Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Kanye West vs. Jon Stewart

Yeah, I know I promised I wouldn't make another post about Katrina. But this one's not about Katrina; it's about media coverage thereof, so ha. I'm specifically interested in the contrasting views of the media championed by Kanye West and Jon Stewart: the former infamously blasted negative newspaper portrayals of blacks in a passionate rant on live TV, while the latter last night declared that that commendations were in order for TV reporters. West referred to the notorious "looting"/"finding" dichotomy that had some of the less critical members of the blogosphere freaking out last week, while Stewart highlighted the trenchant criticisms issuing from the cable networks' normally complacent talking head brigade: MSNBC's Keith Olbermann excoriating Mike Chertoff, Jack Cafferty of CNN ripping the feds a new one, Anderson Cooper giving Trent Lott 360° of accountability, etc. So who's right; were the media villains or heroes in this tale of tragedy?

Both, obviously. One of the media's principal effects, intentionally or otherwise, is to maintain the status quo. As Shanto Iyengar wrote in Is Anyone Responsible?,
Since television news is heavily episodic, its effect is generally to induce attributions of responsibility to individual victims or perpetrators rather than to broad societal forces, and hence the ultimate political impact of framing is proestablishment.
Iyengar is talking about TV news here, but news framing doesn't get more episodic than starkly depicting one or a few people taking what they need to survive. As everyone knows by now, the "looting" picture was taken by an AP reporter, while the "finding" pic came from the AFP. Maybe 'looting' was an accurate description of what the AP photographer saw occurring--or maybe his caption reflected unconscious prejudices that made the word seem more appropriate to a black man's behavior. The Associated Press would certainly have us believe the former, but it's impossible to prove either way. In any case, the juxtaposition of this pair of instances looks to me more like an unfortunate coincidence than anything else--the media may pander and reinforce stereotypes through its daily functions, but it's tough to cite this case as a strong example of systemic denigration. People sometimes forget that "media" is a plural term.

Jon Stewart offered a rare round of congratulations to the media last night, lauding its overall steadfastness in the face of flagrant government spin. I have no more quantitative evidence for his conclusion than I have for West's, but judging from all that I've seen on Crooks and Liars (who are usually just as hard on the media as Stewart), TV news has generally done a pretty good job (even Fox News, shockingly enough). The question is: why does it take a catastrophe to resurrect the spirit of real journalism in the media? Why can't we get this brand of acerbic reportage as the rule rather than the exception? I mean, where were these newfound balls during the run-up to the Iraq War? I bet the 24-hour networks could drastically increase their audiences if their reporters started injecting a little more passion and energy into what they do and eased up on the passive regurgitation of administration talking points and PR frames.

We'll see where the media goes from here, but I expect the usual suspects will lapse back into their old habits before long. Shame really; I was genuinely enjoying this fleeting foray into quality reporting. Ah well, I suppose one can dream.