I’ll admit it straight up. I’m a “news addict”. I keep my office TV tuned to the news (mainly MSNBC) most of my waking hours. In between I’m tuned in to the same place via satellite radio and my phone. I dare not look away.
I don’t watch for the news — except for the “breaking news” when it first breaks (and not for the subsequent five hours of its “breaking”). I watch because I’m a concerned citizen deeply concerned that the Fourth Estate is not living up to its Constitutionally mandated responsibility. I watch like a canary in a coal mine — squawking its head off because the environment is deeply, deeply toxic and will kill us for sure if we don’t stop.
Yesterday — with the drop of the redacted Mueller Report — the American News Media were handed a kind of Magna Carta. It’s an imperfect foundational document that must be the basis for how America begins to handle the cancer gnawing at our vital systemic organs. Our News Media will not see it that way. They’re not deep enough. They’re not insightful enough. Their idea of analysis can’t possibly plumb those depths because it can’t take in the required perspective.
If not for journalists and citizen journalists (Seth Abramson should be nominated for sainthood; so should Sarah Kendzior & Jennifer Cohn and a host of other relentless pursuers of the truth), the US might have already slid past our Democratic Event Horizon — the point beyond which our Democracy could not be pulled back from the black hole of Republican Corruption. If not for David Corn’s advocacy of the Steele Dossier, while it might have still made its way through legal channels, it would have done so with a hell of a lot more pressure caused by the very criminals it was identifying.
There ARE journalists & writers & thinkers who’ve understood this story — its nature and its core truths — from the get-go. They’re a small club.
It’s a core truth: take any profession you like — the overwhelming majority of people working in it will be proficient. Good but not great. Let’s call them what they are: “Mediocre”. Like any other group, the journalism profession is filled with mediocrity. Unfortunately, these here times need something better. Voila la probleme!
I’m a storyteller by profession. My IMDb profile reflects a fraction of my professional storytelling life. The point of my mentioning it: I’m not some piker. I’m not just another guy out on the internets shouting ignorant Jeremiads into the wind. I’ve actually made a buck or two doing this thing. In a world where anyone with a blog can be an “expert”, I may not be “an expert” (let’s call that subjective), but I can sure point to a few examples to suggest I “might” know what I’m talking about.
When it comes to storytelling, I know my shit. Trust me on this.
With that in mind — I’m offering these suggestions to our chums in the Main Stream News Media. I’ve worked under journalistic restrictions. I’ve had to back up my shit. This is about storytelling — with purpose.
Here are your problems in a nutshell:
- FAILURE OF IMAGINATION
- An addiction to “BOTH SIDES DO IT” thinking
- Normalcy Bias
The first is the killer — and FAILURE OF IMAGINATION is the flaw that leads to the other two problems. I’m not sure it IS solvable. Maybe it’s just the case that you’re born with imagination or you’re not. Mediocrity turns most journalists into the proverbial blind person feeling up an elephant for the first time and trying to make sense of it. It’s outside their range. Then, in the midst of their confusion, they start to analyze — using not solid data but their own fuzzy perceptions. Gosh, what could possibly go wrong?
Frequently, watching them, I perceive a veal thrashing against the confines of its box.
An example from the recent past — in order to explain Donald Trump’s “inexplicable” behavior, whole round tables of journalists and journalistic fellow travelers would often “put themselves in his shoes” in order to explain his behavior. Problem invariably was — each well-meaning but clueless nitwit tried to explain Trump’s narcissistic, sociopathic actions through the lens of their own behaviors. They were explaining Trump as if he was them.
Result — “analysis” that was miles away from the truth — even further away from being of value. How like bullshit! It’s all first rate — and so much of it!
To analyze Trump you have to get inside HIS head. To do that, you have to use your imagination. BUT — the way journalists are supposed to do it — they use their imaginations based on deep, background knowledge of their subject. They can point to multiple instances of past behavior to justify projecting similar behaviors forward in a different (more recent) context. It’s exactly what they’re doing now — projecting future behaviors based on past — except based on the right character (Trump) not the wrong one (them).
