1. Valuing words over deeds
2. Neglecting “facts”
3. Laziness and broader context
5. Lack of imagination in research
6. Trading anecdotes for numbers
7. Failing to identify patterns
8. A parody of “objectivity”
9. A few green shoots: random acts of journalism
Endnote on Turkey
Partitioning Syria to End its Civil War
We Yanks still have a great nation. Yet since the turn of the century we have been in decline. This century’s first president could barely speak English. He started two unnecessary wars, both of which are still ongoing over a dozen years later. He bailed out the stupid and greedy bankers who caused the Crash of 2008, in his “lame duck” phase yet.
And now we have a major-party presidential candidate who never held public office at all. Everyone seems to know that his primary, if not sole, skill is self-promotion. Would our multinational corporations ever select a CEO like that? Would we root for a major-league team whose captain had never played the sport?
We Yanks didn’t use to do things like that, to put it mildly. So it’s appropriate to ask “why now”? What about us has changed so much in the past generation as to make us Yanks an object of shame and fear for our allies and rude jokes of our enemies?
Both our perceptions and expectations of ourselves have changed dramatically in the last sixteen years. So who are their primary custodians? In a democratic society, aren’t our eyes and ears—our collective sensory organs—our Fourth Estate, our journalists?
Over the last several years, this blog has tried to highlight their many and growing sins, both in print and on the Internet. (See, for example, essays 1
.) But it’s worth reviewing their sins briefly here, if only to assess their collectively horrendous weight. After exploring how far journalists have drifted from any rational approach to reporting reality, we can cite some green shoots of hope and pray for better days.
1. Valuing words over deeds.
Journalists are supposed to report “news,” which most of us take as “current events.” But what is an “event”? Is it what people say, or what they do? Modern journalism’s cardinal sin is ignoring the distinction and focusing primarily, if not exclusively, on what people say.
This flaw’s reductio ad absurdum
is the candidacy of Donald Trump. The man has never held public office. In his chosen field of “business,” his ventures have been rife with bankruptcies and lawsuits by partners, investors, customers and (for his “university”) paying students.
So what has he actually done that’s might make him a good president? Nada. Zip. Nothing. Yet he’s hurled a lot of insults and made a lot of promises. These journalists have reported in exquisite detail, every day, choosing the “juiciest” to repeat over and over again, often in banner headlines.
You think our kids don’t notice this? This week’s Time Magazine
has a cover story by Joel Stein entitled “Why we’re losing the Internet to the culture of hate.” The title is a bit hyperbolic, but what he reports is chilling. There is now a sizeable phalanx of kids on the Internet (including many overgrown ones) who will write the most outrageous things and make the most outlandish threats, including stalking, murder, mayhem and torture, relying on the anonymity of the Internet and the presumed privacy of screen names.
A generation or two ago, no kid would have done anything of the kind without being smacked by a parent, an older sibling, the target of the insult or threat, or his or her own siblings, friends or parents. But now there is not only no restraint; there is the example of a serious presidential candidate.
And don’t think for a moment this is a transient or modern phenomenon. Just read or watch Arthur Miller’s famous play, “The Crucible,” about the Salem Witch Trials four centuries ago. With dramatic plausibility, Miller hypothesizes that the motive force condemning several innocent people to their deaths was a discovery by teenage girls that they could use unfounded accusations and then-prevailing fantastic conceptions of religion to seize extraordinary power—even over life and death.
In short, they could use their mouths, without restraint, to take over, if only briefly, the governance and culture of a colonial town. Think that Trump’s meteoric rise from unknown “carnival barker” (Christ Christie’s accurate words) to serious presidential candidate is not instructive to today’s kids? If all our kids learn to “make their own reality” with their mouths, like Dubya and Cheney, what will our future as a people be like?
In Colonial times and at our Founding, we had three restraints on what public figures and journalists could say. The first was a general sense of decency. The second was the law of libel and defamation. The third was duels. If you publicly challenged another’s veracity, honesty or “honor,” you might find yourself obliged by custom to resolve the issue in a contest of not-so-accurate pistols, which might leave you or your rival gravely wounded or dead. That perhaps barbaric custom did have the virtue of promoting caution, tact and veracity in public discourse.
Now all three restraints and dead or dying. With “shock jocks” pervasive on the air, let alone the Internet, and bullies like Fox’ and Breitbart’s rampant in print and electronic media, decency is a quaint concept of a bygone age. The Supreme Court’s decision in New York Times v. Sullivan
has gutted our laws of libel and defamation, requiring proof of recklessness or malice for any “public figure,” whether official or mere celebrity, to prevail in a lawsuit. And duels are a thing of the past. Maybe we should bring them back; with all the senseless, random gun violence already pervasive in our society, they might serve the salubrious purpose of restoring decorum and decency in our public life.
Like the senses of any living organism, journalists shape our perceptions of ourselves, our society, and our environment. Theirs is an extraordinary responsibility. When they report what people say—however false, misleading or outrageous—not what they do, they abdicate their office to their “sources.” When they report obsessively and incessantly about the ravings of Donald Trump, they teach our kids that he is an important man and that what he says is important—vastly more important than the few and mostly bad things he has done.
