Kill the Messenger
We’re all part of the mob these days. With professional journalism on life support, the national discourse has devolved to competing echo chambers, where the loudest voice wins.
Cable TV pundits are gathering hordes themselves, literally, drawing thousands to hear them demagogue on the National Mall. Most of the Republican front runners for president in 2012 are on the payroll at Fox News. And a substantial chunk of the Left gets their news from John Stewart.
But this doesn’t seem to bother anyone. Some of my friends cheer on the bleeding at The Washington Post while raving about a local blogger. But when somebody gets shot in our neighborhood, the only real information comes from newspaper reporters who stay up late talking to cops. And, of course, the blogs crib from those stories.
One reason for the blasé response to journalism’s death rattle is that newspapers make enemies. A reader generally has a love-hate relationship with a good newspaper, because they’re important. Every reporter knows that if you don’t have someone mad at you, you’re probably not doing your job.
Hearing what you want to hear is easy, and being outraged is fun. ESPN does essentially the same thing you see elsewhere on cable. Highlights of your team in action, bold and often erroneous predictions by experts, cool graphics set to guitar solos and the hyping of the day’s most dramatic events. “Check out that catch!” and “What did Sarah Palin tweet today?”
That stuff is red meat for the masses. I can relate, as I’ve been part of a mob, in the proper sense. It was seventh grade, and the word went out at a high school football game that we were going to a dork kid’s house, en mass. To do what, nobody knew.
However it started, I soon joined about 100 idiots running through the streets. We gathered in front of the kid’s house, and some jackass went up and rang the door bell. There was a lot of screaming. I remember the look on the dad’s face when he opened the door, even though I’d rather not. And I definitely saw the poor kid peeking out from his bedroom window.
In short, it was a disgrace. Rarely have I ever been so connected to my primate side. I got swept along with the mob, and it felt good.
It’s a similar vibe when I see people with their homemade signs milling around D.C. Being whipped up into a froth about politics on bad cable looks like a hoot–seventh grade numbskullery for adults.
Welcome to a new era of disinformation. Or, rather, the end of a brief period of getting news from professional reporters instead of hacks. Seriously, does anyone else out there have a problem with political operatives as journalists? Karl Rove and James Carville may be smart guys, but I’m rarely surprised by their spin. Hell, even Elliot Spitzer got a gig on the teevee.
A serious news media matters. Just ask someone living in a dictatorship. For one thing, I’d put money on a surge in corruption by politicians and corporations.
Take Bell, California. The lower-income town of 36,000 was paying its city manager $787K this year, on top of $1.5 million last year. Several other city officials were making six-figure salaries.
Why? Nobody was looking.
The LA Times eventually caught on to the sleaze in Bell. The following quote from the newspaper’s coverage said it all:
“There’s just nobody paying attention,” said Robert M. Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. “There’s no newspaper. The citizens are not paying that much attention, and when they tried to get some information the city stonewalled them. So the citizens have to hire a lawyer, and they do not have the resources to do that.”
Oh well. Newspapers are hardly innocent victims. For an example, check out The New York Times story from last week on Sam Zell and his cadre of shock jocks running the Tribune Company (which owns the LA Times). The story does not inspire confidence, and the kicker would be hilarious if it wasn’t so depressing.
“The TV revolution is upon us–and the new Tribune Company is leading the resistance,” the announcement read. And judging from the job posting for “anti-establishment producer/editors,” the company has some very strong ideas about who those revolutionaries should be: “Don’t sell us on your solid newsroom experience. We don’t care. Or your exclusive, breaking news coverage. We’ll pass.”
David Simon, the guy who created The Wire and a former Baltimore Sun reporter, said it best when he testified last year in the U.S. Senate. The hearing was billed as a debate on the “future of journalism,” and Simon was pitted against Arianna Huffington and others of the new media ilk.
Simon’s entire written testimony is worth a read. He nailed it. But I particularly like the bit about journalism’s grunt work–long hours for low pay, filing stories after a city council meeting, covering the police department. No, Arianna wouldn’t like that gig. And an army of unpaid dilettantes aren’t going to get the work done, either. As Simon said:
Modern newspaper reporting was the hardest and in some ways most gratifying job I ever had. I am offended to think that anyone, anywhere believes American institutions as insulated, self-preserving and self-justifying as police departments, school systems, legislatures and chief executives can be held to gathered facts by amateurs pursuing the task without compensation, training, or for that matter, sufficient standing to make public officials even care to whom it is they are lying or from whom they are withholding information.
The idea of this is absurd, yet to read the claims that some new media voices are already making, you would think they need only bulldoze the carcasses of moribund newspapers aside and begin typing. They don’t know what they don’t know–which is a dangerous state for any class of folk–and to those of us who do understand how subtle and complex good reporting can be, their ignorance is as embarrassing as it is seemingly sincere. Indeed, the very phrase citizen journalist strikes my ear as nearly Orwellian. A neighbor who is a good listener and cares about people is a good neighbor; he is not in any sense a citizen social worker. Just as a neighbor with a garden hose and good intentions is not a citizen firefighter. To say so is a heedless insult to trained social workers and firefighters.
Indeed. All that’s left to do is follow another tradition of the vanishing, ink-stained wretch and hit a seedy bar to mutter crankily over a few beers.