The climbing season on North America’s tallest mountain is now well over, and if it feels like you missed it, well, there’s a reason.
And that involves a story not about mountaineering, but about how news gets delivered or doesn’t in these United States in the second decade of the new millennium.
In this case, a fair bit of the news never arrived, though it was out there. But it’s pretty much pointless to talk about this without first explaining how the news works today.
Nine times out of ten, if not more, it starts with an e-mail to reporters from a government organization, a non-government organization (NGO), or sometimes a business. The reporters then rewrite this email, sometimes a lot, sometimes very little, to create the news.
Questions about the email might get asked, but more often not. Some context might get added, but more often not. Usually the news is almost purely what someone in officialdom has provided.
If there is potential for good “visuals,” the video folks will leave the office to grab those, but they are increasingly willing to take whatever video might be provided.
America hasn’t quite reached the dystopian world portrayed in author George Orwell’s “1984.” There is as yet no official, unified, “Ministry of Truth,” but there are many little ministries of truth upon which the mainstream media has come to depend in much the way an addict depends on a dope dealer for her or his next fix.
Those entities now play the key roles in selecting what becomes news. The days of reporters going out and looking for news are largely history. These days the news comes to those who sit and wait.
Journalism has largely forfeited to public relations the task of deciding what Americans need to know. It’s understandable. There are a lot of public relations people at work these days, and some of them were once journalists. Some of them still think they are in the news business.
MJ Thim, the Anchorage Police Department’s minister of truth, is the former assistant news director for KTVA-Channel 11 in Anchorage and later a member of KTUU-Channel 2’s “Morning Edition.”
As the APD minister of truth, he wrote about a Hillside wolf on the APD Facebook page this winter, social media being the new media which the ministers of truth love for its speed, ease and lax rules for accuracy, and tipped the mainstream media to the post. Some promptly bit on this infotainment “story” even though if one looked closely at the photos of said wolf it appeared to be wearing a collar.
But the wolf report originated with an “official” source, and if it comes from an official source….
You should be able to read links to the stories written at the time, but they appear to have disappeared behind updates as part of another new phenomenon in journalism – “ghost editing.”
If a mistake is made, rewrite the story, post it under the original URL, and just don’t tell anyone. This happens now with some regularity and rarely a notation as to what the original story might have said or even a hint at what was changed other than a tagline at the top saying “updated,” if that.
“It was a great community connector. It was a really great community conversation about what this animal was.”
Orwell had no word for such behavior but if he’d thought this possible, he’d likely have come up with “doubledodge.” Instead of just admitting you got something wrong, shift the emphasis to how great it was that you got it wrong.
This not meant to pick on Thim. Among the ministers of truth, he is far from alone in spreading misinformation. Sometimes the ministers lie for whatever reason they believe it necessary to lie. Other times they make simple, human mistakes.
Sometimes in trying to be helpful they devise answers to questions to which they do not know the answer. Sometimes they get carried away with a desire to entertain as appeared to be the case in the great wolf escapade.
The media’s job – the media’s most important job – used to be to try to sort the substance from the BS of the news handlers. There was a time when reporters were expected to be skeptical of everything and especially so of public-relations spokesmen, spokeswomen or, to use a gender-neutral term, “flacks.”
“Technically, most dictionaries will refer to flack as a press agent/spokesperson. But we all know it’s not the preferred name for a spokesperson, for a communicator, for a PR executive. Yet it’s used all the time,” wrote Diane Schwartz at PR News a decade ago as the world of news was beginning a radical change.
“The term, as used in the NY Post story, connotes a certain condescension for the PR trade.”
Probably so. It was always considered bad form to actually call a flack by that name in publication. But then again, it was also considered bad form to treat a public-relation’s spokes, even a public relation’s spokes you knew well, as if they were in the business of telling the truth.
Trust but verify.
A numbers game
In a 2015 story headlined “How P.R. is Killing Journalism,” Eric Alterman, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College and a columnist for The Nation, quoted BBC News Economics Editor Robert Peston observing that while “some of [my] best friends are in PR, (I have) never been in any doubt that PRs are the enemy.”
