The Basic Model

The Preface and first part of the Introduction looked at the way the news media is using and misusing its power. In the analysis that follows, I take a closer look at these issues by providing a kind of X-ray that reveals the hidden structure of news stories and other communications, and the hidden forces that give them their shape. To carry out my analysis, I assume that, contrary to what many journalists would like to believe, news stories are complex objects that turn a deceptively simple face to the world. To adapt the terminology of psychoanalysis, news is a compromise formation in which all kinds of actions and motives blend together, and make their appearance, mostly in disguise.

The model that is proposed, here, divides the news story, and the forces that shape it, into a number of basic elements. First, news stories are physical objects and objects of sensory perception, based on words, sounds and visual images. Second, they are narratives that use plot, action, conflict, characterization, theme and setting to tell their stories. These narratives can be analyzed to reveal the view they present of the world, and that view can be tested to see how well it reflects other perceptions of events. Such an analysis can also reveal the way these narratives are created out of a few simple formulas and we can ask what reasons news organizations might have for relying on these formulas, as opposed to others.

Many of the basic kinds of plots and characterization that are part of these narratives were referred to earlier. They involve such universals of storytelling as depictions of danger, power, conflict, villainy, suffering, and success,. And they offer us heroes, saints, power-seekers, clowns and villains, and other well-known types. But behind these various kinds of stories, we find that much of news involves a basic meta-story that depicts both the fallen state of the human condition and efforts to lift up that fallen state. As part of this meta-story, the news is forever telling us about problems and problem-solving. Politicians are depicted as failed or successful, real or phony, problem-solvers who devote themselves to solving problems in order to seek power and who seek power to solve problems, at least problems as they define them. The news media similarly depicts its own reporting as part of an effort to lift up the fallen state of the human condition, exposing wrongdoing, reporting on various kinds of progress, and alerting us to (often exaggerated) dangers.

So news stories are narratives embodied in sensory objects. In addition, they are forms of action and interaction. Journalists offer the public stories about other people, particularly powerful people, and, in offering these stories they also act toward those they cover, toward audiences, toward other journalists, and toward themselves. This idea -- that news stories are forms of action -- isn't what most journalists like to believe. The official ideology of journalism is that "straight" news is a form of action only in the sense that it is an effort to tell us something about the world. The act of telling may motivate others to act, but it is not itself viewed as embedded in the complex interactions and relationships that it covers. But, as the book will show in detail, news stories are complex forms of action and interaction, all of which can be systematically analyzed. To adapt a phrase from the title of a famous book, journalists do things with words, as well as with pictures and sounds.*

Of all the actions journalists engage in through news stories, one is central: they enhance, defend and attack the image or reputation of everyone and everything they cover. They do so by portraying people, institutions, events, ideas, places and objects as having highly valued traits, which can include such characteristics as morality, competence, power, beauty and kindness, or as having traits that are devalued or reviled, such as immorality, incompetence, powerlessness and cruelty. Journalists create these depictions by drawing from a system of emotionally-invested ideas we all have in our minds that defines what is valued, negatively valued and devalued - what is good and evil, pleasing and ugly, competent and incompetent, and so on. It is this value system, based on binary opposites such as these, that we all refer to when we shape image.

When journalists shape image or reputation in this way, they evoke reactions from audiences, such as empathy, identification, anger, ridicule and respect. That, in turn, affects those who are portrayed.

But the effort to enhance, defend and attack image is only one kind of action journalists and other communicators engage in. By shaping image, they also engage in other actions. Among these, they exercise power over, or act subordinate to, other people. They exercise power both in the sense that they may exert a kind of aggressive domination in which other people are put in a vulnerable, defensive and symbolically smaller position. And they exert power in the sense that they influence and control people through their coverage. In shaping image, they also oppose and cooperate with, and harm and help, other people, including other players in the game of public life.**

The news story, than, while it pretends to be a series of statements about the world, is thick with action. It is as much a form of action as a punch in the nose or a call to arms, although it is a different kind of action than these since, on the surface, it is a description of people and situations.

But our analysis of the actions that journalists engage in will be incomplete unless we also refer to the reasons they engage in these actions or the goals they are seeking. Here, it makes sense to assume that journalists are always seeking some kind of profit or benefit for themselves, although their perception of what is of benefit can be unconscious, as well as conscious, and can involve all kinds of misperceptions of goods they should seek and dangers they should avoid.

In general, this analysis takes three kinds of reasons or goals into account, although they all involve each other and overlap. First, journalists have practical reasons for their actions. They want to win audiences advance careers, and so on. Second, they do what they do to conform to the system of values referred to earlier, in which they seek to embody morality, competence, and so on. And third, they manifest psychodynamic motivations in which they transfer the fears and desires, fantasies and relationships of childhood onto present-day situations.

An example of the way journalists engage in actions that may involve all three kinds of reasons can be seen in a not-so-hypothetical instance in which a television journalist engages in a kind of aggressive domination while interviewing a politician. Here, the journalist attacks the image of the politician with pointed questions and thinly veiled accusations intended to put the politician in a vulnerable, defensive and symbolically smaller position. The journalist may do so, in part, as a kind of emotional self-repair, in which he (or she) is trying to feel stronger by making someone else look and feel weak, and feel moral by making someone else look immoral. At the same time, he may believe the politician deserves this treatment because the politician violated various values that have to do with honesty and hypocrisy. And the journalist may be trying to advance his own career by playing to the desire of many in the audience to see a politician put in a vulnerable, defensive and symbolically smaller position. So the journalist’s actions will involve practical goals, values and psychodynamics in a complex mix.

