Arnold Kling  

How Does Narrative Emerge?

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The Daily Caller reports,

Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent urged his colleagues to deflect attention from Obama's relationship with Wright by changing the subject. Pick one of Obama's conservative critics, Ackerman wrote, "Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares -- and call them racists."

...Kevin Drum, then of Washington Monthly, also disagreed with Ackerman's strategy. "I think it's worth keeping in mind that Obama is trying (or says he's trying) to run a campaign that avoids precisely the kind of thing Spencer is talking about, and turning this into a gutter brawl would probably hurt the Obama brand pretty strongly. After all, why vote for him if it turns out he's not going change the way politics works?"

It appears, based on these leaked emails from a private discussion list, that Ackerman and Drum disagreed about whether it was a good idea to deal with the Jeremiah Wright controversy by accusing prominent conservatives of being racists. However, both Ackerman and Drum agreed implicitly that their concern was "the Obama brand."

This raises questions in my mind about how the narrative emerges.

(a) it emerges out of the efforts of journalists to be objective, however imperfectly they may perform that function based on unconscious biases.

(b) it emerges out of open conflict among biased commentators

(c) it is shaped by the conscious, co-ordinated strategies of biased journalists

These emails suggest something closer to (c). Reading them is like seeing the transcript of a meeting where stock traders plan to manipulate the price of a firm's shares or where a corporation plots how to cover up some wrong it has done to consumers.

Based on these analogies, I have difficulty working up sympathy for the privacy violation involved in publishing these emails. But perhaps the analogies are inappropriate.

It seems to me that some ethical boundaries that I thought existed, or should have existed, have been violated, by those who participated in this mailing list.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (10 to date)
Yancey Ward writes:

Anyone associated with this episode in Journolist should be deeply, deeply ashamed. I was never under the illusion that journalists had any real ethics at all, but I was in a significant minority in that belief, so it has been a great public service performed by whoever blew the whistle on these guys. Whoever released these e-mails deserves a Pulitzer.

David C writes:

How is this ethically different from planning an ad campaign? It's most similar to viral campaigning. When McDonald's agents secretly come up with ways to get people to buy a Big Mac, are they engaging in sinister activities too? Is it only political issues that should be off limits to psychological manipulation? What about religion? Is missionary work evil too?

Arnold Kling writes:

David C,
The McDonald's advertising and PR people are doing what I expect them to do. I assume that political consultants do similar things. But I admit that I was surprised to see journalists conspiring like political consultants or marketing people.

tom writes:

These attacks on ABC, together with Dave Weigel's messages asking people to stage a link boycott against the Washington Examiner over something petty (I think an article about Weigle's dancing at the McCardle wedding), it looks like one function of Jourolist was to coordinate punishment of non-complying media. Or at least to try to do that.

PeterW writes:

I always thought that the uproar over media bias was a good thing - not because it empowers one side over another (though it does), but because it caused people to be more skeptical about their sources of news. During my brief stint in student journalism I realized how easy it is to be biased even without trying. These folks...these folks were trying.

David C writes:

Fair enough. I guess it's because I don't think of Spencer Ackerman or Kevin Drum as journalists, but as opinion columnists.

Matt C writes:

Could we get rid of the myth of the objective journalist instead? Journalists should check their facts and not tell lies, yes, but does anyone really believe that they are objective, or that they even try to be? A better goal would be to get journalists to acknowledge their biases openly.

If everyone understood that journalists act like you describe above, it would be less of a problem.

jc writes:

Regarding journalists vs. marketers (including political marketers/consultants)...

Are journalists supposed to at least try to be neutral (though, as has been noted, it's probably impossible to be 100% objective)? Do they, at least implicitly, sell themselves to the public as such?

And in the case of op-eds, is there a difference between voicing an opinion and randomly picking someone to publicly label a racist?

It would be interesting if media outlets adopted Matt C's idea and, as a matter of disclosure, printed tables such as the following on the 2nd page of each printed edition (doesn't have to be this exact table, of course...but you get the idea, i.e., something like it, e.g., contributions, voting records, or party affiliations using various methodologies and/or time frames):

Media Contributions Table

(Fwiw, in case anyone sees anything interesting that needs explaining or that they wish to refute, more info can be found here: Original Article)

tom writes:

Speaking of narratives and racism....

I withdraw my earlier comment in the thread.

I am now boycotting Arnold Kling because Matt Yglesias has found a recent photo of Arnold with a big white hat.

Hasn't this happened to Arnold before?

If Arnold and Tyler really are friends, this is the time for Tyler to ask Matt what's up.

Troy Camplin writes:

It is one thing to have your own liberal or conservative bias that colors the way you tend to report -- that's to be expected -- but if you are claiming to be an "unbiased" newspaper, this sort of thing is beyond the pale.

I think it's time the newspapers went back to being The Dallas Republican and the San Francisco Democrat and gave up on this charade.

Clearly, based on modern journalistic ethics, these discussions were unethical.

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