Of course what important people say can be “news.” But the more outrageous, unusual, unprecedented and controversial their words, the greater is journalists’ responsibility to do more than exploit sensation to sell their work product. When they report insults and fantastic promises on pages 1, 2, 3 and 15 and bury their “fact-checking” in the sports section, they aren’t just failing in their jobs. They are conspiring in the degradation of our culture.
2. Neglecting “facts.”
That word “fact” in English is a slippery one. It can have multiple meanings. It can include “events” and what people say in them. But it generally connotes a degree of truth, accuracy and reliability beyond that inherent in the casual (or even the calculated) spoken word. In both speech and writing, we all try to distinguish “facts” from half-truths, untruths, fraud, propaganda, demagoguery, “spin” and outright lies.
Today most “print” journalists don’t even make the attempt. We might excuse visual media on TV and the Internet, which “report” their “events” (still mostly speech) in “real time,” without a chance to reflect and react. But what about “print” journalists? Isn’t their “cooler” medium supposed to give them the time, the incentive and even the obligation to distinguish “facts” from “lies,” “fiction” and “spin”?
You can tell how much and how well modern print journalists do that just by counting space. Even the best newspapers today relegate “fact-checking” to specials columns, rarely on the front page.
Based on space allotted and priority of place, “fact checking” represents only a few percent of the average newspaper, whether on paper or on line. Only for the most egregious and sensational lies will a so-called “journalist” include the contrary fact alongside the oft-repeated falsehood. A recent example is Trump’s lie that thousands of New Jerseyites celebrated the Twin Towers’ fall on 9/11 by dancing in the streets. If our nation is to recover from its slump, this must change.
Take global warming, for example. To the overwhelming majority of educated people, let alone scientists, it is an established fact. And it is a matter of science on which untrained people have no basis to opine. So if a politician or think-tanker denies it or its human origin, aren’t competent reporters obliged to point that out?
Doing so needn’t take much time or space. If a journalist is too timid to appear an arbiter of “truth,” he or she can simply write something like this: “Contrary to the findings of the overwhelming majority of tens of thousands of climate scientists over the past several decades, the findings of five comprehensive reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
since 1990, and a joint statement
of the National Academies (plural!) of Science of the United States (made eleven years ago!), James Inhofe, who is not a scientist, denies global warming and its human origin.”
That’s not so hard, is it? Doesn’t every competent print journalist have a sacred obligation to write something similar every time he or she reports an irrational statement of a person swimming against the vast tide of our species’ collective knowledge, even if he’s a US Senator?
The crux of the matter is a lazy prejudice, which many so-called “journalists” entertain, for live quotes as distinguished from written evidence. Yet as every educated person knows, what really matters is what we humans put in writing.
Lawyers and business people know that and recognize it when they exclaim, “Put it in writing!” Courts of law recognize written testimony: using it to contradict live testimony is a standard ploy of every courtroom lawyer. Why can’t journalists do the same thing? Why can’t they do it every time they mention something as vital as global warming? Isn’t that subject infinitely more important to our species and every single one of us than whether New Jerseyites cheered the attacks on 9/11?
Whenever I read an investigative report with the words, “after reviewing thousands of documents,” I settle in my chair, straighten up my posture and get ready to assimilate something useful and important. For I know that the report’s authors have done their homework, and didn’t just take the latest blather or Twitter from some celebrity as an arbiter of “truth” for their readers.
Far too many so-called “journalists” do that today. But they don’t have to. Tim Russert did his homework
, and he was just a video interviewer, working in the “fast” and “shallow” medium of TV. Don’t writers in the “cooler” and “more reflective” medium of print have an obligation to do even better? And don’t their editors and bosses have an obligation to make sure they do so, in order not to leave false and misleading impressions in the written record of our species, which (as far as we know now) will be available on line and instantaneously to virtually all of us for as long as our present level of civilization lasts?
If advanced alien intelligences come to our planet after our collective demise and tap into our surviving archives, do we want them to think we were inconsistent, scatterbrained and unable to think straight? Right now, that’s what our collective records will show on global warming, on which senators and fossil-fuel mavens—not to mention thousands of Internet trolls—regularly contradict the findings of tens of thousands of highly trained scientists who make studying climate change their lives’ work. Not only that: they have their random ravings incorporated into our species’ authoritative “news” and other reports without contradiction.
3. Laziness and broader context.
A big part of the problem is laziness. It doesn’t take much effort—or much training or skill—to report a juicy quote. All you have to do is pass the Woody Allen test: 80% of life is showing up. Just don’t forget to bring along a note pad or recorder. Today, the Internet even relieves you of the chore of showing up: you can fake it by watching someone else’s video recording on YouTube and pretending you were there.
Like it or not, no one needs journalists today to transmit what public figures and celebrities say. Today there are too many cell phones, bloggers, Twitterers, and other non-journalists who do that for nothing. Some even make money doing it.
Journalists’ job, today as always, is to put what public figures say in some sort of context. The context need not involve exhaustive research or conclusions on absolute truth. But it must have some relationship to external, non-transient reality, such as history, law, custom, science or even just what other people say or have said.
