Organization and Meaning: A Multilevel Psychoanalytic Treatment of the Jayson Blair Scandal at The New York Times
Howard S. Schwartz
Center for Applied Research
This is an expanded version of a paper published in International Journal of Organization Theory and Behavior, 11 (1) 2008.
Despite heroic efforts to outline a theory of organizations that would comprehend all the levels of organizational behavior (e.g. March, 1996, Koslowski and Klein, 2000), the fragmentation of the field among differing levels of analysis remains a frequent lament (Pierce, 2003).
We do not wish to speculate about why there should be so much difficulty for social scientists in bringing levels of analysis together. We wish only to observe that for our own theoretical framework, psychoanalytic theory, there is no such difficulty. Rather, the difficulty lies in disentangling them.
The reason for this is that psychoanalytic theory is a theory of symbolism. It is not so much about behavior as about the meaning of behavior, and the meaning of behavior is essentially the same across levels of aggregation. This is something we already know. Take for example the meaning of an event: A country is attacked. In response, a young man joins his country’s armed forces and the country’s government begins converting its production facilities from consumer goods toward war materiel. The ease with which we move across levels of aggregation here is based on our confidence that the meaning of the country being attacked is a symbol that remains stable across these levels.
As this simple example illustrates, looking at levels of analysis in terms of meaning produces results that are quite different from more behaviorally oriented approaches. For psychoanalytic theory, multi-level analysis is not a matter of finding causal relationships between different types of entities. Rather, it is a matter of validating a general statement about the way a meaning is made by finding that meaning at a number of levels. The point of multi-level analysis, then, is not to provide a picture of the relations among disparate phenomena, but to provide a richer picture of one. One may think of the result as polychromatic, each level of analysis presenting a picture of a single meaning through a lens of a different color.
Our purpose in this paper will be to illustrate the way psychoanalytic theory, as a theory of meaning, can contribute to the cross level analysis of organizations. We will do so in a way that may seem paradoxical, by showing a clash, a contestation about meaning. Two different and competing ideas about the meaning of an organization will help to give clarity to one another, and the clash between these meanings will be used to explain the behavior at each level.
The organization we will analyze at these various levels is the New York Times. We will look at the Times with a focus upon the peculiar case of Jayson Blair, a reporter who was found to have been plagiarizing and fabricating material, and the Times’ treatment of him.
Our paper is organized into three sections. In the first we describe the scope of Blair’s fraud. In the second we explore two contrasting forms of meaning in psychoanalytic theory, “Oedipal” meaning and “anti-Oedipal” meaning. In the third section we show how the tension between them played out at several levels, the individual, the group, the intra-psychic and the organizational. We will argue that the Blair case can be understood through this tension surrounding the meaning of the Times, specifically whether its members and leaders saw it through the prism of Oedipal or anti-Oedipal meaning.
The Scope of Blair’s Fraud
On June 6, 2003, Howell Raines, the executive editor of the New York Times, and his managing editor, Gerald Boyd, met with their staff to announce their resignations. Over the preceding weeks, the Times had itself revealed that one of its reporters, Jayson Blair, had fabricated sources and quotes as well as plagiarized other newspapers. In a candid post-mortem, the Times noted on May 11, 2003
Ten days ago, Jayson Blair resigned as a
reporter for the New York Times after the discovery that he had
plagiarized parts of an article on April 26 about the
Moreover, as the Times reporters
indicated, people had been aware of Blair’s extremely sloppy reporting and his
disregard for accuracy for at least three years but the paper had not dismissed
him. Instead, he had been given many second chances and at one point was
transferred to the sports department for training in accuracy. Alex S. Rose, a
former Times reporter and the co-author of The Trust: The Private and
Powerful Family Behind the New York Times (Rose and Tifft, 1999), commented, "To the best of my knowledge,
there has never been anything like this at the New York Times …There has
never been a systematic effort to lie and cheat as a reporter at the New
York Times comparable to what Jayson Blair seems to have done."
We believe that those who asked these questions were correct, but that giving a positive answer here is only the beginning of the story. It sees the story as taking place only at the level of organizational process. For a more complete understanding of this tragedy it is necessary to examine it at all levels. First of all, it will be necessary to introduce some general theoretical considerations
Oedipal and Anti-Oedipal Meaning
Psychoanalytic theory tells us that, at the outset of life, the infant experiences the world as being, essentially, the mother who loves him and is responsive to his desires and needs. So we may say that it experiences the world as revolving around him with love. Freud calls this happy state “primary narcissism.” However, of course, the world does not revolve around the child. Specifically, father’s connection with mother is experienced as an intrusion into the intimate relationship the child has with mother, for which the child wants to kill him. But of course the father is big and the child is small, and the child also loves the father. Killing him is not an option. Instead, the child comes to identify with the father, idealizing him and wanting to become like him, so that, when he is grown up, he can have a relationship like the father has with mother, and regain the intimacy of his own infancy. In the course of this transformation, he turns his aggression toward the father into aggression against himself, and in this way develops the capacity for self-control, and for holding himself responsible for satisfying the social demands that structure the adult world and define the role of the father. Freud refers to this internalization of social reality as the superego, and to the fantasy of returning to the state in which the world revolves around us with love as the ego ideal (Freud, 1914, 1921, 1923).
This is the development that Freud called the “Oedipus complex” (Freud, 1900) Outside of psychoanalysis the concept remains controversial, particularly when it ascribes to a child the wish to kill the father and marry the mother, as Oedipus directly accomplished. To many, it even seems bizarre. But the claim of our paper is that psychoanalytic theory permits interpretation at any number of levels, and this is nowhere more true than with the analysis of the Oedipus complex.
Common sense psychology holds that a child develops and matures as he or she moves beyond the confines of a protective and in most cases a loving family and begins to enter into the wider world of first school and then work. In these social settings he is judged and assessed according to performance and contribution. While parents set standards and teachers can be loving, work is more salient in the wider world, while love is more salient in the family.
Freud was suggesting that children make sense of the difference between family and the wider world by differentiating between “mother” and “father.” Mother represents love and intimacy while father represents the outside world’s indifference and its demand for performance. Of course, individual mothers and fathers can and do differ greatly in how they represent these two distinct domains. Some mothers withhold love if their child performs poorly in schools, for example, while some fathers provide the bulk of unconditional emotional support. But the difference in type of relationship remains, and it makes sense to follow psychoanalysis and refer to them as the “maternal function” representing unconditional love, and the “paternal function” representing the indifferent external world. Psychoanalysis thus presumes that in symbolizing the world in terms of mother and father, children are not simply describing two important people in their lives but are expressing a developmental tension embedded in their earliest experiences.
Freud argued that the child navigates this tension by identifying with, idealizing, and internalizing the father. More specifically, the boy wants to become like the father and thus take up the role of mastering the outside world, while the girl wants to marry the father or someone like him thus gaining access, through him, to the resources provided by the outside world. Parents often see these distinctions in children’s play when, despite their progressive intentions, boys play with superheroes’ while girls play “house.” This is a very important phase in the child’s development. Yet it is understandable that the child may also have rage against the father and resent him deeply. After all, he represents scarcity, uncomfortable truths (“you are not valued for just being yourself but for what you contribute”) and the struggle that is required for mastery. Yet truths these are, and the pain of subjecting ourselves to them is very much a turning of aggression against the self.
