< Fred On Everything

Reporters Errant

The Origins of Bushwah

Everyone and his pet goat has noticed that the media do a poor job of covering the news. The facts frequently aren't facts, the reporters conspicuously don't understand their subjects, and the spin is annoying. Why?

For lots of reasons. To begin with, newspapers necessarily attract certain types of people. To get the news, reporters have to be aggressive, willing to push their way over others and to ask questions people don't want to answer. They have to work well under the pressure. Because deadlines rule newsrooms, they often have no choice but to write superficial, half-understood stories. A reporter can't tell the editor, "Yeah, somebody did just nuke Capitol Hill, but I think we should wait to write about it until next week, when we have the facts."

Further, reporters have to submerge themselves daily in tedious details of unimportant stories about trivial people: Who wrote the check used to buy the fur coat that was obviously if not provably part of the bribe from the lobbyist of the trash-collectors' union to the mayor's wife? (Who really gives a damn?) Most reporting is neither interesting nor exciting.

It requires the soul of a CPA in a hurry, and reporters indeed amount to high-speed fact-accountants. The job quickly weeds out those who don't want to be, who aren't comfortable with the compromises and pressure.

The nature of people is that some qualities do not often coexist with others. For example, the aggressive and detail-minded are seldom studious or contemplative. Fact-accountants are not theorists. The cast of mind of reporters is concrete, not abstract, their mental horizons short. Reporters aren't stupid--most are quick and some are very bright indeed--but they do not naturally look at the big picture. They do not, for example, approach a new beat by reading books about it. Intellectual they ain't.

To put it a bit too succinctly, the qualities needed to get the news preclude an understanding of it.

Since most of the people in any newsroom fit this pattern, a culture has evolved which supports the reporters in their natural inclinations. It is a staple of reportorial philosophy that one does not particularly have to know a field to cover it. Any reporter, goes the thinking, should, given a week or two to fill the Rolodex, be able to cover anything. Which in fact he can, barely: Within a few days an experienced reporter can knock out copy that usually is not ridiculously wrong. Neither is it very good. But that is good enough.

A concrete example: A reporter assigned to the military beat and told to cover, say, submarines, will pull everything he can find on submarines from Nexis and the morgue. He will learn who in the Pentagon deals in submarines, who builds them, what the armed-services committees on the Hill think about submarines, whose districts profit from the contracts.

He will not read books on the design of submarines, their history and modes of employment. He will probably never quite learn what they are for: plugging the GIUK Gap, for instance. Further, reporters seem to be obligate technological illiterates: Our example will not learn about phased arrays, convergence zones, the relation of the aperture of a towed array to its angular resolution. He won't have the background to understand such things even should he try. So he will go for politics, which he understands.

In short, he will learn everything about the politics and bureaucracy of submarines, and nothing about submarines.

The fundamental ignorance leaves him at the mercy of his sources. Since he will have no independent idea which of competing claims about a new submarine make sense, he will have to decide instead which sources seem to him more trustworthy. Seeming trustworthy is an art much studied in Washington.

Now consider the circumstances under which reporters work. Newspapers with few exceptions are understaffed. A computer magazine can have a writer specializing in CPUs and microcircuitry, another in software, a third in disk drives. By contrast a newspaper will have a reporter who covers Science-and-Technology. The job is a bit like specializing in practically everything. It ain't doable. The field is too grand. It can be approximated by the very rare reporter with a strong technical bent and a lifetime of reading texts in biochemistry, vector analysis, neurology, and so on. These usually go to technical publications.

Back to our example, him of the submarines. His beat will be The Military. He can't cover it. The military is a vast, sprawling canvas of different services, weapons, missions, bases, much of it relying on exotic and highly disparate technologies. Further it is all over the world. The reporter can't go all over the world.

So he will cover the Pentagon, which is convenient, and military politics, which he can believe he understands. They aren't the military. But they're coverable.

And here we come to a governing principle of newspaper journalism: Do what you have time to do. This is why you see stories reporting that some policy shop, say the National Coalition of Concerned Physicists (I think I made that up) says that we are all in danger from radioactive emissions from rutabagas. Maybe we are; maybe we aren't. The reporter doesn't have time or, perhaps, knowledge to find out.

To save labor, journalism has decided that the issuing of a report is in itself a story, not the beginning of one. The reporter therefore doesn't have to know enough to determine whether the report is correct. He merely has to announce its existence. The published account is inherently biased, even if the reporter covers himself by adding a one-sentence rejoinder from the rutabaga farmers. The important thing is that he gets a story easily, which is all he has time to do.

The policy shop understands all of this, and takes advantage of it.

Them's some realities of the news racket. We'll look at other from time to time.