Ken Friedman ken.friedman at bi.no
Sat May 19 06:09:18 PDT 2001


Jack Lule uncovers seven myths that shape journalism. He uses the
example of Haiti to explain the unconscious racism of the U.S. press

The Myth In Journalism



Jack Lule's book, "Daily News, Eternal Stories: The Mythological Role of
Journalism" examines the difference between news as "information" and news
as "story" with characters, plot and theme. For Lule, myth does not mean
untrue tales, but rather great stories emphasizing "archetypal figures and
forms" and "exemplary models" that play crucial social roles for humankind.
In this definition, such figures, forms and models represent shared values
and help people better understand the complexities, good and bad, of human

By analyzing case studies involving Black Panther Huey Newton, Mother
Teresa, baseball player Mark McGuire and Hurricane Mitch, among others,
Lule  a great storyteller himself  demonstrates seven master myths in the
news that shape our thinking about foreign policy, terrorism, race
relations, political dissent and other issues. He calls them The Victim,
The Scapegoat, The Hero, The Good Mother, The Trickster, The Other World
and The Flood.

As Lule writes in this selection, digital technology may either nourish "a
far-reaching medley of voices and stories" or else impose "the crushing
conformity of a few global scribes." He uses Haiti to illustrate the
latter, perceiving an unconscious racism in the coverage of Haitian
politics by The New York Times. Lule's reading is neither academic nor
literary but an insistence that storytelling, including its cultural and
social role, is crucial to the revitalization and survival of journalism.

Andrew Levy, ( Andrew at mediachannel.org), Editor


As Myth, News Will Be Crucial But Conflicted In An Online World

Myth and
the new technology may seem to be an unlikely pair. But we have already
seen that myth has adapted to every storytelling medium from tribal tales
to cable television. The new technology is no different. The combination of
myth and online news, though, will produce intriguing, paradoxical, perhaps
ominous, results.

The information model of journalism, already in great disrepair, will be
dismantled by the marriage of myth and new media. News is losing whatever
franchise it had on whatever information is. Information is no longer some
scarce resource, a commodity that newspeople can cull and sell. Our society
rapidly moved from information explosion to information overload.
Information is everywhere. From online events calendars to live, continuous
congressional coverage, anyone can give and get information online. If news
is only information, news is nothing.

Yet information overload offers opportunities to news: as myth. In the
throes of all this information, the need for myth increases. People grapple
with the meaning of rapidly changing times. People seek out ways in which
they can organize and explain the world. People need stories. Myth has long
played these roles. Myth has identified and organized important events in
the lives of individuals and societies. Myth has interpreted and explained
the meaning of the past, the portents of the future. Myth has offered the
stability of story in unstable times.

Decades ago, Marshall McLuhan foresaw the increasing need for myth to
organize experience in the face of information overload. "You cannot cope
with vast amounts of information in the old fragmentary classified
patterns," he told literary critic Frank Kermode in a 1964 interview. "You
tend to go looking for mythic and structural forms in order to manage such
complex data, moving at very high speeds."

"So the electric engineers often speak of pattern recognition as a normal
need of people processing data electrically and by computers and so on  the
need for pattern recognition," McLuhan said. "It's a need which the poets
foresaw a century ago in their drive back to mythic forms of organizing
experience." And so myth and new technology offer opportunities to one
another. In a modern, wired world, the news provides pattern
recognition  mythic forms of organizing experience.

State scribes stand poised to exploit these opportunities  perhaps to the
detriment of society. Amid the chaos of the information explosion, the
authority of the storyteller seems likely to increase. In the din of a
million voices, the voice of an established storyteller, for better or
worse, attains even more status. We have already seen evidence of this
power in the infancy of online news. Dramatic events  the election of a
president, a terrorist killing, a celebrity trial, a devastating
flood  bring a rush of readers to the Web sites of traditional news
outlets, the established "brands," the state scribes.

And the power of the state scribes is being enhanced, politically and
economically, as they join together in huge global conglomerates. As
previous propositions affirmed, it's always been dangerous to have
storytelling power invested in a select social few. Power corrupts.  And in
our times of consolidation of new and news media, the danger looms larger.
State scribes, long beholden to privileged and powerful rulers, now are
also compromised by their responsibilities to stockholders, corporate
owners, and even to other scribes to whom they have been married and
merged. It is a perilous world in which a very few voices, so compromised,
can signal to society what is important and what is not, how to act and how
not, who is worthy and who is not.

