What a spooky week for news about news.
Who could disagree with such a noble idea?
Not long after followed the revelation that the conservative website Breitbart was to be among the news organizations in the “deeply reported and well-sourced” pool along with The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and lots of other traditional, mainstream media.
That touched off a firestorm.
CNN business analyst Oliver Darcy called the Facebook decision “baffling” on Saturday and reported that “CNN Business reached out to some experts in the journalism field to ask them what they thought of Facebook’s decision. None were supportive.”
“Almost everything Brietbart presents is the truth, or at least arguably the truth,” he wrote. “The problem with Breitbart is that it is tendentious, partisan, and biased, relentlessly propagandistic for its side and less interested in the pursuit of truth than in scoring points,” he wrote.
“So is CNN.
“Breitbart plays up true information that advances its worldview while downplaying or pushing back against true information it sees as damaging to its cause.
“So does CNN.”
Smith went on in that vein at length.
By the middle of this week, Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi was observing that the media has now fractured so badly that journalists can’t even agree on the rules for reporting.
“‘Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, austere religious scholar at helm of Islamic State, dies at 48
“The Post has since rewritten that, though the description of an ‘austere religious scholar with wire-rimmed glasses’ remains in the lead paragraph. Meanwhile, the headline on Foxnews.com:
“‘Al-Baghdadi kill: how the daring military operation went down’
“The Post headline would fit a quiet academic who died in his sleep, not a genocidal jihadist leader. The Fox headline is less nuts, but still not quite right: al-Baghdadi wasn’t killed but reportedly committed suicide, while pursued by American ‘military dogs.'”
Taibbi’s commentary was headlined simply “Baghdadi Story Reveals Divided — and Broken — News Media
“If you have two sets of news media, you have none”
Taibbi has been one of those old-school journalists unwilling to accept the idea that a liberal media focusing on revealing conservative corruption and a conservative media concentrating on outing liberal corruption spells better journalism.
“From Fox to the New York Times, all of the major commercial outlets this weekend were more consumed with telling audiences who benefited politically from the al-Baghdadi mission, than getting the facts about that mission out,” he wrote.
“This ought to have been a moment to reflect on what’s happened in the last twenty years, and if our policies across multiple administrations have been the right ones. Would we even be launching operations against such a person if we hadn’t invaded Iraq all those years ago? What’s the endgame? What do the people of the region think?
“All of this has been subsumed to the only story left that matters in the United States – who’s winning Twitter at any given moment, Trumpers or anti-Trumpers? News outlets are now so committed to pushing one or the other narrative that they are falling prey to absurdities like the Post’s ‘austere cleric’ headline.
“If papers are going to go this far in an obituary to avoid even the implication of a favorable Trump narrative, how are audiences supposed to trust reporting on super-charged partisan stories like impeachment? There’s more to life, and to the news, than what is or isn’t good for Donald Trump. Can’t we at least get a day or two of facts before we fight over whom they favor?”
The answer to that question is easy: “No.”
Modern journalism has found religion. The Catholics and the Protestants are having at it, and they’re only few explosive devices short of turning the whole news business into Northern Ireland.
Slant, slant and more slant
“Appropriately, many Americans used to roll their eyes at the brazen pettiness of Fox News. During the Obama years, the network seemed constitutionally incapable of reporting positive news of any kind, or even dealing with anodyne developments rationally,” Taibbi wrote. “‘This is proof he’s a Marxist,’ was a famed Fox line about Obama’s decision to wear a tan suit.
“Trump is inspiring similar insanity now with Fox’s opposites at the Times, Post, CNN, MSNBC, etc. I’m no fan of Trump either, but this has gotten to the point where there’s no longer any place to go, if you’re looking for unslanted first-draft takes on news.”
Granted, the news has always been plagued to some extent by subjectivity, for lack of a better word, as Taibbi admits. Journalists are human. None of them (this writer included) can ever be wholly objective because that is impossible for intelligent people, and it doesn’t really work to have morons report the news.
A collection of random facts is nothing but a collection of random facts. It takes a certain amount of intelligence and skill to identify the important facts and craft them into a news story. Sadly, this appears to be on its way to becoming a lost art.
Opinions have become so much more marketable than facts that they now shape the story before it even gets reported.
In Alaska, the Anchorage Daily News (ADN), which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for reporting that Alaska Natives are in “peril” because they drink too much, is trying to win another Pulitzer by reporting Alaska Natives are now suffering in “lawless” villages because there isn’t enough law enforcement, as if serious crime is an inherent problem in small communities.
Traditionally, it wasn’t, though that is changing.
The reportorial thing to do when this happens is to ask “why?” It is a specifically significant question given that police don’t really stop crime. Just ask the inner-city residents of St. Louis or Baltimore or Chicago. They’ll tell you what law enforcement does:
It arrives to pick up the bodies and, in the best case, investigate.
It takes a community to clean up crime. Why this isn’t happening in rural Alaska is a question that needs to be asked. But journalism is less and less about asking questions to try to find out what has gone on and more about trying to dictate what goes on – see The Guardian and its climate-change agenda.
The ADN is unlikely to win a Pulitizer for discovering a rural Alaska with problems similar to those in other rural parts of the country.
The explanations for the new, rural crime wave “are familiar ones,” Alan Greenblatt wrote at Governing. “Not all rural areas are poor, but many have lost jobs as factories have closed and farming has become increasingly consolidated. Lack of employment has naturally led to increases in poverty, which is closely associated with crime. The opioid epidemic has hit rural America particularly hard, and methamphetamine remains a major problem in many small towns.”
Rural America now has some of the same problems as inner-city America. Rural Alaska has long appeared to have some of the same problems as inner-city America, and the ADN has known for decades this warranted investigation.
When the newspaper was reporting its Pulitzer-winning “People in Peril” series 30 years ago, one-time city editor and later well-known columnist Mike Doogan pointed out the lack of jobs in rural Alaska. The economics story, it was decided at that time, was too “complicated” to report, but the newspaper would one day get to it.
Instead of getting to it in 2019, the ADN went back to the future in the even more agenda-driven journalism world of today. The state’s long-running war on alcohol in rural Alsaka, an idea backed by the newspaper, having failed to solve problems in the villages, the new journalistic goal is to put a cop in every village.
Is the lack of law enforcement really why people in rural Alaska are unhappy and acting out? And if the solution is to put a cop in every village, what happens if it fails? What next? A call for a cop in every home?
Less and less of the business of journalism today is about finding out how and why things are messed up. More and more of the business of journalism today is about trying to direct how things should be tomorrow based on one’s political views.
Journalism has done got religion.