Posts Tagged ‘institutions’


The forest is made of trees

One of these trees done you wrong, and if you can figure out which one ten years from now, you're doing better than most.

One of these trees done you wrong, and if you can figure out which one ten years from now, you’re doing better than most.

I saw Spotlight for the first time a few days ago, and as a dramatization of journalism there were two things that struck me as incredibly insightful but easy to lose track of in the film’s narrative. The first is that, while presented and celebrated as a story of heroic journalism challenging and taking down a corrupt institution, it’s more a story of journalistic failure than anything else. The story of systemic abuse of children by Catholic priests wasn’t just something that “everybody” knew about, which I think tends to be the short version of the backstory; it’s something that the Boston Globe was specifically tipped off about years before the early 21st century reporting that ultimately became “the story.” This is a key plot point that occurs more than once in the film — victims and their advocates hesitant or unwilling to trust the news organization that dismissed them in the past.

That lack of trust is intimately related to Spotlight’s second big hidden element: the link between individual units and systems. This actually comes up in two important ways. Most directly connected to the trust question, the sources being interviewed by the reporters don’t see those reporters as almost entirely different from the people who failed to follow up on their tips in the past. The only member of the Spotlight reporting team to have seen that previous information was Walter Robinson (played by Michael Keaton), who had been the Globe‘s city editor. And yet, all the reporters are told, “you” were sent this information years ago. The “you” in question here isn’t the individual journalists; it’s the Globe as an institution, from which they are inseparable and for which they are responsible. From inside the institution, it’s easy to object and say that was somebody else’s mistake; from outside, the institution is a forest, and the trees indistinguishable.

But if the public is too likely to see only the system, reporters’ bias pulls them the other way, toward episodic stories that too often don’t link together to tell the bigger story beyond the individual events. In Spotlight, the one person who sees this is the Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron (played by Liev Schreiber), now at the Washington Post. What got me thinking about this as more than just an interesting story note was seeing Baron’s name pop up in a piece about Post reporter David Fahrenthold’s tenacious pursuit of Donald Trump’s bogus foundation. Fahrenthold had begun reporting on Trump’s promised donation to veterans groups (you may recall this fundraiser as the reason he gave for skipping a debate right before the Iowa caucuses), which had not materialized, and which, like most of Trump’s promises, everybody had completely forgotten about. This is a story worth digging into on its own, but Baron suggested going further: “The logic was that Trump had just tried to wiggle out of a charitable promise he’d made on national TV. What, Marty wondered, had he been doing before the campaign, when nobody was looking?”

These different reporting styles map reasonably well to the concepts of episodic and thematic framing in the scholarly literature, and an over-reliance on episodic reporting is probably as much to blame for the Globe‘s failure as the social biases that would keep Boston reporters from seeing systemic corruption in the Catholic Church. Episodic reporting — or more directly, thought processes that lead to it — allows an event to be a one-off, with baseline assumptions reset the next time the reporter encounters a similar pattern. It means presuming good faith on the part of those being reported on. The potential trouble here is obvious. Unscrupulous actors can and frequently do game this type of reporting. We are seeing it happen right now with coverage of Donald Trump’s tweets. Coverage that simply repeats what he tweets, and makes the story the fact of him saying something, does not allow for examination of the pattern of misdirection and deceit in his statements. This sort of thinking also permeates campaign coverage, and especially post-election coverage, that uses candidate idiosyncrasies to explain outcomes, rather than the broader, macro-level fundamentals that political scientists use to model elections (many fundamental-based models suggested a narrow Trump win this year, for what it’s worth).

Although some of the individual stories in the Globe’s and Post’s respective reporting might be written in thematic frames that highlight general concepts over specific instances, this type of framing doesn’t fit the conflict as well as episodic framing fits the other side. Instead, what I’m talking about is probably better called systematic framing (and this maybe isn’t even framing at all), and occurs across stories, manifesting through linkages that are used to explain truths that can’t be found in a single event. As Fahrenthold put it regarding his systematic pursuit of Trump Foundation information:

The point of my stories was not to defeat Trump. The point was to tell readers the facts about this man running for president. How reliable was he at keeping promises? How much moral responsibility did he feel to help those less fortunate than he?

Any individual story about Trump stiffing a charity doesn’t and can’t answer those questions, in the same way that any individual story about a pedophile priest doesn’t and can’t answer questions about the extent of the problem or the systematic cover-up being run by the Church. These are complicated stories that are, by nature, not reportable in disconnected, single articles. More than that, they’re stories that can’t be expected to emerge simply from an amalgamation of one-offs pieces. They need context and connection, a tie consciously made by the reporter, and used to illuminate the bigger truth for the public.

Filed: Watching the Detectives || 8:34, January 4 || No Comments »


Structure and cosmetics

Matt Yglesias has a solid post summing up something he’s been harping on quite a bit lately — the strange obsession of Washington elites with a fantasy, “centrist” president. The main point he makes — that we already have a decidedly centrist president, and that a “non-partisan” replacement for Obama wouldn’t change anything in terms of policy — is the most salient one on this particular topic. All of the pining for Mike Bloomberg, Lincoln Chaffee or whomever the third-party flavor of the month is rests on the fervent and mistaken belief that Barack Obama’s agenda is that of a socialist revolutionary.

But the secondary point that Yglesias makes is actually the more broadly interesting one:

The main difference, as far as I can see, is that getting executive branch nominees confirmed would be much more difficult for a nonpartisan president. Essentially every nominee would be greeted with overwhelming hostility from all quarters as Senators seek leverage points to influence executive branch policy.

It’s boring, and it’s not a satisfying answer, but it’s true that most of the structural-institutional problems with the federal government can be traced back to the Senate, either in its existence or its design. This is just one example — the president has to go to the Senate, hat in hand, to get a significant portion of his administration staffed. Add the filibuster to the mix, and you’re left with a situation in which 41 senators can decide that they don’t like an executive agency and that it can’t have a director, no matter what. The routine deployment of filibuster threats and anonymous holds also means that standard-issue legislation requires a supermajority in the Senate to pass, and the Constitutional design of the upper house drastically overrepresents small states in both Congress and the electoral college.

Many of the problems caused by the Senate are things that the public dislikes — it increases horsetrading and bickering, and makes it more difficult to pass even minor legislation. But would it be possible to get rid of the Senate? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that you could get 67 senators to vote for a Senate-abolishing Constitutional amendment and that the biggest hurdle came from the general public. I doubt anyone’s ever polled support for abolishing the Senate, but in the wake of the 2000 election, there was never a time when abolishing the electoral college even enjoyed support at the level of Al Gore’s popular vote total — that is, at the time when such a move should’ve been at its most popular, even some of the voters who got screwed by this institutional anachronism still didn’t want to get rid of it. I wonder whether this reaches back to the way civic education works here, with an emphasis in both formal schooling and informal norms on reverence for the Constitution. Even though it’s totally stupid in 2011, the Senate is a central part of how American government operates, and it appears that the public is much more likely to see and judge individual political actors than the largely invisible institutions that restrict them.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 16:29, July 31 || 2 Comments »