The Dynamics of Action

In the last chapter, we looked at some of the basic elements of image construction. The next step is to show what constructed images actually look like in the news when they are put to use as forms of action. One good way to do that is to first look at pure types, in which efforts to enhance and detract from image are both simple and extreme, admitting of few qualifications. Later, we will look at the more complicated variations and examine the way image is enhanced, defended and attacked in subtle and shifting ways.

First, than, some pure types. Here are a few excerpts from a story that appeared on page one of a small community newspaper in Massachusetts, the Allston-Brighton Citizen, on January 25, 1990, about a community activist named Harold Thompson.

At the beginning, the article claims that: "Regular readers of the Citizen may not be as familiar with the name Harold Thompson as they are with the names of other civic activists in this pro-active community, but that doesn't mean Thompson hasn't been on the front lines of community participation for a long time. It just means he's a little quieter about it than most."

Here are some additional excerpts: "Thompson, 63, talked ...about his 21 years in Allston-Brighton and the pride and love he has for his adopted home. Despite his faith in his neighbors, and his optimism that good will prevail, Thompson shares with most community leaders the conviction that things can be better. He believes that to criticize the status quo is a loyal act... Particular interests of Thompson are ....He has enormous respect and admiration for the civic spirit...In attempts to make his neighborhood better, Thompson has thrown his support behind political candidates he feels he can trust. ...One of Thompson's criteria for effective political leadership is respect for the independent minds of Allston and Brighton residents."

This story, like others, creates a character - a community activist, who embodies certain qualities: faith, generosity, commitment, heroism in overcoming odds, and so on, all of which are on the left side of the binary pairs of values. In this case, the character has been idealized in the extreme. He is not only portrayed as all good, with no negative actions or attributes intruding from the right, but he is also very good, presented as a kind of community saint. Here, when description is used, it describes positive attributes. But, in addition, the piece attributes psychological states - motives and beliefs - to Thompson that the journalist really has no way to be certain Thompson has, unless the journalist can read minds or, perhaps, knows Thompson personally. In addition, judgments are offered, without description.

Everything, than, is interpreted in terms of the positive. Indeed, the community in which Thompson works, is also idealized. He is a political philanthropist, in "this pro-active community" and he expects candidates to have "respect for the independent minds of Allston and Brighton residents."

At the same time, potentially negative characterizations are reinterpreted in a positive light; they are moved over, as it were, to the left side. If the reader hasn't heard of Thompson, it isn't because he is unimportant, but because he isn't loud and abrasive. When he criticizes, it is out of loyalty, not crass political motives or disagreeableness. He believes not that things are bad, but that things can get better. He supports candidates he feels can be trusted; in effect, he chooses candidates much like himself - candidates who are also on the left side of the binary pairs. This is the language of public relations, where the trivial becomes important, and the negative is spun into the positive; where "used" becomes "pre-owned," "houses" become "estate homes" and all of life seems to take place under a soft, and very forgiving, light.

The article, at the very least, presents Thompson the way he would like to be presented, perhaps even more positively than he might have tried to bring about, if he had been writing the news story himself. The journalist constructs an idealized image of his subject, and, in the process, the journalist appears to be engaging in an act of subordination. The journalist sacrifices the ability to speak plainly, to describe the subject without fawning over it.

The journalist also asserts a kind of power over the audience, inviting it to accept and adopt his perceptions of Thompson, and claiming, implicitly, that his own perceptions are correct and to be accepted. As part of this exercise in power, the journalist seeks to evoke a certain reaction from audiences, of respect, admiration, and good will. If this were our hypothetical conversation by the coffee machine, A would be saying: "What a magnificent human being and an incredible asset C is, as B nodded reverently in assent."

Implicitly, the journalist also enhances his own image - he makes unstated claims about himself, namely that he is a competent journalist able to describe things correctly, a respecter of morality when he finds it embodied in people and communities, and so on.. These kinds of claims will be examined in greater detail later.

