We like what we like, or, is it all just politics?

by David Alm on February 25, 2011

image of newspapers

Photo by Alex Barth

Why do we like what we like? Yes, it’s a big question, possibly best addressed in a philosophy seminar. But it has political implications, as Michael Washburn pointed out in his recent post on the VIDA study and why he, as a book critic, has only reviewed a handful of books by women compared to dozens by men. Perhaps a better, and more direct, question should be: What criteria, whether consciously or not, do we use when evaluating anything from non-fiction books to newly released movies ?

For the past three years, I’ve had the honor of sitting on a committee that evaluates social justice journalism and gives awards to the best submissions of the previous year. The award, named for James Aronson, a former professor at Hunter College and lifetime advocate of social justice writing, has been given each year for the past 21 years. And the roster of winners includes some marquee names in the field: Amy Goodman, of Democracy Now!; Seymour Hersh, of the New Yorker; Paul Krugman, of the New York Times, and many more. The list also includes some writers you’ve never heard of, but whose work is just as good. Publications, too, have ranged from the glossy, big-media corporate outlets to small, independent newspapers and magazines around the country.

Evaluating a submission from a famous journalist, whose work appeared in an even more famous publication, alongside an unknown writer from an unheard-of daily in Montana poses certain challenges. How do you establish a level playing field ? What criteria should be used in assessing the merits of one submission against another? Can anyone ignore the cache of a big name in the spirit of objective analysis?

Obviously, this is a quandary that presents itself to all of us, whether we realize it or not. Why does one alt-country rock band go platinum with each new release while others, maybe just as good, languish in their local bar’s venue year after year? Same for film, restaurants, fiction, and fashion. Life’ s not fair. Nothing new there.

But that’s where being on such a committee as the Aronson presents an opportunity: to establish certain standards of evaluation and to endeavor to follow them regardless of whose name appears at the top of the page. Then the question becomes, what are those standards ?

For me, and for the purposes of this award, they’re fairly simple: the work must illuminate a social problem, provide research and factual support, and be exceptionally well written. Form and function cannot be isolated from one another. I have passed on important exposes that lack narrative flow, and I’ve seen beautifully written stories of terrible situations be rejected for being slight on the “next-step” element, or suggestions on where to take the information therein.

The point is, I try to be fair, and I apply the same standards to the New Yorker as I do the High Country News. And I believe I do a good job. But can any of us, really, be sure?

Rebecca Lehmann February 25, 2011 at 9:50 am

David, I think that the goal of VIDA’s count is, to paraphrase the female audience member who critiqued Micheal Washburn’s panel’s gender iniquity, to get people thinking about the ways that we unconsciously select for things like gender when considering “what we like.” Do I think that there is a patriarchal conspiracy afloat in the publishing industry that is purposefully excluding women? No. But I do think that most editors, writers, readers, are just not considering the ways that gender iniquity still exists, and in spades, in 21st Century American culture. True, life isn’t fair, but if we let our examination of gender inequality stop there, we won’t make any progress towards gender parity in publishing.

Jeff McMahon February 25, 2011 at 11:20 am

We can only hope journalism judges do a good job balancing the bias of prominence. Because when it’s equally good, the work of the small-town journalist is actually better, at the individual level, than the work of the big-time journalist. That’s because Seymour Hersh and Amy Goodman and Paul Krugman and their ilk all have staff to help them research, develop and write their reports, which then pass through many layers of expert editing. The reporter from the High Country News probably completed her investigative report by herself, on her lunch hour and after dinner, while covering three school districts by day. Her report was likely passed along by a couple of exhausted copy editors who long since stopped looking as carefully at her work because they know it reliably attains a certain quality. Not only does she deserve the award more than the prominent writer, but it will mean more to her.

But just as Michael Washburn cleared the politics hurdle only to land in the gender gap, journalism judges who try balance their prominence bias may nonetheless be swayed by the very shape of the letters they read.

Paper quality, font design, headline size, layout, art—all can make a publication look professional or podunk and sway judges in invisible ways.

Whenever I won an award at New Times, I always made sure to thank our chief designer, Alex Zuniga, who is something of a genius of newspaper design. He made us look like a winner. And then, by golly, we won.

David Alm February 26, 2011 at 9:29 am

Rebecca – I agree that we shouldn’t just shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh well, life isn’t fair,” and call it a day. We should remain conscious and vigilant against complacency and iniquities lest we fall even further into cultural tyrannies. Note that I did not say that the alt-country rock band that goes platinum is better than the band that languishes in obscurity; in fact, I’d probably prefer the latter for precisely the reason that it isn’t a platinum act. My “life isn’t fair” comment was merely meant as an acknowledgement that quality is not always recognized or rewarded. Indeed, it often isn’t.

This is a good article from A.O. Scott about the so-called “elite” tastemakers in American culture: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/16/movies/16scott.html

He makes the case that it’s the marketers of films and books, etc., not the critics or even the editors and publishers of magazines.

If he’s right, maybe the iniquity in publishing that you’ve (rightly) noticed is less the fault of those on the editorial side of the equation and more on that of the advertising/marketing/circulation side.

I’m not putting this out there as my opinion, but just as a suggestion.

Jeff – I agree entirely about the relative merits of independent journalism versus mainstream, corporate media. In fact, the same argument has come into play in my own defense of my nominees for the Aronson award over the past few years. While I admire much of the writing that comes to us from major publications, I always wonder how much of it was the work of a vast editorial system to ensure quality, and how much was the work of the person with the byline.

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