Jay Rosen: The Quest for Innocence and the Loss of Reality in Political Journalism

22 02 2010

Jay Rosen of NYU poses an excellent question about the state of journalism, based on David Barstow’s reporting in The NYT last week about the Tea Party Movement: Is it enough to report the expressed beliefs of the movement without examining the reality of those beliefs?

Barstow notes that the binding narrative of the Tea Party is “impending tyranny.” Rosen, while generally complimentary of the Times’ investment of resources to take a deep look at the movement, complains that Barstow never points out that there is no basis in “reality” for the binding narrative, not one shred of evidence of stolen elections, a plan to eviscerate the Constitution, a takeover of the Internet, etc., etc. The media, he says, are so afraid of being identified with an ideology that they avoid the question of validity while instead reporting the horse race. The Tea Party is ascendant, period. (I particularly love Rosen’s extrapolation examining what the mainstream media coverage of the Afghan government would look like if it applied the same horse-race reportage.)

I found myself in full agreement with Rosen until, digging into the comments, I came upon Robert Morris’ illumination from a Southern perspective. Like Rosen, I often wondered, “Where are these people coming up with stuff? Doesn’t anyone besides Jon Stewart want to point out the absurdity of it all?”

Like Morris, however, I am a Southerner. What he points out is true: Some Americans, largely concentrated in the South, are expressing what for them IS a reality and not a paranoid fantasy. The feel an absolute right to use tobacco, fly the flag of the Confederacy, refuse to buy health insurance, keep unions out, pretend gays don’t exist in the military, and so on. That’s liberty for them, and it’s being assaulted on many sides, as they see it.

Rosen rails against  “perception is reality” as a cop-out. For him, there is an objective reality, and the news media have a duty to report departures from it. But Morris’ point is equally valid: For some of these folks, “impending tyranny” is reality, and their perceptions affirm it.

So, I think Barstow plays it nearly right, and Rosen, too. Rosen says he wishes Barstow’s piece were even longer. Me, too. I disagree that he should declare the Tea Party beliefs to be irrational and delusional. But I think he should have illuminated those beliefs in more detail, challenged their proponents to back up their charges, and let the readers decide for themselves.

Finally, I’m not sure the current state of the media represents a low point, as Rosen apparently believes. It can get better. Remember that most of the media reported only the horse-race aspects of Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities for four years before Edward R. Murrow finally had the guts to examine the facts of it, which shut McCarthy down in a matter of days.