Tuesday, May 03, 2005

News Flunkies

Just a thought. Are news people news junkies? I mean, if it wasn't their job, would they still care about politics or Washington at all; or would they be raving even more about runaway brides and Hollywood gossip? That's a rhetorical question, of course, to which we all know the answer.

I was thinking about this while reading Juan Cole's obligatory blog (oblogitory?), and started thinking about all the damn news he reads. Now, I read a lot of news. But damn if Mr. Cole doesn't read a turdload more. I rarely click through to his links because he always has so many. I trust his summations enough to not find it necessary, plus he has so damn many of them.
Or take me, for example. I don't get jackshit out of this stuff. I don't have ads (yet), and even if I never made a penny, I'd still want to do this. Hell, it even gets in the way of my real job (I really do have a few tax returns to do this very moment). And long before I had this blog, I still read as much news as I could take in, sometimes wasting hours at a time when I certainly had more important things to do. I don't do this because I need to. This is my hobby. This is what I enjoy.
I'm sure it's the same for you. We live and breath this stuff. Not just politics, but we love policy discussions and philosophy and religion and all kinds of stuff. It's all inter-related. We're interesting people, at least to other information junkies. We don't get anything out of this except the joy of being better informed. And we see it as our duty to stay informed, and need no other motivation.
News People Gone Wrong

But would our news media care about this, were it not their job? I'm sure some reporters would. There are always exceptions to rules. But would Wolf Blitzer? If it wasn't his job? Or Ted Koppel. Surely he was once a news junkie, but is he still? Or is he just going through the motions; reading what is necessary for each show, and letting lower level staffers do much of the work? But I'm sure it wasn't always like that for him. I'd bring up a few other tv journalist-types, but I avoid tv news like the plague (it's just as contagious, ya know); and so I don't know of any others offhand. Dan Rather I guess, but he's gone isn't he.

But you get my point. I don't think hardly any of these people are real news hounds. They're careerists who have correctly identified political news as being the pinnacle of their profession. But they don't love politics. Nor do they really understand it. That's why they're focusing on gossip so often and they can't tell the difference. Even their political and terrorism coverage is gossip-based. They don't care about facts. Rumors are just as good, and probably more fun. A fact can only be said one way, but speculation is forever.

But they don't love politics. They do it because it's their job and they're programmed to be good at things, like reading teleprompters. And acting confident and self-assured when they're talking through their asses. And on knowing which guests to pimp to (pro-Bushies) and which ones to denounce as kool-aid drinkers (Scott Ritter). And the basis for making those decisions is entirely on how it will help their career. And that's based on an ingrained authoritarianism that these fakers are entirely unaware of, which makes them believe that the hirers & firers know more about this stuff than anyone else.

And I'm not suggesting that they consciously know that they're in the bag on this stuff. Far from it. If you asked them, they would surely tell you that they are news junkies and they really wouldn't know what you're talking about. They could never have risen this high in their field were they not able to lie to themselves on a daily basis.

And that's part of our problem: the skills required to be a successful journalist are not the skills required to be a good one. And a good reporter who doesn't focus on their career is not a reporter we will hear much from. It just doesn't work like that. Again, I'm not claiming a conspiracy. It's just the way that the system has become. Professional career-climbers will always win out over their more competent, but less career-oriented colleagues. Because they're focusing on the prize, and not on the story.

Scoop Addiction

And just to get at my meaning: real news junkies care about The News, not scoops. They don't care about having the latest news or a big breaking story. We care about all of it, and often the non-scoops are the bigger stories to a news junkie. But scoops are more important to the careerists. Honestly, how many reporters would turn down a watertight scoop that could not be proven wrong, but was wrong or misleading anyway? Few.

Hell, Judith Miller's made a career of getting bad scoops. Front page stories followed much later by backpage corrections. And she's still NY Times' top reporter. Even in their big mea culpa article, they still refused to single her out as a big problem. And Rathergate wasn't a partisan bias, but a bias towards the almighty Scoop. Scoop-Addiction is much more blameworthy for all that is wrong in the media than anything else. It's all about getting the story first, not getting it right. Anyone can get a news story right, with enough time; but only one person can get it first. And the guy who gets it first has bragging rights.

And another issue tied into that is Interest. A story must be interesting, and not everyone can write an interesting story. It really takes a knack. But that's another problem. A good writer is not necessarily a good thinker. And the good writer will always have the career advantage over the poor writer who's smart. That was one of the advantages of the Woodward and Bernstein team. Woodward did better research, but Bernstein was the better writer. Or was it the other way around? I haven't read that book in a while.

And so we get people who are good at writing, but who know little or nothing about economics or tax policy trying to act as an authority on these subjects. People whose expertise is writing, not understanding. And it shows. They don't know what they're talking about, and are left at the mercy of those they trust. And I'm not necessarily blaming them for that. If anyone could be an expert, we wouldn't have experts. I'm just citing it as a major flaw in the system. One which puts uninformed dopes in charge of informing people about complicated matters which they themselves know little of. Like Social Security, or tax cuts.

Subjective Objectivism

And finally, one issue is: can a news junkie be non-partisan? Of course. But not by the new media interpretation of "partisan". For them, being non-partisan and objective means reporting what both sides say, and leaving the fact-checking and deeper context to the reader/viewer. But that's not objectivism. That's the ultimate in subjectivism. It is a total denial of the existence of truth and objectivity, and allows both sides to claim victory on every matter. And even worse, it rewards the liars and punishes the honest.

Truth is verifiable, by definition. But these people have come to believe that the very idea of testing claims and verifying facts is subjective and biased. So not only do they not regularly fact-check, they think that it's biased to even attempt to do so; and leave fact-checking to articles clearly labeled "Fact Check". And when they do so, it's because a politician has said something that disagrees with what the reporter wants to believe; thus even their few "Fact Check" articles need their own fact checking. Black is white and objective truth is subjective belief.

And rather than equipping the citizens of our democracy with better information, it is to deny them the ability to receive any information that they don't actively seek out. But that is the job of the news media. To inform us. You shouldn't have to fact-check a tax return I prepare for you, and I shouldn't have to fact-check an article a journalist prepares for me. It's our damn jobs to get it right. It's what we get paid for.

Career Incompetence

But our current news media cannot do this. Not because they choose not to. But because they are unable to. They are talking heads and walking dictation machines. They are unable to do necessary research, and unable to understand important concepts. Even the easily researched and understood concepts will allude them. Because those are not the skills they were hired for, and they are not up to the task. They were hired for their careerist tendencies, and we'll only hear about the ones who are good at it.

This is so with all career fields, from a manager at Bennigan's to a stockbroker on Wallstreet. Fakers and ladder-climbers will always soar up above their competence level; solely due to their determination to rise up, and the inability of their managers to spot their incompetence.

But the problem with the media is that it is so difficult for them to spot incompetence. Because they're surrounded by it and swallow it daily. And because they themselves have forgotten the skills needed to separate the honest joes from the fakers; and have placed an emphasis on stories which sell, rather than stories which inform. They have sacrificed all to their god of subjectivism. And we're all suffering because of it. Our democracy deserves better.

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