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Reviewing the Reviews

"Journalists have a pleasantly heroic self-image of down-at-heel crusaders dedicated to exposing falsehood, promoting justice and speaking truth to power," the Economist notes. "But that image is shared by few others: hacks routinely come near the bottom of surveys of public trust, sharing that honor with other perpetual hate-figures such as politicians or estate agents. Nick Davies's latest book will only stoke such contempt."

"A long-serving reporter on the Guardian, a British daily, Mr. Davies turns his investigative skills on his own profession. The picture he paints of journalism (almost entirely British despite the 'global' in his subtitle) is of a debased trade in which rumor and unchecked speculation often masquerade as fact, where staff cuts mean that vast swaths of national life simply go unreported and where overstressed and underfunded reporters are easy prey for influence-peddlers, liars and con men.

"As a British poet called Humbert Wolfe once wrote,

You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
Thank God, the British journalist.
But seeing what the man will do
Unbribed, there's no occasion to!

Of course, the picture Davies presents is entirely apropos to American journalists as well. One point Davies makes that the Economist notes is the vulnerability of journalists to "hidden persuaders - PR firms, press offices, and advertisers - who now seem to have more power and influence than the journalism they ostensibly serve."

The Hidden Persuaders was also the name of a book published in 1957 by Vance Packard that "exposed the secret world of advertising and brands," Mark Greif wrote in the New York Times Book Review recently.

"The bete noire of The Hidden Persuaders was 'motivational research,'" Greif wrote. "Rather than focusing on products, this 'depth' research dug into the psychological weaknesses and needs of consumers. Packard wanted brands to certify purity or quality, to make an old-fashioned fact-based appeal to citizens who had price and effectiveness in mind.

"Scientists of motivation, on the other hand, were trying to puzzle out the reasons for impulsive and even self-destructive purchasing, then tailor images and packaging accordingly."

I think you can see where this is going . . .

"But Packard saw nothing benign when the same techniques were applied to the 1956 presidential election. Presidents would be elected on 'personality.' Messages would be short and focus-grouped. Conventions would be choreographed by emissaries from Hollywood," writes Greif. "[I]t's disturbing to see how the novelties Packard deplored have become accepted fundamentals.

"For 1956, professional advertisers were hired to 'swing crucial voters' in 'the undecided or listless mass,' trolling for weaknesses in candidates' images. The 'switch voter,' an advertising expert explained after much study, is not a thoughtful 'independent' but someone who 'switches for some snotty litlte reason such as not liking the candidate's wife.'"

Dismal Science
"The real mystery, it could be argued, isn't why we make so many poor economic choices but why we persist in accepting economic theory," Elizabeth Kolbert writes her New Yorker review of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.

Among the examples:

"People aren't just loss-averse, they are also effort-averse," Kolbert writes. "They hate having to go to the benefits office, pick up a bunch of forms, fill them out, and bring them all the way back. As a consequence, many eligible employees fail to enroll in their companies' retirement plans, or delay doing so for years . . .

"The same basic argument holds whenever a so-called default option is provided. For instance, most states in the U.S. require that those who want to become organ donors register their consent; in this way, many potential donors are lost.

"As an alternative - used, for example, in Austria - is to make consent the default option, and put the burden of registering on those who do not wish to be donors."

Some might suggest there is a lesson here for health insurance coverage . . .

And, of course, there are larger implications for democracy. Combined with the forces of the hidden persuaders, we end up with large segments of the electorate who are uninformed, misinformed and, yes, irrational.

An example cited by Kolbert that we are quite familiar with here in Chicago:

"Voters, it has been demonstrated, are influenced by factors ranging from how names are placed on a ballot to the jut of a politician's jaw."

(In the case of the latter, journalistic hacks are quite influenced too.)

"A 2004 study of New York City primary-election results put the advantage of being listed first on the ballot for a local office at more than three percent - enough of a boost to turn many races."

Imagine explaining to your kids that you lost an election because of where your name was placed on a ballot.

"Like neoclassical economics, much democratic theory rests on the assumption that people are rational," Kolbert writes. "[E]mpirical evidence suggests otherwise."

Blog Fog
"Blogs are often mean-spirited, self-indulgent and sophomoric," Tribune "literary editor" Elizabeth Taylor writes.

As opposed to newspapers.

"Cleverly written, maybe."

Compared to . . . this?

"Brilliant insight and analysis, not so much."

Really? Not so much?

Compare and contrast.

Dwight Garner of the New York Times reprises the paper's best-seller lists from 1983 - 25 years ago - when advice and how-to books commingled with the rest of the non-fiction list. The result? Jane Fonda was the country's most popular author . . .


Posted on February 28, 2008

MUSIC - Chief Keef Changed The Industry.
TV - Vizio's Best Product Is You.
POLITICS - UIC: Soda Taxes Work.
SPORTS - More McCaskey Malpractice.

BOOKS - All About Poop.


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