If you want to know how to provide context even in a “real time” medium like live TV, watch recordings of Walter Cronkite covering past major-party conventions. In any brief lapse in the action, he could “tread water” like the master journalist he was. He would tell us how a candidate of the same or opposite party said or did something similar or different four or eight years ago. He would compare what Lincoln, FDR or Truman had said or done. Whenever he had a spare moment, he would put what was happening right then in historical, political and cultural context. He helped us know and remember who we were.
Today we Yanks have become a nation of scatterbrained amnesiacs. We think all that matters is the latest 140 characters that some public figure posted while having his breakfast or sitting on the toilet. We think that because our so-called “journalists,” who are our species’ eyes, ears and consciences, appear to think it.
We have lost our direction, our confidence and our common sense because we have lost a sense of broader context, beyond yesterday’s news. If we Yanks are to recover our full greatness and our species’ uncontested leadership, that must change.
Corruption is probably our species’ single biggest perennial problem. About the only time we humans get really serious about meritocracy is when we are at war. With the big powers generally at peace, as they are now and have been since our Pax Atomica began, corruption is a universal problem growing like metastatic cancer everywhere. No major power is immune, nor are most minor powers.
So it would be surprising if corruption did not touch journalism, too. It does indeed. But in journalism it has several shades and flavors. Paying for a “news” story is rare. The subtle influence of major advertisers is more common. Yet as the Internet converts mainstream journalism from an advertising to a subscription model, that influence may be waning.
Today’s big problem of corruption in journalism is the influence of news sources themselves. When journalism relies on celebrity, as it does today to sell “news,” the public figures, actors, authors and activists who are the celebrities have a lot of power. They can give or withhold access as they choose. And, being human, they grant access to those who write favorable, even fawning, stories. Or, as Trump did recently with the entire Washington Post
, they can withhold access when stories are not to their liking.
The issue is not so much general
access as priority. Timing is everything in journalism, as much as in investing. Eventually everyone will have the story, at least after it hits the Internet. But in the meantime, a scoop is still a scoop, especially when it involves direct personal access, as in an exclusive interview.
You can imagine far-reaching solutions, such as a cartel of mainstream journalists. If a source gets too demanding, every mainstream medium could refuse to report on him. But such a “solution” would be about as effective as OPEC in supporting oil prices: the demand for a scoop, just like a demand for oil, would be a powerful motivator for cheating on any cartel.
More effective might be a simple strategy of committing journalism. As context and background become more important, and what public figures say less so, the celebrities’ power to sell news will wane.
The very process of pursuing good journalism—in part by giving written records their due weight—might put celebrities in their proper places and reduce this soft form of corruption. When celebrities (or anyone else) has put their written comments on the open Internet, you don’t need their permission to report them, so you don’t have to kowtow to their prima-donna instincts for “news.”
5. Lack of imagination in research.
For journalists, the Internet giveth, and the Internet taketh away. We’ve all heard incessant complaints about the taking away—of advertisers, sponsors, readers, contributors and even talented journalists themselves.
But what about the “giveth” part? How many journalists recognize and use the Internet’s power to: (1) check basic facts; (2) seek others pursuing like stories for possible collaboration; (3) locate and track down possible sources; (4) check current statements for consistency with prior ones; and (5) provide historical, comparative or cultural context?
The Internet is history’s greatest single boon to journalists because it is written, easy to access from anywhere, and easy to search. It is also a way of searching the “record,” including the scatterbrained mouthings of inconsistent celebrities like Trump, without the subjects ever knowing of the search. It is journalists’ dream machine, if only they would take the time and effort to use it often and effectively.
Let me give a few examples. A few years ago, I read a story in the Wall Street Journal
in which the reporter described two nationally known law firms as “lobbying firms.” At my age, I no longer rely on my failing memory to resolve discord; I rely on our species’ universal, institutional memory, the Internet. In less than one minute, I verified that the two named firms were indeed law firms; in the same time I learned that a third firm whose name I had not known, also described as a “lobbying firm,” was in fact an economic and antitrust consulting firm.
Maybe each firm had one or more registered lobbyists, which led the reporter to conclude erroneously that they were all “lobbying firms.” Had she taken the trouble to spend one minute on the Internet—less time than a phone call to any human source—she could have avoided her mistake.
The other two examples are more substantive. In two essays on this blog, I realized as I wrote that I lacked the information to back up what I wanted to say. One post
involved the “fact” of the Israelis’ assumed nuclear arsenal and the usefulness (and probable existence) of small nukes, including neutron bombs. The second
involved the biography and achievements of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.
In the first case, I had some general background knowledge as a Ph.D. in physics. But that general knowledge only convinced me that I lacked specific information I needed to write intelligently on the subjects I wanted to address. In the second case, I wanted to write about Bezos because I admired him, but apart from a few recently reported statements of his, I didn’t quite know why. (There’s the matter of context again.)
With short Internet searches of less than a half hour each, I found what I wanted. In the first case, I found a good summary of the best evidence for the Israelis having a nuclear arsenal and a scientific publication on (among other things) how to hide underground nuclear tests from seismic detection. In the second case, a five-minute search led to five biographical articles on Bezos, from sources as varied as the Wall Street Journal
and The Nation
(a respected liberal political journal). It took me longer to read them, but my research then was basically complete.
