News on Politics

The news media and government officials have become ensnared in a symbiotic web of manipulation and mythmaking. Journalists demand drama and conflict and politicians fabricate crises and stage-manage their responses.

Most newspaper articles once looked like institutional minutes of a board meeting but today they feature blaring headlines, actors in conflict and colorful details. The resulting focus on facades corrupts the press and the public’s perception of government policies.

Pulitzer’s Dramatic Journalism

Joseph Pulitzer’s journalism radically transformed the news. The first media lord, he was the architect of this transformation. He took a sleepy newspaper and turned it into the most powerful paper in America. He accomplished this by putting drama into the news. He made stories exciting and entertaining by adding blaring headlines, big pictures, and eye-catching graphics. He also moved the news away from institutional formats that were as interesting as minutes of a board meeting and put them into dramatic stories with a plot, actors in conflict, and juicy details.

Pulitzer’s newspapers were wildly popular and widely read in an era when the world was still in transition. He found readers in the Lower East Side bars where men and women gathered to drink “black and tans,” and at dinners in cramped tenement houses. They talked about a toddler who fell to his death from the roof of an apartment building or about a police officer who beat a poor waif. Pulitzer’s reporters learned to tell these stories with a Charles Dickensian sensibility and to create entertainment from the tragedies of modern urban life.

He also used sensational reporting, especially in crime and corruption, to grab the public’s attention. This approach drew criticism from critics such as Whitelaw Reid, who called Pulitzer a “libel maniac.” But he prevailed in a series of Supreme Court cases that set an important precedent for free speech and gave the public an uncensored window on political life.

At the same time, he sought to appeal to a wider audience by including comic strips and more cultural and social information in his papers. He also championed the right of children to be paid for their work as news hawkers, and his papers were among the leading advocates in the successful newsboys’ strike of 1899 that forced publishers to pay them fairly.

Pulitzer’s blending of news, entertainment, and politics created the model for the multistage theater that is contemporary news. This dynamic has created great pressure for politicians to respond quickly and to manipulate crises to their advantage. Several reforms recommended by the commission—such as the line-item veto, restructuring of congressional committees and staffs, and devolution of powers to states—would tend to offset this dynamic by returning the development of policy to a more constitutional path.

The Facades of the Media

Facade structures with their window and material combinations grant a building image to the public. At night they become light mediums to share a social, brand or artistic message. Depending on the intended purpose facades appear as individualists vying for attention or as an ensemble of skyscrapers visually merging into one panoramic entity.

This project investigates the potential of the digital architecture to communicate a new form of public media art. The aim is to develop an interface that enables the design of creative content for media facades by regular citizens without any prior computer programming knowledge. This would create a wider diversity in the public art creation on these impressive architectures.

The Manipulation of Facts

The news media, like the government, can be corrupted in more than just the sense of accepting bribes. It can be corrupted in a systemic way by not doing what it claims to do and should do. This is what Paul Weaver argues in his 1994 book, News and the Culture of Lying.

He explains that the press squanders its power and credibility by focusing on drama and conflict instead of reporting the underlying realities. In doing so, the press corrupts itself and the public’s perceptions by creating a charade that serves only its own interests. The politicians, bureaucrats, and special interest groups fabricate crises to advance their own self-aggrandizing agendas, and journalists dutifully report them.

As a result, the press is often blind to systemic issues, such as deficits and spending. This is what happened in the savings-and-loan debacle, where journalists focused on the political tactics of Gramm and Rudman while ignoring the institutional mistakes and policy failures that led to it. A similar dynamic played out with the debt crisis, which drew media attention to the political strategies of the White House and Congress but ignored the continuing rise in federal spending.

To avoid such distortion, journalists need to rethink how they portray manipulation. Strategies that combine the trickery and pressure accounts seem to do a better job than either alone in accounting for the wide variety of tactics that intuitively count as manipulation. But this broad coverage comes at a price.

Weaver and other scholars argue that the press should reorient itself toward readers and away from advertisers, break up media monopolies, and promote a culture of responsibility and deliberation. This is all fine and good, but anyone who has worked in a newsroom at deadline knows it is quixotic to think that the media will ever return to pre-Pulitzer journalism.

The Culture of Lying

The problem with lying is that it poisons all institutions. People lose faith in the press, politicians, churches, and even their own families because they feel lied to by these contentious, unfair, inaccurate, power-grabbing institutions. It’s no wonder that, between 1973 and 1993, only Congress fell lower in public esteem than the news media.

Moreover, because of the way they operate, many journalists corrupt themselves and the public policy process by seeking out dramatic coverage and focusing on dueling cover stories—stories with drama, conflict, quotable advocates, and the potential for sensational headlines—while neglecting to uncover or report the underlying facts. As a result, both journalists and public officials become caught in a vicious symbiotic circle: officials manufacture crises and stage-manage their responses to those crises, while the media creates a phony charade that serves everyone’s self-interest—journalists get an exciting story and public officials gain favorable publicity for responding to falsely perceived problems.

Weaver, a former newspaper reporter, writes that journalists have corrupted themselves and the American society they purport to serve by persuading the public that it is constantly beset by crises. He argues that journalists consciously and cynically seek out and promote “sensationalized” news stories to meet their own needs for drama, and public officials oblige by fabricating crises and letting the journalists know about them so they can be featured in the stories.

This narrative of a culture of lying isn’t without some evidence to support it. For instance, IPR Associate Research Professor Erik Nisbet finds that the more familiar people are with information—including lies—the more likely they are to believe it, because of a combination of factors such as cognitive shortcuts (e.g., seeing one’s own emotional state mirrored in content) and the fact that their minds are already filled with similar, previous knowledge about the subject matter.

Further, research by Boczkowski shows that people are more distrustful of fake news circulated on social media than they are of the mainstream media—but he also points out that this doesn’t mean that the amount of misinformation and disinformation on SNSs is increasing as a whole.

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