When asked what makes for happiness Freud famously responded “work and love.” While at one level his answer seems commonsensical enough, in the context of the Oedipus complex it points to another meaning; the psychologies of love and work are not separate. We identify with the paternal function as a prelude to restoring or recreating the loving world we once had to abandon in the service of maturing. We work in order to regain love, whether we see that in the context of a loving family we create, in the appreciation others show us for the good work we do or in the rewards we get which signify our special-ness or celebrity. We will be able to simply be exactly who we are, doing exactly what we want , and we will be loved for it. In this sense we aim to restore our relationship to mother by taking an indirect route back to her through the world of the father. We engage in society’s framework of systematized exchange (Blau, 1964) based on objective, mutual, negotiated, and adaptive rules and obligations in order to restore a loving world.
We never fully regain that loving world; it is a fantasy of a return to the early state of primary narcissism; when the world was mother, and she revolved around us with love. But the idea that we can attain it, that we can realize the ego ideal, is what gives our lives meaning. It gives meaning to our lives as a whole and to all the distinct and unlovable things we have to do in the objective world order to gain it. We will refer to this paradigm of meaning as Oedipal meaning.
Anti-Oedipal Meaning and Political Correctness
The account that we have given so far represents Freud’s understanding of the psychological underpinnings of his own society in his time. Grounding meaning in this migration away from the mother, and then back by means of becoming like the father, is by no means universal. It rests upon cultural assumptions that are not necessarily made. There are other possibilities.
Specifically, a contrasting “anti-Oedipal” meaning can emerge (Schwartz, 2003). In this case, the rage and resentment that the child feels toward the father, and the indifference of the world that he represents, are taken as the touchstone of meaning. In this framework, the world doesn’t have to be a cold, unloving place. We remember our early childhood, when it was not. If it is, it must be somebody’s fault. The father, who represents the world’s indifference, takes the blame for it. He has unfairly deprived the child of the loving world he originally had with mother. The objective reality he represents is not something we have to learn to survive in, but an affront. The superego, which is the internalization of the demands of external reality, becomes an alien presence in our psyche and may come to be seen as internalized oppression. Instead of the idea that you can regain mother’s love by becoming like the father, the idea arises that you can reclaim mother’s love by getting rid of the father who has stolen it from you. When this is the assumption that is made, the paternal function and its representatives in the outer world, in the form or organizational and social authority are seen as illegitimate.
Resistance to or rejection of authority are not necessarily based on the psychological rejection of the paternal function. When authority figures fail, in the sense that that they do not organize social systems that secure for all of us settings of requisite safety, they undermine their own legitimacy. But these are occasions in which the father is seen as a bad father. A much more fundamental rejection occurs when the meaning of the father, as a symbol, changes; when fatherhood, the paternal function, is seen as being bad in itself. Then, people do not simply ask for a change in the authorities, they reject the principal of authority.
Why the rejection of authority and the paternal function have gained such cultural standing in our time is beyond the scope of this paper, and indeed is not even a matter upon which the authors agree. A recent treatment of the matter on the level of philosophy sees it as a triumph of the counter-enlightenment over the enlightenment, and traces its intellectual history from Rousseau to Foucault (Hicks, 2004). Of course, the matter has been of concern to cultural historians such as Christopher Lasch (e.g. 1996) and Jacques Barzun (2000), who approach the transformation from quite different perspectives. For a psychoanalytic view, see Schwartz (2003).
Whatever its origin, rejection of authority can generate a whole world view, and a correspondingly different root for meaning. The father, authority, who has been thought to have earned his love in the objective world, is now presumed to have stolen that love from those who have not been loved in the past. He is to be hated. Those who have not been loved in the past through his oppression are to be loved in compensation. This love of the oppressed and hate of the oppressor will reestablish our connection with mother; the world will be a place of universal love, in which we will all be able to do what we want to do and be loved for it. If feelings like these are shared by large numbers of people we then have a cultural configuration, which we can call “anti-Oedipal.” This is not just a theoretical idea. We propose that the movement for political correctness represents just such an anti-Oedipal dynamic (Schwartz, 2003).
In thinking about political correctness it is useful to define it in the terms through which it first became a part of common discourse. This was in an article in, appropriately enough the New York Times by Richard Bernstein (1991). He said that political correctness (PC) referred to a strain of post-Marxist leftist thought in which the struggle between economic classes had been replaced with a more differentiated set of oppositions based on such differences as gender, race, and sexual orientation:
Central to pc-ness, which has its roots in 1960's radicalism, is the view that Western society has for centuries been dominated by what is often called 'the white male power structure' or 'Patriarchal hegemony.' A related belief is that everybody but white heterosexual males has suffered some form of repression and been denied a cultural voice ... (Section 4:1)
He added that, to many of those concerned with this phenomenon, the disturbing thing about political correctness ("PC") has not been the content of its ideology, but its abusiveness:
… more than an earnest expression of belief, "politically correct" has become a sarcastic jibe used by those, conservatives and classical liberals alike, to describe what they see as a growing intolerance, a closing of debate, a pressure to conform to a radical program or risk being accused of a commonly reiterated trio of thought crimes: sexism, racism and homophobia. (4:4)
Political correctness quite explicitly claims that the father’s authority, often referred to as “patriarchy” is illegitimate. In its developed form, political correctness presumes that the white heterosexual men have unearned privileges which they maintain only by suppressing the voice and spontaneity of other groups. Were these other groups to be freed and allowed to express their authentic selves, the world would be a loving place.
Political correctness as a world-view also creates an attack on the idea of objective reality, and hence of objective truth. If white heterosexual patriarchy is suspect, its claim to represent the truths of our lives is suspect. Instead, every culture is seen as having its own truth. Indeed, the very idea of an objective truth is a way in which the dominant group represses the cultures whose truth is different from theirs. Perhaps the reader thinks we are caricaturizing this phenomena. Yet we believe that the case of the Jayson Blair and the New York Times is emblematic of just this extreme version
We are now ready to take up the concepts of Oedipal and anti-Oedipal meaning and show how they can be applied across levels, indeed, how they create an integrated picture of action across many levels. We look at the institutional, individual, group, intra-psychic, and organizational and in succession. We will return to the dynamics of political correctness later on, but first we will show how the tension between Oedipal and anti-Oedipal meanings played out at each of these levels.
A Multilevel Analysis of a Clash of Meanings
The Institutional Level
As the “paper or record” The New York Times has a unique and important place in the structure of meaning in American society. It is relied upon to offer objective accounts of the important facts of the time, and indeed is even relied upon to offer an objective appraisal of what facts are important. An institution whose words can be relied upon to present an objective picture of what is real, makes it possible for people to plan their lives with confidence, to understand what their obligations are and to accept them, and to act in a way that makes it possible for their behavior to be understood and coordinated with the behavior of others. Now we have argued that the paternal function stands for the objective world in which truths however uncomfortable have standing. This suggests that the New York Times is a singular component, a bulwark, of the paternal function. It is the father of fathers.
Now, of course the Times is not perfect. The best of human institutions are still human and humans make mistakes. But within the context of its responsibility, this fact translates into a demand, which the paper makes upon itself to be obsessive in its drive for accuracy, ruthless in its error correction, and to make sure that everyone in its employ makes these demands upon themselves.
This, of course, is what makes the Blair case so interesting. The intellectual issue is not built around the fact that Blair committed journalistic sins. In truth, there has been an epidemic of that in recent times. The interesting question is how the Times could have let him keep his position in the face of clear evidence that he had been making mistakes, fabricating events, and even plagiarizing. Our answer will be that the demands imposed by the Times only make sense within Oedipal psychology. In anti-Oedipal psychology, they are redefined as impositions and agencies of oppression. Blair, as the member of a group that has been deprived of love in the past, is entitled to be compensated with love for being subjected to this oppression.
