January 17th, 2010 13:38 EST
News for Laughs vs. News for Vision
(This is a transcript of the Hot Copy #43 Podcast for the Student Operated Press )
There`s a crucial difference between balanced reporting and insightful reporting. You can listen to this difference by tuning into the Yes Network and listening to color commentator David Cone, the famously versatile former pitcher who once considered a career in journalism.
You can describe the game and gin up excitement with personal mannerisms the way television anchors increasingly do, or you can quietly shed light on the science of the game the way Cone does. He represents the difference between reporting as theater and reporting as insight.
When Cone tells you wrist and elbow action is as important as finger location in throwing strikes, you know a lot more than when another reporter tells you that you`ve just seen a changeup, which the camera has probably already told you.
You can report this and that, or you can explain what this and that is all about. You can report bad behavior or you can look for its roots. You can stack up the facts like so many cans or you can acknowledge that the age of psychology actually happened while we struck out looking.
Listen to Cone when a home plate umpire makes an obviously bad call, ruling that slugger Jason Giambi swung through home plate when the camera tells us otherwise. He could have just confirmed what the camera told us, using expressions like uh-oh and seeee-ya later. Instead, he tells us the home plate umpire should have consulted the third base umpire because that`s why there`s an umpire at third base.
So now we know not only the obvious but how the game should have worked.
In still another aside, Cone talks about the special relationship between catcher and home plate umpire as they both stand in danger of the bat and ball. Cone will analyze body language, adding the extra touches that enable a viewer to feel part of the game, not just a spectator. His demeanor as an announcer is much as it was on the mound: workmanlike, low-key. His intention is to educate you, while most baseball announcing is boosterism, cheerleading and showmanship.
Listen to a Yankees game as an algorithm for the kind of reportage we need as opposed to the kind we usually get. It isn`t just that Cone is a statistics man. Yes, he knows his stats, but as an announcer he has made a commitment to himself to work you into the mind of the game.
This is what the survival of our way of life requires. Nothing short of it. And it`s appropriate that our national pastime should provide a window on the problem. We can have reportage, and we do, that tells us what is going on, or we can have reportage that tells us what is going on and why.
Usually reporters bring readers and viewers to the gate of the money trail, but they don`t follow the money trail to the lobbyists, the pay-offs, the deals. They will concede privately there`s no time or no staff, and that`s half of it. But the other half is that the news industry is committed to the drama but not the truth. It`s committed to news as soap opera, a ratings game. Neither reporters nor their news rooms want to spend the time telling the whole story because they`re afraid it will cost too much money and time they want to spend injecting information with steroids.
The more the news industry consolidates, the more it turns news into bright lights and hoopla the less insightful reporting becomes. There is a sleight of hand going on. To maximize shareholder profit the industry reduces staff and scope, soups up its delivery, and blames it all on economics. Economics, that means keep it vague. Perish the thought that the word should be greed, that`s just too explicit.
Once Cone gave up his celebrated career as a pitcher who could throw damned near everything in the book at a batter, he began to bring the same savvy to reporting. He`s no gee-whizz-there-she-goes guy. Any commentator can regale you with a player`s record "baseball is often called a game of stats "but Cone will tell you why a particular batter is vulnerable to a slider. He`s not giving you insider information, because his colleagues on any baseball network know what he knows. The difference is that Cone wants you to understand the game the way he understands it.
Let me take that thought to Capitol Hill in Washington. You can report Senator Blither said this and Senator Blather said that, or you can put the problem of alcoholism under the microscope and explore its role in lawmaking. The former is reportage about what happened, what was said, and the latter is investigative journalism of a high and admittedly dangerous order, the kind that may get the reporter`s head handed to him.
I don`t think anybody is going to punish David Cone for doing such a good job elucidating the beloved game, but I know that if corporate journalism had a real commitment to enlighten us about the ways our lives are impacted it would explore such issues as alcoholism in public life. It would pose this question, for example:
Since we have been willing to spend billions of dollars to control the sale of illegal drugs, why have we given a free pass to the legal drug, alcohol, that kills and maims more people than all the other drugs combined?
It would, in other words, challenge the sanctioned hypocrisy that rules our society. The manufacturers of alcohol products are major advertisers, but nobody ever saw Colombian cocaine advertised in the media. The media in this case are part of the problem, the carriers of a virulent hypocrisy.
