business, Corporate simpering, entertainment, Fox, Glenn Beck, Inflaming rednecks for fun and profit, Joe the Fuckwhit, Lying douchebags, media, politics, Sarah Palin, Things We Should Know, willful blindness to absurd extremes

Journalism’s Infinite Regression

The New York Times reports that media has started chasing its own tale over the ‘Birther’ movement – the group of fringe lunatics that believe President Barack Obama is not a natural-born American citizen, but rather a citizen of Kenya. I sincerely believe that, if nobody else has, that Jon Stewart effectively showed how absurd the whole idea is. If your plan consists of giving birth to a child in kenya, then announcing the birth in the Hawaii papers, then essentially sitting back and waiting for the plan to come to fruition by the child becoming President of the United States, well… It’s not really much of a plan, is it?

The problem is not that a small and dedicated group of nitwits believes that the whole idea is even plausible, but the fact that the media is paying attention to it. Psychologically, the human mind is designed to take note of novelty, or the unusual – these characteristics stand out and are remembered, even without benefit of context. If I write a headline saying that Stephen Harper is not an alien eater of kittens, the average mind wil remember the alien kitten eating over the ‘not’, nine times out of ten. Six months from now, the alien kitten eater will be the story, not the denial. So, by repeating the meme of non-citizenship, even in the context of a fringe belief, that element of the story will be remembered, not the fact that it is demonstrably false. Even in the slower summer months, there is no excuse to pay attention to these people, even in the increasingly condescending manner in which it is being done.

Reporter

Now, read the NYT story again – do you notice the actual theme of the story? It’s the media coverage of the fact that the media is reporting the story, not the story itself. The reporting is now about the reporting, not about the story.  I anxiously await the moment in which some intrepid journalist decides that the reporting of the reporting is worth reporting on, and the declining edifice that serves as an excuse for journalism will collapse in upon itself, a black hole of self-referential and poorly-formed ‘ironic’ rhetoric from which no intelligence, let alone news, can escape.

The most problematic part of modern reporting is that so much of it becomes about profit, not the importance of informing the public about important issues – this has, somewhat inevitably, created a culture that reveres the entertaining over the important, the popular over the truly necessary. I decided some time ago that I would make a terrible reporter, simply because I do not possess testicles large enough to let me forget that the weeping individual I am hounding for a quote has just lost a loved one, or that the non-white child is as important as the white one when they go missing. Priorities become misplaced, and ethics are forgotten, in favor of shareholder profits, translated through Nielson ratings or circulation figures.

In journalistic history, the importance of thorough and verifiable research has given way, thanks to the high-pressure, high speed requirements of the entertainment industry, to the quick source, the easy road, the fast payoff. Opinion becomes fact, or at least becomes the object that becomes important. The prominence of a public figure becomes the barometer that measures the reliability or news-worthy-ness of a story. If Bono, or Megan Fox, or ‘Octomom’ make a public announcement, that becomes news – the story of the day becomes the exploration of motivations for the statement, and then becomes about the other news outlets reporting the same story… Why? What possible justification, besides the quest for profits (whether overtly stated or implicit in methodology) can there be to even imply that something a musician, or actor, or mentally ill person has to say has even the least relevance to people’s experiences, or will have any long-term effects whatsoever?

I have written before about celebrity culture, and the sad commentary it provides on the priorities we as a society possess. We now, however, are experiencing the first instance of a manufactured, explicitly political individual who is carefully designed to exploit emotion and discourage independent thought: Sarah Palin. She has no actual qualifications other than her fame (or infamy) – she was a small-town Alaska mayor, and a Governor who didn’t even finish her first term, but she looks good on camera, and she has a troubling, yet undeniable populist persona that will motivate the faithful to follow her into the fires of her own manufactured armageddon, if that’s what she asks. She is a celebrity, without the benefit of an acting or music career, who parlayed her looks and folksy charm into small tastes of political power – and let there be no doubt that she likes it and craves more. Unfortunately, very few people in the media, who are terrorized by the fear of offending the joe six-packs in the viewing audience, will call “Bullshit!” on the whole affair and point out that she is a celebrity, not a civil servant. Nor will they point out just how dangerous charisma, raw emotion and popular appeal are without thought and reasoned debate.