The drama of Blair, therefore, is a clash between systems of meaning. It took place at many levels. All reflected the widest possible struggle between Oedipal and anti-Oedipal impulses in the culture writ large.
The Individual Level
To study organizations at the level of the individual leader, one would want to look at the way they define their organizational roles. In the case of the Times, we are fortunate to have a way of studying the transformation in the orientation toward the father because we can see differences in the way that the father and son defined the central role of publisher.
The New York Times is an operation of the Ochs-Sulzberger family and has been since its inception. The role of publisher has passed from a member of one generation to another. Most recently, it passed from Arthur Hayes Sulzberger, Jr., known as Punch, to Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., known, not without condescension, as Pinch. In the traditional Oedipal process, the son subordinates himself to the father, while in the anti-Oedipal configuration, the son gains meaning by refusing this subordination. This difference is very much on display in the Sulzberger succession at the Times.
Subordination to the father means internalizing the meaning and values he represents. In the case of an organizational succession, it would mean commitment to the meaning and values of the organization. Given the position of the Times in our society, it is easy to see that this subordination would be seen as a sacred trust. One reason that the Times has been such a stellar newspaper is that past and present family members who have owned it subordinated their personal interests to the Times’ excellence as an institution. They have reinvested much of their earnings in the paper rather than distribute them as profits. In 1986 the four Sulzberger children (one son and three daughters of Arthur Sr. and Iphigene Sulzberger) and their thirteen children, “pledged never to sell the critical voting class B shares of the company stock outside the family. Any family members who wanted to redeem their class B stock for cash had to offer them to the family or to the New York Times Company first. Before the stock could be sold to any outsider it had to be converted into ordinary Class A stock. The covenant bound them to these terms until twenty-one years after the death of the longest lived descendant of Iphigene who was alive at the time the agreement was executed.”
Rose and Tifft (1999), in their study of the family, go on to note that, by signing the document and executing the agreement,
the Sulzbergers forfeited their chance to make a killing by selling the prized class B shares on the open market; a transaction that could have reaped hundreds of millions for each of the four branches of the family because of the high premium, placed on stock that represents control of a company. A lawyer who drew up the documents told the children that ‘the hypothetical windfall from selling the Class B stock could be a billion dollars or more.’ Yet, they weren’t the least bit tempted to preserve their option to do so. (p. 623).
Family members also subordinated themselves psychologically to the Times as an institution.
The Sulzbergers had been taught from birth never to think of themselves as rich or powerful.” At the funeral of Iphigene Sulzberger, Susan Dryfoos, a granddaughter eulogized her by calling the newspaper a ‘trust’ and ‘a tradition that is far greater than any single individual.’ Publicly, Susan pledged her generation to ‘carry on’ and to ‘be humble.’ ‘No swelled heads,’ she promised her grandmother. ‘Our memory of you will keep us straight.’(pp. 628-29)
Subordination also characterized the way in which “Punch” Sulzberger, the son of Arthur, Sr. and the father of “Pinch” Sulzberger (the current publisher) took up his role as publisher. He held his character as a person in reserve. Not unlike royalty he underlined the distinction between office and the person. He took his role as given by its place in the objective order and directed his behavior in accordance with what he believed were the interests of the organization. On the one side, this could lead people to experience him as detached, but on the other, it gave people the confidence that he was acting on behalf of the institution rather than in response to the pressure of personal needs. As one family member noted,
He was smart enough at some point in his life to realize that people foam around the publisher of the New York Times, and if you’re not careful they’re all biting at you or sucking at you, licking at you. It suited Punch’s character and personality to remain this rigid person unto himself and never let very much of himself out to anybody. (Ibid., pp. 596-597).
As a result,
He never involved himself directly in stories and only rarely in editorials. When he read a news article that displeased him he complained to the top editor and to him alone, never to the individual reporter, It was his way of keeping the publisher’s authority in reserve, like a vast untapped store of gold bullion. ibid
As one company executive noted, “When you’re before him you know you’re before an institution.” (Ibid: 596-97)
But if the older Sulzberger defined his role by subordination, the younger did just the opposite.
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., born in 1951, was a baby-boomer and a child of the 1960’s. Raised by his mother, he had been very influenced by his experiences in “Outward Bound,” an organization that enables people to test their limits, their courage and their interpersonal skills in rugged outdoor activities. Evidently, though this experience he learned to trust his own spontaneity. Like many of his generation he was committed to bringing more of that spontaneity to his role.
Arthur Jr.’s office on the
eleventh floor of the
This informal style of taking up a role is by now a familiar one. It reflects the heritage of the generation that matured in the nineteen sixties. Its members are now in leadership roles throughout the economy and society. Considered by itself, it has real strengths. It can support more direct and truthful talk, it acknowledges and draws on people’s individual passions and it reduces some of the psychological injuries associated with status and class difference. On the other hand, it can become dangerous when spontaneous desire is meant as a protest against social control. Organizations succeed by allocating scarce resources to selected ends. Desire can animate work, but must be subordinated to organizational choice. In the context of organizations, this means that an insistence on spontaneity can become an attack against hierarchy and the authority it represents. Under these conditions, we suggest, it takes on an anti-Oedipal meaning. Then, in accordance with the meanings assigned by political correctness, the attack against hierarchy and authority becomes redefined as part of the struggle of the oppressed against the oppressors.
Arthur’s suspicion of hierarchy was clear. It also appears that it is categorical, and does not make the necessary distinction between hierarchy that expresses rational authority and hierarchy that does not. For example, in 1992, he told a journalist,
Some argue that fear is an inherent by-product of any structure based in hierarchy. I can’t swear that’s true, but I suspect it is. And if it is true our course is clear. For the New York Times to become all it can be and for it to flourish in the years ahead, we must reduce our dependency on hierarchy in decision making of every sort.( Auletta, 1993, p. 56)
One would expect this stance to undermine Arthur’s ability to exercise legitimate authority, and hence the objective role of publisher, where it was most needed. This appears to have been the case.
For example, it is a commonplace of the newspaper business that there is tension between the editors and the business executives, with editors asking for more resources to improve the paper’s quality and business executives, focused on profits, asking the editors to do with less. The publisher, at the top of hierarchy, typically acts as the court of last resort as he or she works to integrate the twin goals of quality and profit. This role, which we may understand as being an expression of the paternal function, is important because when the publisher does the work of integration, each side is free to pursue its particular objective with passion and focus. The publisher by contrast is required to take the objective stance and is precluded from the whole-hearted commitment his subordinates are entitled to, which in fact allows them a certain organizational “innocence.” Instead, the publisher has to integrate conflicting objectives alone. This is also why we characterize the chief executive as “lonely at the top.” This was the premise under which Punch took up his role. But, for his son, with his antagonism toward hierarchy and authority, the exercise of this integrative function became extremely problematic.
He had watched his father play the role of court of last resort at the paper. He didn’t want to spend the next twenty years of his life refereeing every conflict that came along between the newsroom and the business departments. op cit, p. 64.
For a final point of contrast, consider a commencement speech given by the younger Sulzberger (2006) to the 2006 graduating class of the State University of New York at New Paltz, which is available at their website:. He said, in part:
I’ll start with an apology.
