|Number 526||February 28, 2013|
This Week: Missing the Biggest Stories
In the last two issues of Nygaard Notes I've been talking about four little sub-systems of the larger media system and how they lead the media to distort reality. In this issue I back up a little, in order to take a broader look at the sort of thinking that supports these distortions. What I've found is that the standard distortions that we find in the mass media are not random, but rather flow inevitably from a media system that both reflects and reinforces the strong, peculiarly USAmerican, ideology of Individualism.
This issue of Individualism is near the core of the media theory that I continue to evolve, and it's turning out to be a little complicated. As a result, this issue of Nygaard Notes is another "double issue." I told you a while ago that the 2013 volume of Nygaard Notes might be composed of pieces in a longer format than they generally have been. So far that seems to be the case. I try to keep each issue of Nygaard Notes bite-sized and readable on a coffee break. But I don't always succeed. Unless you have a long coffee break!
So, if you can make time to read the whole thing, please try to make time to let me know what you think. Nygaard Notes is a collaboration, after all, between me and you.
Here's the entire text of a Letter to the Editor of the New York Times that appeared on February 12th:
To the Editor:
I am deeply, deeply disturbed at the suggestion in "A Court to Vet Kill Lists" (news analysis, front page, Feb. 9) that possible judicial review of President Obama's decisions to approve the targeted killing of suspected terrorists might be limited to the killings of American citizens.
Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours? That President Obama can sign off on a decision to kill us with less worry about judicial scrutiny than if the target is an American? Would your Supreme Court really want to tell humankind that we, like the slave Dred Scott in the 19th century, are not as human as you are? I cannot believe it.
I used to say of apartheid that it dehumanized its perpetrators as much as, if not more than, its victims. Your response as a society to Osama bin Laden and his followers threatens to undermine your moral standards and your humanity.
DESMOND M. TUTU
The writer, winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, is archbishop emeritus of Cape Town.
The just-completed brief Nygaard Notes series about How The Structure of Media Distorts Reality began when a friend wondered out loud why it is that the political system in the U.S.—and why so many of us as individuals—often fail to address a problem until it hits the front pages. I think it's only natural that we don't deal with something until we are aware of it, and not only aware of it, but also impressed with its importance. And we tend to be very aware of whatever it is that's on the front pages, because once an issue gets on the front pages of our agenda-setting media, it also tends to appear on the talk shows, and the editorial pages, and on the primetime news shows, and so forth. Even if we know better, for many of us the things that are on the front pages end up becoming The Important Things. That is, they become the things we think about and (sometimes) do something about. And organizers know that it's much easier to organize people when they are excited about something, which is less likely if they've never seen it on the news.
An understanding of the four systems I've been discussing in the past two issues—The Gawker Syndrome; The Grabbing Eyeballs Mandate; The Story-Telling Format, and The Chicken Little Tendency—goes a good way toward explaining why the mass media behaves as it does in terms of what it chooses to highlight. But I haven't really talked about the big stories—the HUGE stories—that the media choose NOT to highlight, the stories that never seem to get onto the front pages. So that's what this essay is about.
To illustrate just why so many stories fail to make a splash in the media, we'll have a look at The Year's Top Stories for 2012, as determined by an annual poll of U.S. editors and news directors conducted by the Associated Press. These media agenda-setters judged last year's Top Stories to be: the US Election; Superstorm Sandy; the Supreme Court's ruling on Obamacare; the killing of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya; the Penn State football/child Abuse Scandal; the US Economy; the Fiscal Cliff; Gay Marriage, and what they called "full-scale civil war" in Syria. The Number One Top Story was judged to be the Mass Shootings in Connecticut on December 14th. (Which may have something to do with the fact that the survey was taken on December 17th.)
Top Stories and Their Frameworks
Each of these stories—with the possible exceptions of "the US Economy" and the Penn State scandal and, for different reasons, the so-called "Fiscal Cliff"—are based on "events." That is, they are based on things that happened at a certain point in time, that had a beginning and some sort of ending, and that were quite attention-getting. But all of these stories—with the same possible exceptions—can be more fully understood if they are seen as features of larger, ongoing issues. And the familiar pattern we see is that the headlines tend to pick up on the events, while ignoring the larger, ongoing issues which give rise, and meaning, to those events. I'll call these larger issues Framework Issues, since they provide the supporting structures for the events. Let's take them one by one:
The U.S. Election was certainly a Top Story. But the framework issue of THE STATE OF U.S. DEMOCRACY did not make the list.
