October 13th, 2006 08:51 EST
Hot Copy with Del Marbrook - Vol. 7
Cut yourself out of the herd
There`s a big danger in journalists distracting each other. It`s a kind of dysentery that infects newsrooms. Editors are always nervous about what competitors are doing, and this nervousness infects their reporters. Most newspapers don`t have to worry about the competitor across town any more, because he`s gone. The owners liked the real estate more than they liked the responsibility of putting out a good newspaper. But it`s an undeniable fact that journalists spend a lot of time watching each other. They spend a lot of time listening to each other. Too much. They`re boring each other to death.
When we were still winning the war in Vietnam "isn`t that what the generals and politicians told us every day? "reporters spent a lot of time hanging around together in bars in Saigon, listening to largely apocryphal stories. That was bad for many reasons. But the biggest problem was that it created a herd mentality. They all thundered after the same story like a bunch of steers maddened by a red flag. They did the same thing in Beirut. The hotel bars loved it, but it wasn`t good for American journalism. It wasn`t good for policy based on reporting.
We like to think our intelligence services are telling our leaders what`s really going on, while the press is telling people what they think is going on. But that`s not entirely true. In fact, haven`t we heard Donald Rumsfeld, the Defense Secretary, saying recently that he only knows what he reads in the papers? Of course, at other times, when he`s being more than usually petulant, he pretends he doesn`t read the papers. But the point is we need to take him seriously. Nine times out of ten the policy-makers are making policy out of the newspapers and television, and that`s a scary thought.
Think about it. Did we really know whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction? We thought we knew. The government said it knew. But what we had was weapons of mass distraction, and who provided the distraction? The media, of course. Running around like a herd, following the latest pronunciamento of people like Mr. Rumsfeld. This is not a very encouraging situation, is it?
So the next time a politician says, Hey guys, I`m like you, I only know what I read in the papers, you better believe him, because he`s admitting that our government, which spends billions of tax dollars to discover things, doesn`t know much more than a herd of reporters covering each other. About that business of covering each other: watch the TV news shows. What you`ll see is the pathetic sight of pundits interviewing pundits, shouting each other down, one-upping each other. The same tired faces, the same tired experts, the sound-bite experts, the ideologues of the left, the right and the waffle. Watch the anchors ask their military advisers about the war and listen to the military advisers "such wafflers you never heard before in your life. Talking heads that say a lot without really saying much. Somewhere between the wafflers and the fanatics a grain of truth, a paltry little fact gets laid on the table, but mostly it`s white noise.
Horrifying thought, isn`t it?
There are exceptions, and we need to study them. For example, during the Gulf War "you know, the one where the President`s father decided not to finish Saddam off "the CNN correspondent Peter Arnett pretty much cut his own swath covering the war, and he was rightly praised for it. CNN`s chief foreign correspondent, Christine Amanpour, usually does the same thing, and today CNN`s Michael Ware has emerged as a fascinating contrarian, saying things most other correspondents haven`t dared to say. His approach is simple. He`s there to see on his own, and the evidence tells him that what the generals and the politicians back home are saying every day simply doesn`t hold up in the light of a Baghdad morning.
Compare that to his own network literally beating the war drums in the days before the war when the White House was telling us that they had proof that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Who was questioning them? Very few reporters. CNN was so sure the White House was telling the truth that it started beating war drums every time it talked about Iraq, and it called that responsible journalism. It was pure theater, designed to whomp up interest and whip up war fever. So today Michael Ware is reporting on a war his network helped whip up. And CNN was hardly alone in that forlorn role. That`s herd journalism at work. Beat the other guy to the obvious truth to get your ratings up, to sell papers, but what if the truth turns out to be something else? In this case it did.
And as soon as the truth was out, the White House changed its story and said the battle against international terrorism is in Iraq. In other words, the battle the White House started is now the war on terrorism. Duh? Was there something wrong with this picture? Did the thought somehow not add up? Well, you would have thought the press corps in Washington was having to learn English as a second language, considering the time it took the herd to figure out that this new argument didn`t make much sense.
The press should be embarrassed about all this, but the truth is the press is like The White House; it`s beyond embarrassment. It`s too busy running down the next story. So let`s talk about the next story.
Congressman Mark Foley from Florida`s 16th District abruptly resigns. It`s disclosed that he has been writing some pretty troublesome and troubled e-mails to young pages. In other words, the guy seems to be a predator. He has his lawyer tell the public that he`s going into alcohol rehabilitation, and oh yes, by the way, he`s gay and he was abused by a clergyman when he was a boy. Okay, that`s the beginning of the story. It`s sad for the pages who came to experience government and begin their bright young careers this way. It`s sad for a gay guy who has spent his life in the closet. It`s sad for the people he represents. It`s sad for the Republican party that now has to scramble to dissociate itself from the scandal. It`s sad for all of us.
