Saturday, March 05, 2011
Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Media’s View from Nowhere
Back in January of 1991 I traveled to Milwaukee to participate in a protest against Bush #41’s invasion of Iraq. Thousands rallied. An hour into the event, less than a dozen counter protesters showed up to back Bush. I went back to Oshkosh and eagerly anticipated news of the event.
Watching the mainstream media coverage, a few things stood out. First, the protest event itself was framed as a kind of political Olympics, an arena battle between competing teams. Second, the reporters and editorialists situated themselves as being outside the arena; just spectators watching and commenting on the action. Third, the coverage seemed lazy; i.e. simple “here’s what team ‘A’ says about the claims of team ‘B’” as opposed to a systematic and rigorous search for the truth. Fourth, after concluding that both teams were “outside the mainstream,” the media referees announced their own “moderate” views that were supposedly “objective” and ruled by reason and common sense not found in the rhetoric of the passionate Olympic teams.
Media treatment of the revolt of large numbers of working Wisconsinites against Governor Scott Walker’s plan to decimate public sector unions reminds me of that war coverage. Bill Lueders of the Madison Isthmus sees the pattern in the Wisconsin State Journal’s editorializing: “Two days after saying that moves to strip the collective bargaining rights of almost all public employees ‘aren't justified,’ it now urged that this be done, albeit just for the next two years, until June 2013. It also opined, ‘The chaos we're experiencing in Wisconsin is simply the extreme manifestation of politics as usual,’ suggesting that all sides are equally to blame for their inability to let go of excessive partisanship.”
The local Oshkosh Northwestern has been more critical of Mr. Walker’s bill, including a fine February 15 editorial exposing its draconian and unfair features. But then on February 19th the paper went back to an “objective” stance and concluded that both Republicans and Democrats were at fault for practicing a “politics that push issues to the far edges of ideology.” Thank goodness the editorial writers are always so moderate and responsible. (Sarcasm intended).
Mainstream television and radio coverage of protest events is typically much worse than newspapers, and that’s certainly been the case in Wisconsin. From TV especially it’s almost impossible to tell who is telling truth in the conflict. Instead, the “objective” newscaster tells us what each side says, with sensational pictures as a backdrop.
New York University Professor of Journalism Jay Rosen refers to the dominant style of American journalism as “the view from nowhere.” When I first became aware of Rosen’s idea in the mid 2000’s I thought he was perfectly describing the coverage of that earlier Iraq War protest and virtually all other substantive issues. As we shall see, the idea captures what’s going on in the Wisconsin media’s construction of Scott Walker’s row with unions.
Influenced by philosopher Thomas Nagel’s book of the same title, Rosen describes three elements of the “View from Nowhere”:
In pro journalism, American style, the View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer. Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position “impartial.” Second, it’s a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it’s an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance.
I can guarantee you that the folks who run the Wisconsin State Journal and Oshkosh Northwestern, along with every other mainstream print and electronic news source in Wisconsin, would defend their reporting and editorializing as “balanced.” They would say something like, “pro Walker readers think we are too liberal. Pro union readers think we are too conservative. We must be doing our jobs very well if we offend every side of the political spectrum.”
In contrast Rosen says “The View from Nowhere . . . encourages journalists to develop bad habits. Like: criticism from both sides is a sign that you’re doing something right, when you could be doing everything wrong.” Allowing constant repetition of false or inaccurate claims is one of the worst characteristics of a View from Nowhere news operation.
To their credit, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel tries to hold public figures more accountable with a “PolitiFact” section. Reporters research statements of public figures and rate them on a “Truth-O-Meter:” True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True, False and “Pants on Fire” for utterly ridiculous statements.
The Governor’s political opponents have shown some blatant distortions in Walker’s rhetoric, and even the Journal Sentinel gave him a “pants on fire” rating for the claim that the budget keeps collective bargaining “fully intact.” Media still let Walker and his fans get away with that claim or variations on it.
All news outlets need a Truth Meter to apply not only to statements of public figures, but to their own reporting and editorializing.