I withdraw my “must be born with it”. I just demonstrated — American News Media CAN use their imagination. They just have to WANT TO…
I don’t think I’m alone in pointing to “BOTH SIDES DO IT” thinking (“thinking” should be in quotation marks too) as part of American journalism’s core problem. I would love to know where it came from — where it started. Was this disease born in some American journalism school and then spread outward like typhus or dysentery?
Guys like Chuck Todd are the deans of “Both Sides Do It” journalism (“journalism” should be in quotation marks too). “Both Sides Do It” — by its nature — fosters the creation of False Equivalences. Inequal things get equalized. Bernie Madoff, we all agree, is a thief. By the same token — thievery being thievery — so is the character Jean Valjean from Les Miserables (or, for you “kids”, Les Mis). Madoff stole BILLIONS. Valjean stole bread.
In Chuck Todd’s world, “both sides did it” — both sides STOLE. Proportion plays no part. All facts have the same feather weight.
It ain’t so. And every “journalist” who thinks this way is betraying their Constitutionally mandated duty.
NORMALCY BIAS infects us all. No one is immune. That’s why you have to be hyper-vigilant about it. Something in us aches for “normalcy”. Normalcy equals safety, security. We hate being on edge 24/7. It’s wearing us out. We want normal back.
Wishing won’t make it happen though. When things aren’t normal, we need to point them out — and if they’re harmful to us (like, say, CORRUPTION is), we need to REFUSE to EVER allow them to be normalized. Yet here we are. Normalization is a process. We didn’t just drop here, magically transported. We walked here.
If not for normalcy bias, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign would have ended the day it began. It would have died stepping out of its trench — going down in a hale of “Mexicans are rapists” bullets. But Trump’s campaign didn’t end that day. It continued — because the press covering the story let it continue. Rather than put their collective foot down and DEMAND what the hell he meant — not being satisfied till he admitted the clear, obvious truth: he meant HE’S A RACIST and A BIGOT — the American press accepted Trump’s behavior as “different”. This was just “how Trump was”.
Just like that, racism and bigotry had been normalized.
Now, granted, “pussy-grabbing” got short-circuited by Wikileaks dumping Hillary Clinton’s emails, but even the emails (in point of fact) were a Republican-backed crime that the American News Media couldn’t wait to normalize and use to their own advantage. Let’s be quite clear — the principle vector for transmitting stolen Democratic emails & internal data was the American News Media. They were literally working at Russia’s behest each and every time. You don’t have to be witting to be a useful idiot.
Russia used our news media’s Normalcy Bias to get them to carry Russia’s message-water.
That has to stop.
What has this done to us? How has American News Media’s failure hurt us?
Well, for starters — as I just said — it’s undermined our concept of “Truth”. We’ve put its definition up for grabs like a jump ball. But the Truth isn’t subjective.
There is Core Truth. We need our news media to focus its limited skillsets on getting to it. My simple (if not very humble) suggestion is this: “Keep asking WHY?” Do not accept any “WHY?” that doesn’t get to the very, VERY bottom. It means more “WHY’S?” need asking. No one — NO ONE — ever does things for “no reason”. A person doing terrible things may not be able to adequately articulate what’s driving them — but “something” is driving them other than “that’s just how they are”.
In the case of Donald Trump, American News Media, it means he doesn’t do what he’s doing because “he’s different”.
You saying “he’s different” means “you suck at your job”. That’s a problem for us. For two plus years, you have failed for all the reasons above to TELL the most important story you will ever get to cover and any of us will ever have to live through. While “crazies” on the left gnashed their teeth about Russia, the American News Media turned up its nose. Even as they described treasonous-sounding behavior (Trump meeting with Putin sans a single other American), they assumed it must be “normal” somehow because the President of the United States was doing it — and so therefore it must be “normal”.
As recently as last week, actual “journalists” were questioning if the Mueller Report would contain anything of value. Actual “journalists” were ignoring how AG Bill Barr had used grammar and a damned footnote to bamboozle them into proclaiming right along with Trump that there was “no collusion”. Apparently the meaning of quotes that start with a [bracketed] first letter didn’t get taught where American journalists went to school…
Apparently they never learned how to read footnotes either…
Our News Media were handed a kind of gift yesterday. They were given insight into massive corruption. They were given actual perspective.
That is their gut check: Will all those mediocrities gumming up the American News Media be able to use perspective. Hell, will they even recognize what it is?
I worry for us.