The Critical Press

Tuesday, October 11, 2005
It occurred to me this morning that the "mainstream press" is primarily defined in the negative.

Not in the sense that it's primarily defined by what it is not --- but rather, in the sense that increasingly the self-definition of what the press does is both negative and critical.

Consider, for example, the assertion that "it's not news when a plane lands safely." The underlying assumption here is that it is news when a plane fails to land safely. But now, consider --- was it news when the Shuttle landed safely, just a few weeks ago?

On the other hand, it is news when a suicide bomber blows himself up in Baghdad --- but not, apparently, when it happens at an OU game.

There is a theoretical way in which news could be defined in terms of information theory. I'll spare you the possible geek-fest for the moment and simply define "information" as "the size of the surprise".[1] In other words, the more surprising it is, the more newsworthy it ought to be --- and for good reason, because something is surprising when it doesn't match what you expect.

But now consider some recent examples:

  • as I noted, it's not much news when a suicide bomber blows up in Oklahoma, but it is in Baghdad --- yet we know Baghdad is a war zone, but don't think of Oklahoma that way;

  • it's news that the power problem is serious in Baghdad, but not when the power generation capacity exceeds what Saddam's government ever provided;

  • it's news when a mayor swears at the President on national TV about the President's supposed failings (and yes, that is a surprise, and news), but it's not news when the failings turn out to be the Mayor's --- even though that would seem to be a surprise too.

Why would this be? It's easy to just say it's a biased mainstream press, and I think there is certainly some aspect of that --- especially in the Bernie Goldberg sense that comes from an automatic comparison with what the people around you are saying. But then where does that bias come from? And how does that explain, for example, the Oklahoma game coverage?

I conjecture that the "mainstream press" model for what is news is not "information content", but rather the degree to which it corresponds to a preconceived model, which is essentially critical. In other words, it's "news" if it allows the press to criticize someone, preferably someone in power, and even more preferably someone with whom the reporter or editor doesn't agree.

This model, on first thought at least, seems very predictive: the news content of New Orleans was not the screwups themselves, but the criticism --- the places where things went well, as in Mississippi, aren't news, and the facts on the ground in New Orleans aren't news. Bombings in Baghdad allow criticism of the war --- but the more surprising progress in Iraq's economy, in civil order, in political organization, and in the declining capabilities of the revanchist and counter-revolutionary insurgency is not.

Jizm on a blue dress isn't news, at least at first --- but critical coverage of the spiking of the story is, at least for Drudge.

This is just a conjecture so far, and I can think of some possible counter-arguments, but it seems to me to stand up. If it does, I think it brings up an essential question.

Is criticism as criticism really the ideal or central function of the press?

[1] In fact, this is literally the way information is defined mathematically. Strictly, the definition should be "log base 2 of the size of the surprise" so that the result is in "binary decisions", or "bits". This might have been the key mathematical insight of the 20th century; it has led to some amazing things, which would be worth an essay of their own someday.


Eric Blair said...

Do the full-court press geek fest on this. I am intrigued.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

I think your model is correct.

I think the genesis of this behavior is pretty straightforward to trace: it's a direct consequence of the Woodward-Bernstein coup that sent the press into permanent paroxyms of extended adolescence. "We brought down the President, man!".

It's well-known and well-documented that journalism students and journalists view "making a difference in society" as one of their essential tasks. This is defended by so-called media critic (I would say "media crony") Jeff Jarvis.

The deeper question, which you touch upon, is: what does "making a difference in society" really mean? The dogma of the day, as you state, is that it means nothing more than being critical of whatever symbolic Dad we happen to have at the moment. Surely we can do better.

Seneca the Younger said...

Hmmm. I seem to have just set myself up to write an interesting non-technical overview of information theory.

... I think I may have a dentist's appointment that day.

MHA, I think the notion that it's "criticize the symbolic Dad" may not be quite correct. After all, the Oklahoma exploding student leaves plenty of room for criticism (eg, criticize homeland security). Truthfully, that one is hardest for me to explain under any model: it's surprizing, it was a close call (not enough blood?), it's what may well be a terror attack within the continental US. (On the other hand, it was apparently a success of the checkpoint and screening.)