Listen to Cone explain the game and ask yourselves if the game of government and business is being explained to you with the same insightfulness, or are you being entertained with trivia?
News as theater is not only a disservice to our way of governing ourselves, it attacks the very idea of self-government by making public figures (including news anchors, pundits and celebrities) royalty in a country born of a profound dislike for royalty. News as theater, which purports to be blow-by-blow coverage, turns everything into trivial entertainment. In its insistence on all news all the time it actually paints over the underlying issues with a shiny layer of inconsequential happenings.
Take the housing bubble that has recently burst in a subprime mortgage scandal. The press had been calling it a boom. It had been calling this boom the principal engine of our economy, not questioning its own mindless failure to question whether a one-horse economy can be healthy. It failed to ask this question through the 1990s. It failed to raise obvious environmental questions. California has now acted to limit development where an adequate supply of water can`t be projected. Why didn`t the press raise this issue decades ago? Why should an alert press have allowed our most dynamic state to be ambushed by this issue? Why weren`t the nationwide implications explored? Why was it taken as gospel that all development is good?
The answers are similar to the press`s lack of interest in alcoholism. The press has been a major beneficiary of housing development, deriving advertising from realtors, banks, developers, manufacturers and suppliers of building materials. The interests of the press did not happen to coincide with the public`s. And this is the Fourth Estate, the fourth leg in the stool of good government. When the editorialists inveigh against the influence-peddling of lobbyists and the corruption of public officials they don`t evidence the slightest shade of pink embarrassment that their own employers are guilty of the very same offenses. Hypocrisy is piled upon hypocrisy and called news.
It has always fallen to the owners of media organizations to resist the blandishments and intimidations of advertisers in the interests of good reporting and public integrity. But with the consolidation of the local press into absentee hands the moral question has been swamped by bottom-line greed.
As this transition from news to infotainment has accelerated we have begun to lose the tools and the ethics to keep government firmly in the hands of the people. Power is passing to a new royalty of greed: Wall Street rule-benders and corporate corner-cutters.
Developers have been corrupting local government for a long time, getting what they want by doing favors and passing money under the table. Reporters have known this as surely as they knew in the 1950s that the oil industry had twisted the nation`s arm into making the disastrous decision to base our entire future on cheap fuel, dismantle mass transportation and ignore alternative energy sources.
My citation of David Cone`s helpful reportage can`t be extended to this predicament, except to say that he represents the spirit of enlightenment as opposed to hopped-up entertainment. His is journeyman reportage, just the kind of reporting we are losing in towns and cities around the country. The big faces on television and the masterly pundits are not the heroes of American journalism. The heroes are the small-town work horses who day after day tell us about weddings, funerals, American Legion and Lions events, zoning board hearings, school budgets and all the sundry that comprise our lives.
America is its hamlets, villages, towns, counties and cities. State capitals and Washington are their reflection. Small town America is where the action is and should be, but we have been bamboozled into thinking it`s in Washington. If we are unable to take back our power, it`s at least in part because local journalism has fallen prey to corporate greed.
I see the Internet as the means to stop payment on royalty`s checks. So does the telecommunications industry, and that is one reason it would like to bribe Congress into giving it absolute control of the Internet. There is no reason the citizens of every town in the country can`t take over where our co-opted local press left off and guarantee the transparency required to uphold a democracy. There`s no reason, in fact, that it can`t be done better than it used to be done. But it will require energy, intelligence and courage.
Republicans can do it, and Democrats can do it. Anarchists, nihilists, free-traders and protectionists can do it. But will their work be fair and balanced? How will we tell when we are being propagandized? How can we tell now? The press, after all, sold us a war. The press failed to dissect the nature of the housing boom. How can we have a fair press in the age of the Internet? There are think tanks addressing this issue, and I don`t pretend to know the answers. But I know it`s one of the greatest tasks before us, and I feel in my bones that we can do it. It has to do with raising the level of honesty with each other, the level of respect. It has to do with trusting each other with the truth, something the press hasn`t always done. The better we can communicate, the bigger the challenge. The Internet with its unparalleled interactivity can literally set a town abuzz with information, opinion and, yes, misinformation. That means that we have all become, wittingly or not, citizen journalists.
CA water curtailments