Facts and Opinion in Journalism
A recent Providence Journal article by Christine Dunn illustrates how dramatically — whether intentional or not — news reportage can lapse into narrative setting. By that, I mean the provision of evidence to support a particular worldview, as opposed to relating the facts of a newsworthy case so that readers can decide.
The headline for the article (which, admittedly, the reporter does not typically write) is “Development elicits protest,” and the lede expands: “More than 500 residents sign petition against Palmer Pointe affordable-housing plan to build 48 units on Sowams Road.” But the actual complaints of those petitioners aren’t offered until paragraph six, and although Dunn provides us all the specific details for the development itself, the reader is left without any specifics about the complaint:
The state’s Low and Moderate Income Housing Act allows developers of affordable housing to build more housing units per acre than is usually allowed by local zoning rules. The density of the proposed development at Palmer Pointe is one of the concerns of the opponents, said William D. LeMoult, a soft-spoken, retired lawyer who lives near the Sowams Road site. Another is that Palmer Pointe may receive local tax benefits, which would not be fair to other residents, he said.
Instead of elaboration of the deal that might not be fair, we get several more paragraphs from supporters of the housing project. So, in effect, an article ostensibly about an objection to a development begins with a few paragraphs of statements from the developer and ends with some more paragraphs of statements from the project designer.
In response to my guffaw about the article on Twitter, progressive blogger Bob Plain tweeted: “I think this is an example like climate change where giving equal weight to both sides is not 0bjective journalism.” Given its product, one can only infer that the Providence Journal agrees. But it’s a ludicrous assertion that misses the point.
Having read Dunn’s article, one doesn’t know if the “tax benefits” are a pittance or are a demand that every resident of Barrington leave a $1,000 in unmarked bills in the development’s main office every month. By removing “both sides,” the journalist clears a path for developers to cut lucrative deals for themselves (the “nonprofit” label, notwithstanding) and for politicians to abuse the electorate.
In a small way, in other words, the article illustrates what’s wrong with today’s mainstream, activist press.
The Demagogue Manifested
Very much related to the above, sequester news is in the air, and the absurdity of it all can be a little hard to take. In the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan touches well on one reason:
Obviously the potential budget cuts that the administration is announcing—well, not announcing but warning of—are the kind that would cause maximum pain, inconvenience or alarm. Obviously too, the administration doesn’t want to be clear about exactly who might be affected, how or when. Let the imaginative dwell on the extent of the menace; let them do it on cable news.
In a way it’s all brilliant showbiz: Scare people into supporting your position. But we’ve been through it before, and you wonder, again, why a triumphant president and a battered Republican House majority can’t reach a responsible agreement.
And then you remind yourself why. Because Mr. Obama thrives in chaos. He flourishes in unsettled circumstances and grooves on his own calm. He spins an air of calamity, points fingers and garners support. His only opponent is a hapless, hydra-headed House.
And in the New York Post, Michael Goodwin points to another (emphasis added):
To believe his scenario on the impacts of the $85 billion in cuts, you have to believe the federal government is 100 percent efficient; that any penny cut from spending would damage the daily life of every American.
To see how preposterous the claim is, imagine a smaller example — a family with a weekly budget of $100. Under Obama’s math, cutting $2.30 a week would mean the family would have to give up its home, car and food.
It sounds crazy because it is, especially because Obama proposed these cuts in the first place. He knows he’s blowing smoke, so why does he do it?
That is an implied assumption of government budget rhetoric at every level — local, state, and national. Budgets are always asserted to be cut to the bone. To the extent that they are not, the expenditures and increases in them are asserted to be irrevocable, whether because they’re part of contracts, or because they’re required in order to claim matching funds from somewhere else, or because they are assistance programs defined by the benefits and not the costs, like food stamps and Medicaid.
At some point, Americans and Rhode Islanders are going to have to stop accepting the bullying tactics that never allow government spending to go down in absolute terms. Of course, my “at some point” assumes that the electorate wants their government and their society to be able to continue on, and I’m less and less convinced that their desire for sustainable government trumps their desire for handouts and redistribution.