When I graduated from
college in 1974, my fellow students and I had just ended the war in
Either way, we entered the real world committed to making it a better, safer, cleaner, more equal place. We were determined not to repeat the mistakes of our predecessors. We had seen the horrors and futility of war and smelled the stench of corruption in government.
Our children, we vowed, would never know that.
So, well, sorry. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
You weren’t supposed
to be graduating into an
You weren’t supposed to be graduating into a world where we are still fighting for fundamental human rights, be it the rights of immigrants to start a new life; the rights of gays to marry; or the rights of women to choose.
You weren’t supposed to be graduating into a world where oil still drives policy and environmentalists have to relentlessly fight for every gain.
You weren’t. But you are. And for that I’m sorry.
Obviously, in this speech, Sulzberger was expressing an identification with his cohort and his commitment to the politically correct, anti-Oedipal political position often identified with it. By itself, the fact that he held a certain political position need not have directly affected the operations of the Times; even if he took personal responsibility, as he did, for the attainment of certain political outcomes. But even if that were so, he was making the speech as the publisher of the Times and a person might easily have come away with the idea that his political view might carry some weight at the Times and be reflected in its coverage. That would call the objectivity of the Times into question and undermine its institutional significance. It is impossible to imagine that the older Sulzberger would have made that speech.
We now turn to the way the conflict between Oedipal and anti-Oedipal played out at the group level.
The Group Level
Consider a series of failed executive retreats that Sulzberger Jr. sponsored from October of 1992 through January of 1993. He hoped that, through the work of the retreats, the two sides of the company would agree on a statement of values and mission so that he would no longer have to act as the court of last resort. One can see anti-Oedipal meaning operating here. The statement would represent the dissolution of differences and boundaries between the functions; hence there would be no conflicts between them. The newspaper, like the idealized family would be harmonious, governed by the maternal function.
But this fantasy is precisely why the retreats he sponsored failed. The laborious work of producing mission and value statements did not dissolve differences; indeed it could not, because the differences and boundaries between the functions were objectively necessary and real. Instead the retreats gave voice to the hostility of both sides as well as anger at Arthur. After one difficult session participants asked him, “why did you drag us here?” (Auletta, 1993: 64)
Consider an episode during one of the retreats. It reveals in microcosm the links between authority, hierarchy, work and passion. Sulzberger hired a facilitator to help the editorial leadership and the business executives create a shared mission statement for the company. The retreat’s facilitator is at the center of this reported episode but by examining his actions, we can also see again how Sulzberger was taking up his leadership role. Indeed Sulzberger himself pointed out that when after the retreat participants attacked the facilitator, they were in fact attacking him. ibid
On the morning of the second day of a retreat, the facilitator began by asking participants to discuss their statement of values but “then jarred everyone by changing the subject and encouraging people to speak candidly about their frustrations in the newsroom, about the fear, about the authoritarianism.” The journalist goes on to note,
When they resisted, Sulzberger himself weighed in, describing his own unhappiness with communications at the paper. He challenged Max Frankel and his staff to practice bottom up rather than top down management, to open themselves to change, to be well, --nicer (Ibid. 62)
They should, in our terms, become maternal.
When participants still hesitated to talk about their fear and frustration, the facilitator suggested that they describe the “rules of the road” that defined the culture of the newsroom
“When in doubt, dissemble,” was a rule that one editor cited. “Paradox: the best newspaper in the world can’t keep its bathrooms clean,” was another editor’s contribution. Each remark was written on the board for a total of thirty items. Frankel exploded “let’s not play stupid games. This is intellectually dishonest. This doesn’t represent what we think of ourselves.” (Ibid: 64)
When the facilitator suggested that they break up into small groups, “Frankel, cried out, “ ‘Stop all this mindless clamor for change, change, change! Let’s get specific. Let’s put the problems on the table and work to solve them.” (Ibid: 64) The result was that Frankel felt attacked and his subordinates embarrassed.
The reader familiar with group process can recognize what the facilitator was doing. When asked to discuss their values executives are frequently at a loss, because the discourse feels abstract, at one remove from the business issues and problems of work that motivate them daily. Facing then what was probably a passive if not wary group, the facilitator sought to create fireworks by exposing the paternal authority figure, in this case Frankel, to attack. This was the meaning of his question about the “rules of the road.” People in groups always feel ambivalent about the authority figure, even a “good” one. Their passion is for their work, so their appreciation for his leadership is always tinged with anger because of the resources they’ve been denied. It is these passions that establish the only sure foundation for intensity and heat. But of course, these passions, when first expressed, will initially increase the level of conflict between the two sides. As a result the facilitator is called upon to work at his “personal best.”
However, facilitators sometimes rely on this ambivalence, rarely with much awareness, to take an anti-Oedipal route. They mobilize an attack on the authority figure, the father, as if getting him out of the way were all that would be necessary for people to be able to do exactly what they desire. In so doing, they shortcut the more difficult task of helping people engage their passions for the work itself, within its real and necessary organizational limitations This is why Frankel exploded in frustration. Using the short cut described here, the facilitator thus avoids his own work. Ironically, when the group attacks the authority figure they feel regret and shame and then turn on the facilitator for exposing them to a regressed group process. Indeed, after the retreat group members felt angry with both the facilitator and Arthur, who after all had hired him, and with whom he was evidently identified.
This incident enacts in microcosm the important links between authority, work and passion. The facilitator distances himself from the passions associated with the work itself. As a result he withdraws from his own work of facilitating inter-group conflict. Lacking a harness for work, neither the facilitator nor the participants are engaged So the facilitator attacks authority, leading first to heat but later to feelings of shame.
These connections suggest that Sulzberger, with whom the facilitator was identified, insofar as he also attacked the principle of authority, was himself wary of engaging his subordinates around the passions associated with their work. In other words he was not ready to take on the paternal function. This again is why he shied away from being the “court of last resort” It represents the clash between the anti-Oedipal and the Oedipal dynamic. The movement against authority within the group has no apparent meaning beyond itself. It is an attack upon authority for the sake of an attack upon authority. And again, those who were invested in authority through the Oedipal dynamic felt attacked by it and hated it. Recall again what Frankel said: “let’s not play stupid games. This is intellectually dishonest. This doesn’t represent what we think of ourselves.”
Now, an argument of this sort may carry conviction to the psychoanalytic student of group process, but it may be less convincing to someone else, who may well say that a retreat is an artificial setting, and that what happens there may have nothing to do with what is going on in the organization as such. In this case, though, we are fortunate in being able to see these same dynamics play out in a group setting that was very much a part of the organization as such.
Howell Raines, the executive editor of the newspaper, held a town-hall meeting to discuss his handling of Jayson Blair. The meeting ended badly with the staff attacking Raines. But Sulzberger enacted the same role at this meeting – attacking the leader- that he supported at the retreat. After the meeting, participants complained that he did not convene the meeting with dignity. They described in harsh terms how Arthur conducted himself. As one participant asked,
Why hold a meeting where it was certain to become a spectacle. Or say, when asked his opinion of the situation, something as coarse and inarticulate as “it sucks?” Or not put on a necktie? Or worst of all, reach into a paper bag and take out a stuffed toy moose—apparently a tool out of some management manual, symbolizing the ‘moose in the room,’ that nobody wants to talk about, used to loosen things up –and hand it to a perplexed Raines? (Margolick: 2003, p. 143)
The participant is suggesting that Arthur behaved disrespectfully, in a manner not befitting his “office.” It is plausible that by behaving this way Sulzberger stimulated the participants to behave disrespectfully to Raines. After all, handing the moose to a perplexed Raines suggested that Raines was the fact that nobody wanted to talk about. He identified Raines as the father, and then authorized an attack against him. This may be why the participants’ fury was unchecked and what gave reporters license to complain about the Times and Raines on unrelated web sites- an assault that the family, as protector of the newspapers’ institutional standing, could hardly tolerate. This may also be why Maureen Dowd, a columnist for the Times, said that the attack on Raines reminded her of the novel, Lord of the Flies, in which young boys, in the absence of adult authority, form groups that engage in primitive and destructive acts (Ibid.). This suggests that the staff cried to express regret for their destructive, patricidal behavior, when Raines, at a subsequent meeting, announced his resignation.
