26 Comments


  • Great discussion, especially now. I worked as a reporter for a few years, both daily and weekly, and have worked in journalism for my entire career. I’d make a few short points:

    • Bad news sells. So does sensationalism. Most people, faced with a choice between HEADLESS BODY FOUND IN TOPLESS BAR and U.S. ACTION BARS RIGHTS OF SOME CAPTURED IN IRAQ, will read the bar story first. Myself included. As Bob points out, which story is going to inspire most people to say “Did you see…” to their friends? News reflects what we care about.
    • Reliable news reporting is out there. Despite the crimes of Judith Miller, the Times has done some great reporting in Iraq and elsewhere. The Journal (I admit to bias, since I work there) has run outstanding work by reporters who’ve risked (and in one case, lost) their lives to do reporting on the ground and discover truth that was not available at the briefing centers. The fact that nobody wants to read the truth is not the reporters’ fault.
    • Lazy reporting is, unfortunately, also out there, and way too common. Far too many reporters become too close to their subjects. This is especially true of reporters on the campaign trail; books like The Boys On the Bus give a glimpse of what really goes on, and is not reported. But I believe this is also a reflection of our values; the reporter who would dare to point out that the candidates are wearing no clothes would face the same reaction as someone at McDonalds telling everyone how unhealthy the food is. People get not only the government, but also the journalism, they deserve.
    October 26, 2004
  • Wonderful job! Bravo!

    I imagine it took a great deal of restraint to write this without sounding preachy. Even those of us with the best intentions can be intellectually lazy when it comes to news sources. Personally, I expect (wrongly) a certain amount of passive reception from print journalism – suck it in, spit it out, and punch your card for the day. Your piece was a gentle shake back to reality.

    There is no natural law that says everything should be comprehensible just because we want it to be so has to be one of the most needed-to-be-said comments I’ve heard recently.

    October 27, 2004
  • If the New York Post reports that John Lennon, Elvis Presley and Karen Carpenter are giving a concert in Central Park, you can reasonably assume that the Post is, in this case, unreliable.

    Or, to concoct a more incredible scenario, if they reported that John Kerry would choose Dick Gephart as his running mate in the 2004 presidential election.

    October 27, 2004
  • That’s an excellent summary, Bob. Your whole take on understanding and interpreting news reporting makes me think of a hologram — even if you only have a small piece of it, you’ll always get some picture of the world out of it. But the more or bigger pieces you have, the sharper your picture of the world becomes.

    October 27, 2004
  • Lazy reporting is, unfortunately, also out there, and way too common. Far too many reporters become too close to their subjects…

    Good point. John Miller, the former reporter for WABC News and now head of the LAPD’s Homeland Security unit, is the poster child for reporters who get too close to their subjects. He went from being a cops reporter, to a flack for the NYPD, to a cop in Los Angeles.

    But yes, lazy reporting and so-called pack journalism are some of the many things I didn’t bring up, lest this essay become an online novel. Another whole essay by itself would be the influence of corporate ownership on reporting.

    October 27, 2004
  • Wonderful job! Bravo!

    I’d like to thank the little people: they were delicious!

    I imagine it took a great deal of restraint to write this without sounding preachy.

    Well, I’m glad it didn’t sound preachy to you, but I’m afraid preachy is my default here: it’s a hard habit to break. In any case, I’m glad you liked the essay.

    October 27, 2004
  • …if they reported that John Kerry would choose Dick Gephart as his running mate…

    Ha! Of course I was thinking of that infamous front page while I was writing about the Post. If Jayson Blair was writing for the New York Post, instead of the Times, he’d be the managing editor today.

    October 27, 2004
  • Thanks! Yes, good analogy: past a certain point, understanding of the news (of the world, for that matter) is holographic.

    October 27, 2004
  • past a certain point

    Right you are. The guy in Bumfuck, North Dakota, who’s never read a book but the Bible and never ventured farther than the roadhouse down I-90 probably sees a flat earth when he looks at his tiny, tiny piece of the hologram.

    October 27, 2004
  • There’s a nicely optimistic conclusion to that Slate article you reference:

    The Blair revelations should distress everybody who creates or consumes copy. How many prevaricators lurk out there? But the wrong takeaway from the Blair-Cooke-Glass-Forman disasters is to assume that young people can’t be trusted to report. Instead (and how about this for drawing a happy face in a mound of manure?), their sordid experiences in the journalism trade indicate that so many young people get caught making stuff up because you can’t get away with it for very long. Journalism ain’t perfect, but it loves to eat its sinners.

    We might add CBS News to this list now, though for slightly different reasons.

    October 27, 2004
  • Yup, that’s the guy I was thinking of, Bill. Beware of a man of one book.

    October 27, 2004
  • Yes, journalism, like science, can be self-correcting, assuming there’s enough outlets to provide a diversity of opinion. When all there is in a given market is the Times-Reporter Morning Globe Telegraph (think of the cartoon of the giant fish in the bowl who’s eaten all the smaller fish), the editors might not have the same impetus to print corrections.

    October 27, 2004
  • Or two, if one of them is My Pet Goat.

