Realities and appearances, arguments and facts: Scheme for better political news.
The grid you see here is my attempt to imagine a better way to classify political news, and to present it. Adapted from my (much longer) PressThink post: Why Political Coverage is Broken …
Imagine the entirety of today’s political reporting and commentary plotted on a grid. On the left side of the page: realities. On the right side: appearances. At the top of the page: facts. On the bottom: arguments. Realities and appearances, arguments and facts. All political news might be divided into these categories, and journalists could organize their daily report into my four quadrants.
Under appearances (on the right side of the page) we find everything that is just that: the attempt to make things appear a certain way. All media stunts. Everything that fits under the management of impressions, or politics as entertainment. The photo ops. The press releases issued in lieu of doing something. Lindsay Tanner’s book, Sideshow, is full of examples from the day to day life of a government minister in Australia:
I once visited Townsville for about six hours when I was a shadow minister, but my itinerary consisted entirely of media interviews. I met with no local organizations, visited no local institutions, and inspected no local facilities. In each interview I had to pretend that I was visiting the city for a legitimate reason. Each time I was asked, “why are you in Townsville today?” I had to resist the urge to reply, “To speak to you, actually.”
My suggestion is to report appearances as just that: mere appearances. Which would be a way of jeering at them, labeling them as not quite real, and not very serious. So the appearances section would be heavy on satire and simple quotation. In the U.S., Jon Stewart has become a huge star by satirizing this space. My scheme would be a way for journalists to get in on some of that action. Appearances, then, means downgrading or penalizing politicians who deal in the fake, the trivial, the merely sensational. In other words: “watch out or you’ll wind up in the appearances column.”
Under realities we find everything that is actually about real problems, real solutions, real proposals, consequential plans and of course events that have an integrity beyond their fitness as media provocations. This is the political news proper, cured of what Tanner calls the sideshow.
But then there’s my other axis. Facts and arguments. Both are important, both are a valid part of politics.
So imagine my four quadrants.
Top left: Today’s new realities: come and get the facts. The actual news of politics, minus all the distractions and deceptions.
Bottom left: Genuine debates, legitimate controversies, important speeches, reality-based arguments that engage with the world as it is.
Top right: Appearances presented as fact. Pseudo-events, photo ops, media stunts: the entire realm of managed impressions.
Bottom right: Phony arguments. Manufactured controversies. Sideshows. Propaganda masquerading as debate.
Now imagine all of today’s political news and commentary sorted into these four quadrants. This becomes the new portal to political news. (Think of it as an improvement on this page, or this one.) Realities and appearances, arguments and facts. To render the political world that way, journalists would have to exercise their judgment about what is real and what is not. And this is exactly what would bring them into better alignment with our needs as citizens.
Grid created by Niel Bekker. Thanks, Niel!
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