Rough Notes on Actions and Their Reasons

The basic position of many American journalists is the following: they have to act subordinate to their bosses and corporate owners, while trying to discredit designated targets, namely politicians and other public figures. They exist in a perpetual Oedipal and generational state of subordination and relative powerlessness toward those over them, while they perpetually try to discredit and exert power over those in that part of the public arena they have been instructed to cover.

If they do the job correctly, they rise in their own field. In short, they discredit the powerful and try to bring them down in the public arena and, as a result, they rise to a position of power and authority themselves. It isn’t hard to see that this situation is conducive to evoking fantasies of parental overthrow, with the object displaced not only from parents to bosses and to the subjects of coverage, but also from bosses to subjects.

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Here are some of the people a journalist might act subordinate to: editors, publishers, peers, politicians and other public figures, advertisers, audiences, norms and values, fantasized figures from childhood, existing family members. Behind subordination to norms, we always find subordination to people, including the people who inculcated the norms in childhood, and present-day people who might react if they are broken. The emotional fear of violating norms is a fear of loss of love or respect from the significant others of childhood; loss of significant others; or attack from significant others.

These acts of subordination might occur for all kinds of overlapping reasons: fear of retaliation (firing, blackmail, discrediting attacks); a desire to be loved and accepted; a desire to get various goods (promotions, money); in exchange for a good story, and so on. Since these actions are always toward present-day and avowed recipients, as well as toward fantasized figures from childhood, we have complex motives and reasons involved.

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In order to impress their bosses and rise in self esteem and in position, for emotional and practical reasons, many journalists have to stand up to, and put down, politicians and public figures. They may also need to depict them as villains or clowns or disturbed characters -- hypocrites, incompetents, adulterers, deceivers, revenge seekers and so on. This means that in many instances, the journalist has to instrumentally manipulate the audience’s values and their psychodynamics, creating stories intended to evoke moral outrage, ridicule and so on, giving audiences enemies to hate, fools to look down on, etc. which allows them to act out their own psychodynamics..

We thus have an interesting state of affairs -- to achieve their own Oedipal and psychodynamically-motivated goals, journalists have to instrumentally manipulate the Oedipal and other psychodynamics of the audience.

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In the world of credit and discredit, dominance, submission, many elements can serve as motives or reason for other elements. Descriptions of the kinds of situations that shape news stories reveal that journalists are moved by chains or networks of such reasons. For example, a journalist may discredit a politician in part to fulfill sadistic desires, which may be motivated by his psychodynamics. Or he may be sadistic in his coverage and turn someone into a butt of jokes because he believes an editor or publisher wants to see the victim brought down, for emotional or practical reasons. He may submissively boost a politician's image to sadistically hurt the politician's opponent.

Competitiveness can be an act of subordination to an editor who wants competitive reporters, in an effort to get a raise, which can be evoked by inflation and/or a yearning for prestige an and/or a desire to impress a potential bedmate and/or a psychological association of money and prowess.

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There are a host of practical reasons why journalists avoid angering those they cover by acting subordinate to them in various ways . Politicians can write denunciatory letters to the editor; they can sue; they can use their platform at public meetings to denounce the reporter; they can demand corrections for relatively minor errors that have nothing to do with what they are angry about; they can withdraw advertising or complain to executives, a possibility heightened by the fact that they may move in the same social circles as upper management. They can refuse to provide information and leak important stories to competing reporters. Given a certain kind of individual, and the right situation, and the forms of retaliation can go off the legal spectrum altogether to blackmail, implied or stated frame-ups, and violence.

If some past embarrassment is blown up by the press, a political player may be able to use his connections with police and other authorities to reveal embarrassing information about other people at the news organization, thereby tainting those who are pretending to uphold the moral order of society. Given the intensity with which the national news media now exposes moral infractions, politics isn't the only domain that may soon be off limits to those who have used drugs, had affairs, evaded the draft and so on. Counter-exposes by politicians and other members of the press are already intense enough for some members of the press to be weeded out of certain jobs and stories because of vulnerability to being discredited.

