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Eric Alterman

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Think Again: Of Groupthink and 'Groupthink'

Posted: 09/13/2012 3:34 pm

I woke up bright and early Monday, per usual, looking for a potential column topic. I didn't find one in the usual places I check online, and the delivery of Monday morning's New York Timesdid nothing to solve my problem. So I grabbed the stack of magazines lying around and, leafing through the latest issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, I found not really an idea, but an idea for an idea. In the magazine's "On the Job" feature -- really just a big two-page photo with a longish caption -- I learned of the struggle of the husband-and-wife team of Laura and Chris Amico to fund their website Homicide Watch DC.

The site's mission statement reads, "Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case." And that's just what it did. Its traffic rose from just 500 page views a month when they began two years ago to more than 300,000 a month when they put the site on hiatus in mid-August. Despite this success, the Amicos were never able to secure sufficient institutional funding, or adoption by a major newspaper like the Washington Post to stay in business. Hence they've been trying to raise enough money through Kickstarter.com to continue a project that trains young journalists to use their software platform and extend their work to other cities.

After scanning this caption in the CJR feature, my mind returned to columnist David Carr's regular Monday column in the Times's Business section on the worthiness of the Amicos' effort and the shame of their inability to secure the funding they needed -- though it appears Carr's column may have accomplished that goal, as such is the power of America's only remaining great newspaper. Having raised $47,000 as of Tuesday, the Amicos plan to have the site live again by October 1 and, by paying interns $10 an hour, help train students all across the country.

Even so, this is a stopgap measure involving only $40,000 in funding and will hardly guarantee the survival of Homicide Watch. The project may, as Ms. Amico observes, "be back in the same position next year."

I've devoted a great deal more space to Homicide Watch (and my own reading habits) than I planned to when I began this column, for two reasons: First, it is a particularly worthy effort and deserves all the attention it can get. And second, Carr's column turned out to have (at least temporarily) life-saving powers.

But what really interested me was the confluence of Carr's column with the CJR article and my own decision to write about the site as a result. Leaving the fate of Homicide Watch aside for a moment, I began to wonder: Did Carr have the same problem I did and come across the same article? Did he and CJR arrive at the same topic for coverage independently? Why didn't I decide to follow up on Carr's column the first time I read it? And most particularly, were all of us practicing journalistic groupthink? And is this a problem?

What, you ask, is "groupthink"?

Therapist and bestselling author Irving Janis defined the term in 1972 as "A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action." He continued:

The main principle of groupthink, which I offer in the spirit of Parkinson's Law, is this: The more amiability and esprit de corps there is among the members of a policy-making ingroup, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against outgroups.

So if CJR, Carr, and I were all engaged in a mini-groupthink activity, it was not an unhealthy one. After all, the three of us have the same interests at heart: the discovery and nurturing of a sustainable model for the kind of journalism that matters to society in the future. (That's also the theme of a special package of articles in CJR.) And to the degree that the CJR editors and the rest of us engaged in media criticism and/or advocacy put our collective minds together and reach similar conclusions, well then, this is simply a function of our being in the same business and seeking the same goals.

Alas, one cannot say the same thing about the form of groupthink that currently grips our national political media. The mainstream media's degree of focus on trivia and personality at the expense of policy -- and the intensity of the pressure on mainstream journalists to stick to exactly the same narrative with only minor digressions in the form of groupthink -- cripples our ability to conduct a robust democratic debate during our quadrennial election process.

Why journalists feel compelled to ape one another so closely in this election season is a bit mysterious. Part of it may be pressure from editors who all read the same newspapers, visit the same websites, and watch the same cable programs. Undoubtedly it is driven to some degree by the political campaigns themselves and the events they stage explicitly for the purpose of driving the coverage in their desired direction, as well as the forced intimacy of the campaign buses, planes, and press conferences themselves.

But perhaps the single-biggest factor is the inability of even the most influential journalists to trust their own judgment when it deviates from the consensus narrative.

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