What Drives News Decisions (What Are They Thinking)?

    by Benjamin Melançon
    March 25, 2008

    Senator Barack Obama mischaracterized statements of Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

    To be charitable, there’s only so many media narratives any one person or even campaign can try to change at one time. That’s my question for today: how are these media narratives formed in the first place, and why?

    Easier question: Did you see the videos below? The seven and ten minute versions, not the seven and ten second versions?


    Obama, in his speech, chose to defend Wright as a person and a leader, but he denounced the statements as divisive and reflecting a static view of progress in history. In fact, the sermon where “God Damn America” came from is all about progress, real and potential, and the fact that governments change:

    In short, Wright said that God (who does not change) damns what is bad about the United States or any government – that which is against love and justice – and which can and must change.


    Perhaps Obama decided it was more important to stress what I (with perpetual wishful thinking) saw as a key point of the “More Perfect Union” speech: people of all colors and creeds facing a system gamed against them have to stop hating or fearing each other and unite to change this system.

    And Obama addressed media distortion directly when he said, repudiating the handful of selected Wright statements but not Wright himself, “there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way.”

    Take “America’s chickens have come home to roost.” Wright stressed right in this “footnote” to his sermon that he was quoting a white man, former ambassador Peck speaking on Fox News. The sermon itself, meanwhile, was about “the insanity of the cycle of violence and the cycle of hatred” – the danger of moving “from the hatred of armed enemies to the hatred of unarmed innocents.”

    Watch it, if you would like:

    News media, especially television, wield awesome power in the decisions made about what will be pushed into everyone’s consciousness and what will not.

    And as they use this power, what are they thinking?

    Could media have shown excerpts of the longer sermons – to say nothing of other sermons, or the context of their content – in the hours of looping and analysis? There’s no work to put Wright’s words in context, minimally: just show a little more of the video! (One of the few reality checks came from former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee (whose own sermons escaped media scrutiny during a 14-month campaign).

    After all this context about the lack of context, I still have just the one question.

    Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman wrote Manufacturing Consent in 1988 (sorry the web site looks that old too). They made a case that an environment of relationships, rewards, and repercussions in a system ultimately owned and controlled by the rich results in a media hostile to changes that reduce the privileges of the powerful. In 2008 I hereby discharge them and all others from the responsibility of continually supplying details of exactly how media works against democracy.

    Instead, I ask those who do make decisions about what to cover and (how to cover it) to explain: What the hell are you thinking?

    Media aren’t following the people. Obama acknowledged that YouTube was helping distribute the clipped pieces of Wright’s oratory, but the online audience – more than 4 million people – overwhelmingly chose to watch Obama’s full speech instead.

    Fortunately, the plans of AOL and most every other large media corporation to create closed, controlled online portals which you should never leave have died, for now. But most of us still get content via the Internet in ways that are “push” (television, radio, newspaper ‘what gets handed to you’ style) more than “pull” (seek, interact, choose). From the sobering state of the news media report:

    Even with so many new sources, more people now consume what old media newsrooms produce, particularly from print, than before. Online, for instance, the top 10 news Web sites, drawing mostly from old brands, are more of an oligarchy, commanding a larger share of audience, than in the legacy media.

    My Knight project of easily relating content could help people follow from a 12 second clip of Wright to that clip’s context in a sermon about putting an end to a history of terror.

    Combined with an open layer over the web to make every page part of a conversation, as ShiftSpace tries to do, this could really do a lot of good.

    But not nearly enough.

    We the people need our own media that is about reach – that can reach more people than television even if we have to stand on street corners to do it – and I argue it must be controlled by everyone.

    So, I have unwillingly paid attention to the wider media world for another week. I come away with one question, which is not rhetorical and I would love to see answered:

    • What are media decision makers thinking?

    And a second conviction to add to the first:

    1. We need a democratic aggregator.
    2. We are not capable of making worse decisions than current gatekeepers.
    Tagged: context decisions God justice media obama sermons united states Wright

    2 responses to “What Drives News Decisions (What Are They Thinking)?”

    1. Side note: Found a site (unfortunately not Drupal) that could really use Related Content. I spent an hour searching DailyKos to find Lies of Omission: Rev. Wright in Context, which had posted both videos used in this blog, and it wasn’t connected to any of the (mostly later and lesser) related posts. I finally found it in my browser history.

    2. JD Lasica says:

      Great, insightful post, Benjamin. Unfortunately, all too often — especially on cable TV news, which infects other news outlets — it’s all about the narrative, driven by the herd mentality, rather than driven by journalistic principles of helping to illuminate issues and inform the public.

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