NEWPORT, Ore. – All across America these days, the day-to-day decay of the mainstream media is on display.
The big problem is not the oft-cited bias, though there is plenty of that given journalists are human. But the bias is something of a distraction.
As is often the case for so many things, the real problem lives in the details. The little things matter. The little things are so often the telltale to the question of “can I believe this?”
About a dozen miles up coast from here, two people died a couple of days ago at a place called Depoe Bay. It was a tragic event. The husband and wife left behind a 10-year-old child rescued by Oregon authorities.
The media took the tragedy and tried to make it even more tragic:
“As a family picnicked near the ocean on Sunday afternoon, a wave rushed out and fatally swept away a 10-year-old girl’s parents,” wrote Josh Magness for the McClatchy News Service.
Any thinking person who read that story had to wonder “what really happened?”
The lead on the McClatchy story might actually have been worse than the headline from the Daily Mail: “Daughter, 10, watches in horror from the beach as her parents are swept out to sea in Oregon, just two months after the family moved from China to start a new life in the US.”
Some of what the Daily Mail described might actually have taken place, though if the daughter saw the accident she wasn’t on a “beach.”
Beaches versus cliffs
The Oregon coast has beautiful, sand beaches, miles and miles and miles of them. And between those beaches are steep, rocky headlands.
Both the beaches and headlands get pounded by waves that roll uninterrupted across the Pacific Ocean all the way from Asia. The waterfront is dynamic. The surf slams onto the sand and climbs up onto the headlands.
People picnic on the beaches, but they do not picnic close to the surf because it is prone to sending the odd wash of water rolling far above the tideline. And who wants to picnic where you can’t put anything on the ground for fear of it getting soaked?
People picnic above the headlands, too, up on the top away from the steep, rocky faces because it is difficult to picnic on a steep, rocky cliff.
If you’ve spent any time at all on the Oregon coast, your only reaction to the Magness story was that it made little sense.
So what really happened? Here’s the official version from the Oregon State Police:
“…Miaochan Chen (age 49 from Lake Oswego-male) and Wenjun Zhu (age 41 from Lake Oswego-female) were visiting the Oregon coast with their 10-year-old daughter. The group were picnicking off Otter Crest Loop when Chen , Zhu, and their daughter took a trail down to rocks which overlooked the ocean. A wave washed over the rocks and swept Chen and Zhu into the ocean.”
That’s an accurate snapshot of a part of the picture. Chen and Zhu, immigrants from China not long in the U.S., did, by all accounts, leave a picnic to take a hike down to the rocks below a geographic feature with the word “Crest” in its name.
But the official statement from police doesn’t tell the full story.
The U.S. Coast Guard indicated that there might be more with its official report that “Sector North Bend Command… received a request for assistance for two people who had reportedly been swept out to sea by a rogue wave while foraging for mussels.”
Between the police and the Coast Guard reports, it was pretty clear these tragic deaths had little to do with a picnic and everything to do with people wandering onto a potentially dangerous cliff.
And if one dug deep enough – Google and Facebook, despite all their supposed concerns about “fake news” actually make it harder to find “true news” by giving web priority to news crap – there could be found a story by KGW8 reporters Max Barr and Lindsay Nadrich, who actually went to the scene of the accident while a search for Chen and Zhu was underway.
This is what the news media used to do, but there was little of this to be found here Monday. The local online media reprinted the official Coast Guard statement in whole and later printed the official Oregon State Police statement in whole. And, well, you figure it out.
So what happened?
“On Sunday afternoon, the couple, their daughter and a third adult had a picnic near the Otter Crest Loop, south of Depoe Bay,” Barr and Nadrich reported from Rocky Creek State Park above the site of the accident. “After, they took a trail down to some rocks overlooking the ocean to go fishing, according to Lt. Cary Boyd of the Oregon State Police.
“After they were done fishing, the couple and the third adult stayed down at the rocks while the daughter took her fishing pole and started to walk back.
“As the couple was taking a picture, a wave washed over the rocks and took the father first, Boyd said.
“‘The other male individual and his wife, Wenjun, had stayed down and were yelling at Miaochan to see if they could get him back up to the rocks when another wave came and took his wife out to the ocean also,’ Boyd said.”
The true story wasn’t about a picnic at all. It was about a fishing couple who ventured too close to dangerous surf to take a picture only to be swept away as has happened so many times before.
It’s simply sad they didn’t know the danger, or knew it and underestimated the risk.
In the wake of the accident, Oregon state officials were once again reminding people to avoid surf-pounded headlands and beaches. Google “swept to sea by wave” and you pull up dozens upon dozens of stories about the danger posed by water in these places:
A 4-year-old boy swept to his death near Kitty Hawk in April, a man in his 40s swept out of Depoe Bay back in January, elderly sisters killed in November while on a “dream vacation in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, a woman swept off a Rogue River jetty and killed south of this Oregon city in October of last year, and many more.
The list of tragedies goes on and on. Surf-pounded beaches and headlands are potentially dangerous. They kill people so often that when someone dies it is somewhat predictable.
And who wants to read predictable news?
To make it less predictable, someone like Magness writes: “As a family picnicked near the ocean on Sunday afternoon, a wave rushed out and fatally swept away a 10-year-old girl’s parents.”
Journalists have long dramatized the news, sometimes sensationalized it, to attract readers. But in these days of digital media with almost everyone chasing internet traffic, the dramatization is closing in on absurd.
Many of the people who do this think they are helping save the news. In truth, they’re killing it. They are actually a far greater threat to the news than all of those commentators who twist and spin because we all expect commentators to twist and spin.
But the simple stuff, the so-called “straight news,” well, there was a time when we all expected journalists to at least get that right. There was a time when we thought the news could be counted on to accurately or at least semi-accurately provide facts, or at least try.
That time is ending. And as it does, Americans understandably trust the news less and less because you really can’t count on journalists to get much of anything right.
All of which is sad, depressing and more than a little scary in a democracy led by a president regularly ranting about “fake news.” Much of Donald Trump’s complaining is simply about news he doesn’t happen to like, but with the reality of so much of the news being done so badly, it is easy for many to believe Trump might be right about the fake part.