Losing The Journalistic Voice in A Crowd of Voices; The Ideas of Political Coverage in Today’s Press of Walter Pincus and Other Writers

Essay Written by Dylanna Fisher

“At a time when it is most needed, the media, and particularly newspapers, have lost their voice” (Pincus, 2009). Journalists boast their objectivity, fairness and coverage. However, as suggested by Walter Pincus, today’s journalism has become about neutrality instead of equality and can be mended by more substantial political coverage (Pincus, 2009).

Though, some may disagree with him, claiming that today’s journalism would not be able to appropriately bear the responsibilities that come with the increase of political coverage. Pincus explores the idea that political controversy has a place within the media, that the press shouldn’t be coy about politics (David, 2006). Though I and several others agree with Pincus’s issues, there are other issues that need solutions in order to make political coverage more applicable.

Walter Pincus worked for The Washington Post since 1966 reporting on such political topics as intelligence, defence, national security, foreign policy, the pentagon, and congressmen (David, 2006). The press’ purpose is to be a counterbalance of the government, by having government cover, being a watchdog, and showcasing political events. Pincus disagrees with the way that the press covers politics today, claiming that truth is the most important goal, while neutrality degrades citizens’ rights and countries’ democracy (Rosen, 2008).

Unfortunately, mainstream media wants only to be neutral, to stay simple, to portray the two conflicting sides and only those two sides can take part (Pincus, 2009). This only works to keep politics in something like the academic ivory tower. Pincus attributes the distress of the press to the idea that “editors have paid more attention to what gains them prestige among their journalistic peers than on subjects more related to the everyday lives of readers” (Pincus, 2009). Punic claims that being passive in political coverage only leads the press to sacrifice importance, relevance and sometimes accuracy (Pincus, 2009).

Another issue is that journalists aren’t able to gain expertise in one specific topic of journalism like politics, environment, healthcare, education, and so on (Pincus, 2009). Instead, they have shifted around while resources are reallocated, and expertise is limited (Pincus, 2009). As a result, the press has turned into more of a public relations machine that covers events where the information is merely given to them such as press conferences, speeches, or spokesmen comments. In this age, there needs to be a different kind of courage, one that encourages journalists to do more than summarize what’s being said from political advertisements (Pincus, 2006). Punic states, “I certainly hope that as witnesses to wars, civil-rights riots, peace marches, famines, and terrorist events these past decades, we all have developed opinions which at times we may discuss or even argue about—or we just are not human” (Pincus, 2009).

Joan Didion claims that disunity has resulted in what she calls the process (Didion, 1988). This process is not about the democratic process or even democracy at all, it highlights journalism and its issues (Didion, 1988). Rather, it’s the reverse, “a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited … to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life (Didion, 1988, p. 2). Through her writings, Didion explores the issues and injustices of the mainstream media.

Lawrence martin believes that newspapers have lost their originality, independence as well as some of their legitimacy (Martin, 2009). When asked about the current state of Canadian political writing, Martin responds with little faith in it (Martin, 2010). He answers, “The state of political writing is weak. There are many good journalists in Ottawa, but media proprietors are not making big enough investments to support real investigative journalism, which we require. Nor are journalists independent enough” (Martin, 2010). Journalism, as it stands today, depends too highly on the money of corporations (Martin, 2009). He writes that “Journalism, chiefly south of the border, didn’t put up much of a challenge to the moneyed men before they climbed aboard their golden runaway trains “(Martin, 2009). His hopes are that eventually there will be” a journalism that is tougher, less knee-jerk, less beholden to elites, more beholden to the truth” (Martin, 2009).

Daniel Boorstin considers political coverage to be less about covering events as it is repeating what the political figures want us to say (Boorstin, 1964). These pseudo-events are filling up newspapers and are not allowing the audience to get enough viable information. The media wanted things to be quick and upbeat meaning that snappy questions replaced longer more insightful questions, leaving the voter “to judge not on issues explored by thoughtful men, but on the relative capacity of the two candidates to perform under television stress” (Boorstin, 1964, p.43). Boorstin expands on this idea, that the platform of a politician has come to matter less than the political and even personal image (Boorstin, 1964). Unfortunately, “We have become so accustomed to our illusions that we mistake them for reality” (Boorstin, 1964).

Andrew Coyne believes that although each election differs, the media coverage is always the same and is always an embarrassment (Coyne, 2016). This is partly because of the tabloid-type news stories but also because of the serious news (Coyne, 2016). “We aren’t just missing an opportunity to help the public make sense of things at a critical time. We’re making things worse. We’re actually getting in the way.” (Coyne, 2016, p. 1).

He writes that people want to know who’s running and what they intend to do when they get there (Coyne, 2016). Instead, journalists tell them who’s ahead and who’s behind again and again, “of the candidates on TV, we ask them why they’re behind — over and over and over, apparently in the hope that if we keep at it long enough, we might make them cry” (Coyne, 2016, p. 2). The media doesn’t cover the platforms but instead covers the campaign, the tactics (Coyne, 2016). As Pincus suggests it’s become an arena sport (Pincus 2009; Coyne, 2016).

