The State of the News

Not anything in particular except by way of illustration.

When did the news become The News? I don’t know and don’t have time at the moment to research it, but it’s good to remember that, somehow, for centuries, people made do with gossip and hearsay about almost everything we consider news today, delivered by word of mouth. So things haven’t really changed much, except at some point the gossip mongers and rumor mills got professionalized. The also added some research capabilities, and have greatly taken advantage of technological advances. However, based on personal experience, on what a look at the news has revealed over the past 5 decades during which I’ve looked at it, the content only marginally and occasionally reflects supposed improvements in research (“investigative reporting”) – it’s still mostly of the quality of what I’d imagine the women discussed around the fountain in the village square.

Image result for dirty laundryInstead, professional and technological improvements have mostly merely expanded the scope of what is to be gossiped about, without much improving the quality. Our poor benighted ancestors would only gossip about the foibles of the people they knew, maybe encompassing a few neighboring villages. Maybe the local aristocracy might come come in for a few whispers. Now, we can hear gossip about ‘celebrities’ and politicians  (insofar as those differ) round the clock and around the world. Based on what’s in the news and who and how many are paying attention to it, the research from the Moscow Bureau or whatever serves a tiny audience – at least, until the “investigative reporting” by “senior correspondants” is reduced to gossip, in cases where such a reduction is necessary. Thus, what exactly is going on in, say, Venezuela or Palestine is unlikely to see the light of day in the Press, and will be simplified beyond legitimate meaning before it sticks in anybody’s brain. The facts as revealed in conversations with just about anybody in almost any media sadly seem to bear this out.

We did go through a period in my lifetime where certain news anchors were canonized if not deified. Walter Cronkite springs to mind. They were trusted dispensers of the Truth. So was, I suppose, Walter Duranty a few generations earlier. But a harder look shows that such news anchors and senior correspondents had only augmented their rumor mongering with a bit of propaganda. The assumption that they were any smarter or better informed, let alone more moral and truthful, than your average garage mechanic or numbers racketeer is hard to maintain in the light of objective evidence.

But we trusted them. And, frankly, adored them. Modern reporters are now faced with an increasingly hostile environment in which only the Home Team even listens to them, and only if they say what the fans want to hear (not that there seems to be much of a risk of anything else happening). It has got to be hard when your idols are attacked, and even harder when what you, the cub reporter, had aspired to goes up in smoke: if you do a great job and get a few breaks, you still won’t be respected and loved like Uncle Walter. People will probably do worse than hate you – they will dismiss you without a thought.

Maybe. Some reporters still seem to think News Media are the secular clergy, and that those who oppose them are thus heretics in need of a good burning at the stake.

I wish I were kidding.

A couple years ago, I wrote a blog post which included a discussion of one Zach Carter, a “Senior political economy reporter” at the Huffington Post. Over the course of an interview with a wizened political economist, Mr. Carter, it seems, was revealed to be both utterly uniformed on the topic of his supposed expertise – political economy – and, more worrisome, utterly unconcerned with his ignorance. In his defence, I’ll point out that the problem is really the Huffington Post’s, who gave him the job and title, and the University of Virginia, which gave him a degree supposedly in evidence he knew some stuff. Also, he can’t be much older than 35, and his pictures on his bios would make Zuckerberg appear an ancient sage by comparison. He’s still getting carded, I’d bet.

I take this as evidence of a general trend, that of inflating titles far beyond the demonstrable qualifications of the position-holder, merely because a) the company needs that position filled, and b) the person filling it must appear to have a certain gravitas that it is hoped a ponderous title might give him. Moreover, as prestige and money in the news media continues to evaporate, papers are forced to recruit among people who will take reduced compensation in exchange for perceived prestige – that’s how you get Senior Vice Presidents and Senior Associate Directors.

Next, I’ve lost track of some item I thought I’d saved somewhere, wherein it was claimed that journalism is more and more becoming a profession for those who don’t need a job. Googled around, and what I could find: journalism in general pays a solid middle-class wage, in the neighborhood of $50k a year on average. Put another way, your average journalist makes around $25/hr, which is a bit more than an auto union member makes, and indeed, considerably less than what your plumber likely makes.

Yet another source (not going to provide links here – these items were on the 1st page of a Google search on journalist salaries, if you’re interested) mentions that journalist tend to be highly educated, and that the name publications, such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, have high representation of people with degrees from elite schools, like 40-50% among editors and reporters.

Now, putting two and two together: if I get a degree from Harvard or Yale, I’m not looking at taking a few years to work up to a $50k salary. We can safely assume the NYT and WSJ, prestigious and located in New York, pay way more. But even twice the average – $100K – is not providing the kind of life a Manhattan sophisticate is expected to live.  I’m not paying off any of the couple hundred grand of school debt I may have incurred by going Ivy League on $100k/yr if I’m also paying Manhattan level living expenses. Further, if this is true, that cub reporter in Des Moines is going to be lucky to make $25K, or about $12.50 an hour, if the averages are going to work out.

