Fear and Loathing in the Media

Since I wrote this, we’ve had the TNR / Scott Beachamp scandal, the false stringer from Iraq (Jamil Hussein, Bilal Hussein, take your pick,) Randi Rhodes fake mugging, and other journo slime revealed.

Americans witness the New York Times, Reuters, and CBS news with bemused horror, leviathans trapped in the primordal ooze of last century’s worldview while the nimble furry predators of the internet savage their dieing carcasses.

Death throes are always hideous but fascinating in a macabre way – while the media leviathans seem cornered many a hunter is fond of the maxim: a beast is most dangerous when it’s cornered

In today’s world of fragmenting journalism markets and shrinking news leviathans, it pays to scare thus the saying “if it bleeds it leads.”

Fear, Yellow journalism, sloth, and political ideology have combined to the point where you can no longer trust the Mainstream. Many will argue that it’s been that way a long time, however it’s grown worse lately.

Yesterday’s example of Reuter’s doctoring photos to make the scenes of damage from Beirut appear worse than they are is only the latest example.

This is because modern reporters are lazy ideologue sheep, easy tools for propagandists who know the bars they hang out at and who are willing to buy them a drink. Yes, that’s right — I am saying that most reporters are tools: drink-sluts who can be twisted very easily to any view by party aparatchniks. They are also lazy sods who know they can spend a bit more time at the bar rather than wearing out shoe leather or researching if they just take the handout the person buying the drink is pushing.

The problem with this is that we are at war, and the guy buying the drinks doesn’t have US interests in mind, the guy buying the drinks is aligned with murdering terrorists nowadays.

Once they’ve been fed the facts, the angle, the forged document, photo, or evidence the gullible sheep run back to the pen to bleat. Meanwhile the wolves grin.

The bleating sheep starts with the framing. In the old days who, what, when, where, were usually all in the first paragraph of most news stories. Now the first three paragraphs of many pieces are set up to tell you the “why” before any facts are presented, and “why” is subjective and emminently frameable.

Old school journalist’s believed in four things: research, shoe-leather, truth, and the five W’s – who, what, when, where, why. That was called realism, facts were presented from most important to least (imagine that, realism from a news agency!) In today’s mainstream the anti-establishment radicals of the sixties are now ensconced as the establishment, and the five W’s have been pared down to four, with Why becoming predominant.

Since “why” is always subjective to any observer, the “why” reporters come up with differs greatly from the “why” that an average person would reason from the base facts of any given story. The truth is also relative to today’s reporters, after all if you can’t deconstruct the story from the viewpoint of murdering terrorists, then you just aren’t morally relativistic enough to be a reporter and you’ll never get that pulitzer until you learn how.

So we have framing – framing gets you your Pulitzer, it gets you notice from your peers, and it now takes up the first three paragraphs of most stories to the detriment of real facts.

Framing is all about shaping and influencing the reader’s take on “why” by painting a gritty, angled view before presenting bare facts. It’s putting sheep’s clothing on wolves, it’s painting the media’s harlots. Framing is the modern reporter’s raison d’ etre –framing is the silk from sow’s ears.

My first encounter with this was in the form of a yellow journalism piece from McClatchey’s Sacramento Bee back in the 80’s. The piece was written with two things in mind: to fan the flames of environmental anti-nuclear fears, and to sell more papers.

The headline screamed something like “Nuclear Device Lost in Valley.” Everyone reading it assumed the worst of course, and the writer framed the story in terms of shutting down the local nuke plant, put in some anti-nuclear false factoids, and only by paging to three “continued in section x” continuations could you get to the final paragraph in the very back of the paper. In that final paragraph you found that it was a medical X-ray machine that had fallen off the back of a truck.

A perfect example of where this road leads modern reporters is the sad tale of Jayson Blair, now in rehabilitation. Then again, he could be out of rehabilitation now that his book is out, here’s a telling paragraph from the Publisher’s Weekly review of “Burning Down My Master’s House ” by Jayson Blair:

Public relations people, Blair reports,substituted theater tickets, free meals and drinks and, sometimes, even sex for mentions. Journalists at The Times were considered to have a weak spot for sex. Most startling, though, are Blair’s accusations of shoddy journalistic practices condoned by Times management. The message was clear: getting it right was not as important as getting it fast. He contends that the Times allowed star reporters to slap their byline on stories written in part or wholly by stringers and freelancers, and he exposes what he calls “toe-touch” reporting: A toe-touch was a popular and sanctioned way at the newspaper to get a dateline on a story by reporting and writing it in one location, then flying in simply so you could put the name of the city where the news was happening at the top of the story. It is hard to imagine how many thousands of dollars are spent on “toe-touch datelines” each month at The Times. Blair also accuses the newspaper of “no-touch” reporting. 

In “toe-touch” reporting from Iraq the reporter is whisked from green-zone to stage-set by local stringer or photog who just might happen to have a gilt framed photo of Osama or Sadr hanging above his bed at home, in “no touch” reporting he never leaves the hotel bar in the green zone, but just dutifully writes down everything the stringer says.

To wrap this up, below is a paragraph from Journalism.org that demonstrates the struggles that modern journalists have with the concept of objectivism, and it’s the bow that should seal the framing of this opinion piece nicely:

The point has some important implications. One is that the impartial voice employed by many news organizations, that familiar, supposedly neutral style of newswriting, is not a fundamental principle of journalism. Rather, it is an often helpful device news organizations use to highlight that they are trying to produce something obtained by objective methods. The second implication is that this neutral voice, without a discipline of verification, creates a veneer covering something hollow. Journalists who select sources to express what is really their own point of view, and them use the neutral voice to make it seem objective, are engaged in a form of deception. This damages the credibility of the whole profession by making it seem unprincipled, dishonest, and biased. This is an important caution in an age when the standards of the press are so in doubt.

The real point is that framing only belongs in opinion pieces, but never in news stories. Doctored photos are good as political satire, but not as photojournalism. Fake documents are perfect for The ONION, but not for Sixty Minutes.

One day the struggling leviathans might get that figured out, but until they do there’s a nation full of fact checkers out here and in the end we are all smarter than the average journalist.