You need some experience and expertise to use the Internet effectively. Experience comes with age, trial and error, and occasional experiences of adversity. Expertise you can have or borrow from others. But, properly used and viewed with proper skepticism, the Internet is the single most powerful and efficient research tool ever made available to journalists. It’s especially powerful for discovering one of the most important things missing from modern journalism: context.
Journalists should use it more, much more. Perhaps some newspapers have customs or even hard rules limiting its use for research. If so, that would be a shame. The solution to the Internet’s pitfalls is not to avoid it, but to learn how to use it well. That takes practice and some knowledge of the modern search techniques and their underlying mathematical logic.
Used well, the Internet could provide the context, background and even fact-checking that is sorely missing from most of today’s “print” journalism. Even if limited to credible, mainstream sources, such as today’s four national newspapers (Bloomberg.com, the NYT
and Washington Post
), it can provide a complete, traceable electronic trail of research, including bookmarks to or archived copies of every source consulted, with a few clicks of a mouse.
Maybe many journalists use the extraordinary power of this unprecedented resource as they should. But I suspect not. The reason: the woeful absence of context in almost every story I read, other than a few lengthy investigative reports.
6. Trading anecdotes for numbers.
One of the most woeful deficiencies of modern print journalism is innumeracy
—illiteracy for numbers. It appears that almost all journalists, like almost all lawyers, chose their careers, at least in part, because they weren’t good at math and didn’t like it. For similar reasons, they appear to have slanted their educations as far as possible away from science and engineering, including quantitative economics.
I have no quarrel with anyone’s choice of career or education. It’s a matter of personal preference. Yet today every college graduate ought to know a basic truth: anecdotes prove nothing. Today they teach that truth in virtually every course in math, statistics, the hard sciences, medicine and economics.
So why, pray tell, do so many “stories” about abstract principles of economics or politics began with a single lead paragraph that sets out the proposition, followed by a series of anecdotes that illustrate it? Do reporters really think their readers are too stupid to follow the abstract proposition if accurately and fully expressed? Do they think that lame summaries of the experiences of Mary, Sally, Joe and Tom actually can be generalized? Don’t they know that those who want to prove the opposite proposition can come up with their own lame summaries of the experiences of Suzy, Judy, Rick and Mike? Don’t they know that all this proves exactly nothing, even in a court of law? Don’t they ken why the North Carolina court refused to hold that a half-dozen cases of so-called “voter fraud” disprove the real
purpose of most “voter-ID” laws: making voting harder for Democratic-leaning voters?
As I try to understand the prevalence of extended anecdotes in so-called “news” reporting, I can come up with only two plausible answers. First, many journalists, especially young ones, would rather be writing short stories, but that doesn’t pay as well. Second, filling out some investigative reports requires math and research skills far beyond those of most reporters, so they pad their stories with anecdotes to produce the desired number of column inches.
The only thing I can say to them is, “Please don’t bother. You are wasting your time as writer and mine as reader, at the same time as you impair the reputation of the medium you work for as a source of news for numerate people.”
Very occasionally, a mainstream “print” medium hires a talented “quant” with the requisite specialized training. At the New York Times
, one such was David Leonhardt. Once I had discovered his insightful and quantitative writing on economic issues, I treated every story under his byline like a long-lost gem of Mark Twain or Lev Tolstoi. But he rose so meteorically within the organization that he soon was in charge of the Washington Bureau. Now his byline appears to have disappeared, as he manages instead of writing. As far as I know, no one else has risen to replace him as an insightful quant who can do more than arithmetic.
What a pity! Unbeknownst to many who consider themselves journalists, journalism is not literature, even though its writing can at times attain the sublime. It’s an attempt to convey an impression or cross-section of current reality. So accuracy and perspective are far more important than beauty, although good grammar and readability do matter. In our complex and ever-changing world today, accuracy and perspective often require numbers, and the numbers often require an understanding of math beyond simple arithmetic and percentages.
Sometimes anecdotes can be useful in conveying the full human impact of horrific events, as in stories of natural disasters, acts of terrorism, Black Lives Matter complaints, and the like. But anecdotes are almost always useless in proving a general point of economics, medicine, or statistics, let alone the harder sciences or engineering. As far as I can tell, most print journalists have yet to learn this basic truth.
Not all modern media can be like The Economist
, summarizing leading-edge economic and statistical research with genuine quantitative understanding, including key graphs and charts. But it wouldn’t hurt for them to try. There’s a lot about our society, our culture, our economy and our politics that simply can’t be understood, let alone put in perspective and context, without numbers.
7. Failing to identify patterns.
There are close to seven billion of us on this planet. We have 196 separate nations. In most if not all of them, so many things go on every day that no single individual could take them in, let alone understand and assimilate them.
If “journalists” tried to report all going on in any one country, let alone the Earth as a whole, no one could assimilate it. We would all have information overload. We need “journalism” and “journalists” for at least two things. First, we need them to tell us what’s important: to find the signal in the noise. Second, we need them to spot patterns, especially emerging patterns, that are likely to rise above the noise in the future and affect our lives.
