Journalism, Framing and Value

I’ve long been skeptical about the strongest claims made about the consequences of framing effects in public media and discourse. Not claims about the phenomenon itself, which is very real, but about arguments by George Lakoff and others who hold that conscious manipulation of frames by elites or groups, resulting in sociological and political realignment, is relatively easy to accomplish if you approach it with sufficient resources and technical know-how. How individuals and communities and whole cultures read and interpret frames, what makes a given frame variably credible or powerful, and what moves or changes a narrative of this kind all strike me as inextricably complicated and not in anyone’s simple control.

But there’s another side to framing, and that has to do with the aesthetics and ethics of news and public discourse. Whether a biased news report actually successfully controls or mobilizes members of the public in some direction is one question. Whether such a news report is interesting or engaging to read is another–and that’s a pertinent question for the economic survival of journalism. If an article in a newspaper can be boiled down to a press release for a strongly self-interested institution or group that is trying to control the framing of an issue, then that article is easily substituted for. You can get that from a blog, an email, an advertisement, a clip on YouTube.

To be worth paying for, reportage has to be something more than a transcript of a frame. It doesn’t matter if a reporter is conscious of being a mouthpiece or not. A front page of framing statements is a front page I can have for free via my RSS feed.

Let’s take two examples. First, many folks are pointing out that there is nothing mysterious about the motivations of the shooter at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin: he was an avowed follower of an ideology that would encourage his actions. Coverage by many mainstream media outlets has focused instead on the search for a “specific motive”. This is a classic framing statement: a white domestic terrorist needs a “specific psychological motive” because there is an assumption that such a person “normally” doesn’t commit mass murder for an ideological reason. A non-white killer who professes an ideology that justifies mass murder, on the other hand, is treated as reducible to their ideology, with no need for a specific psychological or intersubjective explanation for their actions. This is a narrative assumption that I don’t think most reporters are consciously adopting or manipulating: its roots lie deep in American racial and political consciousness. But note that either way you slice it, journalists who let this frame overwhelm their coverage are delivering a lousy product. I think you can make a good case that we always want to know the human details behind why a murderer, even an ideologically-driven one, decides to commit murder. But in that sense, Mohamed Atta is as interesting and compelling a character study as Wade Michael Page. Cut the narrative in the other direction, and their ideologies are as textured and humanly complex as each other. The journalist’s value, in either case, is not in acting as a mouthpiece to let the public consciousness of (some) Americans shine through the tissue paper of the front page. It’s to create information, to inquire, to get at the details. Either give me the human, personal details about every murderer and every victim, or give me the detailed skinny on every political community mobilized around a vision of hatred and violence.

A different and more conscious case of framing appears on the front page of today’s New York Times. The story as written reports rather straightforwardly that an espionage-driven “shadow war” between Iran and Israel is beginning to resemble the same kinds of conflicts during the Cold War, with covert actions including assassinations, dirty tricks, subversion and so on. But the front page of the story concentrates entirely on Iran as the only aggressor and entirely quotes unnamed Israeli sources. Other sources (“European”) are reported to be skeptical about whether Iran is actually responsible for these actions, but the article reports that they have self-interested reasons for expressing such skepticism. Only later do we get named experts, who keep the focus on the question whether Iran and Hezbollah are actually responsible for a variety of incidents. We’re well into the article before anyone (in this case, the former head of Mossad) concedes that if this is a “shadow war”, there are actions on two sides. At which point we get a very brief recounting of the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists and no accounting of the increasing use of cyberattacks against Iranian targets, which seems somewhat relevant to another story breaking today of government-linked cyberattacks against Lebanese banks.

Meaning, the really interesting story here is buried way down. It’s not part of how the article is described, headlined, sold or organized. What made covert war in the Cold War a source of great human interest over time was that it was a morally complex domain even for its most ardent proponents and supporters, and that this complexity was in personal and collective terms not limited to one side or the other. When I read Larry Devlin’s Chief of Station Congo, one of the things that struck me about it was that his defense of American actions there was always accompanied by acknowledgement of the moral ugliness and ambiguity of covert conflict for everyone involved. That’s from someone defending this kind of activity. Critics from all sorts of ideological perspectives have been far harsher, but even they tend to recognize that the human intricacies and moral questions are also intriguing. A good story, in other words.

But the Times story is not interested in either the policy implications or the moral questions or the human complexities. It’s mouthpiecing for the reporter’s sources within the intelligence services of Israel and the United States. If there’s a shadow war, write about it all from the beginning of the story. Make that the narrative. Because it’s the totality of that war that raises the questions that a reader might want to talk about with others. Are covert actions risky because they change the understood rules of relations between states, whether in terms of cyberattacks or assassinations? What’s the moral difference between assassinating a nuclear scientist and a bomb in a diplomatic car? (Even the former head of Mossad seems to acknowledge that’s a needle that has to be threaded.) Why is it that “Iran and Hezbollah thrive on plausible deniability” but Israel and the United States do not, even though they haven’t taken official credit for assassinating nuclear scientists or planting viruses in industrial infrastructure?

The point here is not parity or “fair and balanced” treatment. It’s that the story demands something more than just letting some authorized leakers treat the paper as a framing device, letting the reporters decide without having to say as much who they think we should hear from and who is not worth hearing from. Even if they can’t cultivate confidential sources inside Iran’s intelligence community or inside Hezbollah (but they should) surely there must be people in the US or Israeli or EU national security policy community who think that a “shadow war” is a policy choice worth debating, that the dangers of retaliation and escalation are issues quite aside from the moral questions such actions raise. We don’t get a story here, we don’t get a debate, we don’t get anything but rather transparent attempts to make a frame that would be just as transparent if the NYT reprinted an article from the Tehran Times on the subject. Now I grant you that in this case, it’s a bit harder to just pick up what Israeli and American intelligence sources think about this “shadow war” by reading Mossad’s Twitter feed, but the value-added of journalism still has to be more than a reporter handing over his column inches to valued sources who believe they need to get a narrative frame in place in public discourse. Here at least the last ten years should have taught us that there can indeed be consequences when editors and reporters subcontract themselves to the needs of political leaders and their national-security advisors–but leaving aside the consequences, I just want a better, more interesting, richer story written by someone who has a cannier, smarter sense of politics and human nature. I don’t want to spend the first ten paragraphs waiting for an entire shoe store worth of merchandise to drop.

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