Why? Because the flacks – be they in government, NGOs or business – work for bosses who want good public relations with good being explained in very simple terms: Make me, us, the agency, the business, whatever, look fabulous.
Some, like Thim, are very good at their jobs. That “wolf” got a lot of people talking about APD in a “great community conversation” sort of way as Thim spun it. And this where the news is today with little hope for tomorrow.
The spinmeisters are winning. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are now 38,790 people employed as reporters and correspondents in this country versus 233,730 employed as public relations specialists. The latter earn a mean annual wage of $67,990, the former some $16,440 less. (A lot less here. Feel free to contribute and help out.)
The people in the business of manufacturing news now out number the people reporting the news by a ratio of 6 to 1, and the ratio is accelerating in the direction of more PR. The Guardian reported the ratio at 4.6 to 1 only four years ago.
“As journalism grows ever weaker financially—combined print and digital advertising revenues tumbled 55 percent from 2003 to 2013, according to the Newspaper Association of America—and the investments made by PR firms are increasingly able to dwarf those of journalistic entities even in areas like reporting and production capabilities, lines that were once considered unthinkable to cross grow hazier,” Alterman wrote.
“Technology is also tilting the balance toward unfiltered corporate communications over objective reporting. Advertising and public relations companies can now reach the public outside the old-fashioned journalistic channels, via YouTube and other social media. They have invested so much money in these productions that their ‘reports’ often have better production values than those of even the most prestigious news organizations.”
Alterman fingered business, noting how Chevron hired former CNN journalist Gene Randall in 2009 to beat CBS’s 60 Minutes to the punch on a story it was doing about Chevron and pollution in the Amazon rain forest.
But business can’t hold a candle to government in terms of taking over the news.
Government handlers increasingly gather, sort and process information the way reporters used to do the job and then hand it off: “Murphy here; Get me write” as the Charles Durning character says in the movie classic The Front Page.
What could possibly go wrong ? Nothing if you trust that government flacks always get things right or always treat the news fairly.
Hint: they don’t.
With the politics around salmon blowing up in Cook Inlet at the front door of Alaska’s largest city these days, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s “Alaska Fish & Wildlife News,” an online magazine, will be happy to provide you “The History of Upper Cook Inlet Salmon Fisheries – A Century of Salmon.”
It starts, strangely enough, with the opening of the Inlet’s commercial fisheries. The Dena’ina Indians dipnetting at the mouth of the Kenai River at the time of White contact in much the way the state’s most multi-ethnic fishery goes fishing now are oddly overlooked. So, too, the early homesteaders who often got their fish by snagging them with rod and reel.
The government-reported history is actually most interesting for what it leaves out than for what it reports. A more accurate account of the changes Cook Inlet has undergone can be found in a Department technical paper on customary and traditional uses written by the agency’s subsistence staff in 2004.
Subsistence was the have-fun-and-feed-yourself fishery before the creation of “sport fishing,” which was nothing but an effort to rein in harvests when the number of subsistence fishermen became too big for the resource to support.
These everyman fisheries were crushed by the Inlet’s big money fishery in the 1950s and ’60s. This is what happens in capitalism. What no one could have anticipated is that rod-and-reel fishing – sport fishing – would eventually become its own money fishery and began battling back.
Or that a push for expanded aboriginal rights born from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s in the Deep South could ignite the populist politics behind the idea of a subsistence economy in the country’s northernmost state and the newfangled idea of “food security” would in turn spring from that.
All of which brings this back to the National Park Service at Denali, which had little to do with most of what is written above and very much to do with the phenomenon of government news. The agency actually did less to manipulate the news this year than it has in the past, which only served to underline how the system has come to work.
If a climber falls….
By doing less, the agency provided a lesson in how press-release driven the news has become.
On June 6 this year, a climber nearly died on Denali due to exposure to carbon monoxide (CO), a poisonous gas about which every camper should be aware. If you’re in a sealed tent, and you’re running a stove with an exposed flame, CO can easily kill you.