Is it simply that it happened more than 100 miles from Times Square and 50 from the ocean, and is therefore by definition less interesting?

MeaninglessHotAir said...

After all, the Oklahoma exploding student leaves plenty of room for criticism (eg, criticize homeland security). Truthfully, that one is hardest for me to explain under any model

That's an excellent point. I agree: my model doesn't cover this. I don't think this is explained by the being-far-from-Times-Sqare model either. After all, look at the circus they created over the JonBenet murder. Here's a guess. How about the "we're withholding this information because we don't want to believe in that reality" model?

Knucklehead said...

Seneca and MHA,

The refusal to report much about the OK "suicide" bomb could be a matter of the MSM being "responsible" according to their own prejudices.

They don't want to go off reporting things half-cocked because, well, the racist, xenophobic, gunlubbin christers would start shooting everyone they spotted near a mosque if they thought the salafists were strapping bombs onto people here in the US. So they chose to be responsible and wait for the facts to come out.

Otherwise facts aren't all that interesting to them.

Rick Ballard said...

"Is criticism as criticism really the ideal or central function of the press?"

I've been of the opinion that the central function of the press has been to provide a satisfactory return on investment to its proprietors for quite some time. That return can be measured in other than monetary terms - political power and influence come to mind. "Criticism" may simply reflect an attempt to increase the 'influence' return. An event has weight - or is news - only when it fits the critical narrative positively. A noteworthy event of neutral value is reported on a space available basis and an event with a negative critical narrative value is consigned to the oubliette.

If the proprietors worldview and basis for measurement of return can be devined, then the content of his product can be determined. The splodeyokie story will be 'news' when it can either be spun into the critical narrative or (as with Bubba's little error) other outlets with different narratives force it to the forefront.

Many positive stories are printed every day. How did you come by the information on power generation in Baghdad? They just aren't above the fold in the NYT or WaPo or the lead item on FNC.

An ideal press would be an entirely different subject.

Rick Ballard said...

I forgot. I agree with Eric - do the full court geek fest. Write it for eigth graders though, otherwise my mind will wan

truepeers said...

Sen, if news is what fits a preconceived model - the need to criticize (which I agree is something of a model for them) - then the model is going to cause them problems because criticism can always backfire and they know it. So you need a model + an uncertainty factor, which actually is what you already see.

Hinrichs is a paradoxical figure for MSM. A pathetic kid blowing himself up might allow them to criticize the authorities, but just as likely it would make their own anti-authoritarian and anti-western prejudices look like what they are: an incentive to lousy thinking and pathetic kids.

The MSM are political animals, first of all in the sense that most of them take their lead from certain of their own authorities as to what is news. That entails various forms of signalling and uncertainty. So modelling political instincts and risk taking is the challenge here: it seems that presently they look at Hinrichs and say, nope, a little too dicey, could make us look bad, let's forget about this dumbass who doesn't fully know his place in the culture war and can't at least bomb successfully so as to testify to the focussed will behind the murderous resentment that is out there thanks to the evil of the burning Bush. And, of course, we don't want to inflame anti-Muslim prejudices.

Syl said...

I love 'size of the surprise' as the determinant of what is more newsworthy. And your examples are spot on.

When journalists speak of 'man bites dog' their definition only fits a certain class of 'surprises'--those events that are aberrant, occur once, and will never happen again.

Thus they totally miss surprises that go against CW. That indicate reality isn't quite what they think or, at the least, that signal changes to come.

terrye said...

If they cover the OK bombing {rick I love the splodeyokie thing} then they might have to deal with the fact that a lot of Okies have said for years that there was a connection between the Federal building and jihadis.

And since the prevailing story in the media is that terrorism is all Bush's fault, this might make their narrative a little awkward.

After all why didn't all these hot shot journalist types know what was going on in a state with a population of less than Dallas, Texas?

Makes you wonder what else they are completely clueless about.

the vultures.

Seneca the Younger said...

Thus they totally miss surprises that go against CW. That indicate reality isn't quite what they think or, at the least, that signal changes to come.

This is an excellent point: things which go against the CW should be among the most newsworthy --- if information content were the rule.