This, then, is the kind of analysis of communication that is proposed, here. It tells us that, when examining a news story or another communication, we should view it as a physical and sensory object, imbued with meanings that are generally organized into stories, and that construct positive or negative images of people and other subjects, in order to engage in actions that are directed toward various goals. By putting these elements together, it becomes possible create a "map" or schematic description of news stories and other communications in a way that lets us see much of their essence.

In the next step in this analysis, we expand outward and examine the environment that journalists find themselves in, and the players who directly and indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, influence how journalists act in their news stories. This realm of interaction, which helps shape the way journalists shape their stories, can be understood as a network of people and institutions, that involves relationships, lines of communication and information-transfer, and issues of access and power. Much of it consists of the vast institutional infrastructure of public life: the world of publicists who provide a reporter with information near deadline, and expect something in return; the politicians who feed journalists confidential reports; the lobbying groups that release studies full of manipulated information; other journalists whose opinion matters to the reporter; publishers with expectations, and so on. It is the realm in which many people will give a situation or event a certain "spin," when they present it to journalists, in the hopes that it will continue spinning in the same direction in the news story. Journalists must plug into this network to get their information and, in so doing, they become part of the network themselves.

Plugged into this network of power and position, journalists frequently encounter people who covertly and overtly intimidate them and promise various rewards. These people establish relationships with journalists, and then play on those relationships; they pose for the cameras, stage events, set events in motion and provide misinformation, all as part of a strategy to portray themselves in a flattering way, and their opponents in a less than flattering way, so journalists will do the same. The various audiences for the story (readers, viewers et al) have to be counted as players in a second, more diffuse, network, since journalists are profoundly affected by communications -- and by the possibility of communications -- from audiences.

When we examine the interactions and communications that sustain these networks, we find that they have all the same elements we examined above, when looking at news stories. All the communications that others engage in, directed at journalists, are physical and sensory objects, which tell stories that enhance or detract from image, and that are thick with actions, which are driven by various reasons. Like the journalists, those who influence the journalists are trying to exercise power over them or act subordinate to them, or to other players. In addition, they oppose and cooperate, harm and help, all kinds of people who are in, and not in, the game of public life.

When we examine how the players in this network want their image shaped, we discover, of course, that they want their reputation enhanced and defended, as that of their enemies is attacked. All too often, they will seek to present an idealized version of themselves and their allies as a self-enhancement and defense, using the basic techniques of focusing on what is positive in themselves, exaggerating the positive, and making false or undocumented claims. Simultaneously, they try to demonize their opponents, by focusing on the negative, exaggerating the negative, and making false or undocumented accusations. This strategy of idealizing oneself and "demonizing" and ridiculing one's opponents, is the essence of contemporary political rhetoric, and it is applied over and over again, by formula. Journalists, of course, do the same thing, depicting themselves as crusaders for truth and ethics, covering a corrupt system.

As part of this process, those in the network of public life typically try to grab onto whatever positive attributes they can from the left side of those binary opposites, to depict themselves and their allies as powerful, moral, competent, psychologically healthy, and desirable as people, even as they try to discredit their opponents, presenting them as immoral, incompetent, not very desirable, and, at times, as not having the power that is claimed. But, of all these characteristics, the one element that is paramount in the news and in public life, has to do with morality. Over and over, with an almost mind-numbing repetitiveness, players in the game of public life try to discredit other players by claiming those individuals have violated the moral order of society, even as they portray themselves and their allies as upholding that order.

We thus see that journalists are part of a network of communication and action. Behind the screen of their news stories, we can discover a society of politicians, editors, sources, peers and audiences, each trying to influence the society of conflicting motives that are part of the journalist's mind, so as to shape the actions he (or she) will take via the narratives of his story. In this world of relationships, journalists describe actions in their narratives; they engage in actions through their narratives, and they are acted upon by those who would affect the shape of their narratives. Put in terms of the most important form of action - the exercise of power - journalists describe the vicissitudes of power in their narratives; they exert power through their narratives, and others who would affect the shape of their narratives, try to exert power over them. Put in terms mostly of narrative, we can summarize these elements by saying that journalists turn those they cover into characters in their stories, and how they portray those characters effects the lives of the real people the characters are based on.

Among its strengths, this model encourages us to ask a number of essential questions. We can ask who is enhancing, defending or attacking the image of whom or what. And, in doing so, who is trying to exert power over whom and who is submitting to someone else's power; who is trying to hurt or help whom; and who is opposing or cooperating with whom. Narrowing down further, we can examine the elements of image, such as claims that players make to possessing qualities of morality or competence. Like the physical world, which is composed of a small number of elements in numerous combinations, so also, news products, political communications such as speeches, and, indeed, many communications in life, are a product of the combination and recombination of these elements. After all, we all have within us, a society of people (from our past as well as our present, as we will see), who we are busy exerting power over, submitting to, helping and harming. This society inside our minds is a primary element of human motivation. It is a connecting link between psychodynamics and society, and it turns each person into a monad of sorts for the larger world of which he or she is a part.

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* I. L. Austin, How to do Things with Words (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1962).


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