Sadism, Insensitivity and Grandiosity

It is ironic that journalists, who place so much emphasis on the ethical lapses of those they cover, are themselves so prone to sadism, insensitivity and feelings of grandiosity. The contradiction starts to make sense when one considers the conditions under which they work.

Journalists are spectators by profession. They stand off to the side, at a remove from the hope and suffering that makes up the events they cover. From their unique perch, they are expected to capture the essence of things in news stories, so the audience can view the world from the same perspective.

Inevitably, they end up exploiting those they cover. The world and all its suffering becomes the raw material for their creations. Every catastrophe and every victory for someone else provides an equal opportunity for them to succeed and win acclaim.

They are further estranged from the world by what they create, which is a kind of unreality. They process and filter real events, creating a distorted reflection that condenses the drama and pain of life into a form of entertainment or at least a product that is entertaining. This unreality then has a profound impact on real events. It changes reality and, in its distorted way, records the change.

The ability to affect events without being affected and, in particular, the ability to cause pain without being touched by it, creates conditions that can encourage sadism, insensitivity and grandiosity. Regarding the first possibility, the conditions of journalism bear a striking resemblance to the conditions of physical torture. Reporters and torturers both have the capacity to hurt people who have little or no ability to strike back. It is of no great concern to the torturer whether he engages his victim before or after lunch, or aims his ministrations at one part of the body or another. Death now or death later, blindness first or broken bones - none of it affects his condition.

But the victim is in a desperate fight for life. His world congeals around what the torturer will do next. Every move is a matter of world shattering consequence, as the victim suffers and simultaneously watches the sadist enjoy his own freedom from concern.

True sadists, who enjoy inflicting pain, experience torture as a game and the victim as a toy. The ability to gloat, to taunt, to revel in their own invulnerability and compare it to the victim's enslavement to what they will do next, are part of the essence of sadism.

In journalism, the torture is applied to the victim's reputation, his public image and credibility. Reporters make and break politicians. They portray their subjects as heroes and scoundrels, and remain unaffected. The reporter has the luxury of publishing his expose tomorrow or waiting a day if the editor wants to bump it for a feature on a lost puppy. He can make the victim's explanation sound plausible or absurd and read his work with equal relish the next morning.

But these may feel like life and death issues to the politician, who never knows when he will suffer profound damage and humiliation, and when he will wake up to discover that his opponent has been savaged and he, through no grace of his own, has won a battle. Every edition and newscast, every phone call from the press can be his undoing. Is it any wonder that politicians play to reporters and watch them warily, wondering what their would-be torturers are up to?

Journalists may also become insensitive to the pain around them, a tendency that is encouraged farther by the routine of constantly dealing with suffering. Journalists are often unconcerned about the pain and pleasure their work causes, and the pain and pleasure they encounter in the world. An air of unreality can pervade their work, as if they are playing a game with words and images and ideas. They lose touch with the fact that real people are fighting for real stakes, particularly when they withdraw from face-to-face encounters, back to the newsroom or studio, where they must create a news story.

If events suddenly turn and a journalist is the subject of negative press scrutiny, he may suddenly learn what he does to people for a living. Not surprisingly, journalists who work in nations where the politicians more directly retaliate against the press, are often more in touch with the reality of what they do.

At the extreme point, journalists have visions of grandiosity, created by their power over reputations and their ability to perform for the public. And, of course, many suffer all these syndromes at once, sadistically playing with the reputation of politicians to enhance their own feeling of power, because they are insensitive to how much pain they are causing.

These pathological behaviors are counterbalanced by moral desires experienced by the journalist and by conflicts and constraints created by society and the job. The urge to insensitivity and sadism is held in check by urges to become involved in events and by normal human decency and compassion. And they are held in check by fears of retaliation and desires to win favor from politicians. Grandiosity is counterbalanced by the normal enjoyment of success and power and a realistic assessment of the limits of the job and of oneself.

Also interacting with these tendencies in complex ways is the fact that the journalist is forced to stand on the sidelines, as he or she covers events. He is marginalized and diminished by being excluded from decision-making, even while the power of publicity he wields evokes feelings of grandiosity and the yearning to be admired. He needs the politician to receive that admiration. The actions of the politician are the raw material for his narratives. But the same politician often controls and withholds the very information the reporter needs to create his product. Unlike fiction, real characters resist the author's intentions and try to control how they are portrayed.

The moment the journalist wrests some of this commodity - information - and publicizes it, the game changes and the center of action suddenly moves to the journalist's sidelines. Suddenly, the journalist, and the news organization, is a player, a worthy adversary respected not only by other journalists, but by other players and the public. The journalist's own credibility is enhanced; he becomes his own center of power, is courted, conspired against, makes and breaks alliances of consequence. Unable to directly affect events, he can force those who do so to play to him, as he stands on the sidelines. Successful attacks thus allow the reporter to overcome feelings of marginalization and powerlessness and restore feelings of grandiosity.

