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Think Again: Of Groupthink and ‘Groupthink’

Frank Bruni

SOURCE: AP/Yanina Manolova

Frank Bruni, who covered George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign for The New York Times, poses for a portrait at "Wine & Roses" restaurant in New York.

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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 Times did 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. I don’t write about the current election in this space. But in thinking about the issue, I was reminded of what I took to be an amazing passage in Frank Bruni’s campaign memoir of the 2000 presidential election.

Bruni, you may remember, was the New York Times campaign reporter whom then-candidate George W. Bush nicknamed “Panchito” and put his arms around, cooing in his ear, “You know we love you.” (In case Bruni doubted the sincerity of Bush’s affection, he also reports that candidate Bush later looked across the room and mouthed to him, “I love you, man.”)

Bruni more than returned these sentiments during the 2000 election, as did more than a few of his colleagues, despite the fact that candidate Bush was clearly unprepared to be president and would embark on one disastrous endeavor after another after being elected. In the memoir, Bruni attributed the groupthink phenomenon to the fact that the campaign reporters were:

… prisoners in a gilded cell, which we called ‘the bubble’ because it was so separate from everyday life and had an atmosphere all its own. We were following, not leading—herded like sheep, lured like lemmings. Small wonder that we got so cranky. Small wonder still that we got so silly.

But the oddest aspect of Bruni’s recollection was the animosity he showed toward those reporters who refused to play along.

In the case of political correspondent Mike Allen (then of The Washington Post and now of Politico), Bruni observed that he had joined the campaign late and filed a dispatch contending that “after five months in firm command of the presidential race, George W. Bush suddenly finds himself on the defensive, behind in the polls and struggling to fend off attacks.” Bruni was apparently furious about this report since Allen was apparently under the impression that such negative coverage was the way that “tough-minded, keen-eyed reputations are made.” (The question of whether candidate Bush was actually doing any of these things was left to the imagination.)

The weirdness of the incident arises when Bruni admits that for reasons he cannot fully explain, when other journalists on the campaign plane began “following suit” with Allen, so too did Bruni. He found that he could not help himself from “rejoining the pack, because the assertion that Bush was flailing was so rampant in the newspapers and newscasts that it had transmogrified into the fact that Bush was flailing.”

There you have it, folks. Bruni’s impetus toward groupthink proved so powerful he could not resist it, despite the fact that he did not believe it (to say nothing of the “love” the soon-to-be president expressed for “Panchito”). In other words, a significant cause of groupthink lies in the realm of the unconscious—and cannot be resisted even by a New York Times correspondent charged with leading the coverage rather than following it.

And given Bruni’s status as a full-time columnist on the prestigious Times op-ed page, one can only surmise that this is exactly what editors want from a reporter—or at least think they do.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

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This is part of a regular column: Think Again

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