“Partisanship is our great curse. We too readily assume that everything has two sides and that it is our duty to be on one or the other.”
— Historian James Harvey Robinson
Funny thing is, that quote’s about 100 years old. So when we talk about the excessive partisanship that plays itself out across the U.S. media landscape on a daily basis, we’re not talking about a new phenomenon.
Nor is the concept of media “echo chambers” — which allow us to spend all day, every day, exposing ourselves only to viewpoints that confirm our existing beliefs — a new one. As Robinson also famously said, “Most of our so-called reasoning consists in finding arguments for going on believing as we already do.”
But there is something different, and more frightening, happening today when it comes to political coverage. Liberals and conservatives have reached the point where we’re not even living in the same realities anymore. And creating separate and distinct realities is now part and parcel of Photoshop-assisted “photojournalism” as well.
9/12 Protests: Mountain, Molehill — Who Knows?
Here is how Time magazine, in its just-published cover story on talk show host Glenn Beck, characterizes the demonstrations Beck inspired in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere last weekend:
If you get your information from liberal sources, the [D.C] crowd numbered about 70,000, many of them greedy racists. If you get your information from conservative sources, the crowd was hundreds of thousands strong, perhaps as many as a million, and the tenor was peaceful and patriotic. Either way, you may not be inclined to believe what we say about numbers, according to a recent poll that found record-low levels of public trust of the mainstream media.
In other words, on the basic question of how many people came to Beck’s rally, Time takes a pass — leaving it at anywhere between 70,000 and 1 million. Shouldn’t a journalistic organization be able to do better than that?
Oh that’s right — Time says you wouldn’t believe them if they told you. So the purpose of Time magazine is … what exactly? To tell us what the “liberal media” says and what the “conservative media” says — and then to let us continue believing what we did before we picked up the magazine, unhindered by irritating things like facts that might challenge our biases?
Imagine you’re a historian, 50 years from now, and you want to write something about the 9/12 rally. So you find media and blog coverage citing an ABC News estimate of 1.5 million protesters. Then you find ABC News denying that it ever issued that estimate. Then you find conservative sources stating that the estimate of 60,000 to 75,000 issued by D.C. officials was a deliberate underestimate. Or comparing the Daily Mail (U.K.) estimate to the New York Times estimate. And on and on.
Hmmm, I guess that wouldn’t help you much. But there must be pictures of the event, right? And pictures don’t lie — right?
So you find this picture of the event. Looks like a million people easily — and all holding up nice signs about liberty and freedom.
And then you find these pictures of the event. Looks like a nasty group.
And then you find this picture, allegedly of the event.
So, are you ready to write that factual history of the 9/12 rallies?
I didn’t think so. The Photoshopped, faked and selectively chosen images do little to paint an objective portrait of the event.
The pictures do tell lies — in some cases, whoppers.
The Era of Objectivity
It hasn’t always been this way. When I was growing up, for example, most families in my neighborhood either subscribed to Time or Newsweek. As I got older, I realized that Newsweek was the magazine more favored by liberals, Time by conservatives.
But the differences were relatively subtle; both publications operated from the same set of facts. (If the 9/12 rallies had been held in 1989 instead of 2009, I promise you, both publications would have had the same, objective crowd estimates.) They deemed the same topics to be worthy of coverage. I think I was in college before I had a clear understanding of the difference in tone of the publications.
Today, a first-grader could tell the difference between Fox News and MSNBC.
What does this mean for journalism — and for photojournalism?
In the late 19th century, the media was just as partisan as it is today; newspapers were either Democratic or Republican and this colored their coverage of just about everything. The downside then — as today — was a lack of public trust in the accuracy of what was published.
Early in the first decades of the 20th century, a movement emerged to professionalize newspapers to enhance their authority and credibility with the public. Part of this movement was promotion of the doctrine of objectivity, and the ideal that journalists could be depended on to be independent observers, delivering “just the facts.”
This became orthodoxy by the 1930s -– about the same time that technological innovations made possible a more candid, spontaneous brand of photojournalism. The combination of new journalistic standards and the technology necessary to achieve them visually gave birth to an era commonly known as the “golden age of photojournalism,” from the 1930s to the 1950s — spearheaded by the photojournalistic bible of Americans of all political stripes, Life magazine.
A Crisis of Confidence
As the media universe has fragmented over the past couple of decades, an increasing number of media outlets -– first in radio, then in cable news and on the Internet –- has evolved from news reporting to news interpretation.
A central element of the interpretive approach has been politically charged media criticism — commentators and analysts weighing in on the limitations, biases, and missteps of the so-called “mainstream media,” generally meaning those traditional print and television news outlets striving for objectivity. The ideal of objectivity is increasingly viewed by the public as a false standard masking a hidden agenda.
This crisis of confidence has taken its toll on news organizations — and on the photojournalists who work for them, whose work is under scrutiny as never before, as bloggers and others put their images under the magnifying glass, looking for evidence of staging, doctoring, or other forms of manipulation.
Meanwhile, blatantly partisan media and blogs (in many cases, the same ones that criticize the mainstream media for photo manipulation) increasingly seem to have no ethical qualms with posting Photoshop specials — complete fakes — as long as they advance their partisan objectives.
Which leads us to a place where Time magazine, rather than trying to separate fact from fiction, simply throws up its hands and says, “You figure it out.”