Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Why This Country Sucks (cont.)

The Media
I thought I would begin this section simply by listing all the instances of media perfidy of late, everything from Jayson Blair at the New York Times to the forged documents at CBS and then on and on and on. But then my friend Gersh Kuntzman, a reporter with the New York Post, sent me a single day's Day Feed from the website mediabistro. Here it is and, remember, this is from just one day:

        The Worcester Telegram & Gazette, which fired sportswriter Ken Powers
        Thursday for plagiarism, will review "several hundred stories" that Powers
        wrote during the past football season.

        David Teather: The three cases of Bush administration payoffs to
        journalists have been presented as further evidence of a government that has
        done all it can to bend the press to its agenda. New Yorker: Nicolas Lemann:
        Why is everyone mad at the mainstream media?

        Howard Kurtz: Pundits today rarely stray from their assigned spots. The
        only real motion is when they jump back and forth between politics and
        journalism, or demonstrate agility by keeping a foot in both camps.

        David Lindorff: The New York Times killed a story that could have changed
        the election because it could have changed the election.

I think members of media see these items and think that these are "interesting," or "complicated" or even "transitional" times for their profession, when clearly a better word would be debauched.

But I am not convinced that these instances of treachery in the ranks represent the heart of the problem, or even for that matter, the tip of the iceberg. I think the larger issue is the media's addiction to narrative. It is the ironclad belief among the press corps that every news event constitutes an advance in the plot line somehow -- that unless it constitutes an advance, it doesn't constitute news -- which distorts news reporting. Reporters rush to proclaim a particular event a "turning point," the end of some particular phase or phenomenon, or even a "step backwards" -- all as if they knew, as if they had some power to divine the flow of history. What's missing is any humility -- the constant pressure to speak authoritatively, come up with an angle, or succeed as a pundit on TV makes it impossible for any of these reporters to say simply, "I do not know" or "we just have no idea where this is headed."

The addiction to narrative -- and it is truly exciting to feel yourself in the flow of it and then, by breaking a new story, help to propel it forward -- blinds reporters to reality. I believe this was what happened in the run-up to Iraq. It was so exciting to watch this drama unfolding -- would Bush defy the U.N.? was Iraq going to use chemical weapons against us? America goes to war! -- that no one was able to step back and ask the kind of tough, intelligent , and analytical questions that would have exposed all of the Bush administration's pretenses for war as lies and propaganda. Reporters were so thrilled to be covering this supposedly historic moment in American history, so eager to see how this drama would play out, it induced a kind of drunkenness in their ranks. We would now be in this bloody awful nightmare in Iraq if a few more members of the press had evidenced even an inkling of sobriety.

I certainly think reporters are wiser now to the deceitfulness practiced by the Bush administration, but I am not sure it matters. The Bush administration can proclaim Social Security a crisis and the media come forward to refute that claim, but the coverage is all still shrill and hyperventilating. There is no way to stop the story line from going forward. We must have some denouement and then resolution to this grand Washington DC. And in so far as the thirst for closure grows stronger and stronger, wiser heads simply cannot prevail.


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