Life in the Box: Journalistic Straitjacket


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When someone “respectable” says something unusual, that’s news. So, journalists are supposed to report the activity and look for responses to that news. It’s a straitjacket for those covering this 2016 election because one candidate is saying all kinds of un-candidate-like things, and so he gets all kinds of unprecedented media coverage. And, as the advertising saying goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity. I don’t want to add to that free publicity by naming the fellow, so we’ll just call him “Mr. Chump.”

Mr. Chump is using the media, and he brags about all the free advertising he’s received. He looks for ways to get noticed by crafting what he calls “sound bites.”

I’ve been fussing with how today’s journalists could opt out of the traditional “he said, she said” mentality. In a way, the sound bites spoken by Mr. Chump have become a pattern. Perhaps that means outrageous statements by this person are no longer news. Is “predictability” part of the filtering process of reporting? Yes and no.

The reporters can ignore predictable statements by lesser-known people. But, the main candidates for national office are given more weight on the news scale. The way journalists decide what to report still follows the “PICON” method—report what is in the Public Interest, COnvenience, and Necessity. Filters include national or local importance, amount of money involved, and this one: notoriety.  camera-set1-sm

So, the more notorious someone is, the more attention that person will get.

Another leading candidate, Bernie Sanders (who I can name because he’s not over-reported,) has also been making outrageous statements, like “we should expand Medicare” and “the corrupt political system keeps in place a rigged economy.” He is a Socialist. He is Jewish. He used to be a protester, and was jailed for taking part in a 60s demonstration. He looks like an “old guy.”All this makes him unusual and noteworthy for journalists.

Why aren’t reporters quoting his outrageous statements every week? This is a great question. Ask your local news media about it. One reason might be that he’s consistent—and has been making the same points about our government failing our middle class, our minorities, and our lower class for many decades. It’s not news that Bernie says the same thing he said two decades ago.

Another reason he might not get reported is that he doesn’t make personal insults towards other candidates. Mr. Chump does, and that’s not the usual way a politician talks, so that’s why his sound bites make the news and Bernie’s don’t.

Bernie talks like a politician. He is within the norm. And the problems he’d like to solve are the same problems he’s been trying to solve over a lifetime of public service.

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Mr. Chump is breaking the rules of politics by being brash, by not concerning himself with sad realities (that many are tired of living within,) and by making up ways of dealing with world and national issues that go against all rational or serious consideration. He’s attracting people who are tired of unmanageable problems. So what if his solutions would never work in a million years? People who like Chump enjoy him because he’s not saying the same old thing and he’s not bothering with facts or science. They like that he calls national leaders “stupid.” He’s giving voice to people who are fed up. They’re tired of the rules and they’re tired of being polite.

In reality, all the politicians are pandering to the “fed up” masses. It’s just that different people are fed up about different things. And, apparently some are quite fed up with polite people basing their policies on reality. They are so fed up they’d actually vote for impolite people who care more about trashing others than creating workable policy. cycle300-sm

The fact that a politician of this ilk is a leading candidate is news. And, news reporters aren’t allowed to editorialize by stating their own personal responses to the brash and improbable statements; they have to find a credible “outside the newsroom” source to respond. If that credible person isn’t as clever in their response as the originator, then points to Mr. Chump. There’s nothing a reporter can do other than find the best short sound bites in response. Then, it’s a tennis match as Mr. Chump lobs back another outrageous response to the response.

Really, Mr. Chump follows a well-known pattern. He holds that everyone’s wrong but himself. It’s not his fault (about anything.) And he never apologizes. I’ve spent time among the recovery groups that study 12 Steps, and this pattern is quite familiar. It’s a circular race track where an alcoholic drinks because he’s the victim of everyone and everything else. But then he jumps on a white horse, trying to become a champion who can magically solve it all and bring down the perpetrator. Then, when things aren’t solved, well it’s not the champion’s fault. He starts drinking again because he’s been harmed by someone else, and it’s not his fault. (Back to thinking like a victim and possibly becoming the abuser along the way.) It’s the circle of addiction and abuse. Now I’m not making any claims about anyone being an alcoholic or an abuser, mind you. I’m just noticing a cycle of blaming and shaming that’s similar.

The only way out of a cycle like the one I’ve just described is taking responsibility for oneself, apologizing for one’s mistakes, and acknowledging that magic wands don’t work. Let’s watch and see if that kind of mature response ever happens with Mr. Chump. Not likely!

I like being a columnist right now, instead of a traditional journalist, so I can quote myself! I’m not a traditional “source” nor will CNN come calling at my door for sound bites, but my life experience is rich and varied, and I’m glad I can share that with you, outside the box and the straitjacket!

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Nancy Heather Brown is a retired, Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she enjoys learning new things and reflecting upon the creative process both inside and outside the box.