The Web, though, is terribly tangled. Myth and new technology may actually
pose threats to the state scribes as well. People are increasingly able to
seek out stories and storytellers who challenge and reject views of the
state scribes. People have the ability to find others who share and confirm
their views of the world, bypassing the communication of the scribes.
For example, people with disabilities can find each other online and
organize to challenge their exclusion from positions, power, and print.
Political candidates unaffiliated with the two major parties have a means
to reach a larger audience. Hate groups, isolated in their own communities,
can seek support from around the world. What happens online in all these
different connections? People share stories. They sustain each other with
stories that draw from archetypal figures and forms to offer exemplary
models and meaning for human life. They tell each other news  as myth.
Through these disparate online stories, the status of state scribes quite
possibly can be challenged. Digital technology thus has the possibility to
nourish a far-reaching medley of voices and stories  or to impose the
crushing conformity of a few global scribes.

Myth, News Values And A New World

With the end of the cold war and the beginning of a new century, U.S. news
coverage of international affairs finds itself at a crossroads. For
previous generations of reporters and editors, the world could be organized
and explained in relation to the political, military, economic and cultural
rivalry of two superpowers. News values the criteria by which the news
media select, order, report and give meaning to events  were structured by
this one dominant model, a model that has tumbled with the stones from the
Berlin Wall. Today, the questions facing [The New York] Times and other
news organizations include: How is international news to be defined in this
new era? What news values will guide the selection and shaping of events?

As we have seen, two models have emerged. One model has embraced the era as
a time of promise for journalism. This model valorizes aggressive,
progressive news values that promote social justice, and might be called
the model of "a new global and human journalism." Other scholars have
offered a more pessimistic model, a model of international news dictated by
the actions and initiatives of U.S. foreign policy. This model might be
described as promoting "Fortress America" in a world of chaos.

This chapter has offered a preliminary assessment of the prospects for each
model through a case study: the work of one Times correspondent, the
reporting of Larry Rohter from Haiti. Analysis of that reporting supports
the most cheerless view of post-Cold War news values. In the amount of
coverage, the nature of the content, and the strategies offered, Rohter's
reporting for [The New York] Times can be seen as working in concert with
U.S. foreign policy. Even as that policy shifted course rejecting the
junta, warily restoring Aristide, but insisting that he accept U.S.
policy  so too did the reporting.  Fears that U.S. foreign correspondence
would become captive to U.S. foreign policy were realized in Rohter's

To restate the particulars: The influence of U.S. foreign policy can be
seen quite readily in the sheer amount of Rohter's Haitian coverage. As the
Clinton administration made Haiti one of its first major foreign policy
campaigns, Rohter gave over most of his work for almost two years to
following Haiti. The Caribbean correspondent of the Times over some 20
months [from July 1994 through February 1996] filed, for example, five
stories from El Salvador, three stories from Colombia, three stories from
Honduras, two stories from Trinidad and none from the Dominican Republic.
   From Haiti, as previously noted, Rohter filed 120 stories.

The themes of Rohter's reporting also worked in concert with U.S. policy.
Rohter's reporting did not stray far from U.S. policy perspectives. As the
United States prepared for an invasion to remove Cedras, U.S. officials
postured mightily through Rohter's reporting. Rohter's denunciations of the
regime and his chronicling of the junta's repression made a case for U.S.
intervention. At the same time, his depictions of Aristide as the rightful
leader, whose return would bring peace and reconciliation, also bolstered
the U.S. case.

When Aristide and U.S. policy soon began to conflict, Rohter's themes
shifted. The uplifting portrayals of Aristide and the lavalas movement
segued to critical accounts of intransigent ideology and radical leftist
politics. As FRAPH continued to terrorize the population and U.S. forces
refused to move against them, Rohter's avoidance of the U.S.-FRAPH
relationship shielded Times readers from the U.S. establishment of a
conservative "counterweight" to Aristide's progressive politics. And
Rohter's depiction of Haiti as an "ungovernable" place whose people were
not "culturally or psychologically" equipped for the demands of democracy
captured the patronizing and paternalistic attitudes that have driven U.S.
imperialism in the Caribbean for decades.

