Journalistic framing in the spotlight: The Atlantic covers UNESCO coverage by The Daily Show

President Obama: AbsurdityFrom Wednesday, March 21, 2012:

‘The Daily Show’s’ Advantage Over the MSM: An Eye for the Absurd

Political satirists sometimes enjoy wider latitude than journalists. It’s a distinct and vital genre for a reason. The press would nevertheless do well to step back, if only occasionally, and to look at the world as its [sic] seen from the Daily Show writers room, or the Onion headline writing desk. Satirists have a knack for hitting on angles that reporters miss due to excessively narrow framing. And deliberate temperamental irreverence is helpful if your job is to dispassionately observe.* In the aftermath of The Daily Show’s UNESCO piece, its angle and value added has been praised in numerous journalistic outlets. Going forward, the press should try to recognize absurdity ahead of the satirists, and bring to ensuing coverage the rigor that is the journalistic comparative advantage.

I, for one, think Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic is onto something brilliant here, and I’m thrilled to see it coming out of a major news outlet. All too often, I find myself shaking my fists at the screen, TV or otherwise, and yelling “will you puh-lease stop putting it that way?!” One doesn’t need to be a satirist to see beyond the frame, but considering Mr. Friedersdorf’s position, it would certainly seem that way, at least judging from the straight-faced reporting by the mainstream media. Maybe another major publication has put this issue out there before, but if so, I missed it. Worse, there would be no point to his article had the vast majority of the mainstream media not missed it.

When Rush apologized – I’m sorry, “apologized” – mine was one of the voices crying foul. “Press, will you puh-lease stop putting it that way?!” It was no apology. Many bloggers caught that. Most of the mainstream media gave it a pass by omitting irony quotes.

In Rush’s case, maybe it was just beneath the media to so clearly call out a mere absurdist. What about, as with the UNESCO story, when it is people and events centered in the highest office of the land?

Two paragraphs (and a line into the third) into his State of the Union address, President Obama had this to say:

We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world.  (Applause.)  For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq.  (Applause.)  For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country.  (Applause.)  Most of al Qaeda’s top lieutenants have been defeated.  The Taliban’s momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.

These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America’s Armed Forces.  

Op-eds may have commented on this line more critically, and at least one major news source called it plainly, but insofar as prime-time coverage reported on it, there was no sense of irony or satire, merely that the president had words to say. Maybe these very words were part of clip or a quote. Where was the straight reporting from the mainstream media that might have read something like this?

“In President Obama’s State of the Union address, he included as an achievement a failure to meet intended foreign policy goals.  As stated by the president, ‘there are no Americans fighting in Iraq.’  On October 4, 2011, Iraq’s political leaders declared that any remaining troops would not be granted immunity, a deal-breaker for the proposal  approved by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to keep only 4,000 troops in Iraq after 2012.  

To be sure, The Atlantic, via National Journal, certainly covered it that way. For that matter, Mr. Friedersdorf was on the Obama administration’s intentions as early as July 6, 2011, so it should be no surprise that The Atlantic picks up the pieces on this matter consistently.

As I recently commented on framing in other terms:

This is a bigger issue than it seems, since it casts a glaring stink-eye on the current pit of malapropism our modern day fourth estate has become. When the press can be aptly described as a rubber stamp for PR flaks, policy wonks, public officials and even other talking heads, what it engages in is something other than journalism. I’m not entirely sure I would call it propaganda. A house divided and all that. More apropos would be disinformation. News items routinely fail any inspection that even bears a whiff of critical thinking. Issues are not what they are purported to be. Arguments, as presented, do not cohere. Tacit and often damning assumptions are left out (more’s the pity since that’s where the real story probably lurks). Conclusions reached are not necessarily rationally predicated on the arguments presented. Other reasonable conclusions based on the evidence are usually not presented. It’s just one. Big. Rubber. STAMP. That reads, “Think This.” 

Kudos, Mr. Friedersdorf, on drawing the issue of absurdity and framing further into the spotlight.  I have no doubt that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report will stay at the forefront of satire for the foreseeable future. May you be joined at the vanguard by more and more journalists in the “serious” media when it comes to highlighting the absurdity of life and death issues as they relate to power politics.


Image credits:
Adapted from digital portrait of President Obama, licensed under the Creative Commons.
Background for image adapted from graphic by fayemozingo, licensed under the Creative Commons.