April 6th, 2007 08:59 EST
The Whir of the Great Spin Machine - Hot Copy #21
(Transcript of Hot Copy, No. 21, a weekly podcast by Del Marbrook).
If you`ve been listening to Hot Copy you`ve probably gotten the idea that I think the big stories are often lost in the fog of everyday stories. There are two reasons for this: Spin and the torrent of events produced by a teeming and troubled world.
Leadership has always been theater, among other things, and with theater you have spin. For example, Shakespeare needed to please the Tudor Dynasty, and so in his work the Plantagenets come off looking bad, as do other Tudor enemies. Or take Walter Scott`s Ivanhoe. The Normans come off as dark oppressors, whereas the Normans were in fact Gallicized Vikings of whom a great many good things might have been said. But Scott didn`t have a Norman monarch to please.
In this era of hypercommunication in which we`re subjected to tsunamis of blather in which helpful information is occasionally imbedded, spin has become a poisoner of information. There is so much spin it literally makes our heads spin.
As students of journalism you`re probably asking yourselves what you can do about this. Isn`t it up to the big-time reporters and their bosses to do something about it? Yes, it is. But there is something you can do about it too. We don`t always know who our foreign policy is designed to serve, for example. Similarly, we don`t know many lesser things about our lives in every village, town, county and state. Just to see what I mean, try surveying the web sites of a dozen towns, cities, counties and states. Check out the use of the word progress. What you`re looking at is spin "pure tax-paid propaganda. Why? Because nobody is asking how progress is defined "and who defines it? Does it mean evicting three hundred low-income renters and knocking down their homes to make way for a new mall or ninety expensive condos? Does it mean cutting three thousand trees that are needed to protect the watershed, prevent flooding and clean the air? Does it mean building a new golf course that will pollute creeks and rivers with pesticides and fertilizers? Or does it mean greater transparency in government, more citizen involvement, tax relief for the elderly? Does it mean preservation of farm land, nature conservancy, scholarships for children of the poor? What does progress mean? Does progress mean a cap on property taxes, or does it mean spending more of the current tax levy on education?
Fast track, low visibility
Take free trade. Fourteen years ago when the Congress gave the White House authority to negotiate free trade agreements around the world without getting prior approval from Congress (meaning the people), the press treated the story as if it were a financial story, of concern mainly to Wall Street and other financial capitals. But as it turns out this so-called fast-track authority has changed the fabric of our society, some would say for good, some would say for ill. The point is that the story slipped by without the debate and intense scrutiny it so richly needed. But if you ask most editors about this, they`ll say, Oh, we covered fast-track. " And they did. But not enough, not until it was too late. Its far-reaching implications are still not fully appreciated by the public it so dramatically affects.
But once again you say, What does this have to do with us? We weren`t there. " It has plenty to do with you. The first day you work on a newspaper you will be in an environment where equally important stories are falling between the cracks. For example, some developer wants to saw off the top of a mountain, chop down about three thousand trees, lay out two eighteen-hole golf courses, make a 30-acre lake and build 259 luxury condos, a health spa and an haute cuisine restaurant. The hoopla attending this grand scheme is enormous.
There will be jobs, new money, lots of business, more taxes, a virtual renaissance. And, oh yes, your newspaper will be sharing in the goodies too: more advertising, more readers. Everything is hunky-dory. This is America, this is capitalism. Everybody is for apple pie, motherhood and making money. It`s quite a story. There will be zoning hearings, environmental impact statements, architects` drawings, and lots of promises.
The trouble is that without those trees the trout streams will fill with mud. The sediment will cloud the reservoirs and force the communities the reservoirs serve to build filtration plants. The highway departments, police and fire departments in the region will all be forced to increase services and spend more money. Without those trees there will be floods and poorer air quality. Most of the jobs will probably go to low-wage illegal immigrants. The immigrants will tax local social services. And, of course, once you saw off the top of a mountain and kill that many trees, the environmental consequences are unforeseeable. You have probably destroyed the habitats of certain wildlife species. You have disrupted septic systems and permanently violated the region`s ecology.
But will the negative side of the story be reported with the same kind of diligence as the money-driven positive side of the story? And what about all the local and state legislators, and maybe even some congressmen, who`ve accepted the developers` campaign contributions to help him get what he wants? Will their finances be examined? Will the fact that two local councilmen have nice new houses and new boats be reported?
Who will protect the public trust when so much money and spin is being thrown around? I wish I could tell you that all you have to do is remember that Del Marbrook told you to follow the money. But the question is not only whether you will be equipped by temperament and education to follow the story: the question is also whether your bosses will let you follow this story, and how far they will let you follow it. Remember that your newspaper executives are probably eating dinner regularly with the developer and his lawyers, and they`re licking their chops at the prospect of all that advertising lineage, all that new money.