The Intra-psychic Level
Whatever it is as a social psychology, psychoanalytic theory is certainly a theory about what is going on in the individual psyche. So we may look to find the same tensions within the minds of the individual members of the organization. We may think of this as the intra-psychic level of organizational analysis. Of most interest here is the mind of Jayson Blair.
In the course of the scandal, much attention was paid to Blair’s position as an affirmative action hire, who was kept in place in the pursuit of diversity goals, and whose shortcomings could not be mentioned because of political correctness. These are correct, and we will discuss this below. But leaving the matter there would miss out on another important dimension, and perhaps the most interesting. That was the significance of the experience in the mind of Jayson Blair.
There, to begin with, the anti-Oedipal dynamic is clearly evident. For example, he titles his memoir of the incident “Burning Down my Masters’ House,” (Blair, 2004) and he said in an interview shortly after his discovery: "So Jayson Blair the human being could live," he said, "Jayson Blair the journalist had to die." (Pappu, 2003).
It would be easy to think of this statement as having a political meaning; that he was asserting his black self against the inherent racism of the Times. But the statement he made immediately before this suggests that this political meaning is only part of it, and arguably the least interesting. He said:
"I was young at the New York Times," said Mr. Blair. "I (sic) under a lot of pressure. I was black at the New York Times, which is something that hurts you as much as it helps you. I certainly have health problems, which probably led to me having to kill Jayson Blair, the journalist. I was either going to kill myself or I was going to kill the journalist persona." (ibid)
But as his memoir makes plain, The health problems he was referring to were problems of self-esteem, which, he believed, derived from the pressure he was facing and which in turn, he felt, led to his alcoholism and drug addiction. But the pressure he was under came from the demands made on him by the Times. They arose from its paternal function.
It is clear from Blair’s memoir that these demands and pressures were not seen as part of its institutional nature. In Blair’s mind, the institutional position of the New York Times had no place. It was a sham and a charade. His primary experience of the Times seems to have been as an assault against his self-esteem. Blair saw the Times as the father, but this was a father defined within anti-Oedipal psychology, not Oedipal. This would be an illegitimate father; a father without the paternal function. The route to the ego ideal would not involve becoming like father, in the sense of working for the Times; rather, the Times was felt to be depriving him of the ego ideal. Others who worked for the Times were not models for emulation, but were the objects of his envy and resentment.
Consider his thoughts during the period when he was first being introduced to people as a regular employee, after having been at the Times as an intern:
“Good luck,” she added, beginning to turn away. “One more thing, Jayson. Congratulations on getting the chance to write for the Times.”
That pride, in some employees, emerged as snobbery and arrogance. The Times newsroom was a place where you could close your eyes, and in the words of one reporter, throw a ball and have a good chance of hitting an Ivy Leaguer who’d pretend not to know your name. This was much more apparent upon my re-entry, and even many of the people who were kind to me seemed infused with the notion the Times was made up of the smartest journalists working on the planet. (Blair, 2004: p. 96)
Blair is no doubt correct that Times journalists consider themselves the best journalists on the planet and that this is a source of great pride. This would come out of their participation in the shared belief in the singular institutional significance of the Times, and the belief that they were living up to it. But living up to it would mean living up to its demands. If those demands were not granted legitimacy and internalized they would be seen as impositions. One would feel no pride in living up to them. Pride on the part of others would appear anomalous and would not be seen to have a legitimate basis. For that reason, the Times journalists’ pride could only be seen as arrogance and personal affront. Here it is again:
My actions had tarnished the one thing that mattered to so many of them: the pride and respect they got for having their name on a Times business card and being able to mention at parties that they worked at the glorious New York Times. (Ibid: p.56)
In the absence of a perceived paternal function, the only legitimate function of the paper would be maternal: to love and take care of him. Failure to do that, as by making demands, would be seen as an act of badness on the organization’s part. Blair makes little allowance for the objective situation the Times faced in the disaster he caused. Consider this exchange, which took place after he had checked into a mental hospital as the scandal of his plagiarism was getting its first exposure:
A friend at the Times had tried to convince me to stay in the hospital at least until the May 11 story was published. The friend had also asked me ... whether I had considered helping the team of Times reporters on the story sort out some of the more murky details.
“I think you should consider it, Jayson. I mean, otherwise, the ramp-up from you being a troubled guy who made some mistakes to Journalistic Antichrist is about to jump from zero to fifty come Sunday.”
“Do you think they would be willing to wait for me to get out of the hospital?” I asked. “I really have to put my health first, and they are not ready to release me.”
“I totally understand that, but as a gesture of professional courtesy to your colleagues who have been asked to dig into the life of someone they sat by for several years, you might want to consider helping them. At least make sure they have covered all the problem stories,” he said.
“I don’t know, I have not even thought
about it yet,” I replied. “I have sort of blocked out the details of everything
apart from the
“Look, man, they shouldn’t let you dictate the timing of the story …”
“My health has to come first,” I interrupted…
I was exasperated.
“I am leaving whenever the doctors tell me to.”
Blair evidently does not believe that the Times’ necessities, which grow out of its paternal function, create legitimate demands. Instead, he seems to feel abused by them. The Times, should act as his mother, taking care of and nursing him in his pain.
According to our theory, the rejection of the father is, at the same time, the substantiation of the primitive fantasy of the return to primary narcissism. This is very much on view here. Blair is remarkably free in his expression of his fantasies.
I would call Zuza on her cell phone, and … she would secretly arrange for me to be picked up and taken somewhere no one would find me. She would visit me there, and hold me, comforting me as she had done over the past few days in a way I felt no hospital or medications could.
We would live happily ever after, traveling
to places like Africa and
This is a straightforward expression of the ego ideal: a fantasy of being with the perfect mother, a protector, a lover, someone who represents a world that revolves around Jayson with love, and in which Jason will only have to do what he wants and he will be loved for it.
Now, of course the ego ideal is critical in giving meaning to our lives, and whatever has meaning for us is associated with the ego ideal. What is interesting about Blair is not that he has an ego ideal, but that the ego ideal is tied to the escape from work. Work is not the pursuit of the ego ideal, but a barrier to its attainment. Evidently, Blair held the Times responsible for depriving him of the ego ideal, in just the same way that the infant saw the father as depriving us of our intimate connection with mother.
This leads to the view that Blair saw his plagiarism as a kind of retaliation. This is suggested by his lack of remorse, and by an apparent joy and pride as the scandal started to unfold. This is best seen in the interview he gave to the New York Observer:
"That was my
favorite," Jayson Blair said. It was the morning of Monday, May 19, and
the disgraced former NYT reporter was curled in a butterfly chair in his
Mr. Blair hadn't gone to
That was a lie. In the Times' lengthy May 11 account of Mr. Blair's long trail of deception, it reported that "the porch overlooks no such thing."