So, the allegation that people who don’t need the money are overrepresented among journalists is at least not contradicted by the tiny amount of data I was willing to dig up for a blog post. Speculating a little more broadly, it would not be surprising if the wanna be Zach Carters of the world, with sterling degrees, no significant school debt, and delusions or at least aspirations of relevancy, might end up in journalism, while people with school debt to repay and objectively valuable knowledge and skills would have less of that tendency. Who knows? But in the immortal words of Don Henley:

You don’t really need to find out what’s going on
You don’t really want to know just how far it’s gone
Just leave well enough alone
Eat your dirty laundry

Finally, year before last, when the Oroville Dam was having some serious issues due to a rainy season with near 200% of average precipitation, I wanted to keep up on the goings-on. Evacuations, the risks, if any, to the dam itself, mitigation and repair steps taken, that sort of thing. If you consume any mainstream news, you will not be surprised to learn that I found the information on offer from these sources sorely lacking.

So I surfed around. I discovered a YouTube channel run by Juan Brown, a gentleman who lives in the general area of the dam, flies his own airplane, and likes to make videos. Turns out that a number of people put together videos on the failure of the main and emergency spillways and on the California DWR’s efforts to manage the situation. (The CA-DWR is the manager of our reservoir system). The DWR P.R. department even hired some people with drones to put out dramatic videos every week or so of the damage and, later, the repair efforts. Very pretty stuff. But Mr. Brown was the only source that stayed on top of it and, most importantly, seemed to actually understand what was going on. When something crazy was said on the news – and, shocking, I know, but any scary-sounding thing got immediately picked up by all the news ‘sources’ – Juan would address it in his videos. No, he would patiently explain, cracks or leaks in the underlying roller compacted concrete are not an issue, as Phase II entails installation of drainage and placing of a hardened concrete cap on top, for example. Cost overruns were not due (this one time, at least) to bureaucratic incompetence, but to the inability to get a good estimate due to the need to do a lot of work to understand the underlying geology before being able to size the project. And so on.

He attended the DWR news briefings, and seemed to be the only guy there asking intelligent questions or, indeed, understanding the answers. As you can imagine, the PR people with the DWR and Kiewit, the project management firm, started to get to know and appreciate Brown. Last week, he published part II of a guided tour of the site, not something the general public is getting, lead by a DWR and a Kiewit P.R. person.

At one point, off-camera, the lady from the DWR asked him a question: why are you doing this? Why are you so interested in this project? He gave the obvious answers: it’s in his backyard, it’s the biggest engineering project going on at the moment in the entire US, and he finds it fascinating.

Now, I have no way to independently verify the accuracy of Brown’s understanding and analysis of the Oroville Dam spillway projects, but I have a lot more confidence in him than I do any of the young, pretty people I’ve seen report on this in the ‘real’ media. Why? He asks the questions I would ask, and explains the answers in a way that makes sense.

Juan Brown is in some sense exactly the reporter who doesn’t need the money. He just doesn’t work for the media.

The appearance that needs to be saved here is the readily-observable ignorance and clear lack of worry over such ignorance by just about any news reporter or writer. The theory on the table is that careers in journalism appeal to a certain type of person: one who doesn’t need to make a lot of money, and who is attracted to an inner circle of sorts. The sort who can be paid in prestige, and who is not worried by, or perhaps fails to notice, their own manifest incompetence in the face of confusing facts.

In other words, the reason journalists are in general not any more reliable or informative than the women gossiping while drawing water in the village square is that, for many people involved, it’s not a passion for accuracy or truth that drives them, but in fact something much more akin to that feeling a gossip gets when she has something particularly juicy to share.

Maybe? Hey, it’s a theory, I’m sure there are others.

Perhaps next I should think about what news even is, really, and how much, if at all, we need it. I suspect not very much.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

4 thoughts on “The State of the News”

  1. it’s still mostly of the quality of what I’d imagine the women discussed around the fountain in the village square.

    FWIW, that’s still after being restrained by Catholic restrictions.

    Which is a minor improvement?

  2. “If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.”
    Often attributed to Mark Twain, but not actually something he said according to this website: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2016/12/03/misinformed/
    Which also had a Thomas Jefferson quote that sounds like the early 19th century version of “fake news”
    “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day.

  3. Issue: one of my husband’s co-workers is in his mid 40s…and is single because his first wife was shallow, and at 40+ he looks about mid twenties.

    I got over it quick, because if you talked to him for two minutes it was cool.

    Apparently, a lot of folks didn’t do that.

  4. And yet to this day we’re reading Mr. Hamilton arguing separation of powers vs. Brutus in the Federalist and anti- Federalist Papers.

    I do think you’re on to something. Just not all of it.

    “Run and find out” is as much an impulse for a scientist as your gossips.

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