Trouble At The Daily Planet

The Unsurprising Decline Of Newspapers

I figure we'll take newspaper editors, and shove'm into a woodchipper, and make mulch. They look absorbent. Thing is, if you planted corn in shredded editors, it would probably grow sideways, because it wouldn't know which way was up.

Now I gotta figure out whether there's a market for sideways corn. Journalism is harder than it looks.

Anyway, editors. A passel of the rascals got together a while back, at some trade show, to wonder why circulation was falling, and people thought journalists were no-account scoundrels, lower than possums and education theorists. They all wondered together in unison and in three-part harmony, and came away empty.

They didn't know why people are sick of newspapers.

I could give them an idea. Start with the calculated mendacity of reporters. The truth ain't in'em. Journalism is a kitchen I work in, so I see what goes into the soup.

For instance, remember all the stories about how the military was buying toilet seats for $600, and $17 bolts? Neither happened. I checked a lot of those tales as a military writer. They generally amounted to fabrication. The Pentagon has all manner of ways to waste money, but bolts and toilet seats aren't among them.

I'll tell you how the lying is done. The details and numbers won't be right, or even real close, because I'm remembering from years back, but you'll get the point.

The Navy ages ago bought an airplane called the A-3 that looked like a black-eyed pea with wings and was supposed to chunk atomic bombs on the Russians. (You've heard the Navy's recipe for Chicken Kiev? Heat the city to four million degrees and throw in a chicken.) The A-3 had a design life of twenty years. Crashing daily on a carrier ages a plane. (The Navy calls it "landing." I've seen it done, and I say it's crashing.)

Anyway, the A-3, like most airplanes, had a number of nonstandard parts. One was an odd bolt for the nose gear. The Navy bought enough bolts for twenty years. Then Congress decided to extend the service life of the A-3 by several years. The Navy, now about out of bolts, needed a few more.

There are two ways to get a few bolts. One is to go to a bulk-bolt shop and order 10,000. They'll cost a buck each, for a total bill of $10,000. You'll use 10 and toss the rest overboard. The other way is to get a machine shop to make ten bolts by hand. This is expensive. Those ten bolts might cost $170.

"NAVY BUYS SEVENTEEN-DOLLAR BOLTS!"

That's how the game is played. I could give many examples of no interest today, including the $600 toilet seat.

Is it technically lying? Maybe not.

But is it really? Yep.

Does it happen all the time?

You bet it does. And people figure out that they're being lied to.

Now, you might wonder why the media engage in crafted prevarication. As best I can tell, it begins with their being predominantly a group that has little in common with most, or certainly a very large part, of America. That doesn't make them liars. But it's a step.

If you checked the newsroom of the Washington Post, I suspect you would find that the inmates mostly lived in pricey neighborhoods, had degrees from Princeton, drank white wine, and ate salads made from strangely named vegetables. Most of them, I'll bet you, have never baited a hook, changed their oil, or made a raft out of orange crates and old inner tubes.

Nor (I'm continuing to bet) have they ever held a gun, much less fired one, and would regard doing so as highly exotic and probably fascistic. Zero of them would have served in the military. The men likely never got into a fight in high school. The women probably think that peeing in the woods constitutes either grave hardship or high adventure. Few have hitchhiked, boozed in a country bar, done shift work in a gas station, pulled crab pots, or played in a tire swing.

In short, they are privileged little snots. And have the attitudes to go with it. They don't like, among other things, the military, rural people, guns, the South, traditional morality, and Marlboro Man.

Now, here you have to understand the peculiar mental habitat that is journalism. Reporters, having power without responsibility, come to think they deserve it, and grow lordly. (I have one of those buttons you wear on a shirt that says, "Power Corrupts. Absolute Power Is Kind Of Neat." Exactly.)

The trade encourages you to be impressed with yourself. You can go almost anywhere, do almost anything, and everyone is afraid of what you might write. Directly or by implication, you get to tell people how they ought to think and live. It's heady stuff, especially for a minor intelligence with a ticket from J-school.

The clout is exhilarating. If you call the Pentagon and say, Hey, can I fly in an F-16 and do a low-level pop-and-drop bombing run, the Air Force will say, "Yessir, Mr. Reed, splendid idea, how intelligent of you to think of it! Shall we land it on your sidewalk? What kind of dressing do you want on your salad?"

Nobody at the Pentagon will ever tell a reporter, "No, you dismal flatworm, the bullet comes out the other end." They will assuredly think it.

In journalism, merit has nothing to do with the importance assigned to you. You don't need merit, and few have it. In fact, the worse you are, the more respect you get, because stupidity allied with unpredictability is just flat awesome.

Reporters forget this. They forget it easily because journalism is a performing art, and attracts egos that inflate as readily as airbags.

Soon you begin to believe that your business is not to inform, but to instruct. You know that you are right about. . .well, about everything, because everybody in the newsroom agrees with you. (Diversity in newspapering means that you have blacks who think exactly the same things you do, Hispanics who think exactly. . . .)

The result is a kindergarten of privileged little snots, insular, arrogant, convinced of their superiority, thinking in lockstep, ignorant without knowing it, invincibly self-assured, who want to Make Things Better. They want to improve you. They want you to share their enlightenment, want to herd you in directions good for you. They are missionaries to the bushmen. You and me.

Mulch. It's the only answer.