“Real time” reporters on TV or the Internet don’t have the time or leisure to focus on the big picture. They can only give us the current jolt. So it’s up to print journalists—with their “cooler,” more reflective medium—to tell us what the daily chaos means.
These is a vital and non-trivial task, quite distinct from providing perspective and context. It always involves bit of prediction, and therefor a risk of being wrong.
The task is analogous to what our human brains do in seeing. Any camera or fiber-optic line can convey a visual image from one point to another; but it takes most of our brains to interpret
the image and recognize what’s really there. Computer scientists are just discovering how complex and difficult this task is—for example, seeing the perspective and depth in the leaves of a tree in partial shadow. At our present stage of computer science, it can take the entire processing power of a supercomputer just to interpret a single such image. For each such image contains an enormous amount of raw data that, without depth, perspective and knowledge of real objects in the real world, looks a lot like chaos.
Just so in journalism. The tasks of reporting and interpreting/analyzing are inextricably intertwined. The latter tasks are far more complicated, but they are vital. A news story without interpretation and context is little more than gossip—a level to which both our journalism and our politics descend far too often
Since the turn of the century, US print media (and most of the world’s) have failed to recognize three emerging patterns, at least in time to do any good. The first was the pattern of rampant stupidity and greed among bankers that led to the Crash of 2008. The second was the Republican Party’s metamorphosis from a truly “conservative” party of fiscal and military prudence into today’s “anything goes” party of extremists, extortionists, propagandists and self-promoters, culminating in the abomination of Donald Trump.
The third failure—quite ongoing today—is a failure to recognize the changes made by Recep Tayyip Erdogan in what used to be Atatürk’s Turkey. Right now, Turkey teeters between West and East, between Islamism and secularism, between democracy and dictatorship, between Russia and Europe, between tribalism and a modern multi-ethnic state, and between modern tolerance and medieval barbarity toward its long-suffering Kurds. Militarily and economically, it is one of the strongest states in the Middle East, if not the
strongest. Therefore it may be the most important, even more than Iran, Israel or Saudi Arabia.
Next to these patterns, the latest inanity or barbarity coming out of Trump’s mouth pales into insignificance. Yet the bizarre output of that bottomless pit always ends up on the front page, while Turkey remains forever hidden in the back pages or without any serious reporting at all. Our lack of focus helped turn Egypt into yet another beastly tyranny. Will Turkey follow?
In a world of ideal journalism, our newspapers would have given us clear warnings of all three patterns. None did. We became aware of the Crash only in time for our elite to scare us into solving it by bailing the bankers out. We are only now becoming aware of the rotting away of the GOP, after it has put forward, with a straight face, a candidate self-evidently unqualified by experience, temperament and knowledge. We are still unaware of the global significance of the patterns now forming in Turkey, with implications for the entire Middle East, not to mention further suffering of the Kurds and a possible new Cold War with Russia.
The only important recent pattern that our newspapers have revealed early was that in Russia itself, as Putin morphs from a once-visionary and idealistic leader into a cynical new tsar bent on playing nineteenth-century Metternichean power games and poisoning his enemies.
8. A parody of “objectivity.”
Modern “journalism’s” final sin—but by no means its least—is its parody of “objectivity” that plays out in both written and visual media. Reporters and interviewers think they are being “objective” if they never contradict or correct a live source, but only report faithfully what he or she says.
Then, out of false obeisance to “objectivity,” they often search out yet another live source, putatively of the same prestige or notoriety, who they know or suspect will contradict the first one. What they don’t do is initiate any independent investigation of background or context, let alone where the “truth” lies. The most they do is to arrange and goad titillating verbal combat, which apparently sells “news.”
This practice turns every public issue, including many long-resolved points of science and mathematics, into a “he says, she says” controversy—a bit of gossip. It converts public policy into gossip
. It ignores the truth that certain issues of science, math and engineering are (insofar as human knowledge goes) already decided and accepted fact. Global warming is one of them.
Sorry, folks. “Objectivity” doesn’t inhere in letting every fool have his say without comment or question, even if the fool can sell newspapers by titillating, enthralling or appalling the public. That’s the road that Murdoch and Ailes have paved—and William Randolph Hearst before them. But if all
journalists ride it, we might destroy our culture and even our species, in the age of nuclear proliferation and runaway global warming. At least a whole lot of people will be a whole lot likelier to suffer and die, after vital patterns go unidentified and unaddressed for far too long to avoid their worst consequences.
One thing is beyond ironic: Fox’ twisted promoters and bully-pundits have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. They call their massive propaganda machine—the most noxious yet pervasive and effective in human history—“fair and balanced.” They have accused the so-called “liberal” mainstream media of being biased. In so doing they seem to have intimidated those media into a mincing, tentative, fearful style of journalism, while they themselves pump out virulent propaganda, hate and disinformation by the bucketful.