Superstorm Sandy was a Top Story. But the framework issue of CLIMATE CHANGE was not.
The Supreme Court on Obamacare was a Top Story. But neither of the framework issues here—the HEALTH CARE SYSTEM nor THE SAD STATE OF THE HEALTH OF THE U.S. POPULATION—made the list.
The killing of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, and the nature of security in the Embassy was a Top Story. But the framework issue of U.S. FOREIGN POLICY AND ITS RELATION TO TERROR was not.
The Penn State Football/Child Abuse Scandal was a Top Story. But the framework issue of the HEALTH AND SAFETY OF OUR CHILDREN was not.
The US Economy was a Top Story. But what I would call the framework issue here—THE SOCIAL HEALTH OF THE UNITED STATES that is supposed to be the point of "the economy"—was not. The exception here is the fairly consistent reporting of unemployment levels. Although, even here, there was much more reporting on business profitability than on the welfare of the population.
The Fiscal Cliff was a Top Story. This is in a category by itself (see below).
Gay Marriage was a Top Story. But the framework issues of LGBTQIA IDENTITY, EXCLUSION, CLASS, AND HETEROSEXUAL PRIVILEGE are largely not.
The tumult in Syria is a Top Story. But, again, the framework issue (and the one U.S. readers can do something about)—U.S. FOREIGN POLICY—was not.
The story of the horrific shootings in Connecticut was the Number One Top Story of 2012, and it's an interesting one. Since the shootings, the framework issue of GUN CONTROL has become a Top Story, at least for the moment. But consider that, in the six months preceding the shootings, the phrase "gun control" appeared in the headlines or lead paragraphs of U.S. newspapers an average of 26 times a week. In the past month, that phrase has appeared an average of 329 times a week, an increase of more than 1,200 percent. So, as is often the case, a huge, spectacular, emotional story can and does elevate an already-existing issue to the front pages. And, by the same token, stories that lack such a "trigger"—regardless of their social relevance and importance—typically remain off the front pages.
Now let's have a look at a list of the framework issues that I have suggested, the ones that don't seem to make the news unless some big, obviously-connected event forces the issue, as was the case with the Connecticut mass shootings and gun control.
(Note: I'm leaving the so-called Fiscal Cliff off the list, because it wasn't even a real thing. I have called it a "Propaganda masterpiece," and last December, in Nygaard Notes #520 I explained why. I can't bear to talk about it any more here, beyond pointing out that there's a poignant lesson to be learned by considering that a completely manufactured non-event came to be considered by the nation's news editors a "Top Story" of 2012.)
So, in addition to GUN CONTROL, the framework issues that I see as connected to—indeed, that give meaning to—the year's Top Stories are; the State of U.S. Democracy; Climate Change; the Health Care System; the Sad State of the Health of the U.S. Population; U.S. Foreign Policy and its Relation to Terror; the Health and Safety of Our Children; the Social Health of the United States (that is supposed to be the point of "the economy"), and; LGBTQIA Identity, Exclusion, Class, and Heterosexual Privilege.
Systems, Structures, and Institutions
All of these framework issues have to do with systems, structures, and institutions. And, for that very reason, they are not likely to be considered "Top Stories" by the mass media. If we look at our four media sub-systems we can begin to see why.
When the Supreme Court issues a ruling on a law as big as Obamacare, the Gawker Syndrome kicks in: What did they say? Who won? Who lost? Front-page material. But when a major study comes out comparing the overall health of U.S. residents to their counterparts around the world—as was the case on January 9th of this year—it fails to make it onto the nation's front pages. The release of the report itself was a bit of an "event," which is why it got into the news at all. But this glimpse at a long-developing and ongoing crisis never made the AP list of "The Top News Stories of 2012." Or 2011, or 2010.