A journalist who brings embarrassment to the newspaper with corrections, angry letters or press conferences held to denounce his work becomes subject to attack himself, not only from the community or government but from inside the news organization, has its own politics. Internal enemies can use corrections and complaints to discredit and fire a journalist, engaging in indirect alliances with the reporter's political enemies. At times, undoubtedly, the two sides have found each other and worked toward their mutual goals. Internal and external enemies may, of course, be right or right for the wrong reasons. The reporter may indeed be unsafe carrying the loaded gun of publicity.

As a result of these fears, reporters and politicians are usually involved in mutual protection societies. The reporter doesn't cross a certain line and the politician doesn't apply sanctions - a stand-off the public has no way to know about.

Ironically, a politician's behavior toward reporters who make him look good and reporters he is afraid of can be outwardly similar, in the same way that you might be solicitous both to a man who was giving you money and to one who was holding a gun to your head and demanding your wallet. Politicians frequently fail to demand corrections from both groups, so as not to antagonize, although this is only one of the many reasons most errors go uncorrected. To mention a few others: politicians often have given up on any hope of good reporting or they may not want an unflattering piece of information repeated for the sake of a correction, which is one reason many people who threaten to sue for libel never do.

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News organizations and reporters may also engage in cooperative efforts that involve a kind of subordination, when they trade a good news story to get other stories. The most blatant examples are those in which an inside source agrees to tell what is going on behind the scenes. In exchange, the news organization does a news story that focuses on the sources claims and often, that pushes his view of events by its focus, framing, slant and the order it chooses to tell the story. If the other side refuses to comment, the news organization has all the rationale it needs for focusing entirely on the sources claims and view of events, creating a news story that, for all the inside information it may provide the public, is, in large measure, a work of propaganda.

Policy battles can be carried out this way, with each side leaking information to favored reporters so that a kind of dialogue develops between news stories, each acting as megaphone for one side in a debate.

When the leaks involve unflattering details about the subject's opponents, as they often do, the reporter is then discrediting one individual or group as a way of submitting to his source.

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Journalists may act subordinate toward politicians because they are submitting to editors or a publisher who they rightly or wrongly believe desires the behavior. Puff pieces about chamber of commerce presidents who golf with the publisher have a way of appearing in business sections. Many newspapers refrain from good investigative consumer stories, though they often get a tremendous response from readers, because the stories upset advertisers. Reporters can also attempt to discredit politicians, once again because they are submitting to editors or publishers, this time who they believe value discrediting stories. It is thus a way to avoid potential retaliation from within for not doing one’s job, and currying favor.


Reasons which are practical and psychodynamic and involve values always involve each other. A reporter who fears retaliation if he stands up to a politician or editor may be projecting his own fears that those who stand up to authority suffer retaliation. Or he may be perceiving a situation correctly. Or his own neurotic belief that those who challenge authority are subject to retaliation may be confirmed in this neurotic situation in which that really is the case.

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The obsequiousness and daring of reporters may be affected by messages the news organization gives them about how strongly it will back them up. A somewhat timid reporter working for a newspaper with a strong investigative tradition may feel encouraged to go out and find some real news. A strong reporter at a timid paper may decide it is in his interest to report what the city council said, rewrite the press release and otherwise stay out of sight.

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Here are some common reasons why journalists ac subordinate and create stories the way other people want them to:

There isn’t enough time to investigate the story, so they have to rely on the perspective and information provided by sources.
To get a good story from a source.
It is easy.
They fear retaliation from the recipient, from editors, from audiences
They lack confidence in their perceptions and abilities
To help a friend or acquaintance.

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Of all the acts of subordination and power-seeking, there is one set that is now more important than the others. Journalists act subordinate to editors and owners by helping to conceal the news media role in the unfolding of events. And they act subordinate to editors and owners by writing stories that help them achieve various personal, financial and political goals. Among these, some journalists write stories that are effort to harm people and organizations that their editors and owners want to see harmed. Hence we see a growing number of stories in which news organizations that are part of media conglomerates go after other media conglomerate that are in competition with their own.

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