The problem is not just that this idiot is wasting our time, but that the hunger for power and blind faith could lead people to react emotionally and viscerally to percieved threats that do not even exist – she is fuel for every paranoid conspiracy theorist and armed ‘revolutionary’ in the wilds of America. That is dangerous – people could actually die as a result. We need to acknowledge that paying attention to her is actually harmful, and does not constitute keeping the public informed in any valid way.

So, journalists, let’s see you grow some – call out hypocrisy, and ignore the fringe – that’s what they are, the fringe. They are called that for a reason, because the larger populace does not subscribe to their views. Covering them is promoting them, since the public probably can’t detect your snarky tone and will remember only the loudness of the message. And for goodness’ sake, don’t under any circumstances report on other news outlets – you may think you’re doing us a service, but you’re not. In fact, it’s been a long time since you informed us rather than trying to influence us. The Walter Winchells and Walter Cronkites (need more Walters – but not Barbara!) of the world have given way to the Charles Foster Kanes – if the story isn’t there, manufacture one, then decry the fact that others are doing it too. It’s not black and white anymore – all of today’s journalism has turned a vivid and troubling shade of yellow.

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11 thoughts on “Journalism’s Infinite Regression

  1. So, is Stephen Harper just eating alien kittens? How long before he goes after Earth varieties?

    … maybe that’s why he’s shutting down Canada’s nuclear capability!

    My god! What have you stumbled across here?!?

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  2. The alien kittens are known for their superior flavor, plus all those extra legs…

    I mean, I don’t know what you’re talking about…:)

    Goldurn adjectives…

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  3. I remember seeing Cronkite interviewed some years ago by maybe Chris Matthews or someone. He spoke of his concern for the creep of entertainment into the news and his feeling that the news was a public service performed by the networks, not something to be profitted on. That said, he was known as the most competitive type himself, so the game was afoot even at it’s erstwhile heyday. Profiteering is a sad but (in hindsight) predictable outcome. Taking the foolishness to 24-hour network extremes was just another nail in a coffin already half buried.

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  4. I’m often preoccupied with this problem of ‘profitable news’. I think the first step might be the creation of a rating system. Rating systems aren’t perfect and may be subject to bias and manipulation, but I think they work better than doing nothing and so add value.

    I was going to write a big comment, but I think it would be so long I’ll just put it on my own blog in a few days.

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  5. I apologize for hijacking your blog, but I do agree with where you’re coming from.

    The post is up, here:

    http://therationalnumber.blogspot.com/

    Again I apologize. I have been thinking about this for a while anyway. It was from reading your blog that got me motivated again.

    P.S. if you read the comments, I do support CBC because it’s about more than just news. I’m not sure about liberal (or Liberal) bias, either. Just an anonymous troll.

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  6. I wouldn’t characterize it that way at all! Absolutely no need to apologize. I welcome and appreciate your comments – your post definitely shows you’ve been thinking about the issue – I rate it an ‘A’.:) The best part of writing here is the opportunity to meet other like-minded, or at least reasonable, individuals.

    It’s an interesting coincidence that the MPAA’s ratings system is under increased scrutiny right now:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/26/business/26steal.html?ref=media

    While I agree with the intent of your ratings system, I’m not sure the inherent bias that has bled into the whole structure of reporting could be combated by something that assumes a voluntary participation – after all, it seems that common sense and any genuine concern for the public good have already left the building. As with many things, it might work in an ideal world, but that ain’t where we’re at. That in no way makes it a bad idea, though.

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  7. We’ve been twitted!

    Is that good or bad?:)

    Anyhoo… Kevvy, you are as usual correct – the nostalgia version of anything, including news coverage, is always rosier than the reality. My suggestion: axe the 24-hour channels. All of them. The only way to decrease our dependence on reassuring opinion rather than being informed by as close a version of ‘fact’ as is possible is to remove the necessity to fill the other 23 1/2 hours of airtime. A comprehensive half-hour compilation of the important events of the day is sufficient for anyone. Anything else, you careen off the rails into opinion and needless (and misleading) speculation.

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  8. Thanks Flash. I think it’s an important issue because of its relation to every other issue. Without honest reporting, how can the masses in a democracy make rational decisions? Those with a stake in any given decision will want to bias the reporting in their favor.

    How would the topics below have played out differently in America with different news coverage?

    U.S. health care reform
    Economic stimulus
    Enhanced interrogation
    invasion of Iraq
    Deregulation of various financial segments
    … just to name a few.

    You can’t drive in the right direction if you can’t see where you’re going.

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