Perhaps this sin belongs first in this list. But it takes appreciation of all the previously-listed sins to understand how multifaceted and damaging it is. If there is no measure of “truth” or “value” other than what live sources say at any moment, then what matter history, logic, science, cause and effect, or the entire previous experience of our species? When all of our humanity and history dissolve into what celebrities said yesterday, or what bullies masquerading as “news anchors” say today, how can we avoid the reductio ad absurdum
that is Donald Trump, not just in presidential politics, but in everything we humans do?
Hearst, Murdoch and Ailes may have showed how to make lots of money, achieve enormous political power, and build personal business empires that can shape whole nations and cultures, mostly for the worse. What they cannot show us is how to improve our collective grasp of actual reality and thereby to better our lives, or how to increase our species’ prospects for survival and happiness.
Like all of us, every day, journalists have to choose. They must choose between truth and falsehood, accuracy and “spin,” the important and the titillating, the instructive and the sensational, good and evil. Far from getting a free pass, they have heightened responsibility, for they shape, if not determine, the views of their readers and viewers.
They cannot escape their responsibility by retreating into a parody of “objectivity,” writing every story as a “he said, she said” gossip piece, or choosing every word as if to avoid a lawsuit for libel. Journalists are not lawyers (thank God!
) and ought not to think or act like them. If they
can’t show us unvarnished reality, or identify patterns in our lives before they become menaces, no one will.
We all take risks, every day. Life is hazardous. Journalists ought to accept the risks of their profession, retract and apologize when they get it wrong, and get on with their vital task. They ought to report with depth and context what is going in our world and reveal how previously unseen forces and patterns are shaping it. Celebrity quotes, the false equivalences of ludicrous “objectivity
,” and anecdotes that prove nothing but fill column inches just don’t serve those functions.
9. A few green shoots: random acts of journalism.
For the last decade I have watched in horror as our “mainstream” print media succumbed to the forces of darkness. The legendary Graham family sold the Washington Post
. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger died and, for a time, the New York Times
was run by an advertising executive. The Wall Street Journal
, to which I had subscribed for over thirty years, sold out to Murdoch and Ailes. I waited two years and watched it die before canceling my subscription.
For a while, it looked as if Fox—the world’s most noxious yet dangerously effective propaganda machine—was going to serve as a model for American mainstream “news” media. Now Bannon of Breitbart—Fox on steroids—has taken over Trump’s campaign. God help us.
But there is
hope. Like the premature reports of Mark Twain’s death, reports of the Internet killing off print journalism are greatly exaggerated. Jeff Bezos has bought the Washington Post
, apparently hoping to use his personal fortune to keep it independent and hard-hitting. Michael Bloomberg has created an upstart online print “newspaper” sparkling with innovation and self-evidently aimed at youth. It rarely misses an opportunity to report hard evidence of global warming, which is already approaching runaway proportions
Last but not least, the New York Times
appears to be turning around. In just the last week or so it has had in-depth, hard hitting investigative reports on: (1) the corruption and lack of independence of sponsored “research” by so-called “think tanks” and even some academic institutions; (2) the use of poison and assassination by Vladimir Putin and his “special services,” as if he were a medieval despot; (3) re-emergence of racism and racial oppression among financial institutions, in both (a) a new form of redlining under other names and (b) the emergence of exploitive and oppressive “rent-to-own” firms in some of the ghettos hardest hit by the Crash of 2008; and (4) the re-emergence of de-facto segregation in some “Rust Belt” cities, and its causes and effects.
I call these salutary investigative reports “random acts of journalism.” They are good reports, antidotes to incessant and obsequious reporting on every raving of the most incompetent, unqualified and vile man ever to run for president.
At the moment, they are only a few green shoots—hardly a new forest or even a lawn. But their sudden appearance in numbers suggest that something good may be happening inside the New York Times
, which was once, and may yet be again, America’s premier newspaper. If this keeps up, I may actually subscribe. (I have not yet because the Times
’ decline in quality and penetrating reporting has so far coincided with its transition from a free online source, like Bloomberg.com, to a subscription model.)
But make no mistake about it. As refreshing as they may be, these recent investigative reports are just a tentative beginning. The Times
, like the three other national “print” media, has a long way to go even to match the glory of the old Los Angeles Times
in its heyday, before the Tribune’s purchase drove it to its present mediocrity.
Today’s print journalism is still the plaything of our verbal Mafiosi: Murdoch, Ailes, Bannon, and ubiquitous Internet trolls. Or it’s a dismal, timid and pathetic reaction to their depredations and financial success. Will it ever again become the principle vocation of wealthy, disinterested aristocrats like Katherine Graham and Arthur Ochs Sulzberger? Will Bloomberg, Bezos and our better corporate mavens step up to fill the aching void?
Stay tuned. But don’t worry about it too much. All that turns on it is the survival of our democracy and perhaps our species.
Endnote on Turkey
In the category of “random acts of journalism” or “great minds think alike” the New York Times
published two stories on Turkey just as I was posting the essay above today (8/24/16). The first story, apparently written by a reporter of Turkish descent, began the front page. It described massive public demonstrations of apparent support for the Erdogan government and of relief that the recent “Gulenist” coup against it had failed. Yet the story’s inside continuation revealed what may have been the primary purpose of allowing the demonstrations: marginalizing the opposition generally and the Kurds in particular, and strengthening Erdogan’s hold on power.