Ironically, these pathological behaviors have counterparts among politicians, creating a hidden sympathy that neither side may be aware of. In their perch at the top of the decision-making chain, politicians are able to make decisions that alter the lives of people they may never meet, creating a breeding ground for sadism and insensitivity. In power and on stage, they can become grandiose. Their position encourages them to feel invulnerable and it brings out a desire to exhibit themselves to an admiring public. And yet the politician is excluded from what he needs most to achieve his ends – the news media. It is journalists and the media that have the power to fulfill the politician’s desires for admiration and power, or that can be an instrument of his undoing.

The classic image of the grandiose, desensitized and sadistic politician is of government officials and generals sitting in the war room, plotting battles that will use weapons they will never see, allowing others to die. The journalistic counterpart is of reporters and editors in the newsroom nonchalantly deciding how to play a story that will alter people's lives.

By no coincidence, journalists (and politicians) often encourage the audience to experience the same traits of insensitivity, sadism and grandiosity, particularly when the journalist suffers these flaws and builds them into his reports. The audience sees the world through the eyes of journalists, at a remove, allowing it to mock and take pleasure from, or be insensitive to, the suffering of others.

But the packaging of news stories may, by its very nature, encourage these reactions because it captures an essence and yet robs events of their reality. It makes everything neat when it isn't. It summarizes events that are sprawled out in time and space, reduces suffering and danger to bite-sized moments and then swoops over to another scene, allowing the audience to glide effortlessly over events that really have great weight. Audiences can sit impassively watching scenes of war and devastation, because the events in question are far away, the portrayal is safely contained and censored, and so well packaged that it often seems not quite real. When the mass movement of peoples erupts into history, as it did in Eastern Europe, the journalist gives the audience a view from above. And the media use many of the techniques of literature, poetry and film, including narrative, characterization, plot, theme, caricature, metaphor and the juxtaposition of images to tell its story.

The unreality of news stories is further enhanced when one considers that journalists must use news stories to convey the masks that politicians put on for the public, which means they are reduced to conveying their own images of the manipulated images created by politicians, and must find ways to ensure that their second-hand images tell truths about the realities the politicians want to hide.

We thus have a number of challenges that lie before journalism: To reveal the reality of events, without sadism or insensitivity; to convey the passion of events without becoming too involved. and to convey more reality, in general. The great dilemma is to find a way to convey reality when the means that is used - the news story - is itself, a form of artifice - a narrative and a performance.

Here are two fragments that circle around the same theme:

If Freud were alive today and in front of a television, particularly during a presidential election, he might well experience a shock of recognition. After all, today’s television news media bears a significant similarity to the agency of mind that Freud referred to as the super-ego.

Like the super-ego, the self-righteous press is on constant duty, routing out minor and not-so-minor sins of the past and present, and then engaging in an orgy of punishment and denunciation against those who have strayed from the path of perfection. In interviews, whether they are the raw material for news stories or the finished product of televised news shows, journalists probe for the sensitive spots of interviewees, with an unerring radar, often focusing on trivial issues and marshalling their evidence like prosecuting attorneys.

Like the super-ego, the news media's self-righteousness masks its own sin of sadism and its own behind-the-scenes agreements with the very forces it so vehemently denounces. It portrays itself as the upholder of right and routinely disguises attacks as questions or reports, even as it savages the reputations of those it covers. But then the super-ego also does most of its best work under cover and perhaps for some of the same reasons.

Instead of engaging in a search for truth, growing numbers of TV interviewers end up doing tests for truthfulness, as they try to punch holes in the pretensions of politicians. And when a revelation of some minor imperfection in a politician's past or present finally becomes manifest, it can quickly turn into a scene reminiscent of Dante's inferno, with masses of anguished reporters pressing in on the politician from all sides, seeking any useable tidbit of discrediting information.

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Given the events of the last few decades, it has become obvious, even to many journalists, that something is wrong with the national news media. The investigative zeal that started off exposing government cover-ups in the era of Vietnam and Watergate has evolved into a system in which, as former senator Gary Hart correctly described it, reporters have become the hunters while America's politicians have become the hunted.

Particularly jarring to many people is the way even a minor sin from the career or personal life of a politician can evoke journalistic feeding frenzies that seem all out of proportion to the alleged offense. It is as if the press has become a collective super-ego that is always on the lookout for moral lapses and strategic errors that can be used to reproach and discredit public figures.

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