I love the media. They remind me of a man who bangs on his thumb with a hammer and wonders why it hurts.
Every year a conclave of editors and publishers laments the decline in circulation and blames illiteracy or television or the alignment of the planets. It’s someone else’s fault. Recently I saw a story, perhaps on Wired.com, saying that the media are finally realizing that bloggers and small web-only sites are undercutting them. How very alert of them. This too is someone else’s fault. One reporter thought it was because people want bias.
Permit me to offer another explanation: People weary of the usual media because they aren’t very good. How’s that for a shattering insight? (This column is big on shattering insights.)
Why are the media not very good?
In thirty years in the writing trades, I’ve covered a lot of things, but three in particular: The military, the sciences, and the police. For years I had a military column syndicated by Universal Press Syndicate and later carried by the Army Times papers until I was fired for political incorrectness. For half a dozen years I rode with the cops all around the country for my police column in the Washington Times. And I’ve written tech columns and pieces for technical mags like Signal forever.
This isn’t my first rodeo.
In each case the reporters I met were, with very few exceptions, pig ignorant. The military reporters didn’t know the history, the weaponry, the technology, strategy, tactics, or how soldiers work. Almost none had served. The police reporters chased scanners instead of riding regularly and just didn’t know what was out there or who cops are or why they act as they do. The tech writers were mostly history majors.
Over the years I’ve noticed several things. First, in print publications, most reporters aren’t very smart. A few are very bright, but probably through a mistake in hiring. (The prestigious papers are exceptions, hiring Ivy League snots of the sort who viscerally dislike soldiers, cops, rural people, guns, etc.) Reporting requires assertiveness and willingness to deal with tedious material under pressure of deadlines. These qualities seldom come bundled with inquiring intelligence. Consequently reporters (again with the occasional exception) lack curiosity, and don’t read in their fields.
The results are reasonably obvious to all of us, no? Is it not true that when you know a field, those writing about it clearly don’t?
Second, they are painfully politically correct, frightened of making a slip. Everyone in the racket knows exactly what you can’t say and what you have to say. Thus what reporters know, they don’t say; and what they say, they don’t believe. Writers are afraid of being fired; newspapers are afraid of their readers and, very important, of their advertisers. Editors are terrified of blacks, Jews, Hispanics, homosexuals, and women.
Third, the media are controlled, controlled, controlled. It is easy not to notice just how controlled. For example, people are interested in crime and the police. Ever see a television station put a cop on camera and let him talk for half an hour about what it’s really like out there? Never happen. An honest cop couldn’t manage three sentences without saying something perfectly true but forbidden.
Fourth, to understand journalism, you have to understand that, once you have a decent beat, it’s a ticket to ride. It’s fun. You get to go where others don’t, do things other people only dream about. You have power. You have privilege. The paper buys you tickets and hotels for the Paris Air Show; you go to exotic wars, ride in fighter planes. Important people who think you are an idiot are nice to you because they are afraid of you. And if you don’t ruffle feathers, you keep both power and privilege. So the easy thing is to write what you are supposed to and have a splendid time.
Fifth, reflect that because of law, convention, and political fear papers have to hire "diverse" newsrooms. This exercises a powerful flattening effect on the news. For practical purposes it is not possible to express opinions, or to cover stories, that offend a sizable group on the floor of the newsroom. If your editor is female, or the guy at the next desk black, or gay, you find it very hard to write anything that these groups won’t like. You have to come to work every day. More diversity in the newsroom means less diversity in the news.
Finally, whoever owns the paper calls the tune. It isn’t always done obviously. You don’t get a telephone call from the publisher, or whoever in New York owns your paper, saying, "Yes, it is I. The Big Boy. God. Here’s what I want you to write…." But you know the paper’s line, its taboos. You abide by them or you walk. Given that the media are owned by small numbers of people who believe the same things, the tune that is called seldom varies.
Now, compare this with the world of bloggery. If it is your blog (or website), you are the editor. You aren’t afraid of advertisers because you don’t have any. No one sits at the next desk. If you want to, you can write under an assumed name. Them as wants to read it, will; them as don’t, won’t. The choice is entirely between you and the reader.
The net is…gasp…a truly free press.
In the past people in the usual media have loftily ignored bloggery, generally regarding it as the domain of bush leaguers who couldn’t get a job at a real newspaper. Who are they kidding? Other than themselves? Yes, there’s trash, lots of it. But there are wonderfully witty writers (the media don’t do wit and can’t write*), and brilliant folk who are lifelong authorities on things (the media don’t do much brilliance or authority), and people who tackle taboo subjects with real insight (the media…never mind).
*An exception is my friend Joe Sobran. If he wrote a book on concrete technology, it would read like Milton.
Fred Reed [send him mail] is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.