Tuesday, June 29, 2010
"A vapid and hollow charade...."
I was looking at this, and thinking about how, as the author says, most use of "anonymous sources" is just an excuse for lazy reporting. And then there's the "blowback" against the Rolling Stone McChrystal article; if Lara Logan is a representative example of journalists today, their job is not to report the news, but to report the news their sources want them to report, when they want it reported. That's simply what she says there: sources tell her when to report, and when not to, and respecting sources is much more important than reporting news. Because, apparently, we only need to know what the sources want the reporters to let us know, and while the journalists may know much more than that, their first duty is to their sources, never to the general public.
It's a problem of Kierkegaardian proportions. But let's get back to the first issue, first: the problem of "anonymous sources" is not entirely laziness; it's also a matter of technology. If you want to boil it down to one source, let's blame Ted Turner.
Turner was praised as a visionary (or damned as a madman) when he turned "TBS" from a "superchannel" (remember those?) to the basis for a cable network that soon spread to CNN, CNN Headline News, and TCM. But it was CNN that did it: 24 hour cable news. Information around the clock, from around the world, to you in your living room. What could go wrong, with a world to choose from? How could you ever run out of information?
Except, of course, CNN doesn't bring you the world: it brings you America, and a damned small portion of that. Mostly what it brings are stories that claim national attention (hurricanes, floods, oil well blowouts in the Gulf of Mexico) and politics, which means mostly D.C. Turner tried to center his network in Atlanta, Georgia, but technology is a two-edged sword, and the power to send out a signal from somewhere besides New York or El "A", meant the power to receive a signal back from those places, too. In the end, the incoming signal proved stronger than even geography. Long before "cyberspace" made location irrelevant, it didn't matter where Wolf Blitzer's "Situation Room" was physically located: psychically, it was rooted in D.C. So news didn't change; it got worse.
And reporters got jobs; except, of course, TV journalism is not print journalism, and CNN doesn't compete with "60 Minutes" (is that still on, by the way?). But cable news, and now internet news, and any kind of news at all, is a hungry monster: it needs to be fed. The apt comparison is the mortgage backed securities game, which soon needed more mortgages than the market could offer in order to meet the demand from investors for more such securities. The response was not to limit the number of such securities available; the response was to prompt the market at the other end to supply more mortgages. And we all know how well that worked out. The same thing happened with "news:" we needed more of it, wherever it came from. Had anonymous sources not existed when this happened, we'd have needed to invent them.
Today it's the simplest thing in the world to find new "zombie lies" traveling all over the news, now starting with reputable. v. internet, sources. ABCNews recently reported that Phoenix, AZ bears the dubious distinction of being the "number two kidnapping capital of the world." No, not even close. But it makes a good story, and we need to fill air time, so let's report it! Now, in fairness, that may just be an egregious lapse on the part of ABCNews; but politicians have decided there is no downside in promoting outrageous lies in campaign ads and speeches, sometimes based on nothing more than what they heard on Glen Beck's radio show, or just made up out of whole cloth. And are these lies ever investigated, disputed, dismissed by journalists? No, not really. They're too busy defending their sources and their professional conduct, and seeking reports from anonymous sources so they have something to put on the air when the camera turns to them and Wolf wants the next story that's a "situation."
FoxNews, MSNBC, CNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN....that's a lot of airtime on a lot of channels that need something to say. And then there's Huffington Post, and TPM, and Drudge, and Slate, and Salon, and....I'm not even touching the surface, or trying to equate all of these sites; they're just the ones I think of off the top of my head. Lots and lots and lots of internet sites seeking eyeballs, and blogs and Twitter and Facebook seeking commentary, and stories go 'round and 'round and 'round, and it all becomes true because everybody's saying it, and once in awhile we bemoan the "pack mentality" or reliance on "anonymous sources" and we condemn "lazy journalism" or listen to one reporter tell another reporter not to report everything he knows, especially when he's on the road to Paris with a four-star general who only sleeps four hours a day and eats one meal a day and has been drinking beer with you for hours and just starts talking as if you were his oldest buddy in the world, which suddenly you are and how dare you betray him because you're there as a journalist, not as his drinking pal....
And we keep striking at the branches of the tree of evil, and no one takes an axe to the roots. It is a Kierkegaardian question, as much as that is an image from Thoreau; but the two great individualists of the 19th century have much to teach us in the 21st century. Much, indeed. But it won't help us much to change the nature or politics in America, or journalism, or the intertubes. Maybe something closer to home, and harder to work on, is what needs to change.
Posted by Rmj at 7:46 AM