But to this day the herd "remember the herd "has been covering half the story. They`re covering the speaker of the House harrumphing and avoiding questions. They`re covering guys who said they knew he was gay, they knew he drank too much. They`re covering other guys saying, Well, why didn`t you do something? And so on and so on. It`s all blather, even if it causes the Republicans to lose their control of Congress. It`s blather and it`s soap opera and it`s theater. Why? Because those congressmen and those reporters and those editors know perfectly well that the problem of alcoholism and sexual predators on Capitol Hill is entrenched and widespread, and they`re not telling you that. Why? Well, for starters, it`s a very hard story to cover. And then there`s the little problem of the press corps drinking too much and playing a little hanky-panky inside the beltway. So everybody seems to have an interest in telling us half the story. Well, guess what? Alcoholism on Capitol Hill is a big problem, because it affects the way our laws are enacted. And sexual predation is a huge problem because it demeans us as a people and inflicts incalculable suffering on fellow human beings. Now there`s a story. Will the herd tell it? Don`t hold your breath. The herd is part of the problem. Truth is, we`re all part of the problem. We`re addicted to ugly news, which is why we get so much of it. But that doesn`t exonerate the press from telling the whole story, not just tidbits. The Mark Foley story is a tidbit.
Washington is a city run by women. Did you know that? No, you didn`t, because the press hasn`t found a way to tell you, and it hasn`t found the moral fortitude to tell you. Women run the government. They do all the little and not so little jobs that make our bureaucracy the best and the most efficient in the world. But the men run around all puffed up and take the credit. This is bad enough, but what it really means is that half the human race in Washington, and probably in every other city in the world for that matter, is oppressed. Every day in our nation`s capital "now so upset about the miserable Mark Foley and the trouble he`s caused his Republican colleagues "women are subject to verbal , emotional and even physical abuse. So what the congressional pages have suffered is a small part of a much bigger story. Truth is, women journalists are often themselves the victims of this abuse, and they habitually remain silent because it would cost them their careers to complain.
I`m not saying it would be easy to write the bigger story. It would be tough. But not impossible. It`s just that there`s no will to write it. The tough stories are hard to report, hard to write, expensive, and quite often they expose media complicity in the problem. So where`s the incentive to write them? And let me ask you this: How long can a democracy remain a democracy if the tough stories don`t get written?
If you could be a fly on the wall of the various Alcoholics Anonymous meetings around Capitol Hill, if you could sit in on the group therapy session, it would make your hair stand on end. You`d know the Mark Foley kerfuffle is peanuts compared to what`s really going on.
Now think about it? Isn`t this an important story? It affects how our government runs-- or doesn`t run, as the case may be. It involves hypocrisy on an immense, mind-boggling scale. It runs smack-dab in the face of all this baloney about family values and decency and integrity. And yet the story goes untold.
Now, just so you don`t think I`m fantasizing here, I`ve spent my time in some of those group therapy sessions. It wouldn`t be ethical for anyone to identify the people who attend them. Of course not. But that doesn`t mean that the overall situation should not be reported to the American people.
And that`s not all. How many times have you heard some politician "Jimmy Carter was a good example when he campaigned for the presidency "blaming all our troubles on those overpaid bureaucrats in Washington. How many politicians have you watched campaigning against our own civil service? And you know what, we have the best, most honest, hardest-working civil service in the world. It`s one of the wonders of the world. It`s the envy of every other nation. And every year our politicians bad-mouth it and blame our troubles on it, when in point of fact they are responsible for most of our troubles, and they are overpaid and over-privileged, not the civil servants who so ably serve them.
Did you know that story? No, because the herd doesn`t tell you. It`s not sexy enough. CNN can`t beat any drums about it. And yet critics of the press are always saying, Why don`t you guys tell us some good things that are happening? Well, how good our civil service is, that`s some good news, and who`s telling you? Nobody. But you heard it from me, today, and you`ll see for yourself when you get there.
Television anchors, but not their reporters, have a special problem. Their editors encourage an often inane jocularity between anchors that has become increasingly noisome in recent years. And it sometimes leads to editorializing, slanting the news. For example, on October 10th it was announced that the Army had met its recruitment goals and that one reason it had met them is that it had relaxed some of its criteria. For example, minor criminal records might be tolerated, less language proficiency would be okay, even lower intelligence standards. Oh that`s good, said one bright anchor on a major cable network. Oh yeah? What`s good? That the rules were relaxed or that the Army met its goals or both? And what business did she have editorializing in the first place? It is all an effort to be cute, to be bright, to be cheerful, but you see the problem, don`t you? The more this happens, the more we have infotainment and the less we have news. Eventually such an Army announcement will become a mere joke, and the very serious implications will pass under the radar. The fact is this was a very serious decision on the Army`s part, with very serious consequences.
When the Washington, DC, police force relaxed its recruitment standards in the late 1980s it had disastrous consequences for that police department. So all this cutesy-wootsy anchoring we`re getting on television sometimes comes with a pretty high price tag. Sometimes you can see this dilemma in the faces of the television reporters in the field when they wince at some particularly irrelevant or fatuous question from an anchor. Watch. You`ll see what I mean.
This is Del Marbrook and you`ve been listening to Hot Copy. If you think I occasionally have a few good thoughts, you can check out my web site at www.djelloulmarbrook.com. More later.