Hawking Up Hairballs

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Media

The newspapers are dying, or so they tell us. Some have been going under. That's a fact, and others are laying people off. The consensus seems to be that this represents a change of paradigm and that the internet is to blame. I'm not so sure of that.

Last week, I watched some of a video of a speech given by Robert Fisk, the prize-winning Middle East correspondent for The Independent. He was speaking in Berkeley as part of a promotional tour for his latest book. During his address, he spoke to the question of the decline of the print media. He made some points that I found interesting. For one, there's the quality of writing. Fisk read a couple of short pieces by soldiers writing from Iraq. They were quite eloquent and, as Fisk pointed out, you don't read writing like that in the New York Times. Though it's a fair point, I don't think that's any part of the problem with the print media. It wouldn't help the newspapers if they were filled with the best of writing. In the first place, most people have trouble telling good writing from bad. Secondly, I don't think they could care less.

Fisk touched upon the true problem when he talked about how he hated this fetish with giving both sides of everything. When the Israelis recently invade Gaza, they were doing all the killing, and they were making little distinction between combatants and civilians. Yet the media made a point of presenting both sides of the event, as though the question of whether it was right or wrong depended on how you looked at it. Fisk believes that journalists should be advocates for the downtrodden. As he points out, too many journalists, particularly those covering wars, want to be soldiers. He tells the story of a reporter from the Midwest who arrived in Iraq with his shoes painted in camouflage colors. That's how badly the fool wanted to look like a soldier.

I don't think that Fisk went far enough though. If the reporters being sent to the Middle East are soldier wannabes, if they identify with the military instead of its victims, why is that the case? There are plenty of good reporters who would like to do hard-hitting, investigative journalism, but the papers won't put them in positions to do it. The fact of the matter is that, when it comes to the major media, both broadcast and print, the range of acceptable opinions couldn't be much more restricted. Maybe in the case of an out-and-out totalitarian dictatorship, but short of that, you've got Shields on the left, and Brooks on the right. God, but that makes my brain ache, thinking of Shields as a leftist but, the fact is, anyone who proposes anything left of him is seen as a wooly-headed fool who has trouble distinguishing reality from intellectual fantasy, or as an angry malcontent, who is just one step away from terrorism. More leeway is permitted on the right, when it comes to designating someone a terrorist. Imagine what would happen to Rush Limbaugh or Chuck Norris, if they had made their recent statements from a left perspective. The news shows would already be full of videos of their perp walks.

If the media addressed people's real concerns, things might be different, but why go out and pay fifty cents a day for something that doesn't address one's real needs? I live in Atlanta and, for a long time, I bought the local paper mainly to read about local sports. The rest of the paper didn't interest me. The reporting of international and broader national events was poor. The editorial analyses were shallow and lacked real insight. Several years ago, I finally gave up on it altogether and stopped buying it. Were there more hard-hitting reporting, I might have kept buying it, but it's now all about entertainment and distraction. A look at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's web site is instructive. In the center of the page is a list of headlines. This morning there are eleven. Seven of them are reports of local incidents, such as crimes, a court decision on guns at the airport, and kids drinking windshield fluid at daycare, all of which have the effect of convincing one that the world as a dangerous and unpredictable place. One is sports related. There are two headlines related to local political topics, and one about John Stewart's confrontation with Jim Cramer on The Daily Show. If that isn't bad enough, there's a box in a prominent place on the right with the title of "Buzz". Six more headlines are there, and they're all related to gossip about celebrities. If this is the press that's dying, let me throw a shovelful of dirt on its coffin.

Now, John Stewart's confrontation with CNBC slimeball Jim Cramer on The Daily Show. I'm not going to go into it. Stewart pretty much demolished Cramer. There's coverage of that in many places, and I'm not going to try to compete with it. I'd just like to make this point. It's an indication of just how sorry our media has become when a comedian on a sketch show is the most incisive critic of the mainstream media coverage. Just think about it. Stewart doesn't pretend to be anything other than a comedian, but he gets to the truth of things more often than those who would claim that it's their job to do so. Is it any wonder that people turn to blogs and web sites for their information? Maybe we shouldn't be lamenting the decline of newspapers. Maybe we should be celebrating it.


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