PARIS – The noble ostrich is impressive to watch loping along an African savannah at 50 miles an hour, but its survival strategy needs work. With head in the sand and tail in the air, it risks ending up skinned for some rich guy’s cowboy boots or maybe a Mar-a-Lago golf bag.
My recent piece about the White House jihad on truth prompted one reader to remark that Donald Trump’s slurs resonate because “the msm (mainstream media) is no longer trustworthy or helpful.” Big news companies make up a single collective to be dismissed out of hand.
Here’s a parallel: The smc (supermarket chains) no longer provide nutritious food. Of course, they do. Choice is up to each shopper. Those who load up their carts with only Twinkies and canned spaghetti can hardly blame the store.
The “mainstream” is shot full of failings, but its broad reach provides essential basic coverage. That’s a start. Countless other sources add detail, verify or dispute facts, fill in context and sketch human backdrops. Anyone who fails to grasp global realities isn’t trying hard enough.
This is a primer to help make sense of an unruly world. With threats of nuclear High Noon, climatic catastrophes, conflict on five continents, desperate millions on the move and fierce competition for dwindling resources, nothing matters more.
In 2004, when far less was at stake, British editor Andrew Marr noted in his book, “My Trade,” that many people he knew ignored newspapers and dismissed broadcast news as mindless nonsense. They focus instead on their families, busy daily lives and local charity.
“This is not good enough,” Marr wrote. “We are either players in open, democratic societies, all playing a part in their ultimate direction, or we are deserters.”
Back then, A.J. Liebling’s quip was still true: freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one. Anyone can play now, and that is a mixed blessing. “Journalist” is now as meaningless a word as “media.” We need to know who is telling us what – and why.
The Web is a delivery system, not a source. People would be leery if some stranger on the street in a clown suit and floppy shoes bloviated about places he couldn’t pronounce. But clueless self-appointed experts on TV or computer screens receive far less scrutiny.
Early on, Google claimed to offer news from 5,000 providers. But if, say, hostilities broke out in Kashmir, that meant 4,998 “outlets” riffed on the same dispatches from the AP and Reuters stringers in Srinagar. These days, such secondhand sourcing is beyond measure.
Too many people now think news, unlike food, comes at no cost. And too many purveyors oblige with generic “content” packed in paid pitches and political cant. With a free lunch, it is hard to complain about quality. Much solid reporting comes at no charge, but we need to scale a few paywalls.
We also have to budget our time. Nearly every substantive story comes with time-consuming kibitzing that also passes for journalism.
Reveal, an arm of the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting, spent months documenting hidden safety issues at Tesla. The gold-standard CIR, founded in 1977 as the first U.S. investigative journalism nonprofit, relies on reporters and editors of proven credibility.
Elon Musk, the man behind Tesla, fired off a series of tweets calling journalists corrupt and cowardly. The CIR, he said, was “just some rich kids in Berkeley who took their political science prof too seriously.” (It’s in Emeryville.)
Jack Shafer, a kibitzer for Politico, fired back. He called Musk is a media assassin, not a critic, an example of nouveau-billionaires who think reporters should be fawning PR flacks. True enough. But he wrote, “Journalists love nothing more than to be slapped around (and) Musk’s sustained caning…has brought nothing but sunshine and smiles to newsrooms all over America.”
Shafer speaks only for himself. Kathy Gannon, for one, does not love being slapped around. After 18 years in Afghanistan, she knows what “shoot the messenger” can mean. An Afghan cop shot up her car in 2014, killing her friend, photographer Anja Niedringhaus, and wounding her badly. After long, painful rehabilitation, she hurried back to Kabul.
Gannon undermines another generality. Associated Press has axed experienced reporters to save money. It slashes travel expenses and often relies on untested stringers. Yet she is among top-quality AP pros who stay at their jobs. AP – like the “msm” – is neither all bad nor all good.
AP illustrates how the global mediascape has evolved. During my 38 years of employ until 2005, we jokingly called it the A&P, a major grocery chain. It was a supermarket of news, cooperatively owned by newspapers and broadcasters that shared costs. Along with big stories, it kept track of small ones percolating under the surface before they erupted into “breaking news.”
As its members saw profits decline, AP shifted focus to big projects with bragging rights and various “profit centers,” leaving too many world-changing trends and events uncovered. It can be excellent. And not.
Newspapers also reinvented themselves, mostly cutting staff and shifting to “hyperlocal” coverage. A new breed of owners broke up family-founded chains forged by hard-earned public trust. Hedge fund hogs plundered. Shady magnates bought papers to push their own interests. A few dailies are now better than ever. Some try hard with what they’ve got. Many are a disgrace.
Television news has changed beyond recognition. Once three U.S. networks kept large bureaus abroad. Walter Cronkite at CBS was the most trusted man in America. Today, CBS’s website lists only lone correspondents in Rome, Istanbul and Beijing. Four work from the London hub, where stories from elsewhere are often narrated from the studio, with purchased footage not from CBS crews. (ABC and NBC staff reporters also cluster in London. It’s “foreign.”)
Cronkite likely prolonged the Vietnam War at first by believing the Washington line rather than correspondents on the ground. But, a real journalist, he went to see for himself. He found a stalemate, and national sentiment shifted.