When to give it a rest
Understanding this complex situation gets even more demanding. This kind of thing is going to tax your intellect. You`ll be young and inexperienced. What happens when your editor says, Okay, Jack, I think we`ve got this story under control, let`s move on. We`ve covered the hearings, we`ve covered the environmental impact, we`ve covered the pros and the cons. The public is getting bored with it. "And then you say, But I`d like to look into the changed lifestyles of some of the local politicians. I`d like to interview the state hydrographer, the geology people at the state university, some of the tax specialists at Wharton School of Business maybe. " Jack, Jack, " the editor may say, give it a rest, this isn`t The New York Times. " And, because the editor is the boss, and because his career depends on reading his bosses well, that just might be the end of the story, except for the ribbon-cutting and all that whoopty-do. And then it appears on the official web sites as progress. But is it progress? Progress for whom?
Remember that history is defined by the victors of wars, not the defeated. When did you ever hear a politician say he made a mistake? Or a CEO? Feminists like to call history herstory, meaning it`s conventionally thought of as his story, not hers. They have a point. That`s why our Founding Fathers thought they might be able to form a more perfect society by giving the press, the Fourth Estate, a constitutional role. They gave the press special privileges in return for its special responsibility to keep government honest and transparent. It is this special responsibility that is breaking down as the media are concentrated in the hands of four or five mega-corporations. This is truly a constitutional crisis, but the constitutional crisis the press has chosen to talk about is executive privilege, how much information a president can keep from Congress and the public. This is certainly an important issue, but it is nowhere nearly as important as the failure of the press`s historic responsibility under the First Amendment of the Constitution, a story the press isn`t reporting because its owners don`t want to talk about it.
The Circuit City model
None of us want to hear that we don`t have a free press. We even mock foreign commentators when they say we don`t. But in order to be good journalists, as opposed to merely playing at it, we have to be willing to see our limitations. A man`s got to know his limitations, Dirty Harry says. So does a reporter and an editor. Circuit City recently laid off 3,400 experienced salesclerks. Then it turned around and told them they had to wait for at least 10 weeks before they could reapply for jobs, probably not the same jobs or at the same rate of pay. What kind of a society can we have when our corporations respond to competition and shareholder pressures with mass firings? The Circuit City decision made the news, but of all the major newspapers in the country only The Baltimore Sun delved into such questions as the impact on our society of such business behavior.
How many stories do you think explored executive salaries at Circuit City? This decision plunged thousands into misery. But how many reporters asked if the bosses who made this decision got bonuses and other rewards? And, finally, why was the story only a blip on the media radar when it fact this kind of business policy is everywhere wrecking the middle class? The answer is simply that Circuit City is a major advertiser in the media.
Another and more important story concerns Wal-Mart. The typical Wal-Mart opens in a mall area just outside the old downtown of the typical town. Usually the small downtown merchants are struggling against big chain competitors, like Wal-Mart, and typically the town is trying to rejuvenate its historic downtown. In town after town Wal-Mart has endangered the prospects of downtown areas by offering prices, services, hours and cheap foreign goods, often from China, that its small competitors can`t offer. But town after town has allowed Wal-Mart to do this in response to the siren song of cheap goods and jobs. Wal-Mart wages are low and its labor policies have often been the subject of controversy. Many of the goods it sells have been produced by underpaid and overworked foreigners. And this immense story affecting the lives and economies of hundreds of towns and cities gets poorly covered, while trivial stories such as the bad behavior of spoiled celebrities make the evening news. Is it because the public prefers the trivia, as the media bosses claim, or is it because the media derive fortunes in advertising from Wal-Mart?
How free is a press in which this sort of economic censorship prevails? More free than China`s or Russia`s, to be sure, but is it as free as the Founding Fathers envisioned? Is it as free as a great republic needs it to be for its people to make informed decisions? Does it live up to its Constitutional obligations?
So what does this mean for us working journalists? Do we turn all cynical and just write the stories we think our corporate bosses will like, or do we fight the good fight? And maybe get fired.
What are the answers to these questions? I don`t know. I`m a reporter. I know how to ask good questions. Are you asking them? Are your instructors? Are you getting any answers? Let`s pray for the sake of our nation that you are.
There is an even bigger question that is not being asked. In a capitalist society is the operative rule anything for a buck, or are certain businesses, like medicine, education and journalism, subject to higher standards? And if we insist on higher standards for such businesses, how do we achieve them? Can medical care, education and journalism be outsourced, for example? Should the press continue to enjoy special privileges under law if it continues to operate like Circuit City and Wal-Mart? And if the country wants less government and lower taxes, how can these businesses be held to higher standards? I wish I knew. I do know one thing as a reporter: The leaders of our country who pretend every day to know so much are not providing us with the answers. They don`t like the questions. And the questions aren`t being asked nearly enough or often enough or loudly enough. We`re in a hell of a lot of trouble and it ain`t all Iraq.
There are still some good print newspapers left, and there are many online news organizations, and more are coming online every day. And there is some evidence that while the major metropolitan dailies are in trouble, some suburban and rural weeklies and dailies are prospering. So it`s entirely possible that the Internet, which is siphoning off newspaper advertising, may solve some of these dilemmas. But you can be sure that the bosses of online media will be just as tempted as their newspaper predecessors to suck up to advertisers and cut costs at the expense of coverage. It`s just that they may be a little less pressured to do it.
I`m Del Marbrook and you have been listening to Hot Copy. If you`d like to read more, please visit me at Del Marbrook Dot Com.