The second article appeared inside, on page A4. Turkey was not its main subject, and its content and tenor were much less dreamily optimistic than the first article’s. It concerned a recent truce, mediated by the Russians, between the Assad government and Kurdish forces fighting in northeast Syria. The truce gives the Kurds control of the northeast Syrian province of Hasaka and most of its capital city of the same name.
Together, the two articles epitomized Erdogan’s dilemma and highlighted his indecision. On the one hand, he wants to oppose both the murderous Assad regime and the extremist jihadists fighting it. In those enterprises, the Kurds are Turkey’s most valuable allies on the ground: they are reliable, effective fighters, with no history of religious extremism and a record of tolerance for ethnic minorities like the Yazidis. In the best case, they could give Erdogan a nearly impenetrable buffer zone next to Turkey’s troubled border with Syria and insulate Turkey from an Arabic war that Erdogan and his Turks don’t need. On the other hand, success by the Kurds in establishing a de facto
state of their own in Syria might encourage the Kurds inside Turkey to seek greater autonomy or even independence from Turkey.
In the Chinese language, the word “crisis” is a combination of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity.” So far, Erdogan’s view has vacillated between the two. He appears paralyzed by indecision, seeking to marginalize his country’s own Kurdish party, which was becoming increasingly democratic and reasonable, while suppressing Kurdish autonomy both inside and outside Turkey and dithering on support for or enmity toward the Assad regime.
From an outsider’s point of view, the better solution appears obvious. Erdogan should help the Syrian Kurds conquer, hold and rule Syrian territory. Then he should use his support for them to mollify Turkey’s own Kurds and dissuade them from terrorism, as he slowly accedes to the inevitability of eventual Kurdish autonomy, if not independence, on both sides of the border.
The alternative seems pretty nasty. It would entail a continuing and perpetual struggle with the Kurds on both sides of the border. In addition, it would require direct military support for Assad the Butcher and likely direct military action against IS and the Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria. (The other alternative of allying
with IS and Al Qaeda in fighting Assad appears unthinkable, even for Erdogan. Doing that would just help make his and Turkey’s natural and eventual enemies stronger and more entrenched.)
In the final analysis, the Kurds are perhaps the most sympathetic ethnic group now warring in the Middle East. Although Muslims, they have no tradition of jihadism and no record of religious extremism. They are tolerant of other ethnic groups. They are effective fighters and good governors—moderate in word and deed. The few extremists in their ranks Erdogan could marginalize with moderate policies of his own, including more autonomy.
Kurds give every indication that they would be good and reliable neighbors for the long haul. Certainly they would be preferable to a genocidal maniac like Assad or jihadists like IS or Al-Qaeda-linked groups. Erdogan could have them as neighbors, and as a buffer against Arab extremism, if he could just make up his mind and do the right thing. His people would heave a huge sigh of relief and sing his praises, and his country would move closer to a true multi-party, multi-ethnic democracy and eventual integration into Europe.
That’s the solution toward which Western diplomacy should push, and steps toward or away from it are what Western news writers should divine and report. Cutting the Gordian knot of Turkey’s indecision could go a long way toward resolving the Syrian civil war, ameliorating the probable future of Europe and Turkey’s role in it, and making the Middle East, at long last, a safe place for humanity.
The Solution to Syria: Partition
Yesterday the New York Times
published an expert analysis of the situation in Syria. As an attempt at analysis and interpretation, rather than a mere description of separately meaningless destruction and mayhem, it was good journalism. But insofar as it reported nearly universal academic and expert despair, it was depressing and not too helpful. In essence, it gave reasons and excuses, but no solution, for the worst manmade disaster in the Middle East since the two world wars.
In essence, the Times
analysis explained why the Syrian civil war has gone on longer and caused much more destruction and displacement than anyone expected, and that most other recent civil wars have caused. It gave four reasons.
First, external powers with virtually unlimited resources are backing the various warring parties. So there is little chance for one or another party to get exhausted and give up. Among the participating external parties are Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United States and non-state actors like Hezbollah, IS, Al-Qaeda and similar groups.
Second, the war has gone on so long and with so much murder and distruction that the parties don’t trust each other enough to declare a working truce, let alone a settlement. Assad and his Alawites, in particular, have killed so many Sunnis and destroyed so many families that they can’t seem to rest easy unless and until their “enemies” are annihilated, excluded or completely subjugated. And because they have pursued such murderous policies for so long, their enemies can’t rest, relax or deal, either.
The third reason for despair is a combustible mix of race, religion and ethnicity. Here the splits among Alewives, Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis, Turkmen, Turks and other ethnic minorities become key. The same is true, albeit to a lesser extent, among the different big-nation nationalities: Iranis, Russians, Saudis and us Yanks.
Finally, the involved big powers have become incrementally more committed, making it hard for them to withdraw or deal until their professed (and conflicting!) objectives have been achieved.
The “conclusion” from these four points is that a solution to the Syrian conflict is unlikely any time soon, let alone in the near future. In addition, the conflict has the potential to blow up into a serious local, regional or even world war. For these conclusions, the New York Times
cites an impressive array of academic experts, each of whom claims to have made detailed studies of various civil wars and their eventual resolution.
