All the News that (Gives Us) Fits

by Dan'l Danehy-Oakes

Copyright © 1996 Dan'l Danehy-Oakes. The author hereby grants permission to use this article in electronic form only, in part or in whole, to any person or institution for educational purposes, provided no charge is made for such use.

I, Dan'l[5/10/96 ~1000 SFCA], abstract and formulate thusly:

A part of this discussion seems to-me to have focused upon the "responsibility" of journalists, and whether they "ought" to report "just the facts," whether we should see them as primarily beholden to advertisers and/or political "masters," etc.

An interesting question, and one which I have observed with interest since ca. 1978, when I took a course in Journalism from the highly-esteemed "media critic" Ben Bagdikian. At that time, he gave an answer to this question which while not couched in general-semantics terminology strikes me here-now as very much in the spirit of general-semantics "thinking." In essence, he declared the question meaningless.

How, after all, can a reporter report "just the facts?" It seems to-me that this is-not possible, and so discussions of whether they have a "responsiblity" to do so strike me as silly.

Consider the reporter's position. At all times in the following I discuss an "ideal" reporter, one who wants to report "just the facts."

In the very best of possible situations, she actually gets to "witness the events" she will report. I put quotating marks in this sentence, because she will not witness the events; she will abstract to many levels, leaving out much of the "events" and inevitably adding some features to her "picture" of them as she proceeds up the levels of abstracting.

Then, having abstracted something which she calls "what I saw and heard," she proceeds to abstract further, to select those features of this abstraction which "belong" in the report; and then to formulate words about that abstraction.

This formulation typically passes through at least one further set of "hands"/nervous system before going to the typesetter, as a copyeditor (or some other person with similar "responsibilities") generally messes with the text at least a little. This adds a bit more distance between the event and the "final" report, but I believe that very little happens here to change the "content" at least, most of the time! Sometimes, a copy-editor, etc., will fail to understand what the reporter has written, and, in trying to "straighten out the grammar" (or whatever) seriously distort the "meaning."

But most reporters do not actually get to witness most of the events they report on. Far more often, they interview other people who witnessed the events in question. Thus, the actual witnesses perform their full range of abstracting, and formulate their reports to the reporters. The reporters, in turn, abstract from what the witness tells them, and formulate their reports.

This results in a report which we can label "a formulation of an abstraction of a formulation of an abstraction," which, for convenience, I shall from now on call a "Foa-Foa" which has, I think, a nice pseudo-Hawaiian sound to it. In the papers, in the newsmagazines, in the broadcast, news, >90% of what we read/view/listen to goes through at least two layers of the Foa-Foa process.

Each person participating in Foa-Foa makes decisions as to what "facts" they consider important enough to formulate in reporting to the next participant.

Each participant also adds "facts." This happens in several ways.

For example, a Foafier may add "clarifying" facts. These can range from "Harry often drove after drinking," in describing a traffic accident, to "Well, she was very upset at the time I last saw her," to "He recently gave some very sensitive testimony," to well, almost anything that reporter[n] thinks reporter[n+1] needs to know in order to understand her report[n].

Another way in which we add "facts" during the Foa-Foa process, comes from misunderstandings. The most accurate senses in the world miss things; our best minds occasionally misinterpret what we see, hear, etc. Further, when reporter[n] draws a conclusion, she may or may not recall, when reporting[n] to reporter[n+1] that she concluded, rather than witnessing, this "fact"; if she does remember, she may or may not think to tell reporter[n+1] about it; and if she does tell reporter[n+1] that she has concluded rather than witnessed this "fact," he may or may not notice her saying so, may or may not remember it, and may or may not think to mention it in his report[n+1].

It seems to-me particularly disastrous that news reports on science and politics (the political events which actually shape nations, as opposed to staged political "events") tend to have even more levels of Foa-Foa than most other news subjects. (On the other hand, sports reporters generally get to "witness the events" they report on. Life is-not fair 8*) ) This occurs because the scientists and major political figures who actually witness, participate in, etc., the events reported, tend to either (a) give prepared statements written by persons who did not witness, participate in, etc., these events, or (b) not speak directly to reporters at all, but give the job to a "press secretary," "department spokesbeing," etc. And, while the politician/scientist might wish to give the "facts" to the reporters, the speechwriters and spokesbeings generally consider it their job to "spin-doctor" the "facts," to make the candidate, the party, the department, the institution, etc., who pays their wage, look as good as possible. As a result, even an ideal reporter cannot report accurately.

In all the above, I have assumed an ideal reporter. But, of course, the media are-not ideal. That is, each individual and organization has an "agenda," and even if they believe themselves commited to the principle of reporting "just the facts," they cannot help "filtering" the facts through their "agendas."

However, it seems to-me that these filters rarely introduce new "facts" to the reports of events. Journalists actually seem to manage to keep explicit opinion and conclusion, by and large, to the editorial pages.

These filters show up primarily in the selection process of what facts, and what events, to report on. The late Richard Nixon constantly complained that the news media reported only half of the stories that involved his administration, that they chose to report only the "ugly side" of these stories. Even factoring in his rather paranoid attitude toward the press an attitude the press engendered more than somewhat I believe that there was a large element of truth in this.

But I find an even better for-my-purposes example in the following anecdote.

In the early 1980s, my parents took a trip to Australia and New Zealand. These events took place during their stay in Enzed. Please allow for a significant amount of Foa-Foa in my reportage, not to mention ten plus years of water-under-the-bridge since then.

You may recall that during this time the Enzed government declared their entire country a "nuclear-free zone," which meant (among other things) that nuclear wessels, which might find a warm welcome in Alameda, would no longer find one in Christchurch; indeed, they would find themselves ships non grata, so to speak. The Reagan administration attempted to persuade them of the folly of this position, and even briefly considered minor trade sanctions. The Enzed government stood firm.

Sometime after this, and shortly before my parents' arrival in Enzed, low-level, scrambled radio signals began to emanate from the waters outside their "three-mile-limit." Christchurch's crypto people managed to unscramble the signals, and heard voices reporting, in Russian, upon the comings and goings of ships to and from New Zealand's major harbors as well as further Russian quasi-gibberish that appeared to be a code of some sort.

Christchurch sent divers to investigate, and they found a submarine. An American military sub, to be precise. After a flurry of diplomatic accusations, they drew the fairly obvious conclusion; someone in the Reagan administration had decided that, if Christchurch feared the USSR (which still existed then) enough, they would turn to the US for defence.

This story received fairly wide play in New Zealand's press. When my parents returned to the US, they learned that none of their friends or family had even heard of it; a brief investigation turned up exactly one major US magazine (MOTHER JONES) which even mentioned the story.

Well, one can easily cry "censorship," but since at least one US magazine carried the story and did not ceased publication, I think it safe to conclude that the government did not prevent publication.

Now, I see two significant contributing factors. First, that the story took place during the early days of the Reagan administration, and stories that reflected badly on the US were-not in vogue. Second, that it took place in what all-too-many Americans think of as an insignificant little island in the middle of nowhere.

Between the two, news media, deciding what stories had the "significance" to take up space that had not been sold to department stores and auto dealerships, regarded this story (rightly or wrongly) as "not of interest" to their readers.

From everything I've said above, and many other things, I draw the following conclusions:
  1. It is-not possible for any report in the news media to contain "just" the facts, concerning its subject
  2. It is-not possible for any report in the news media to contain "all" the facts, or even all the significant facts, concerning its subject.

Depressing, but there you have it. . .