Superstorm Sandy met the criteria of The Grabbing Eyeballs Mandate. Who could not follow such a dramatic, nearly-unprecedented, story? And the fact that the agenda-setting media is mostly headquartered in the Northeast, placing the dramatic scenes right outside the windows of the agenda-setters, also played a role here. But, while the larger story of climate change did get mentioned in relation to the Superstorm, "the story" was judged to be the Superstorm itself, while the framework issue of climate change continues to be under-reported, as evidenced by its failure to become a Top Story, last year or any year.
When the U.S. Ambassador to Libya was killed, it really filled the bill as far as The Story-Telling Format goes. Lots of details, a controversy about what actually happened and why, and hints of spies and terrorists and guns and bombs and... well, it was a heckuva story! And it didn't hurt that, as National Public Radio put it on February 20th, "To Republicans, [the attack in Benghazi] symbolizes everything bad about the Obama administration." (That guarantees a steady stream of quotes by powerful people to fill out this juicy story.) But the framework issue of U.S. FOREIGN POLICY AND ITS RELATION TO TERROR is the story that really needs telling, as it gives context and meaning not only to the violence in Libya, but all over the world. Still, that's not a Top Story, as it fails to fit the narrative form that the media finds easy to use.
The one sub-system that might be expected to drive the media to cover Big Stories is The Chicken Little Tendency. After all, the dismal health of the people in the world's wealthiest nation is rather alarming and worthy of Top Story status, one would think. And the growing impoverishment and indebtedness of the average USAmerican is an ongoing disaster that should alert the nation's Chicken Littles, shouldn't it? And, for heaven's sake(!), "The Sky is Falling" is not that different from "The Atmosphere is Being Destroyed." Right?
And yet, none of these Framework Issues ever seem to become Top Stories. The reasons have to do with ideology. Specifically, with the particular form of Individualism that is the dominant ideology of the United States, and which steers us away from real solutions to our biggest problems. We turn now to examine the ideology of Individualism as it affects the media.
I worked for years as a bicycle courier here in Minneapolis. It gets rather cold here in the winter, and I remember delivering a package on one below-zero, very icy day to an office on the upper floors of one of our downtown office buildings. The executive who rode up in the elevator with me asked about the weather conditions outside. It was brutal, I told him. He then informed me that he hadn't been outside that day. What, does he live in his office? I wondered. Then I thought about it: Most likely his routine is to walk from his warm house into his warm garage, drive his warm car to his warm underground parking spot, then take the warm elevator (which brought him in contact with me) up to his presumably warm office. People like him are never exposed to the elements!
So, while the weather report was, to me, a Top Story of every day, to my elevator acquaintance it was just an abstraction, the subject of idle chatter. We might as well have been talking about the weather in Florida. And, if I had his job, so it would likely be for me. This is a trivial example, but it illustrates one aspect of how systems work; they provide different life experiences for different people. And those life experiences, in turn, have a large impact on how we see the world, what is important and what is not important, what is "normal" and what gets us to turn our heads. What are your Top Stories?
Now for another little anecdote, this one an old, old one that you may have heard:
Organizers often relate this story to illustrate the difference between a "social service" approach and a "social justice" approach to human suffering. The social service approach (represented by saving the babies) is seen as necessary but limited, since it deals only with symptoms and fails to address the causes of a problem. The social justice approach (represented by attempting to stop the perpetrator of the injustice) is seen as the necessary second level of response, since it deals with the cause of a problem.
This version of the Babies in the River story is, I think, the most common version, and it ends with someone going up the river to "stop whoever is throwing them in!" But why does the story stop there, leaving us with the idea that the problem will be solved if only we can "stop" whoever is tossing the toddlers? Why is there no mention of what might be leading someone to throw babies in the river in the first place? If it really is a case of a lone sociopath who came out of nowhere, then the solution may be as simple as stopping him or her. But what if there's more to it? What if there is something in the system that is leading people to throw babies in the river? (Even sociopaths; they could act out in some other way.) In that case, apprehending the perpetrator won't solve the problem, since a new culprit will emerge to replace each one we apprehend.