    October 28, 2004
  • Interesting stuff. You make some good points.

    Ergo, many people avoid news like the plague.

    Those people are in the minority.

    I never said they were in the majority. And frankly, a TV news station wouldn’t care about losing viewers by using a certain tactic if they ended up gaining more. I do think those who choose not to watch news because of the unpleasantness and sensationalism are not a small minority. They’re just outnumbered by those TV news draws instead.

    Plus I think news stations just give up on a certain percentage of the population, figuring nothing will glue us to our TV-watching chairs for the news. And I think some percentage of that percentage could be lured back if what we saw wasn’t so Hollywood-style blow-em-up info-tainmenty.

    At some point we have to concede that the fault doesn’t lie wholly with the media: that there are a LOT of Americans out there who’d rather believe comforting lies than difficult truths; people who are intellectually lazy and comfortable in their biases.

    This is quite true. I’d like to submit, however, that for some people, it’s not laziness but deep dread and unease that keeps us from delving into the news. It can be difficult to let yourself be smacked in the head every day with how awful things are, and that’s mostly what you hear on the news.

    Which still means we’re getting the news, and government, that we deserve, eternal vigilance being the price of freedom. But “laziness” is an easy label, and not always the right one.

    October 28, 2004
  • And what exactly is wrong with the riveting tale of My Pet Goat?

    October 28, 2004
  • But “laziness” is an easy label, and not always the right one.

    You’re right, and I hope you’re not taking this whole discussion personally. But if I had to guess, I’d say intellectual laziness is a much more common reason for avoiding the news than squeamishness. NASCAR isn’t wildly popular because people are entranced by cars driving in big circles.

    Having said that, I’ve often thought that I’m not a happier person for being such a news junkie. And I know one well-regarded SF writer, a former journalist, who doesn’t read the papers anymore because it drives her to distraction.

    But you can’t blame “bad” news on the media. If news organizations aren’t allowed to photograph coffins arriving at Dover A.F.B. from Iraq, it doesn’t mean the 1,100-plus troops aren’t dead, or that we shouldn’t know about it.

    October 28, 2004
  • Anonymous

    Very enjoyable piece of writing, Bob. One of the things the ELA teacher and I try to do at work it to make the children aware, even at their early age, of the importance of the “source” of their info. Most are slaves to TV news and save the papers for cartoons and horoscopes. BTW, I have the bootleg of that Lennon, Presley, Carpenter show.

    Bill

    October 28, 2004
  • Thanks, Bill.

    I try to do at work it to make the children aware, even at their early age, of the importance of the “source” of their info.

    Yeah, it’s an idea that should transcend party lines: that good decisions are at least partly made on the basis of objective information.

    You’ll have to burn a CD of that show for me: I hear they did a great extended jam of “A Little Less Conversation.”

    October 28, 2004
  • I hope you’re not taking this whole discussion personally.

    Nah. Just continuing the conversation. Didn’t think I’d go down without a fight, did you?

    It is true that the media, like any other creature, adapts to the circumstances that benefit it most. Survival of the fittest. So if we want different media, we have to make it worth their while, we have to apply the pressure. Plus we have to do something about appalling Big Brother administrations that shut down the very fundamental freedoms this country was founded on.

    October 28, 2004
  • It is true that the media, like any other creature, adapts to the circumstances that benefit it most. Survival of the fittest.

    Yes, but that’s not exactly what I mean about blaming the media for bad news: there’s an objective reality out there that exists whether the media reports on it or not. Frankly, I find it a scarier world in which the media, responding to consumer pressure, ignores “bad” news in favor of “good” news.

    October 29, 2004
  • Yes, but that’s not exactly what I mean about blaming the media for bad news: there’s an objective reality out there that exists whether the media reports on it or not.

    True. This is what I was alluding to when speaking of Big Brother administrations shutting down fundamental freedoms.

    I think both pieces (and more) are at work: going for the sexier story, and inappropriate governmental controls.

    October 29, 2004
  • Anonymous

    Nah, the encore was better: a cover of Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died.”

    Bill

    October 30, 2004
  • In thinking more about this, I’ve realized a couple of things that I wanted to add to this conversation.

    Maybe it’s just a June Cleaver pipe dream, but I have the sense that a couple of decades ago, journalistic integrity prevented outright partisanship or pandering, except in clearly defined editorials. These days, the news seems blatantly market-driven. A lot of my questions and complaints have to do with this notion that there used to be reliable news sources that everyone agreed had integrity and solid, even-handed research.

    Part of what troubles me now is that no matter what the news source, one side or the other will automatically dismiss it: Fox News, Alternet.org, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, whatever. The only news source I’m aware of that deals openly with the questions of bipartisan evaluation of information is Factcheck.org, and their focus is quite narrow.

    Are there any news sources that are universally regarded as having integrity and solid facts? Is there anything both/all sides of the political spectrum can agree is a source you can trust? I’m not talking unanimous, and I’m not talking 100% of the time. I’m just talking about how you used to be able to turn on the news and at least believe that you could trust what Dan Rather or Walter Cronkite said.