Haiti As The Other World

Myth provides another, complementary way to understand Rohter's coverage.
Like all reporters, Rohter did not have to create brand-new story forms to
report events from Haiti. He, his editors and his sources consistently drew
upon an established narrative  an eternal story  that helped shape coverage
even as it explained and justified U.S. policy. In Rohter's reports, we can
see the unmistakable structure of the myth of the Other World.

Underlying the reporting of Haiti's political turmoil turmoil orchestrated
often by U.S. policies  is a classic portrayal. Haiti is rendered as a
primitive land, filled with danger and chaos, and ruled by death squads and
paramilitary patrols who leave the streets littered with corpses. Its
helpless people perversely admire bloody shows of force as they engage in
animal sacrifice and bone-stealing voodoo rituals, even on Christmas.  And
they passively remain under the sway of rogue leaders and psychotic priests
with no respect for order or reason or privatizing industry. It's a
nightmare world.

Rohter provides us with a modern depiction of the Other World, one that
also seeks to define our society in relation to other societies. As
[Jean-Pierre] Vernant argued [in "Myth and Society in Ancient Greece"],
myth "expresses how a group of people in particular historical
circumstances sees itself." The myth expressed in Rohter's reporting
portrays a mighty and superior people descending with fascination and
disgust into a primitive place on the globe. The Other World is a world to
be feared and perhaps someday avoided. But for now it's a world in
desperate need of U.S. guidance and military might.

The Other World In U.S. International News

The Other World is not a rare
portrayal in U.S. news.  Close reading of the Times and other newspapers
shows that reporting of international affairs often relies on the myth of
the Other World. In fact, many nations do not appear in U.S. news unless
and until they provide stories that allow the myth to be told. From around
the world, U.S. reporters and editors apply news values that judge other
nations newsworthy when they provides stories of bloody coups, tribal
warfare, perverse politics, strange customs and other tales of the
underworld for the U.S. audience back home.

Even a cursory reading of international news shows the influence of the
myth of the Other World on news values.  We find stories about animal
sacrifice in Taiwan; female genital cutting in Africa; the stoning of the
devil at Mecca; a thwarted coup in Qatar; Central American drug warlords; a
military junta in Sierra Leone; genocide in Rwanda; ethnic cleansing in
Kosovo; stolen Aboriginal children in Australia; and many other dark tales.
Once again, we can marvel at the durability of myth. A tale told for
centuries is told to usher the United States into the 21st century.

Modern mythology, Joseph Campbell said, confronts an enormously complex
"fact-world that now has to be recognized, appropriated and assimilated."
U.S. society today faces an enormously complex "fact-world," a post-Cold
War world in which the United States is the lone superpower on the world
stage. U.S. international news confronts that world through tales of the
Other World. It offers coverage that affirms U.S. superiority and other
nations' inferiority. It provides scary, fantastic stories of a world beset
by anarchy and chaos. It promotes the "image of 'Fortress America,' an
island of civilization in a sea of political barbarism." It does all this
with a myth as old as Odysseus.


Jack Lule is a professor of journalism and chair of the Department of
Journalism and Communication at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. He has
published widely and has won numerous awards for excellence in research and
teaching. A former bartender, truck driver and reporter, Lule continues to
be an avid observer of the American scene and a frequent contributor to
newspapers and periodicals.


This essay was excerpted from the book "Daily News, Eternal Stories: The
Mythological Role of Journalism," by Jack Lule (New York: The Guilford
Press, 2001).  Copyright © 2001. Reprinted with permission of The Guilford


Ken Friedman, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Leadership and Strategic Design
Department of Knowledge Management
Norwegian School of Management


+47 Telephone
+47 Telefax

Home office

+46 (46) 53.245 Telephone
+46 (46) 53.345 Telefax

email: ken.friedman at bi.no


Ken Friedman, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Leadership and Strategic Design
Department of Knowledge Management
Norwegian School of Management


+47 Telephone
+47 Telefax

Home office

+46 (46) 53.245 Telephone
+46 (46) 53.345 Telefax

email: ken.friedman at bi.no


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