Mr. Blair found this funny.
"The description was just so far off from reality," he said. "The way they described it in the Times story-someone read a portion of it for me. I just couldn't stop laughing."
Through his rise, he made mistakes-a lot of them. Most, he said, were the result of the usual forces: bad information from the police, deadline pressure. And yet Mr. Blair felt that he deserved to keep on climbing. He grew frustrated with the metro grind, and admitted he became a problem in the newsroom. He claimed he was assigned to "idiot" editors and, as a result, "began to act out." He started being frequently absent and unavailable, he said, in a "misguided attempt to punish them." (Ibid.)
The Interpersonal Level
We will turn in a moment to the institutional level of analysis, but before doing so there is a matter on the interpersonal level that comes up in connection with Blair’s belief that the Times should mother him, which was that it was evidently shared by others.
The conversation Blair held from the hospital continued with this:
We ended the conversation with the atypical “I love yous” that men do not normally share among themselves, and agreed to disagree.
What is fascinating here are the “I love yous.” They suggest that Blair’s colleague emotionally backed him, even while expressing the Times’ position. If Blair is to be believed on this, it was characteristic of the employee response. That this would be true of his friends may not be surprising, although their closeness could easily have led to feelings of betrayal. But it seems to have been true even of those without a close personal relationship with him. For example, this is from Blair’s report of a phone call from Zuza, his girlfriend, after Blair had resigned in the face of mounting evidence of his transgressions:
“The strangest thing just happened. Gerald Boyd [then the Times managing editor] called me and told me to leave work.”
“What?” I asked.
“He told me to leave work and go find you, to be with you, that you would need me. And then he came up to my desk and asked me to go find you.” (Blair, 2004: p.27)
Thus, Blair thought of himself as having been wounded by the demands of the Times and his colleagues, and even superiors, at the Times responded to him on that basis. Their response was maternal. They wanted to take care of him.
It is striking that Blair’s colleagues at the Times would back him emotionally. The premise of our multilevel analysis suggests that we may find the same form of meaning at the level of the organization, to which we now turn.
The Organizational Level
The most striking feature of the Blair story is the extraordinary leniency shown Blair throughout his tenure at the Times. In November of 1999 shortly after his hire he was assigned to police work but told his reporting was sloppy. In the fall of 2000, as the Times own investigation of the Blair incident noted that ““Many newsroom colleagues say he also did brazen things, including delighting in showing around copies of confidential Times documents.” In January of 2001 the metropolitan editor, Mr. Landman, opposed Blair’s promotion to full time reporter, but he did not protest the move, because as he said later, “The publisher and the executive editor, he said, had made clear the company’s commitment to diversity¾‘and properly so”. In September of 2001 he wrote an article sufficiently laden with errors that it “required a correction so extensive that it attracted the attention of the new executive editor, Howell Raines." In January 2002, the metropolitan editor sent Mr. Blair “a sharply worded evaluation, noting that his correction rate was ‘extraordinarily high by the standards of the paper’. He forwarded copies of that evaluation to two senior editors along with a note that read, ‘There’s big trouble I want you both to be aware of.’” In April 2002 the same metropolitan editor sent off “a two-sentence e-mail message to newsroom administrators that read: ‘we have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.’” And the next day “[Blair] received a letter of reprimand and took a brief leave.” Later that month, after agitating to get away from the metropolitan desk the metropolitan editor “reluctantly signed off on a plan to send Mr. Blair to the sports department, although he recalled warning the sports editor: ‘If you take Jayson, be careful.’” (Barry, et al., 2003)
events set the stage for his promotion! He was moved to the national desk and
asked to help cover the sniper case in
This extraordinary flow of events begs for explanation. We know how deeply ingrained the concept of the newspaper of record” is for reporters at the New York Times. What powerful counter-idea could possibly lead them to betray the institution they so valued? We offer an explanation from the standpoint of anti-Oedipal psychology.
We can examine anti-Oedipal psychology at the organizational level by looking at the dynamic of “political correctness.” As we have argued, political correctness (PC) is built around the image of maternal omnipotence and perfect benevolence, and around the rejection of the father, who is seen as having stolen the mother’s love. The rules of PC, then, are that the father, identified as the white, heterosexual male, is to be hated, vilified and denigrated. Those who are members of defined victim groups, are entitled to be loved as compensation for the love he has stolen. The benevolence of the mother, and the contrasting malevolence of the father, give these dynamics the aspect of a moral struggle between the forces of goodness and those of badness.
What we can see from this is that the organization’s function is redefined. On one hand, in manifesting the attack upon the father the organization turns against itself: against its hierarchy, as we have seen, and against the meaning of its work and its place within the paternal function. On the other hand, in its capacity as benevolent and loving mother, offering her love as compensation for that of which victims have been deprived, it takes on the role of a nurturer of victims: those outside and those within.
In the Oedipal dynamic, Blair’s plagiarism and fabrication were real sins, in that they undermined the Times’ responsibilities within the paternal function, which defined the meaning of the Times. In the anti-Oedipal dynamic, however, Blair’s sins were reduced to minor transgressions, explainable as responses to the Times oppressive, unreasonable demands. Another meaning of the Times had emerged. .In this new meaning, its role was to love Blair for the suffering he was subjected to by -- the New York Times.
But notice that, redefined in this way, the meaning of work has nothing to do with the necessities of maintaining the organization. The focus of people’s attention becomes the moral features of the organization itself, without regard to the work it has been established to do, and the value it provides to customers and clients.
For example, when he first took the publisher role Sulzberger told a journalist “that his greatest challenge will be to bring more racial diversity and sexual equality to the paper. (Auletta, 1993: 60) What is striking about this statement is that Sulzberger did not say that his most serious challenge was to sustain the quality and excellence of the Times while creating profits for the Times’ company. Yet, if he failed in this goal, the Times would ultimately go out of business and the goal of seeking diversity would be immaterial.
Similarly, in 2001 at the convention of the National Association of Black Journalists, Raines mentioned Blair in reference to the Times’ effort to “spot and hire the best and brightest reporters on the way up, saying, “This campaign has made our staff better and, more importantly, more diverse.” (Raines, 2003) Again, this statement reflects the redefinition: a diverse staff has become more important than a better staff.
We suggest that this transformation of meaning created the conditions for Jayson Blair’s fraudulent activities. We can look at this in the context of a shift from “affirmative action,” as a strategy for insuring that minorities have an equal chance to succeed, to “diversity,” which by contrast is a moral description of the organization itself.
action was conceived initially as a strategy that would give minorities and
women an equal opportunity to be recruited and promoted. In this sense
affirmative action is an entirely pragmatic undertaking; it lives and dies on
thoughtfully executed plans. It certainly has a moral component, but this
component is grounded in the eminently practical idea of fairness (
By contrast diversity is a moral category, a category for describing the ideal organization. The term “diversity” can mean either “diverse personalities,” “diverse ethnic groups” or “diverse victim groups” (Schwartz, 2002). The emotional weight of diversity derives from the last of these, so that diversity means that the organization is a mechanism for repairing past injustices. On its face this might not seem to be such a great demand to make on organizations, but for the simple fact that the victim groups in question have fewer members who can compete for the most demanding jobs. This is after all one mark of their victim status, for example their education is inadequate. (Thernstrom and Thernstrom, 1999) Thus the moral category of diversity sets up a tension between a commitment to the work of the organization and its moral standing. The problem is that the moral categorization in this case trumps the pragmatic because, through political correctness, it subjects the pragmatist to the charge of being a bad person. Even bringing matters up that are important to the business makes one morally suspect. In other words, political correctness has organizational consequences. It becomes a part of the organization’s decision making process.