In terms of formulas, we can say that A -- the reporter -- enhances the image of B – Thompson -- and of C -- the community -- although it is likely that in the process he is also acting subordinate to B and C. A more complete description would go like this: A enhances the image of B and C, by idealizing B and C, and, in so doing, is likely acting subordinate to B and C. A also seeks to exert power over the audience D, in a manner apparently designed to get it to accept his enhancement of B and C, and manifest a positive reaction to B and C. A also implicitly presents a positive image of A, himself, and seeks to exert power over the audience D to accept his enhancement of A and manifest a positive reaction to A.

Put in a more condensed form: A (the journalist) exerts power over D (the audience), in an effort to get it to accept his idealizing enhancement of A, B, and C.

Here is another example of the same phenomenon, a column by Albert Hunt that appeared on page A15 of the March 24, 1994, Wall Street Journal, opposite the editorial page. The subject is then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who is idealized as embodying only positive attributes:

"...the 60-year-old majority leader possesses unusual skill and infinite patience. He can be fiercely partisan, single-handedly defeating President Bush's proposed capital-gains tax cut and giving the Democrats the tax fairness issue for the 1992 campaign. He also is exceptionally thoughtful and persuasive. Operating with archaic rules in a body of giant-sized egos, he commands extraordinary respect and credibility… (Health care,) is an issue he knows thoroughly and cares about passionately.... George Mitchell's astute political antenna tells him this (a threat of filibuster) is a bluff."

"George Mitchell, assured his place in history as one of the more effective Senate leaders of this century, privately is mentioned for every prominent position imaginable, ranging from secretary of state to baseball commissioner. With his background as a judge and leader of an egocentric legislative body, he's ideally suited for the Supreme Court, especially to be the next chief justice. But as a man of principle, it would be a travesty if he worked for the likes of George Steinbrenner."

Here, again, we are presented a character in a narrative, another political hero and man of principle, this time in a corrupt system, who embodies qualities of patience, integrity, and effectiveness. And, here again, we are invited to respond with respect and admiration and are encouraged by the writer to believe we are being presented with reality, rather than one -- debatable -- point of view.

Mitchell is described as all positive - without qualifications - when it comes to important attributes, and as possessing a very high degree of those positive qualities. Whenever these appear together, it’s a good bet we have an act of idealization. The idealization is obvious just from the adjectives Hunt uses, which read like they were written to be pulled out and used in a movie ad: "unusual skill and infinite patience...single-handedly defeating... exceptionally thoughtful and persuasive...commands extraordinary respect and credibility...knows thoroughly and cares about passionately.... one of the more effective Senate leaders...ideally suited for the Supreme Court...a man of principle."

Whether or not there is an act of subordination here is up to each reader to speculate. Hunt approaches the story from a position of strength, as a prominent journalist, but, given the degree of idealization, it seems likely that subordinate behavior, in which Hunt is trying to write things he believes Mitchell wants written, is also a factor.

There are also discrediting attacks in the column, on the Senate, as embodying qualities to the right side of the binary opposites, namely egoism and archaism, but those attacks serve only to further enhance the hero's credibility, for his ability to lead this difficult body. At one point it seems as if the writer is about to depart from this lovefest and engage in a discrediting attack on Mitchell, who is described as, at times, partisan, but this ends up as an example of Mitchell's effectiveness as a Democratic leader who helped defeat an opposition president and his program of tax cuts for the wealthy.

Here, again, the writer is trying to evoke a certain reaction in audiences, of respect and admiration; is seeking to exert power over audiences and is making implicit claims about himself. But, unlike the first news story, this writer, in his capacity as columnist, a role that gives him the freedom to more openly comment, also articulates an agenda - specific actions he wants carried out and not carried out. Thus, he makes clear that he wants Mitchell elevated to a higher office -- the Supreme Court -- and to not take a job as commissioner of baseball, which is why there is another discrediting attack on the culture of baseball ownership, as embodied in the character George Steinbrenner.

Here are some of the ‘action-formulas" we can use to create a map of Hunt’s statements, so we can see the forms of action they embody. Hunt’s statements will be put it italics, to help the reader distinguish them from the action formulas describing them.

"...the 60-year-old majority leader possesses unusual skill and infinite patience."

A enhances (idealizes) the image of B on the issues of skill and patience, which are described as "unusual" and "infinite," and thus on the far side of the binary pairs. These are personality attributes, in which the "description" is combined with the judgment. No descriptions of actions are provided as documentation. Put more simply: A credits (or enhances the image of) B.

