News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

On Reporters

As I've said elsewhere, I think one of the key misconceptions about reporters is that they're experts. Or, at least well-informed amateurs. They’re usually neither. Reporters cover too many stories too quickly to become conversant with the issues, the smelly little orthodoxies as Orwell called them, the scandals and rumors, the free-ride poseurs, the cadging crooks and hard-worn saints of each field that they cover. You can't cover a handful of stories every week and expect to be well-informed as to the particulars of any of them.

The average reporter struggling to write a book, even just a memoir (which by nature requires little research), needs something on the order of a couple of years. More often than not the sum of two years of archive research, dust allergies and writer’s block is a hardcover bestseller ridiculed by those in the know for its journalese and dilettantism. Again, even here, you can seldom rely on reporters for useful information. What you can rely upon them for is rumor mongering, aiming for the lowest common denominator, pushing the libel and slander laws to the limit, pumping statistics up to the highest amperage to produce infotainment because that's what we want.

Another problem as pointed out by Bernard Goldberg is reporters' flaccid membership in the club of truth-seekers; a club which I regret to report seems ever less likely to exist. Like members of any other organization, issues become fogged up with politically correct vaporizing in the upper chambers of the corporation, in this case the newspaper firm. This is primarily because the average reporter has little more idea of how the world works than a cab driver, and for much the same reason that most of what he hears is gossip.

Thus many, many reporters were easily persuaded that it wasn't safe to tell the truth right after 9-11, that the US invasion of Afghanistan was going to be a Vietnam quagmire, and that George Bush was going to lose the last election because no one they knew would vote for him. As a result of their traditional ivory tower innocence, what often appears from afar to be a moral compromise (ex: deliberately promoting the lie that AIDS was a threat to the run of the mill heterosexual, deliberately quashing newsroom speculation that the DC sniper could be other than Caucasian thus delaying his capture) often turns out to be just another wrong-way greenhorn whose nose is pulled in the wrong direction as easily as a weathervane.

One problem is that the freshly graduated media professional does not leave university versed in economics, military history, epidemiology, the law, and so forth. Instead, they leave bored and with a pronounced distaste for not just formal learning, but for learning of any and all kinds. Further, they depart the quad confused by a four-year muddle of multiculturalism, postmodernism, left-wing conspiracy theories and bird courses on media ethics.

Another problem is even more fundamental than that. Most reporters are simply trained from childhood to be parsimonious with the truth, when not downright dishonest. Growing up in a normal middleclass suburban or urban family, they learn to say one thing to daddy and something else to mommy. Mommy tends to encourage fibbing, white lies, guilt trips, the rest of the arsenal which is filled out and worked to perfection by the more attractive sort of gold-digger in do-me pumps et al. The problem with half-truths and polite evasions is that friends and family and colleagues pick up on the fact you don't like to deal with harsh truths or awkward opinions.

Information workers don't often deal themselves with physical violence, inclement weather destroying crops, gangsters and rackets, and so forth. They pay taxes and let the politicians and cops deal with it. They live in a bubble of softness and niceties. This does have its benefits, but when it comes to conversation of any and all kinds they want fun, they want to be entertained, stroked, praised, or otherwise amused. They don't like straight talkers because they find them offensive, uncouth, and unreasonable, in a word: intimidating because they're honest, and honest people play by enigmatic, unfamiliar rules. Information workers (from reporters to professors) end up surrounding themselves with people like themselves who have a bundle of book learning and noggins full of second-hand facts and figures (i.e. "According to statistics released today by so and so), but nothing they can really put their hands on and squeeze to be sure its real.

They don't have a full body of life experience because they're always chasing down the life experience of others, usually after the experience is over. And they seldom have the reality check of non-information workers challenging their ideas; and when they do they wave them off because they lack the sort of unverifiable second-hand information (i.e. statistics) that they favor. Most debates with information workers come down, in the end, to “he said she said.” You quote your statistics; your opponent quotes his anecdotes. You quote your conspiracy theorist Chomsky; your opponent quotes his conspiracy theorist Moses. Neither is dealing with anything properly describable as reality. When these two fantasy lands cannot be bridged, the information worker often says "Well that's just your opinion." That's a sign you're dealing with someone whose views are based on second-hand information.

So what you have in the end is reporters who are in the main preoccupied with upping their ratings, moving along with the whimsy of political correct fashions, trying to fulfilling their left-wing obligation to be social messiahs, and who are at the end of the day fundamentally ignorant despite the wealth of facts and figures at their disposal. If you want to see this, all you have to do is turn on C-SPAN and watched interviews with reporters. It was shocking at first to hear how often reporters refused comment on areas closely related to their beats. However, most reporters are not interested in their field. It's just a job to them. Some of the most incurious people you will ever meet are reporters and researchers. Not because their profession encourages this, but because most people aren’t curious. Public school will do that.

When I've spoken informally to medical researchers about issues like AIDS, none of them knew anything about the key people who jump-started these fields. None of them knew who Robert Gallo was, or Peter Duesberg, Michael Fumento, Kary Mullis, and so on. The only reason they were temporarily interested in the subject was because I can assemble a story from scratch reasonably well. They would have been just as engaged had I launched into the evolution of screwdrivers beginning with the biological origin of iron ore deposits in the pre-Cambrian Ice Age when the oceans where oxygen free and held high concentrations of dissolved iron. It's just a theory, one of many interesting theories I've come across. And I can hold most people's attention while discussing such things by giving them context. But I don't deceive myself into believing that any of these people rushed home to begin looking into these subjects themselves. They're just not curious. Their careers are just an improvement over bricklaying or chicken plucking, more money and more toys for less sweat. The same is true for me too. For all the years I've worked as a professional translator, and a fairly good one at that, I've yet to read a single book on translation. And that sort of professional ignorance is typical. For that matter I'm probably still ignorant enough to be a reporter too.

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