At a crucial meeting, Blair was promoted to the position of full time staff reporter “with the consensus of a recruiting committee of roughly half a dozen people headed by Gerald M. Boyd, then a deputy managing editor, and the approval of Mr. Lelyveld.” Yet, “the metropolitan editor (Landman) was opposed but ‘wasn't asked so much as told" about Mr. Blair's promotion.’ He also emphasized that he did not protest the move. The publisher and the executive editor, he said, had made clear the company's commitment to diversity – ‘and properly so,’ he said. (Barry, et al., 2003)
One way of understanding this repression is to imagine what Landman fantasized would happen if he shared his doubts. This may appear to be a somewhat reckless method for making inferences, but on the other side, we suggest that in matters of race we all share a common and deeply held set of preoccupations so that we can enter into each other’s minds. In this spirit, we suggest that Landman imagined that were he to call attention to Blair’s incompetence he would be thought a racist. Why should this prospect disturb him, particularly if he believes it is not true? There is an irony here. Wrestling with the tradeoff between excellence and diversity stimulates in people’s mind the very racial idea that diversity programs purport to eliminate. Making exceptions for blacks means that they cannot measure up. So one reason Landman might fear being thought a racist, is because at that moment he was in fact having thoughts that would, under the regime of political correctness, be regarded as racist.
But what prevented Landman from addressing this dilemma? Why can’t he say for example, “I know we might be touching on the sensitive issues of racism here, which I am perfectly prepared to address, but I think Blair is a danger to the Times.” This imagined statement points to the problem. Landman cannot assume that people are perfectly prepared to address thoughts about race. The psychological strain imposed by political correctness is that the racial thoughts that are stimulated are simultaneously repressed. They are placed under a taboo.
The result of taboos is that people are unable to make meaning together on objective terms, even on issues that deeply concern them. This helps explain why the editorial community at the Times could never come together to create a shared picture of Blair’s frauds, and their implications. The taboo undermined such meaning making. It made objective understanding, the paternal function, impossible.
The paternal function is the guardian of realistic thinking. When it is weakened, people are more likely to act on the basis of their wishes and fantasies rather than on the basis of the actual opportunities and threats they face. Thus, Landman says he thought that Blair seemed to be making the mistakes of a beginner and was still demonstrating great promise: "I thought he was going to make it." (Barry, et al., 2003) But since Landman had first hand knowledge of Blair’s performance and became increasingly alarmed by it soon after Blair’s promotion, it appears that his hope for Blair did not arise from what he saw, but from what he wished to see.
The mental tension imposed by diversity is finally resolved when the black person can be thought of as a victim. This achieves three objectives; the black person’s poor performance can now be acknowledged -- they perform poorly because they have been victimized. The black person need not be held accountable for his or her actions, and therefore the white person need not be held accountable for failing to hold the black person accountable. This landscape of irresponsibility is another reason why Blair was never fired.
Organization and environment
The last level we will discuss involves the relationship between the organization, seen as a whole, and its environment. Within Oedipal psychology, this relationship is seen as a pattern of transactions, in which the organization produces something that the environment values, for which the environment supports the organization. These are objective relationships. As we saw earlier, the Times has a special relationship within them by being, in its paternal function, an important guarantor of objectivity, and hence a bulwark of the understanding that makes our society possible. This, however, is within the Oedipal framework. Throughout this paper, though, we have argued that a shift is taking place toward an anti-Oedipal orientation, in which the Times comes to function, not as a father, but as a mother, loving those who have been deprived of love in the past and hating the father who has been the cause of that deprivation.
At the organization/environment level of analysis, one would look for this transformation in the work that the organization does; in the nature of its product. A shift from the paternal to the maternal would be represented by a shift in the Times reporting from the representation of objective facts to advocacy. What is more, the advocacy would involve support for those seen as downtrodden and vituperation against the paternal function, against the father whose claim that there is an objective structure is seen as itself an agency for his oppression. Charges that such a shift has taken place have certainly been made, not only against the Times but against much of the mainstream media. Such charges have been denied by people speaking for the media. For example:
“Our greatest accomplishment as a profession is the development since
World War II of a news reporting craft that is truly non-partisan, and nonideological, and that strives to be independent of undue commercial or
governmental influence....It is that legacy we must protect with our diligent
stewardship. To do so means we must be aware of the energetic effort that is
now underway to convince our readers that we are ideologues. It is an
exercise of, in disinformation, of alarming proportions. This attempt to
convince the audience of the world’s most ideology-free newspapers that
they’re being subjected to agenda-driven news reflecting a liberal bias. I
don’t believe our viewers and readers will be, in the long-run, misled by
those who advocate biased journalism.”
– New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines accepting the “George
Beveridge Editor of the Year Award” at a National Press Foundation dinner
shown live on C-SPAN2 February 20, 2003.
“…when it comes to free publicity, some of the major broadcast media are
simply biased in favor of the Republicans, while the rest tend to blur
differences between the parties. But that’s the way it is. Democrats should
complain as loudly about the real conservative bias of the media as the
Republicans complain about its entirely mythical bias…”
--Paul Krugman, “Into the Wilderness,” New York Times, November 8,
2002. (Both cited in Groseclose and Milyo, 2005)
However, validating or invalidating
that charge is within the capacity of social science. In fact, such a study was
undertaken by Groseclose and Milyo
(op cit.). They examined the citation patterns in media news stories of
various politically-oriented think tanks. They compared these with the citation
patterns of various members of congress, whose location on the
liberal-conservative dimension had been estimated by the Americans for
Democratic Action. This allowed them to estimate
Our results show a strong liberal bias: all of the news outlets we examine, except Fox News’ Special Report and the Washington Times, received scores to the left of the average member of Congress. Consistent with claims made by conservative critics, CBS Evening News and the New York Times received scores far to the left of center… All of our findings refer strictly to news content; that is, we exclude editorials, letters, and the like. (1191)
In fact, “The New York Times is slightly more than twice as far from the center as [Fox News] Special Report. (1222)
To be sure, this is only one study, but our purposes do not require its conclusive verification. For one thing, the liberal-conservative dimension explored in the study is not the same thing as the distinction between the Oedipal and the anti-oedipal, though the two are no doubt related. More importantly, our claim is not that the Times is monolithically one-sided. It is rather that the Times is the site of a contestation between the Oedipal and the anti-oedipal, with the suggestion that the paper is moving in the latter direction.
Our purpose here, then is to show representations of the anti-oedipal, and of the trend in that direction, leaving the question of relative balance for another occasion. We rely here on the work of journalist Heather McDonald (2000), who has studied the NYT and has made observations that are relevant in this regard. We will address two of them.
The anti-oedipal tendency within the Times news coverage is represented in MacDonald’s discussion of the treatment it gave to the shooting of a man named Amadou Diallo by officers of the New York City Police Department. Diallo, an African immigrant was killed in a fusillade of gunfire -- forty-one rounds were fired – when police thought he had a gun.