But two things in this depressing article remain unstated. First, there appears to be a tacit assumption that the goal and end of the civil war is to have a single government over all of Syria, i.e., over what appeared on the “map of Syria” before the civil war began in 2011. In other words, the goal is to have one party among all those fighting win it all. What if we relax that assumption and consider the partitioning of Syria?
Once we do that, we notice several things. First, Syria is already
partitioned in several respects. Assad and the so-called “Syrian Army” hold Damascus and most of its suburbs with Iranian and Russian Support. Daraya, a previously rebel-held suburb of Damascus, surrendered to the government two days ago. The rest of Syria is in the hands of the so-called “moderate” rebels, the Kurds, IS, various jihadi groups (including Al-Qaeda and its Al-Nusra affiliate), Hezbollah, and (after Turkey’s action two days ago) Turks and their Turkmen allies. Or it is a no-man’s land, disputed between the jihadi groups (including IS) and non-jihadi groups (including the Kurds). The other major city, Aleppo, is still disputed and split between moderate rebels and the Assad regime.
So Syria is mostly partitioned already. Could the major powers involved—Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States—agree to make that partition permanent, perhaps with some modifications that they might agree to make without too much difficulty and too much additional mayhem? And wouldn’t the partitioning be easier if the people assigned to hold the various sections were people who actually or traditionally lived there?
That criteria for partitioning could have an obvious effect on all the foreign fighters now in Syria. They would not be counted in any political settlement. In other words, IS, Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra and the various Saudi-and Irani-sponsored invaders, including Hezbollah, would have to prove in some way that they had the support and acceptance of traditional locals to stay. Otherwise, all the others, including the big powers, would unite to drive them out.
This “solution” ought to appeal to all the big powers, at least in principle. Iran, Russia, Turkey and the United States all want the jihadis and terrorists out. So does Assad. The only significant difference among them in this regard is that Turkey wants the Kurds out, too. As for Saudi Arabia, which supports the jihadis with money and arms, might it be persuaded to cease doing so if the territory they now occupied were designated for returning Sunni Syrians after the jihadis were kicked out? Might Iran and Hezbollah agree to a similar arrangement, perhaps with any once-native Shiites returning, in the regions that they now control?
In this “solution” all the regional big powers would gain something. Russia would gain the survival of Assad and his Alawites and any military bases and investments in their territory. Iran would gain the same in Alawite territory and any Hezbollah-held territory willing to accept Hezbollah’s rule after resettlement. Turkey would gain a buffer zone against Arab unrest all along its border, held by its own troops or by the Kurds, as it chose. And Saudi Arabia would gain a guarantee of safety and security of Syria’s Sunnis, within their designated territory, without having to incur the expense of stationing or supporting troops abroad. In addition, all major powers would gain something else important: the risk of a regional or general war among them would be vastly reduced, and most or all of their troops in the region could come home, except as necessary to enforce an agreement.
One thing is crystal clear at the moment: Syria is longer a single nation. To the extent it ever was, over a third of its population has left, maimed and in terror. Europe and Syria’s neighbors, who took the vast bulk of refugees, want them to be able to return home, as do the refugees themselves. The longer the war goes on, the less likely that homecoming will be, and the more likely extremists and terrorists will be to entrench themselves in Syria.
The only way refugees can return soon is to a partitioned Syria. If they want to return to a Syria entirely slanted their way, they and their host nations may have to wait a long, long time. In the meantime, the agony of Syria will continue; more innocent people will die; more territory will become uninhabitable or disputed; and more refugees will decide to settle permanently in neighboring countries, or in Europe, overburdening their resources and tolerance.
World War I remade the map of Europe. So did World War II. The civil war in Syria has now gone on longer than the first and almost as long as the second. Why not end it by agreement between the major powers—an agreement that would motivate all of them to kick out the foreign jihadis, or at least not to help them, and therefore make short work of them?
Ideally, partition should also create a national territory or at least “safe haven” for the long-suffering Kurds. If the Turks could make a deal with the Kurds and overcome their historic antipathy (incomprehensible from this distance), they could have a buffer zone against Arab and Syrian instability all along their entire border with Syria, which they would not have to defend themselves. Doing that would make it much easier for the Turks to make peace with their internal Kurds and to marginalize Kurdish extremists everywhere. It would be a political coup for Erdogan much more powerful and long-lasting than his manipulation of his own people or his repelling of the recent “Gulenist” coup against him.
Having lost so many people and so many cities so far, Assad, his forces and the Syrian Sunnis understandably are reluctant to settle with their blood enemies. But the forces driving this war now are the infinitely greater resources of the external powers involved—Iranis, Russians, Saudis, Turks and us Yanks—plus their relative indifference to the Syrians’ unprecedented suffering.
Fortunately, none of these the big powers has so far lost enough people or material to make Syria a strong causus belli
in their homelands. Therefore, the big powers should exercise the maturity and restraint incumbent on their strength and responsibility, divide Syria up, kick the jihadis and terrorists out, resettle those refugees willing to return, set up local enforcement mechanisms with their air support if needed, and go home in peace.