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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Journalistic Hype in Denver

As a recovering news manager, I now admit that I was complicit in stripping the ideas out of politics. In the 1980s and 1990s, we convinced ourselves in news organizations, that politics was not about ideas, but about drama. We dismissed stories that had anything to do with "process," aka how politics happen. Instead our political journalism was and is about how conflict occurs and who ends up winning and who loses.

We were also deeply aware that this kind of reporting ignored the issues raised by the women's movement. Many men and women in journalism in the 1980's felt that the male dominance in newsroom and in politics was a disservice to women. We thought we could- and should - do better.

One senior manager at the CBC in the 1980s went so far as to denounce all political coverage as just being about "white men in suits." It is true that much political coverage in television news in those days was about how legislation happens, when a bill is introduced, how it is changed in committee, how it is introduced for a third third time in the Canadian Parliament, how it then has to be approved by the upper house - the Senate, then sent to the Queen's representative, the Governor-General for his or her signature. At that point the bill becomes a law and is published in the Parliamentary Gazette. Too much process and not much context.

That made for extremely dull television.

In our attempt to enliven the coverage, we in our collective wisdom in Canada and the US, moved away from that kind of journalism. Instead we looked to non-institutional politics. We explored how communities and minorities and women were coping with the issues of the day. In effect, we concentrated on all forms of non-institutional political journalism.

It may have made for more compelling and more relevant reporting, but it allowed politicians to go largely unaccountable. It also trivialized political journalism by reducing everything to electoral winners and loser.

In the US, the post-Watergate reaction was equally intense. Journalism disdained the national political culture in the post-Nixon years, and while tv news in the US never devoted as much time or energy to congressional politics compared to the Brits or the Canadians, much of the public's distrust of politics was, I believe, derived from journalists' disdain of political life.

My friend Bernie Avishai has written a post on his blog about how dangerous politics have become because there are about emotions and marketing rather than about ideas.

But it's hard to find ideas, when the dominant narrative is still only about winners and losers. At the Democratic Convention, any conflict must be found and hyped, even if it may not really exist.

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