"He can be fiercely partisan, single-handedly defeating President Bush's proposed capital-gains tax cut and giving the Democrats the tax fairness issue for the 1992 campaign."

A (Hunt) enhances the image of an action that Mitchell (B) was involved in, fighting an opponent's initiative, to depict him as manifesting competence. Once again, Hunt doesn't document his claim that Mitchell "single-handedly" defeated the proposed tax cut. A attributes an action to B and credits that action on the issue of competence, to credit B.

"He also is exceptionally thoughtful and persuasive."

Once again, A enhances B, stating he has two attributes on the left side of the binary pairs -- thoughtfulness and persuasiveness -- and possesses them to a high degree. Once again, this is mostly a judgment, without any actions being described, to peg them on.

"Operating with archaic rules in a body of giant-sized egos, he commands extraordinary respect and credibility."

A (Hunt) discredits the Senate (C) to show how great the accomplishment of Mitchell (B) are, commanding respect in such a place. In other words, A discredits C to credit B. The Senate is described as having qualities on the right side of the binary pairs - archaism and egoism - and Mitchell is described as evoking reactions - extraordinary respect and credibility - which indicate that others see him as having qualities on the left side of those binary pairs. Hunt describes Senators (C) as having an enhanced image of Mitchell (B), as a way of enhancing (B). A describes C as having an enhanced image of (or crediting) B, as a way of enhancing or crediting B.

No actions are described, to provide documentation for any of this. Of course, Hunt's interpretation may not be the only one. For example, Mitchell might command respect in a place of giant egos with archaic rules, because he is archaic himself or because he knows how to stroke egos.

A few hundred more like this could be presented, or a few thousand, because idealizing articles such as these are common in the news, far more so than one might believe. In every case, the writers give up some of their independence, whether it is out of direct subordination to the person they write about or for their own political reasons or merely to create a good story. In effect, they give away the ability to think, or at least, write, in a critical fashion. And they give up the ability to more accurately describe real people, who are more complicated than these two-dimensional cardboard figures. As a result, they end up giving us news stories that are journalistic equivalents of a happy face.

These accounts fawn over their subjects, tripping over their own words to give only compliments, detailing heroism and good works, often with clichés; they avoid mentioning discrediting information or the views of opponents, often portraying the world from the subject's perspective and carefully qualifying and framing any criticism, so as to blunt its impact. Typically, they stay on the surface and fail to challenge the subject's own presented image or to peer into messy realities beneath the veneer, except that they may present an image of the subject that is even more exaggerated in a positive direction than the subject presents of him or herself.

Now lets go to the other extreme. Contrast these with the discrediting attacks that portray characters not as saints or heroes, but as villains or disturbed personalities, or, not infrequently, as both of these and as clowns, all at the same time, so they are demonized and ridiculed, and turned into scapegoats, in place of being idealized. In contrast to most efforts to enhance image, these discrediting accounts usually try to pierce beneath appearances, casting a jaundiced eye on whatever they find there.

Here, by way of example, is a March 21, 1988, Newsweek story about Bob Dole's loss of the Republican Presidential nomination. It portrays him driven, demonic, cynical and manipulative, and beset by his own demons. The article describes confusion that Dole is said to have fostered between two aides, over whether he would stay in the race:

"Bob Dole's campaign seemed to be ending the way it began: in chaos...Bob Dole should have been a formidable contender for the GOP nomination. The Senate Republican leader had plenty of money, experience and name recognition. His record of strong, hands-on leadership could have played well against George Bush's yes' man image. But his campaign has been a series of blunders for which Dole blamed everyone but himself."

"Slow to start, Dole hired campaign aides, lost confidence in them and hired some more...Bitter when he lost, he began referring to (pollster Richard) Wirthlin as ‘Doctor Dick.’ ... After wasting money on staff and overhead, the campaign could only budget $1.3 million for Super Tuesday ads...."

So, here, we are given another character; not the political villain so much as the failed leader, with an implication he may be a failure as a person, as well, someone who causes his own defeats and then refuses to admit it, preferring to blame other people. The article draws a specific portrait of Dole, who is shown embodying qualities of confusion, bitterness, failure to take responsibility and poor administration, all on the right side of those binary pairs, and all found in extreme measure.