    Are we just savvier and more cynical now about a skewed process that has always existed? Have things really changed in the past 20-30 years? Where can I go read something that I can point my conservative friends to, and neither of us will have a knee-jerk “those guys are spin doctors” reaction?

    October 31, 2004
  • Are there any news sources that are universally regarded as having integrity and solid facts? Is there anything both/all sides of the political spectrum can agree is a source you can trust?

    I think the short answer is no. And I think universally trusted is probably a myth. You mention, for example, Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite: during the Vietnam war, Rather was perceived as an enemy of the administration by Nixon, and was decidedly part of the “liberal pinko” press according to conservatives. While Cronkite enjoyed more esteem with the general public, he was neither universally beloved nor esteemed.

    The United States Army has an institutional dislike of the press, which it blames for “losing” the Vietnam war. The Army, and like-minded conservatives, subscribe to the notion that if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, then there is no sound. This is the mindset of banana republic dictators. During World War II the press was heavily censored, and news organizations by and large synchronized their coverage to the administration’s party line. Korea was a little less restrictive, but it wasn’t until Vietnam that the press was really free to come and go from anyplace it could reach, and report on everything they saw. It was the first time since the Civil War, I think, that Americans really saw what war was like. (And during the Civil War they saw it mostly in the South, where the battles were fought.)

    I think that the mainstream press (the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, etc…) is probably as balanced as it’s ever been. The Times, accused perennially of a liberal bias, was unmerciful in its pursuit of chimerical wrongdoing in the Whitewater case, and bought the current administration’s line of WMDs in Iraq hook, line, sinker, rod, reel, and boat. (They’ve admitted to being too-easily led down the garden path on WMDs, but have yet to really own up to the ridiculous coverage of the Whitewater case.)

    What you could say about the Times, and other news organizations of its kind, is that they have a fact-based bias. They make mistakes, of course, but they try to correct them, and try to offer their readers the best approximation of objective reality that they can.

    The problem isn’t that mainstream news organizations are more biased, but that the American public is more polarized, less well-educated, gets less of its information from newspapers and rather more from television and the execrable barking heads of talk radio.

    Where can I go read something that I can point my conservative friends to, and neither of us will have a knee-jerk “those guys are spin doctors” reaction?

    Nowhere. The truth is out there, as Mulder would say, but if your friends don’t want to hear it, they won’t. On the other side of the aisle you have Fox News, the Washington Times, and other overtly biased publications. They are still, despite numerous reports and fitful concessions by administration officials notwithstanding, insisting that Iraq had WMDs and connections to Al Qaeda. I don’t know if you caught it, but the conservative British magazine The Economist recently endorsed John Kerry for president. The response of Bush supporters? “Mind your own business you limey bastards!” (For what it’s worth, I think has an interesting take on the endorsement.)

    I keep coming back to this point, but I think it’s a valid one: Americans have a deep strain of anti-intellectualism and evangelical fervor, both of which work against a regard for the mainstream press, which operates (at its best) under the rules of empiricism and evidence that Western Culture has paid lip service to since the Enlightenment. Americans, of course, are not the only people so afflicted, but we’re talking about U.S. News coverage here.

    October 31, 2004
  • PS—The Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland has a handful of interesting studies, which you can find at its web page. The following quote is from its report on “The Separate Realities of Bush and Kerry Supporters.”

    Even after the final report of Charles Duelfer to Congress saying that Iraq did not have a significant WMD program, 72% of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq had actual WMD (47%) or a major program for developing them (25%). Fifty-six percent assume that most experts believe Iraq had actual WMD and 57% also assume, incorrectly, that Duelfer concluded Iraq had at least a major WMD program. Kerry supporters hold opposite beliefs on all these points.

    Similarly, 75% of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda, and 63% believe that clear evidence of this support has been found. Sixty percent of Bush supporters assume that this is also the conclusion of most experts, and 55% assume, incorrectly, that this was the conclusion of the 9/11 Commission. Here again, large majorities of Kerry supporters have exactly opposite perceptions.

    October 31, 2004
  • The Definition of News

    This late-breaking thread courtesy of the BBC:

    Man bites dog (and a policeman)

    Police say an officer and his dog were bitten by a man resisting arrest in Kansas City.

    Officer David Magruder tried to arrest the man, suspected of dodging a cab fare, early on Friday morning.

    The man began to punch Mr Magruder, who then released police dog “Soty” from the patrol vehicle using a remote control, a local newspaper reported.

    Soty bit the man, who then bit back, according to police, nearly taking off the dog’s ear. He also bit Mr Magruder.

    The fight is said to have finally ended when support officers arrived on the scene and used a Taser stun gun to subdue the suspect.

    The dog’s ear had to be stitched back on by a vet, but he has lost a small piece, according to the Kansas City Star newspaper, which carried the story.

    Mr Magruder also received bite injuries and was treated in hospital.

    “I’ve had people fight my dog before, but not bite him,” Mr Magruder told the Kansas City Star.

    The suspect has been charged with stealing, resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer.

    Story from BBC NEWS:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/americas/4009567.stm

    Published: 2004/11/13 18:45:19 GMT

    ยฉ BBC MMIV

    November 14, 2004

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