Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

14 June 2008

He Did His Homework


The advent of television a half-century ago changed news forever. Before TV, reporters were anonymous creatures working in obscurity. They had their bylines, but few outside the news business noticed them. No one cared who they were; readers cared only what they wrote.

Radio didn’t change much. You might identify a reporter’s voice, and the quality of the voice mattered. But reporters were not celebrities; the news they provided, not they themselves, were the focus of listeners’ attention. Listeners respected Edward R. Murrow for his news, not his persona.

All that changed with television. Once you could see and hear the reporters, they began to distract attention from the news. A consummate professional like Walter Cronkite could hold the distractions in check for a while, but eventually he retired. Once he did, the trickle of celebrity became a flood.

Today what passes for news in the mainstream media is more entertainment than substance. Newspeople are celebrities and public personalities. Even print reporters, who used to labor in obscurity, appear constantly on radio and television.

Have you ever taken a close look at the composition of TV news panels today? Nearly half the guests interviewed are reporters. Or they are pundits, that is to say, former reporters or political operatives now lacking frequent contact with reality.

So half of our news is reporters talking to other reporters. No wonder the mainstream media seem like a gigantic echo chamber. You have to ask when reporters have time to gather the news, or whether green interns, with no experience or contacts, get it for them.

That’s bad enough, but it’s far from all. Right along with the notion that reporters are news came the notion of universal celebrity. The common person is a fifteen-second pundit. So we have “person-on-the-street” interviews and focus groups. They appear not just as occasional human-interest features, but as a regular, substantial components of mainstream “news.”

The nadir of this phenomenon came on the day Senator Obama announced achieving the presumptive Democratic nomination. There was, as usual, a delay in his reaching the venue for his speech, so CNN had some time to fill. News people call that “treading water.”

In the old days, Walter Cronkite treaded water magnificently. He would give you facts and quotations from history. He would compare the candidate’s voting record to that of other candidates and presidents. He would compare our country to England and others. He would provide legal, scientific, or historical background. In short, he would provide interesting and relevant facts, which took a little digging to discover.

Did CNN do the same? Hell, no. They sent a reporter to Harlem, N.Y., to interview ordinary black residents. The resulting segment was one of the laziest, stupidest and most misleading pieces of reporting I have ever encountered in any medium.

Why lazy? Well, all CNN had to do was get someone from the New York office to grab a camera person and a cab uptown and talk to a few locals. Little effort, little thought, little expense. No imagination. Hitting the library or even the Internet to find some useful factual background would take more time, much more thought, and much, much more imagination. And it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

Why stupid? Well, what would you expect black residents of Harlem, N.Y., to say? Even if they don’t support Obama, they are sure to be thrilled with the fact of his path-breaking candidacy. Harlem is well known as a liberal and reliably Democratic community. Are you likely to find there anything surprising or unusual, that is to say, newsworthy? Are people likely to say, for example, “we want more guns in our community to kill off more of our friends and neighbors”? If you want to hear what ordinary people think, go down to your neighborhood bar and have a nice, cold beer.

Why misleading? Let me count the ways. Obama is only half black. Far, far more than half the people who voted for him are white. Many are moderates, Republicans, and even conservatives. Only a minuscule portion of them live, or ever lived, in Harlem. Going to one of the most liberal and most well known (dare I say notorious?) black communities in the country and interviewing people there on the day of his primary triumph completely misrepresents the nature, breadth and depth of his support.

In her primary campaign, Hillary did a great job of confusing undecided voters about Obama and his candidacy. The CNN folks who produced that segment couldn’t have done a better job of continuing her attempt if they had worked for John McCain. If you have a cynical bent, you would conclude that the segment was not just lazy and stupid reporting, but subtle political propaganda.

What is so annoying is that decent producers and reporters could have done so much better with so little effort.

For starters, they might have read Obama’s wonderful first book. It has great stories about Obama, revealing how interesting and admirable his forbears were on both sides, black and white. His African father once confronted a racist who didn’t want to stand next to him at a bar, and got the man to admire him enough to buy him drinks. His father also once charmed his own father—Obama’s grandfather, a local leader of legendary ability and severity—by dancing with his own mother (Obama’s grandmother).

These great stories were there for the reading, and a little effort to locate Obama’s friends and relatives could have found actual people to tell them. But no, CNN went for the lazy, stupid, misleading kill: interviewing the person on the street.

Next to CNN’s producers of drivel, Tim Russert stood out like a beacon of professionalism. His secret was the dirty little secret of everyone who succeeds at a profession: he worked hard.

I didn’t know him personally, and he wasn’t one of my favorite newspeople. But I was acutely conscious of his unusual ability to skewer hypocrisy, duplicity, double-dealing and stupidity. That alone was a tremendous contribution to our credulous, herd-running, echo-chamber media.

How Russert did it was unusual, especially for reporters today. He didn’t just ply the telephone or the upscale bar. He read.

He knew that reading is by far the fastest and most effective method of human communication. You can read a page silently in less than a fifth the time it takes to read it out loud. You can also index it and, if it’s digitized, search it electronically. Try that with speech, let alone a telephone call.

Russert knew the power of reading, so he read. In spare time and on Saturdays, he combed the transcripts, the library, books, and the Internet for background for his interviews. He covered much more ground than his rivals. He was better informed and prepared.

Russert’s epitaph should be, “He did his homework.” After the loss of a candidate who didn’t, and after a drastic decline in competence in America, that is no small thing. If Russert’s death inspires more to do the same, we might yet save the mainstream media and even our Republic.

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