Ultimately, we are offered a portrait of someone who is pathetic. Even a part that seems to enhance Dole's image, in which he is described as having had plenty of experience, and in which he is said to have provided strong hands-on leadership, in contrast to Bush, is only used to emphasize how much he had going for him and, thus, how much he screwed up his own campaign.

Toward the end, Dole is also presented as a little more sympathetic, but it is only to enhance the sense of patheticness and the sense that, in contrast to his war wounds, the campaign was destroyed by self-inflicted wounds: "The poor boy from Russell, Kans., who lost his youth and athletic grace to a stray German shell, can be a fatalist. The morning after Super Tuesday, as Dole sat in a suburban Chicago restaurant, he said simply: ‘Nothing's ever easy in life - for me.’ What he failed to acknowledge was that in this campaign, at least, he had made life harder for himself."

We can, once again, describe the actions of the story in terms of formulas. For example, consider one statement in the article, which can be broken down this way:

"His record of strong, hands-on leadership could have played well against George Bush's yes' man image."

Here, the writer credits Dole on the quality of leadership and by implication independence, while discrediting Bush for acting subordinate to others. But in the next sentence, we see that all of this is merely setting up a discrediting attack on Dole:

"But his campaign has been a series of blunders for which Dole blamed everyone but himself."

So A, the reporter, credits B, Dole, and discredits C, Bush, in order to discredit B, Dole.

This description fits into the larger narrative, which, like so many pieces, is about strategy and image manipulation. The narrative of this segment or strip of the story can be summarized as follows: B’s image has, as one of its essential qualities, the highly desired trait of leadership and hands-on involvement, as opposed to his opponent, C, who has a public image in which he is perceived as giving up his power to others. But B made mistakes that hurt his image. The discrediting attack, than, is for an alleged failure in the field of image manipulation, caused not by incompetence but character flaws.

Here is another Newsweek creation. This time the character is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who is portrayed by Newsweek as a villain-clown, embodying qualities of extreme evil and comic craziness, all in one. But behind this act of discredit there is another - of the Russian people and Russian culture, for giving Zhirinovsky, so many votes. Zhirinovsky, teeming with psychological symptoms, is himself depicted by Newsweek as a symptom of the flawed Russian soul, and thus is also used as a metaphor for Russia.

"Vladimir Zhirinovsky popped out of Russia last week like a Freudian slip," the article begins. "Throw out the foreigners! Restore the old empire! Sell everybody vodka at half price! His slogans resonated like a cry from the nation's unconscious, articulating the repressed desires of a people weighed down by terrible suffering.... Economic desperation brought Hitler to power 60 years ago, and the Russian economy is nearly that desperate. The pogrom and the gulag may lurk closer to the surface than anybody realized..."

"This is a 47 year-old man who, bow tie askew, punched a guest at his own victory celebration last week (the victim suggested that Zhirinovsky was a Jew.).... ‘Today is the beginning of orgasm,’ he told reporters as he cast his ballot. ‘The whole nation, I promise you, will experience orgasm next year!’ "

" Zhirinovsky is a Russian-style Howard Stern, a foulmouthed entertainer with a …pathological need for public attention."

Of course with Zhirinovsky, there is a great deal of material, not only of the journalistic variety. Zhirinovsky, like Dole, is a character of truly literary quality. He is depicted by Newsweek as a compendium of psychological symptomology, a textbook case who seems to have everything described in the book -- erratic and bizarre behavior, a lack of conscience or awareness of how he looks to others, malevolent views and goals. There is also a quick, side-discredit of Howard Stern, but its primary purpose is to deepen the discredit of Zhirinovsky, by comparing him to someone who is also seen as fundamentally flawed.

Here are some actions formulas:

A (Newsweek) discredits B (Stern) to discredit C (Zhirinovsky).

A (Newsweek) discredits B Zhirinovsky to discredit C (Russian).

Regarding the line: ‘Today is the beginning of orgasm,’ he told reporters as he cast his ballot. ‘The whole nation, I promise you, will experience orgasm next year!’ "

A (Newsweek) discredits a statement B1, by B, by merely presenting the statement and knowing the intended audiences will find it discreditable, to discredit B.

