Cognitive Dissonance

April 4th, 2015 · No Comments · journalism, war and peace

By Arthur Alpert

I was listening to KUNM Radio several Friday mornings ago when Philip Connors, who wrote the highly praised “Fire Season”, recalled for interviewer Stephen Spitz his days as a Wall Street Journal reporter.

When terrorists hit the World Trade Center, Connors said, he read his own newspaper and suffered “cognitive dissonance.” What caused this mental conflict was the stark contradiction between what WSJ reporters wrote in the news pages about the events of 9/11 and the editorial page version.

Two different worlds!

Readers of the Albuquerque Journal, I mused over my breakfast coffee, never suffer that headache. Our local daily is one thing, not two. Journal editors impose their reality on the entire publication.

Or, to use classic newspaper terms, the WSJ enjoys a wall between editorial page and news operation and the Albuquerque Journal doesn’t. So those at the top of the Journal’s internal hierarchy can align the “news” with its corporate political agenda.

That the agenda begins with a desire to elect Republicans is patently obvious, so I won’t waste time reciting the evidence. But having said that, I must say I don’t find it alarming.

After all, the aforementioned Wall Street Journal is partisan, dyed-in-the-wool Republican, but its news pages are excellent. Even in the Murdoch era. So partisanship need not be fatal to journalism.
It becomes problematic only where publishers, obeying their inner Hearsts and McCormicks, wield their newspapers to promote a political agenda.

Sadly, that describes the Albuquerque Journal and explains everything I’ve pointed out for about three years now, the use of headlines, page placement, layout and editing to spin stories; the campaigns – in the “news columns,” mind you – against legislation and candidates and – perhaps most effectively – what the newspaper leaves out, huge swathes of political life including corporate America’s efforts to dominate the political process.

But again, so what?

As a citizen and sometime journalism critic, I find the Journal’s partisanship small potatoes compared to the content of its political agenda and how it thinks.

The agenda is what the Journal fights for in editorials, syndicated opinion columns, Op Ed essays and crucially – its “news decisions.”

It starts with the welfare of the most affluent, values corporate profits more than the health of air, land and water and, in foreign policy, prefers militarists to those trying to avoid war.

What’s boggles the mind is the Journal’s total lack of humility in pursuing those ends. They seem not to know their daily fails the most basic news biz requirements, like minimizing typos, bad grammar and awkward sentence construction.

Consider a single page (Arts, D2) in the Sunday, March 29 issue.

First came the assertion that poet Jimmy Santiago Baca will explore his relationship to the “Rio Grande River”. Duh!

Then we’re told Sarah Asmar sang Musetta, the other female “principle” in La Boheme”. They meant “principal.”

That a paragon of illiteracy dares bang the drums for fresh, new wars involving the murder and maiming of innocents, and rail against efforts to halt Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon when the alternative is almost certainly more death and unending violence is, well, troubling.

But, again, this arrogance isn’t partisan.

There is, in fact, intra-party disagreement. Republicans favor a deal with Iran by 47 to 43 percent. As do six in 10 independents and moderates. Overall, Americans approve by almost two to one.

The Washington Post reported those numbers, from a Washington Post-ABC News poll, March 31 in a story headlined, “Poll: Clear majority supports nuclear deal with Iran”.

That Journal editors didn’t pick it up is perfectly understandable. They had, after all, published a Cal Thomas essay March 25 accurately headlined, “Obama spreading evil with pursuit of Iran Nuke deal”.

Evil. Well, that settles that.

Which brings us to what underlies so much of the Journal’s decision-making. Like Thomas (and the newspaper’s other rightist syndicated columnists) management loves moralizing. To moralize is to substitute simple “moral” judgments, either-or choices, for thought.

The Thomas sermon, incidentally, ran the same day as the N.Y. Times printed Thomas Friedman’s column on the topic.

Friedman (often wrong on the Mideast) extracted from the tapestry of the Iran talks several strands of policy and consequences, eyeballed them and concluded – it’s a tough call.

The contrast between the anti-rational Thomas and Friedman, a conservative seeker of good sense, is clear. I underline it because the Journal much prefers moralizing to cogitating.

And since moral thinking (sometimes hard to distinguish from feeling) often leads to bloodletting, it’s a far more consequential Journal characteristic than partisanship.

The Journal’s passion for simplistic dualities also leads it to promote untruths about today’s major parties; that they are all-powerful actors and that they’re polar opposites.

Which untruths lead, in turn, to another absurdity, that because the major parties agree on a policy, it must be sound. Like Vietnam? Like Iraq and the Patriot Act? No Child Left Behind and the Sequester?

Or, close to home, like the tax cuts for top earners that Governors Richardson (D) and Martinez (R) pushed to foster economic growth.

You’ve noticed the boom, I’m sure.

The Journal deploys this logical fallacy a lot. Next time you read a Journal editorial on school reforms, watch for the suggestion the Governor’s policies are correct because President Obama’s school chief agrees.

That both parties may be wrong is a possibility beyond the Journal’s imagination.

Also note that if you see the world through the (horizontal) Republican/Democratic prism, you may never notice the (vertical) struggle between those atop the hierarchy and those on lower rungs.

In that context, you gotta love George F. Will’s essay entitled, “How income inequality benefits everybody” in the March 25 issue. I sure did, but since I’ve already gone on too long, we’ll deal with it next time.

Summing up today, there’s no wall between management and the news gathering function at the Albuquerque Journal and that, not partisanship, is the prime source of the newspaper’s ills. Also problematic, if you believe journalism is integral to a democratic polity, are the content of the Journal’s political agenda and its moralizing.

PS Today, Friday, April 3, the editors featured a David Ignatius essay in which he weighed the content of the Iran pact and concluded, “this looks like a pretty good deal.’

I’ve no idea if he’s right. We may not know for 10 years. But Ignatius is the polar opposite of simple-minded. Eschewing either-or, he strives for complex and nuanced analysis.

So be careful reading Ignatius and then the rest of the Albuquerque Journal. It’s an invitation to cognitive dissonance.

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