Protecting Kids from Learning Self-Reliance and Responsibility
Since the topic has transitioned naturally to the perspective of the electorate — that is, our society in its role as a civic unit — it’s worth putting forward some thoughts from David French about “effort shock.” By that term, he means “the alarm and surprise that so many Millennials are experiencing when ‘real life’ turns out to be much, much harder than their childhoods”:
Several weeks ago, I attended a basketball game — my kids’ school versus their crosstown rivals — and I was struck by the number of parents who were sitting in the stands, hunched over papers and textbooks, literally doing their child’s homework. Not helping, doing. That is of course one extreme of greasing the wheels of your child’s success, but the extent that we confuse hand-holding and sometimes even carrying our kids with “going the extra parenting mile” is shocking to see. When our kids get jobs in the real world, they likely won’t get private tutoring to help them accomplish daily job tasks, no one will be hovering around the boss making sure they get enough “playing time” or that the boss utilizes them to maximize their skills effectively, and not every key test of their professional competence will be preceded by an expensive six-week Kaplan prep course. Yes, life is easier for a teenager with the direct assistance of one or two highly motivated adult advocates and partners, but will this round-the-clock aid make life better for that 15-year-old when they’re 25?
The image of moms and/or dads multitasking on behalf of their children, not just to get their own work done while carting the kids around, but doing school work so that sports won’t suffer, brings to mind President Obama’s “Life of Julia” montage, which followed a woman through a life-cycle in which government was always there to offer assistance in the form of funding as well as legwork. Most of the folks on my side of the political aisle found Julia’s fictional life disturbing in both implication and presentation, but then, most of us can’t believe that the country wanted more of Obama.
If we accept some linkage between the political and social observations, two possibilities emerge: either the Obama Democrats picked up on a social trend and are moving to fill the void of the multitasking parents for people who never truly grow up, or the emergence of Papa Government has advanced alongside the deterioration of our culture, perhaps with some level of premeditation.
My opinion is that the latter possibility is more likely the case. The progressive program has, for the better part of a century, been to systematically challenge all of the social structures that empowered us to be independent and self-reliant. Simultaneously, it has elevated a special class of government planners to pick up the slack and to ease our descent into dependency.
A Strategy for Subjugating a People
While we’re strolling in these dark passages, take a look at this union organizer strategy highlighted on RedState. It offers suggestions on how to increase “pressure on employer,” escalating from “solidarity actions” to “confrontational actions.”
Good government types who have been mystified by the rhetoric and divisiveness that characterize any community debate in which there’s a real division of beliefs and ideas will recognize the tactics. When we’re talking government, the “employer” target seamlessly transfers to “taxpayer/voter.”
The main difference is that a private-sector labor union has to get the employer to take an action. In the case with government, the desired outcome is to intimidate and silence the political opposition. To my experience, the first stage is personalized and quiet — nondescript, anonymous letters in a home mailbox. When that doesn’t inspire a change of heart in the would-be reformer, the demonization everywhere in the community begins.
Anonymous comments on Web sites serving the city or town pop up to cause “confrontation” and to teach others the lesson of what they’ll face if they dare side with the targets. Whisper campaigns spread across soccer fields and various clubs and organizations. (My wife happened to receive such whispers from somebody either too careless or ignorant to consider to whom she was married.) It’s an amazing thing to watch take shape.
It’s a tautology to say that politics have played a role in communities throughout history, but these recent observations have the feel of innovation. After all, when government is involved in every area of our lives, the allowances that neighbors used to make for one another become less and less possible. We can’t just agree to disagree and go back to our corners of the town when tens of millions of dollars are at stake in a community of fewer than 20,000 people… and when the government control room has levers not just for certain infrastructure and utilities, but education, health care, and minute details of property usage.
And as more and more decisions are made more centrally and at increasing distances — moving from the Town Hall to Providence to Washington — it’s less true that we’re neighbors in a community in the way we used to be. The Left’s local attack dog is more a neighbor to her broader movement than to the conservative fellow down the street. Communities being what they’ve become, she socializes with the former; the latter she only sees sporadically when he’s marked as the target at some town meeting or other.
In tandem, then, with new generations with waning experience fending for themselves, we get a sort of grassroots fascism. To complete the loop of this post, the prospect is made all the more frightening by the realization that those who wish to bring freedom and economic advancement back to American society can’t even get a fair description of our grievances in the ostensibly objective news media.
When you’re outside of the “community,” after all, telling your side of the story wouldn’t be “objective journalism.”