There was never any doubt that the shooting was both tragic and unintentional. What was interesting was that the Times, beginning the next day, massively played up the matter as being an outcome of the crackdown on crime that had been instituted by the regime of Mayor Rudy Giuliani:
The day after the shooting, the Times
announced its theme: “ELITE
FORCE QUELLS CRIME, BUT AT A COST, CRITICS SAY." Ten days
later, the front page put it more bluntly: “SUCCESS OF ELITE POLICE FORCE UNIT EXACTS A TOLL ON
THE STREETS." Four days after that, another front-page
article declared: “AFTER
THE SHOOTING, AN ERODING TRUST IN THE POLICE” (big surprise,
given the paper’s nonstop allegations of widespread police brutality); an op-ed
article the same day by a lawyer who makes his living suing the police
CRIME STATISTICS COME AT A PRICE." Two days later, a
front-page article in the Sunday Week in Review announced: "BEHIND POLICE BRUTALITY,
PUBLIC ASSENT." A later article was headlined: "IN TWO MINORITY NEIGHBORHOODS,
RESIDENTS SEE A PATTERN OF HOSTILE STREET SEARCHES." The
burden of the series was that the Street Crime Unit stops minorities for
"no reason," creating terrible fear and resentment in the streets.
Uproariously, the paper even suggested that African immigrants are in greater
In the first two months after the shooting, according to Mac Donald, the Times averaged 3.7 articles a day, many of them supporting charges of police brutality, supposedly exemplified by the Diallo shooting. But the claim of a culture of police abuse was hard to make in any objective fashion:
Every available fact about the New York Police Department (NYPD) shows how atypical the Diallo shooting was. After three years of steady decline, the cops’ use of deadly force was far lower last year than in 1993, the final year of Mayor David Dinkins’s administration, currently hailed as a paradigm of peace. In 1998, less than 1 percent of the department used their weapons, 2 percent below the 1993 number. Shootings per officer dropped 67 percent from 1993 to 1998. Most impressively, even as police interaction with criminals has risen precipitously since the Dinkins administration, and even as the department has grown by 36 percent, both the absolute number of police killings and the rate of fatalities per officer have fallen, In 1993, the police made 266,313 arrests and killed 23 people, compared with 1998’s 403,659 arrests and 19 people killed. In 1990, one year into the allegedly golden Dinkins era, there were two and a half times more fatal shootings per officer than now, while, of course, New Yorkers were being murdered by civilians in record numbers.
Today’s NYPD also looks restrained
compared with the cops in other cities. Last year,
Much of the criticism was directed against the police “stop and frisk” policy, which was claimed to have been directed against minorities. But, says MacDonald:
A preliminary analysis of stop-and—frisk records in over twenty precincts last year disproves the charge that the police single out minorities for investigation. In fact, police frisk blacks at a lower rate than their representation in I.D.s by crime victims. Victims identified 71 percent of their assailants as black, but only 63 percent of all people frisked were black (and only 68 percent of all arrestees were black). Since the majority of crime is committed by minorities against minorities, inevitably the subjects of frisks will be minorities, too. (218-19)
Nor is the claim of “universal fear” of the police easy to
make stick. MacDonald quotes a Justice Department study indicating that 77
What are we to make of the enormous discrepancy between the Times’ charges and the facts, many of them reported in the Times itself? Psychoanalytic theory is comfortable with such discrepancies. It sees them as a result of projection. The Times is seeing what it needs and wants to see. And when the facts do not support this picture, the Times fills it in. The meanings that the Times claims to find in the events are not in the events at all, but have been placed there by the Times in accordance with the way it sees things. To get an idea of how they see things, then, we may look at the meanings they imposed on these events. And what was that?
The most important thing about the Times’ interpretation of events is the implicit identification between the minority community and lawbreakers in that community. Objectively, the law enforcement procedures are not racially biased; they are biased against criminals. The racism that the Times sees exists only in its imagination, and it must be that within that imagination there is an identification between the two.
As we have seen, the law is the most important and most characteristic product of the paternal function. But the objectivity of the paternal function has disappeared here. The law is not seen as objective, but as racist and oppressive in its essence, as being specifically directed against the minority community. That the Times is taking a maternal stand in defense of the minority community cannot be doubted. This, evidently, is an outcome of the way they see themselves. But, more interestingly, this maternal stand is directed against the law itself; through its excessive and biased coverage the Times has made itself an actor in this morality play. Here again, and in a very direct form, we see the functioning of the anti-Oedipal dynamic.
In a second case, this time illustrating the trend toward the anti-oedipal, MacDonald looked at a feature of the NYT that has been in existence for almost a hundred years: the annual Neediest Cases Fund (formerly the 100 Neediest Cases). This is a program in which the Times tells the stories of individuals in the city who they believe are extremely needy and require charity. MacDonald has observed that, over time, a number of shifts have taken place in the rhetoric of the program. For one thing, the appeal is no longer directed at individuals who are being asked to make individual contributions, but rather as an appeal for support for greater spending by the public agencies that, it appears to be assumed, are the proper vehicles for the administration of charity.
Another thing, and perhaps more interesting, is that in the past, the appeal for charity was asserted based on the premise that the needy individuals have struggled valiantly against their condition, but that, due to no fault on their part, their struggles have not been sufficient. However, she notes, since the sixties, the appeal has made no mention of any struggle on their own behalf, but has simply presented the need of such individuals as a sufficient justification for relief.
As she puts it:
The prototypical needy case in the first decades of the appeal was a struggling widow or plucky orphan; today’s is more likely to be a single mother of five who finds her welfare check inadequate. This change reflects one of the century’s most momentous cultural developments: the transformation of elite opinion regarding poverty and need. The elite once held the poor to the same standards of behavior that it set for itself: moral character determined the strength of a person’s claim for assistance. Those who worked and struggled and yet were overwhelmed by adversity deserved help; the idle and dissolute did not. Over time, though, elite opinion came to see the cause of poverty not in individual character and behavior but in vast, impersonal social and economic forces that supposedly determined individual fate. In response, need became the sole criterion for aid, with moral character all but irrelevant.
One can agree or disagree with MacDonald’s evaluation of this movement, but if it is as she describes, it represents a change of perspective corresponding to the transformation from oedipal self restraint to the exclusive appeal to the maternal that underlies the anti-oedipal.
Psychoanalytic theory provides a context for doing a multilevel analysis by focusing on meaning. The goal of this kind of analysis is to show how a single meaning is expressed and ramified at many levels. The links between behaviors, for example Landman’s reluctance to speak, Sulzberger’s attack on Frankel at the executive retreat, Raines’ speech at the National Association of Black Journalists and Blair’s sabotage, are connected not by a series of input-output relationships but by their shared relationship to a single meaning. The power of this approach to multi level analysis is that the events we described do not need to be connected in time and space. The events do not stand in a relationship of cause and effect to each other but rather in relationship to a shared symbolic context. Meaning itself is by definition immaterial; it has neither length, weight, nor color. Rather it has presence only in the mind. But since minds can share meaning, the condition for coordinated action across many levels is established.
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 The development of the concepts of the ego ideal and the superego took place during a period in which Freud’s thought was developing and his usages were not entirely consistent. For example, at some times Freud treats the ego ideal and superego as separate agencies, while at others, he sees the ego ideal as part of the superego. For a comprehensive sorting out of these developments, see Laplanche and Pontalis (1974) and Chasseguet-Smirgel (1985). Our treatment of the overall picture follows Chasseguet-Smirgel’s and has been employed elsewhere (Schwartz, 1992, 2003).