In the past, the media would have been duly notified of this near death, the rescue that followed, and the evacuation of the climber from the 14,200-foot camp. And then you would have read a “news” story about it. Maybe even a news story that alerted you to the potential danger of undetectable and dangerous CO if the reporter was knowledgeable enough to add that context.
This year, the story was reported, but it didn’t make the news.
“Luckily, the (near-dead) climber’s teammate and tentmate had started feeling ‘funny’ or sick earlier that evening and decided to go outside and shovel snow for a while,” recorded the Denali Dispatches Field Report, an NPS-maintained blog. “When he opened his tent and found his seizing partner, he yelled for help.
“Rangers put both climbers on high flow oxygen throughout the night, and the patient with the more severe CO poisoning also underwent treatments in the Gamow Bag, a portable hyperbaric chamber, to improve oxygenation. Both climbers symptoms improved, and they were evacuated on Friday, June 8 when weather conditions allowed.
“Had the one climber not gone outside for some fresh air, both climbers would likely have succumbed to CO poisoning. Climbers and backcountry users are cautioned to ensure proper ventilation whenever cooking indoors!”
Why didn’t this and a few other interesting Denali incidents make the news? Queried on the subject, the Park’s Maureen Gualtieri was as frank and honest as she usually is:
“I’m fairly confident we’ve been in the news less because we’ve published fewer formal news releases. We are still working internally on our threshold of what NPS rescue/interventions rise to the office news release level and what does not. Decades ago, new releases went out practically every time the helicopter flew, but we eased away from that over the past 10 years or so.
“Nowadays, through our Denali Dispatches blog, I’d say we are putting more information out there about the amazing work our rangers do up there than we ever used to, from the mundane to the heroic. But it’s growing clear the blog is mostly reaching the climbing community and the handful of journalists who follow it. Maybe that’s OK; maybe not. We’re working on defining that indefinable sweet spot about what incidents rise to the occasion.”
One of the honest ones (there are actually many), Gualtieri is spot on with her observations, especially the part about the “handful of journalists who follow it.” There was a time when climbing was a journalistic “beat” in Alaska. There were reporters in Alaska who kept up with what was going on in the mountains and knew enough about climbing to write intelligently about it.
Those days are gone. So, too, most of the beats, other than maybe politics.
Young reporters now don’t get enough time to learn about much of anything before the smarter of them figure out the game and move on to working in public relations where the pay is better and “reporting” the story is in many ways easier.
You gather all the information. You write it the way your bosses want it written. And they’re happy with you.
As CNN reporter turned flack Randall told the National Journal, “I don’t portray it as a piece of journalism, but I used journalistic techniques in telling Chevron’s side of the story.”
When you work for a public relations outfit, you can play at being a journalist without having to suffer the blowback from the people who question your motives for doing a story or the story’s accuracy or whether you misspelled someone’s name wrong or who knows what else.
But at some point, when the system reaches its ultimate end where all journalists are conditioned to the idea their job is to take the news gathered by government and do nothing but rewrite it, you’ve got to wonder what happens to democracy.
Against this potentiality, the models of Fox News and MSNBC – which are, right and left, part news and part the loyal opposition – start to look a lot better than most local mainstream media, which in most cases, doesn’t want to challenge anybody or anything.
When is the last time you saw or heard of a reporter asking a public official a tough question or two? The last I heard of who did that was later made to apologize for the behavior. Sam Donaldson, the famously aggressive ABC reporter and 1997 Broadcaster of the Year, would probably get arrested for disorderly conduct in these politically correct times.
And don’t be fooled by the new-found aggressiveness of the likes of the New York Times and the Washington Post. Driven by a hatred for a president they don’t like, they are well-funded exceptions that make the rule. They can afford to rock the boat; they might even make money by rocking the boat; and so they rock.
Your local mainstream news organization in Alaska or elsewhere? There’s nothing for it to gain in probing societal problems or ferreting out injustice or simply correcting government misinformation, and there is too much to lose.
It’s safer and easier to just take the handouts, rewrite them and repeat:
“We don’t make the news. We just report the news.”
Which leaves only one very obvious question: “If that’s the case, who the hell actually makes the news?”