If the solution to a social problem does indeed lie in the larger system, then the solution would have to involve an understanding of that system, and that understanding would have to produce a plan related to that understanding. And the aim of that plan would be to alter the system in such a way that it would stop producing these outcomes. And, speaking of systems, is there something in the systems of thought in the United States that prevents us taking the story further? Yes, there is.
What prevents us from going beyond the "stop" response is a deeply-rooted attachment to a core aspect of U.S. ideology, which is Individualism. An Individualistic thought process tells us that problems—any problems—are basically due either to "bad" people, or to "good" people making bad decisions, who can and must be stopped. That conviction prevents us from analyzing the system.
Terror, Climate, and Systems
There are two levels of analysis mentioned in the Babies in the River Story, both bound up with an Individualistic ideology. I'll call them Individualistic Response 1 and Individualistic Response 2. When we approach this, or any other, problem by thinking in terms of systems, we come up with a third type of response, one that I'll simply call the System Response. A look at two major, ongoing social problems will show how the System Response tends to remain off the table.
First, consider terrorism. Since September 11, 2001 there have been two responses of United States leadership to what is called "terrorism." One has been to develop a "rapid response" system to help victims of terror attacks. That's Individualistic Response 1. A second response has been to try to stop the perpetrators, mostly by killing them. That's Individualistic Response 2. A third possible response, a System Response, would involve analyzing the root causes of terror and addressing them. This, in turn, would lead us to consider possible contributing factors like U.S. foreign policy, global power relations, poverty, dispossession, and so forth. So far the mainstream responses to terror have been limited by Individualistic thinking, which allows none but the Individualistic responses to enter into the halls of power, and thus into the media, and thus into the consciousness of the vast majority of citizens.
Another current issue is Climate Change, which is a little more complex. Individualistic Response 1, in this case, is well-reported, as the struggles of the victims of individual climate change-related events—Superstorm Sandy, droughts, floods, hurricanes—are easy to find and the success or failure of efforts to help them are easy to see. But in this case Individualistic Response 2 is more difficult to invoke.
Stopping people from throwing babies in the river is straightforward enough, because we can see who is doing it. But who is making the river overflow? Who is causing the drought? Who is causing rising sea levels, or melting polar ice, or heat waves, or extreme weather events? Those aren't so obvious, since the forces that are changing the climate are built into "the system." The responsibility for the various climate-related problems are so widely dispersed that we can't easily identify whom we should "stop."
The result is that, when it comes to Climate Change, what is excluded from the public discussion is not only the necessary System Response, but even Individualistic Response 2. There are no "bad guys" to stop. Well, maybe there are some "bad guys," but climate change is mostly a story of millions of people just doing their jobs in ways that the economic system demands. Those aren't "bad guys," so the media gets tied up in knots. And the reporters and editors themselves are not bad guys, which is the point of this mini-series: They, too, are just doing their jobs, in ways that the media system demands.
It's not just Climate Change; things that serve as Framework Issues—that is, the larger issues or systems that provide the supporting structures for the events we see in the news—are almost by definition not about individual actions. So reporting on them would require a different set of skills than most journalists in the current system are trained to use.
Considering the four subsystems in the media that I've been talking about in this mini-series, we can predict that news outlets will generally cover the efforts to rescue the babies in the river, and give a good sense of the human drama involved. And some reporters will attempt to find out who is throwing the babies into the water. . . and then they'll cover the trial. But it would be an unusual media outlet that would emphasize the conditions that are leading to large numbers of drowning babies. And that's an expected outcome in a media system that has evolved in the context of a profit-oriented, Individualistic culture.
The BIGGEST stories, the Framework Issues—from Climate Change to Social Health to Inequality to Empire to Racism and more—are the stories that need to be on the front pages every day. But they are not stories of good guys and bad guys, but instead are stories of structures, systems, and institutions and the effects they have on people's lives. And, until we change the structures, systems, and institutions that make up the ideological system in the United States—of which the media are a large part—we'll continue to see stories about the results of the system's workings, while remaining mostly blind to the systems themselves.
Without fundamental changes in our systems of media, most of us will continue to see the world through the dominant lens of Individualism, and as a result will continue to be seriously limited in our ability to imagine, and thus to build, a better future.