Powerless Nonexperts

I was flipping about on C-SPAN recently and observed a most strange phenomenon. It was a conference hosted by the editor of a magazine, and it featured a panel of journalists who write for his magazine. They were going to discuss the nuclear issues in Korea and Iran, the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq.

I thought to myself, this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen. Who cares what four journalists think about these issues? One, they are not experts; two, they have no power.

This might come as a shock, but journalists really do have no power, and a journalist who is a true expert on anything is about as rare as a teenage rock singer who can translate Homer from the original Greek. Television has made some journalist celebrities, and, being celebrities, they pretend to be experts and influential. They are neither.

We journalists are mere observers. Like the fans in the bleachers, we watch the game, and some of us report it and some of us comment on it. But we don’t affect it. Furthermore, no matter what our salary is or what our pretensions are, we are in truth blue-collar workers in information factories. We don’t own the factory; we don’t manage the factory; we don’t set policy for the factory. So not only do we not have the power to change the world outside, we don’t even have the power to change the factory we work in.

The significance of that is that being blue-collar employees, we don’t move in the same social circles as the people who do have power. If the power elite want us to know something, they will tell us; otherwise, we won’t have a clue. For example, journalists perform the charade of covering meetings of heads of state, even though they are not admitted to the meetings. Thus, they don’t really know what was said or agreed upon. They are reduced to rewriting the press release the power brokers hand out or reporting what the big shots say at press conferences.

The best of the journalistic breed are the true reporters. Seymour Hersh, for example, is my ideal journalist. He has an insatiable curiosity, and he digs out facts that the public would otherwise never know existed. He finds and reports the facts without regard for political correctness or ideology or politics. Yet, I think even he would admit that he has no power to change anything. Breaking the story about the abuses in the Iraqi prison resulted in what we all knew would happen: Low-level enlisted people were dumped on, and higher-ups went scot-free.

Putting facts before the public becomes meaningless if the public and public officials choose not to act on them. Every politician in the country who is smart enough to hire a public-relations adviser is told that the best way to handle unpleasant facts is to ignore them. Truth that is ignored eventually fades out of consciousness, while lies that are repeated become, in the minds of many, truth. Human beings do not act on the basis of truth; they act on the basis of their perception of the truth, and two people can look at the same set of facts and draw entirely different conclusions about their meanings.

As for "experts," true experts are few and far between. As the old joke goes, an expert is somebody from out of town with a briefcase or somebody whom the emcee will call an expert. A true expert is someone who knows all there is to know about his subject and, more importantly, knows what he doesn’t know. An expert on Iran, for example, would be someone who reads and speaks Farsi, the language of the country, and had studied in-depth the country’s history, culture, art, politics, geography and religion. You don’t acquire that depth of knowledge with a few short trips and interviews with English-speaking Iranians.

What would help American journalism at the present would be a big dose of humility that washes away ego and pretense. Digging out facts and reporting them accurately is a perfectly honorable trade. Whether the public chooses to act on those facts should not be our concern. We are reporters, not reformers, not politicians, not policy-makers, not experts, not prosecutors. We are just plain reporters whose job is to keep our mouths shut and observe and listen and then tell our readers what we saw and heard.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.