Here is one more example. Bella English, who was a columnist for the Boston Globe, wrote this for the local section of the Globe. The first few paragraphs will suffice.*

``Three tales, courtesy of Jordan Marsh, your ‘Living the Good Life’ store.

``Tale No. 1: X thought she was being mugged when three men surrounded her outside the Jordan Marsh at Downtown Crossing and accused her of stealing the very coat she had paid for - with her credit card - two months earlier."

"They confiscated the coat, put her in a holding cell and chained her, via steel links, to the wall. `They went through my briefcase and asked me where I kept my needles hidden,' X, a paralegal, said. `They told me I didn't look like a prostitute, who was my pimp.’ "

"...When she asked to go to the bathroom, they led her handcuffed through the store and freed only one hand so she could go..."

The column is a common type that can be found in news: it is an outrage story, in which people and institutions are shown doing things which are far on the right side of the binary pairs, and which make the audience's blood boil, resulting in calls for justice. Outrage stories discredit whoever they portray as the perpetrators. Their opposite is morality tales, about people who do good.

The outrage in this case is mindless and meaningless persecution in which there is no hint that the recipient deserves the treatment she received. Here, there are a number of targets for the column’s discrediting attack, including the security guards and their actions. But the most important recipient of the attack is Jordan Marsh, which (if memory serves me correctly) was having a number of problems like this at that time.

Note the way the columnist juxtaposes the department store's presented image -- "Living the Good Life," -- with what she implies is the reality. This attempt to contrast image and reality is a constant feature of discrediting news stories, although here it is used to engage in a common technique of discredit, sarcasm. Also note the way the columnist parenthetically describes X as a paralegal at just the point they are calling X a prostitute. In effect, English is saying, Jordan Marsh treated X as if she were a person with a negative and devalued image, when she is really a credible professional. Thus, the enhancement of X's reputation here functions to support the discrediting attack. (A, the columnist, credits B, the paralegal, to discredit C, the department store.)

All these examples are relatively pure cases. As such, they are easy to spot and they present an oversimplified view not merely of their subject but also, for us, of what the shaping of image is usually like. To this two-dimensional portrait of news actions, three complications need to be added, to bring us closer to the portrayals we most often see in the news media. The first was already noted, but needs to be emphasized. It concerns the fact that all these operations of credit and discredit can be analyzed to reveal that they are part of more complex webs of actions, in which one action somehow involves other actions. This is already obvious in some of the above examples. In the Albert Hunt column, for example, the Senate is discredited as a field of oversized egos so as to enhance the image of Mitchell for handling it so well. Similarly, as we saw in the Newsweek article, Dole is credited as a hands-on leader only to show how much he had going for him, so it would be clear how much he screwed up. Put in a way not referred to above, A, Newsweek, enhances the image of one aspect of B, Dole, in order to discredit another aspect of B, Dole. In the Zhirinovsky article, the discredit of Zhirinovsky is also an act of discredit against Russian voters for choosing him, and against Russian culture (the Russian "soul") which, it is implied, may harbor potential for new mass horrors. In other words, A, the writers, discredit B, Zhirinovsky, and, in so doing, also discredit C, Russian society and culture.

News stories present us with complex strings and webs of such actions, which overlap and interact with each other in complex ways. They can enhance one part of someone or some idea, event or group of people, while attacking another part. They can attack one aspect of an action while enhancing another aspect of the same action. They can say the means were creditable but the end deserves discredit; or the end was creditable but the means deserve discredit. And they can discredit some actions and attributes, while defending the larger status of the recipient.

Second, it should again be noted that the majority of news story portrayals are not so extreme as those above. They typically involve smaller operations of credit and discredit, which are interwoven to create more complex portraits.

And third, journalists aren't the only one's who credit and discredit, They also portray people in public life doing the same things to each other. We thus have a situation, which is routine for news, in which news stories portray public figures crediting and discrediting these same people.

* I appear to no longer have a copy of this article, and haven’t yet double-checked my description. I’ve changed the name of the person described to X, until I can check the article.

Back to Image and Action