Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Journalism and the Status Quo

Journalism and the Status Quo
P. Schultz
April 10, 2012

            Here is a phenomenon that I have wondered about at times: Despite a kind of journalism that focuses on scandals, Americans still manage to think and say with some regularity that our country is the greatest nation on earth and that its government is the best government on earth. How can this be? Well, I think I have finally figured it out.

            Last week, in class, I showed a segment from the Daily Show where Jon Stewart joined a chorus of “news” shows featuring a convention that was held in Las Vegas by the Government Services Administration that carried a bill of about $832,000. Of course, this bill was ridiculously expensive and the GSA is one part of the government that is responsible for ensuring that money is not wasted. It made for easy pickings for the news media and, of course, Stewart had a blast with the story.

            Now in discussion with my classes, I asked what they got from the story and they got pretty much what the media wanted them to get from it. They said the GSA’s behavior was scandalous and ridiculous. Then I asked them what the story “left out.” Here they were not able to give me any answers. But there are things left out and they are or could be important.

            First, insofar as the GSA’s behavior is characterized as scandalous, it appears to be extraordinary or “out of the ordinary.” But what if this isn’t the case? That is, what if such behavior is not the exception but the rule among government agencies when it comes to holding conventions? Well, then the shock and dismay we felt when confronted with this story would be moderated to say the least.

            But, second, imagine if this is not just less than uncommon but also an example of bureaucratic behavior. That is, there is something about bureaucracies that justifies such behavior in the minds of those embedded in the particular bureaucracy. Thus, what we are witnessing is, from the point of view of bureaucrats, not scandalous behavior at all but normal, even justifiable behavior. [This would help explain why bureaucrats are likely to treat such behavior as a public relations problems when revealed and/or why they are willing to try to “cover up” such behavior.]

            Of course, this latter possibility is not even hinted at by the story as told by the news media. Moreover, this possibility is suppressed by way the media handled the story. As a result, we leave the story with the idea that while there was something wrong with particular bureaucrats, there is nothing wrong with the bureaucracy per se. And, willy nilly, this way of presenting the story preserves the status quo insofar as it does nothing to make us question our reliance on bureaucracy as a means of controlling government itself.
            Therefore, there is built into journalism that focuses on scandals a prejudice or bias in favor of the status quo. A focus on scandals turns events into “one and done events,” into isolated events that do not have any connection to the “system” within which they take place. It might be said that such journalism “decontextualizes” events and leads us to think that such events can be avoided without concerning ourselves with changing the system within which they take place. In the story cited above, even Jon Stewart suggested that the solution was for the head of the GSA to resign.

            Let me give another illustration of this phenomenon. For a long time now, there has been considerable focus on drinking by college students, a focus that tells us that that drinking is out of control. Something about this story has bothered me for some time but now I think I know what it is.

            First, this story is constructed in such a way that the focus is on this generation of college students, which decontextualizes the phenomenon. That is, how do we know that the current behavior is all that different from behavior in the past? We do know that drinking among college students is probably more moderate than among their age cohorts who are not attending college. But few seem to care.

            As a result of this focus, today’s college students are engaging in scandalous behavior and, necessarily, the question becomes: How do we control this behavior which is, it is implied, unique to this generation? What gets lost in this story? Well, at least a couple of things.

            First, no notice is taken of the differences in sheer numbers of those attending college today from the numbers attending college in the past. That is, the college population today is far more extensive than it was, say, 50 years ago. Does this make a difference? Maybe or maybe not. But the point here is that as the story is told today it cannot make a difference because it is not even considered relevant. Such is the result of turning this behavior into scandalous behavior.

            Second, the way the story is told the focus is on the behavior of the students, abstracting from the context of colleges themselves. That is, by focusing on the behavior, the allegedly scandalous behavior of the students, no notice is taken of the environment created by those with the power at the colleges. To what extent has the character of the “college experience” changed today from what it was 50 years ago? We do know, for example, that today college bureaucracies are far more extensive and far more intrusive than in the past. How does this affect the behavior of students? It might or might not. But, again, from the perspective of alleging scandalous behavior it never even appears on the radar screen. Hence, no one ever entertains the idea that it isn’t the behavior of students that needs changing; rather, it is the behavior of college bureaucracies that needs changing! Such a perspective, even while emphasizing what should be an alarming degree of scandalous behavior, favors and even reinforces the status quo.

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