out of political science departments’ routine embrace of elites’ conventional wisdom? Or would journalists covering U.S. diplomatic and military affairs be better served by turning a critical eye on power at home?

Those questions can’t be answered if they can’t be asked, and they can’t be asked unless we recognize the role of the ideology of the powerful in constraining mainstream journalism, and the official intellectual culture more generally.

Patterson doesn’t ask those questions, especially the critical questions about the effects of private, for-profit ownership on journalism. Near the end of the book he asserts:

“The problem with the traditional press is not its structure or its code, but its performance. Too often, it has placed profit and convenience ahead of its duty to inform the public. The fixation with celebrities, disasters, and crime; the reliance on the strategic frame at the expense of reporting on policy problems and issues; the habit of decontextualizing events—these and other journalistic tendencies have kept the news from being as informative as it could and should be” (p. 141).

The obvious question: What shapes the performance of the press if not the institutional structure within which journalists work (corporate, commercial) and the professional codes under which they work (the illusion of a non-ideological neutrality)? If the managers of the traditional press place profit head of public service, that would suggest the need for a major restructuring of journalistic institutions to free up working journalists. Are the fixations with easy-to-report news the result of the failure of working journalists or of the for-profit system? It’s not that the problems in coverage he lists aren’t problems, but that his analysis offers no meaningful way to understand or address them.

This fixation with “knowledge” allows Patterson to avoid the difficult questions of ideology and ownership. His final paragraph asserts:

“Journalists’ civic contribution will ultimately rest on whether through knowledge they are able to assert greater control over the facts. Journalists will falter, and ultimately fail, if their set of “facts” is seen by the public as little better than those offered up by talk show hosts, bloggers, and spin doctors. Knowledge offers journalists their best chance of delivering an authoritative version of the news…” (p. 143)

It’s not clear why by systematically deepening their knowledge, journalists can gain more control over what counts as a fact without confronting the ideological and political questions, or why owners of the dominant for-profit press would invest in such knowledge acquisition. But even if working journalists were magically to gain more autonomy from owners who were suddenly more willing to invest in more specialized training, why would these more knowledgeable journalists be more likely to deliver “an authoritative version of the news”? This goal of a single accurate version of the news that readers and viewers could trust as authoritative is a technocratic dream, based on the hubris of intellectuals who believe they transcend ideology and power to take their rightful place as the definers of reality.

I am not arguing that Patterson, or anyone else, must share my values, or that when people agree on values they must agree on which political and economic systems are most appropriate. I am arguing that ideology and ownership are key to understanding how journalism works, and therefore how to start a conversation about the aspects of journalism that don’t work well. Those who believe that capitalism and U.S. imperialism are good things are welcome to argue that, as are those who believe that a corporate-commercial media system produces the most democratic journalism. But these conclusions can simply be assumed or asserted without argument.

Taking seriously these questions should remind us that we can’t solve the problems of journalism outside a larger discussion of U.S. social, political, and economic dogmas, the failures of which are increasingly apparent. Yet most mainstream journalists—as well as many academics—continue to claim special status as knowledge brokers in the technocratic fantasy of transcendence.

How hard should we be on Patterson and his book? Given the severity of the political and economic crises we face today, any of us who are subsidized to do intellectual work—especially in a First World that has long lived off the backs of the developing world—have an obligation to stop pretending that existing systems offer meaningful options in the time available to us. Given the depth of the multiple, cascading ecological crises we face, that available time is likely much shorter than we think.

Though it is difficult to imagine rethinking the systems and structures of power that have brought us to this point—what would a world beyond capitalism and imperial nation-states look like?—that is the central task of politics, and therefore a central concern of journalism. Though it is difficult, people all over the planet, without the help of knowledge-specialists, are imagining and working to bring that world into being.

Should journalists struggle to be better technocrats committed to the existing distribution of wealth and power, or ally themselves with those struggling against that wealth and power? Answering that question requires reflection on, and a more honest articulation of, values than contemporary mainstream journalism has yet offered the public.

As inequality widens and ecological crises deepen—as justice and sustainability become increasingly hard to imagine, let alone achieve—we will face these value questions in increasingly stark fashion.

Technocratic dreams of the power of knowledge won’t save journalism, nor will they save the world. For all the value of knowledge, it is of no use without the courage to face difficult realities. 

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