Mark Bowden writes that instead of gathering information or stories, journalists are just looking for “ammunition” or mere content (Bowden, 2009). He uses the 2012 American election as an example, “I flipped to MSNBC, and lo! … they had the exact same two clips. I flipped to CNN… same clips. CBS… same clips. ABC… same clips” (Bowden, 2009, p. 3). These clips all provided by political activists, repeated on several channels (Bowden, 2009). The journalism work is being done more and more by political figures, or public relations operatives, with the goal to win instead of educating the public (Bowden, 2009). Pincus brings up a great argument against the neutrality of political journalism. In order to improve on the various political issues within a country, like corruption, ignorance, low voter turnout there needs to be more depth and transparency in political reporting.

All of the discussed writers believe that there are problems with the way that politics are covered.

The first and most prominent issue is that news is being constructed rather than discovered (Boorstin, 1964; Pincus, 2006; Didion, Bowden). Punic and Boorstin agree that news has become more about public relations and republishing the ideas of state officials, apparent experts than the actual truth (Boorstin, 1964; Pincus, 2009). Bowden writes that this kind of repetition across the news channels, “has largely replaced the work of on-the-scene reporters during political campaigns, which have become, in a sense, perpetual” (Bowden, 2009, p. 3).

Didion agrees that the political content in newspapers is not only recycled but fake pseudo-events as Boorstin suggests (Didion, 1988; Boorstin 1964). Didion writes that “This perfect recycling tended to present itself, in the narcosis of the event, as a model for the rest,” that once the story is over everything just disappears (Didion, 1988, p. 17).

Another issue is the amount of disengagement from the public (Pincus, 2009; Didion, 1988; Bowden, 2009). Pincus writes that the press treats political, “as if they were refereeing a game in which only the players – the government or its opponents – can participate” (Pincus 2009). Didion expands upon this idea where in the journalistic process one is either on the inside or not at all. (Didion, 1988). Add to this the fragmentation of news on television and the internet, People are more likely to listen to what they already think (Bowden, 2009). If they disagree, then they disengage.

Then corporate ownership is another issue, with so much media ownership being controlled by such a limited number of corporations, journalists cannot help but be a reflection of the people who sign their paychecks (Martin, 2009; Bowden, 2009; Coyne, 2016).

Coyne claims that journalists are just manipulators that are paid to slant the truth to benefit their clients (Coyne, 2016). Bowden writes, “Journalism, done right, is enormously powerful precisely because it does not seek power. It seeks truth. Those who forsake it to shill for a product or a candidate or a party or an ideology diminish their own power. They are missing the most joyful part of the job” (Bowden, 2009, p. 11).

There are numerous issues with the relationship between politics and journalism, that make an improvement in its coverage difficult. In order to have a functional and democratic press, there need to be adjustments to the current model of journalism. Specifically, changes regarding quality content, functioning finances, and broader access. In a free press, there shouldn’t need to be a question of if journalists should publish a story. Journalism needs to find its voice before neutrality is the only option.

References

Boorstin, D. (1964). The image (1st ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Bowden, M. (2009). The Story Behind the Story. The Atlantic304(3), 46-54. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/10/the-story-behind-the-story/307667/

Coyne, A. (2016). How journalists get in the way of the election. Macleans121(38). Retrieved from https://library.macewan.ca/library-search/detailed-view/p3h/34526267#fulltext_html

David, G. (2006). The Optimist. Columbia Journalism Review44(6), pg. 38 – 44. Retrieved from https://library.macewan.ca/library-search/detailed-view/f5h/19971638

Didion, J. (1988). Insider Baseball. The New York Review of Books. Retrieved from https://learn.macewan.ca/bbcswebdav/pid-1124507-dt-content-rid-3337566_1/courses/009268-01-2169-1-BC10-92556/11%282%29-Didion.pdf

Martin, L. (2009). To save journalism, bring on that Jon Stewart outrage. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://v1.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20090318.wcomartin19/front/Front/Front/

Martin, L. (2010). Lawrence Martin – Authors – Best Political Books – What We Do – SamaraSamaracanada.com. Retrieved 7 December 2016, from http://www.samaracanada.com/research/resourcesanddata/best-political-books/author-q-a/lawrence-martin

Pew Research Center, (2016). Majority of U.S. adults think news media should not add interpretation to the facts. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/18/news-media-interpretation-vs-facts/

Pincus, W. (2006). Fighting back against the PR presidency. NiemanWatchdog. Retrieved from http://niemanwatchdog.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=background.view&backgroundid=00102

Pincus, W. (2009). Newspaper Narcissism. Columbia Journalism Review48(1), p54-57.

Rosen, J. (2008). Getting the Politics of the Press Right: Walter Pincus Rips into Newsroom Neutrality. PressThink. Retrieved from http://archive.pressthink.org/2008/03/14/pincus_neutrality.html

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