Saturday, July 31, 2010

Pragmatic Aesthetics IV: Journalism


The world continues to change, and if you don't keep track of it, things will happen in your life and you won't know why.

The world is full of other people – practically billions of them. With all of those people and all of those events going on, someone has to keep track of it all. That's why we invented journalism: journalism is our attempt to keep tabs on the world as it unfolds, and to understand how each moment came to be the way it is.

Any time there is a change – new things, which we call news – if it is important enough, it must be disseminated into the community. The goal of journalism is to account for how the world got to be at this moment.

If that sounds like the goal of history; it is no accident. The idea that journalism is the first draft of history is in fact literally true: journalism and history are both our narratives to account for the moment as it is. History is only distinct from journalism in the fact that journalism accounts for the way the world is at this moment specifically by covering news. Of course, the two are not so distinct; a news article will often have to delve into history to provide context for news; similarly, a historical work will often reach to the current moment to provide for its own context. It's no surprise to me that, for instance, Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography Team of Rivals, about the Lincoln cabinet, appeared on the scene at about the same time as Barack Obama appointed Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton, and Bill Richardson (all presidential rivals) to his cabinet; the context of the moment is what drove the work of history.

The mission to account for the current moment is, unfortunately, where the potential for corruption in journalism can come into play. In science, any set of data can be accounted for by multiple theories at once; however, not all of those theories may be true. Being able to account for something with a theory or narrative is not an indication that it is true; it merely indicates that it is plausible.

Hindsight is, after all, 20/20, and therefore it is easy to make the data fit a theory, if the theory is vague enough or flexible enough to fit it. What would be far more difficult would be to predict the future state of the world.

But because this isn't the mission of journalism, lazy and poor journalists are often difficult to distinguish from quality journalists. Journalism becomes the competition to write the most convincing theory for why the current moment exists; which becomes quickly indistinguishable from propaganda, the attempt to convince people of an ideology that uses accounting for the current moment as a tactic. In that way, a past-focused journalism that doesn't demand forward-looking will ring false and fall apart. The great iconic moment of this, of course, is Dewey Defeats Truman, where a complacent media printed their papers ahead of time, ready to put the final period on a narrative they thought they understood.

This is also, by the way, why journalism and political science (whose goal is, in fact, to predict the behaviors of people in the political arena) often part ways. Journalism tends to get caught up in rationalizing the current moment in the context of the competing narratives. Political science, on the other hand, weighs this against the rest of the context of what will matter to people in the future. The great example of this is the article “If Political Scientists Wrote the News”, where Ezra Klein (a policy analyst, which is a whole different game altogether) supposed that if political scientists wrote the news about the BP oil spill, they would trivialize the entire narrative as being insignificant because Americans overwhelmingly vote based on the economy, rather than based on big historical events.

In terms of a future predictor of Barack Obama's chances, the journalists believe it will come down to these big historical cruxes, the political scientists think it will come down to the bread-and-butter of whether he provides for the people. And I think the latter prove themselves to be correct time and time again. For instance, the Esquire article “Why White Supremacists Support Barack Obama” (note: look at the title; a great example of journalism as the attempt to account for the current moment), the White Aryan Resistance leader says of his decision to support Obama:

"The corporations are running things now, so it’s not going to make much difference who's in there, but McCain would be much worse. (...) I don’t hate black people. I just think it’s in the best interest of the races to be separated as much as possible. See, I’m a leftist. I’m not a rightist. I hate the transnational corporations far more than any black person."

Even racism can be made second to economic concern.

Although it seems, then, like political science is thus superior to journalism, it belies the fact that someone who only lived in the political science world would understand what would happen in the future, but would have no understanding of the past. Why does one candidate ring truer than another when people vote based on economic issues? What history and news is pushing against the current moment?

In the end then, as one might have guessed, the two have become halves of the important informational story that we need to right ourselves in the world.

So how should these two relate to each other? Because predicting the future is a more reliable (although not 100% accurate) vindication of a theory, political science should provide a starting point, and a way of gauging the importance of political news. Social science would be a good starting point to personal interest stories.

The process should resemble this: what do our theoretical models – the ones that have been tested and have proven their merit (like the Cook Political Voter index, or FiveThirtyEight's poll-of-polls) – should spark an investigative journalistic journey to understand how they came to be. Furthermore, when news stories break, journalism should position the story with an eye on the theoretical models and other narratives.

Furthermore, journalists should be held to account not just on whether their past statements are correct, but also whether or not their predictions come to pass. Journalists should not feel free to simply say anything they feel like in the future—they should be able to make statements about the future based on some sort of empirical grounding.

I'll name names – the most egregious offender of this is Jim Cramer of CNBC. Financial news – where, by the way, financial models and predictions are more available. But as Bear Stearns spiralled down into nothingness, he continued to regularly tell people to invest, to buy, to put more into a company for whom every outward indication was that it would fail by the end of the year. Was he in any way censured by CNBC? The only one who brought Jim Cramer to task was Jon Stewart – the only person, it seems, who checks back in on predictions.

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Journalism (accounting for the past) and political science (predicting the future) need to reconnect; both sides need to be held accountable for both sides of the equation, so that their models and theories need to account for both halves.

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