Cronkite’s trademark tagline at the end of his newscasts, “And that’s the way it is,” defined the times. America had to take him and others at their word. Big media set the agenda, with a smattering of smaller papers, radio networks and freelancers as a counterbalance.
Logically, countless interactive multimedia sources that speed words and images from everywhere would reflect a clear picture of the world. In fact, it allows people to form whatever picture comforts their beliefs. And with tools to measure what resonates, media executives try to give people what they want.
Late in May, a Harvard study said Hurricane Maria killed 4,645 people in Puerto Rico, 70 times more than the official count. Beyond the human cost, it defies belief that a government so outrageously masks the toll of its feeble response. Yet CNN devoted 12 minutes to that story and nearly five hours to Roseanne Barr getting cancelled. MSNBC was not much better.
Pandering to have-it-your-way news is a boon to despots. Anything that thwarts their narrative is labeled fake, feeding distrust of all “media.” Trump’s campaign resonates with hardline tyrants and wannabe demagogues everywhere – particularly in Russia.
David Ignatius, who spent decades as a foreign correspondent and then edited the International Herald Tribune before analyzing world affairs for the Washington Post, summed it up in a column about Arkady Babchenko, who miraculously returned from death:
“When a prominent Russian journalist fakes news about his own murder to try to expose the Kremlin’s misdeeds, you know something has gone dangerously wrong in what we like to call the free marketplace of ideas. These days, it has become a battle space where anything goes.”
Babchenko falsified his death with help from Ukrainian agents to elude Russian thugs. It worked. But reporters have enough trouble remaining credible, and alive, without an activist-journalist whose ploy, in effect, helps Vladimir Putin dismiss actual murders as hoaxes.
Here are some thoughts on shaping a reality-based worldview, a framework that fits together odd shaped pieces into a quickly changing kaleidoscope:
–Triangulate the way reporters do. When a new story breaks, check it against another version and add a third. As it develops, look for informed analysis that probes its broader meaning. Beyond who, what and where, look for why and what next.
–Consider wider implications. A lifeless child on a beach in Turkey is only one dramatic symptom of diplomatic failure, needless conflict, economic imbalances, corruption, xenophobia. and, increasingly, a changing climate has been ignored for too long.
–Subscribe to The New York Times. You need it, and it needs you. There is much to criticize. It makes mistakes, some serious, but it does not willfully distort or fabricate. It provides unmatched global coverage, with online graphics, visuals and data sets. Its archives give historical context. “The failing New York Times” is a Trump whopper. He has made it boom. It is publicly traded but still controlled by a newspaper family faithful to old principles.
–Add The Washington Post for the cost of a few drinks in a fancy bar. It hounds Trump because that is a newspaper’s role. Its fact checkers found he made 3,251 false or misleading claims in 497 days, some clear-cut grounds for impeachment. I’m troubled by a publisher who also dominates a global empire of cheap books and canned beans. But Marty Baron is as good as editors get, and Jeff Bezos stays out of his way. Times’ editor Dean Baquet jokes that the new Post motto, Democracy Dies In Darkness, is a little grim. Maybe, but it’s true. The two editors cooperate as much as they compete.
–No list can begin to be comprehensive, but I’ve got a few favorites. The New Yorker is worth whatever it costs. Look abroad. Britain’s The Guardian, free if you choose not to contribute, is a vital outsider’s eye on America and the wider world. Talk to friends and poke around. Try Germany’s Spiegel Online for probing analysis, interviews and hard-reporting at length. India’s The Hindu, with a circulation of 1.2 million, focuses on human factors behind the news, with a staff of savvy correspondents.
–TV is tough to characterize. For me, BBC is best, with reporters and anchors whose faces often reflect a hard life on the road. Funded by a TV tax, it avoids disguising paid messages as editorial product and obnoxious chest-thumping. Which brings up CNN. Its focus on Trump’s campaign boosted ratings – and likely swayed the election. CNN can be excellent. Some of its correspondents are rock solid. Christiane Amanpour, who earned her chops in scary places, gets to the heart of what matters. Fareed Zakaria’s analyses are good enough to make you forget he backed the Iraq invasion. (“Any stirring of the pot is good.”) But keep a remote handy in case Richard Quest pops up.
–Non-profit groups dig into specific subjects, with deeply reported investigations. ProPublica, the Center of Public Integrity and Reveal are among some good ones based in America. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which produced the Panama Papers and much else, relies on a network of others across the world. These groups collaborate with NPR and PBS. Independents such as Amy Goodman add to the mix.
–Read books for a broad view of the world to help you tune out peripheral noise. Today’s biggest story “broke” five centuries ago when Leonardo da Vinci nailed it. By tracing the flow of water and winds, he saw that humans live in sync with a single ecosystem. If that balance tips, no one will survive. Then, as now, deluded leaders fail to get this.
We need reliable eyes and ears beyond every horizon. Real journalists are driven by curiosity, commitment, ethics, and a deeply ingrained horror of getting things wrong. Some young reporters seize this immediately. Some old ones never do. The trick for readers is to determine which is which.
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