Monday, December 7, 2009

Our Small Society

About 25-30 years ago a journalist acquaintance revealed to me that for a short period of time he worked as a writer for The National Enquirer in Florida. He did so under a pseudonym. He didn’t want to tarnish his professional image. The work, he related, paid well but was super-pressurized. If he didn’t come up with several “exclusives” every week, he’d be sent packing. This was at the time the Enquirer featured stories about aliens siring three-eyed children mixed in with the inside scoop on some celebrity’s plastic surgery makeover or their encampment in a drug or alcohol rehab.

Today’s tabloid press is multi-media. The Enquirer et al compete with People, Us Weekly, countless web sites too numerous to list, TV and cable shows also too numerous to list and even the major network news divisions. “Legitimate” newspapers and evening news broadcasts have turned their shrinking news holds into cesspools of gossip. It’s apparently more important for news organizations to spend resources to track down Tiger Woods’ alleged mistresses than to have news bureaus across the country to research serious news.

Titillation is in. Sound bites trump (now there’s a real tabloid word—it can be a verb, a noun or a proper name) reasoned discourse about national and international issues.

Is this what journalism schools are teaching these days? I went to J-school in the year of Watergate. After that watershed event, everyone wanted to be an investigative reporter, exposing political wrongdoing. Now the expose being sought has a seamier side. I hope this is not just the ranting of a sixty-year-old. Maybe I’m disillusioned because half the people reported on are unknown to me.

But I’d like to think my rant is more weighty, a disappointment in the quality of reporting, a belief that most reports lack context. Among other things, context is knowing what happened or what was said before the story of the moment. It involves research. Intelligence. Curiosity. More research. Innate skepticism. Even more research.

The recent brouhaha over new guidelines for mammograms, suggested by a presidential commission, is a prime example. Though the Obama administration is being excoriated by Republicans over the recommendations, few reporters have noted that the panel that proposed the new guidelines was not appointed by Obama. It was chosen by a Republican president, George W. Bush.

Good reporting also demands accountability. Why is Jon Stewart of the Daily Show (and the late Tim Russert) almost the only one who exposes the past? Politicians live in the moment. Their positions shift, like sails in the wind. They expect no one to remember what they said years, months, even weeks ago. They backpedal when caught, claiming to be quoted out of context.

For many years I carried a “Small Society” cartoon in my wallet. The one frame cartoon depicted a political aide telling his irate boss, “Senator, it’s not that you were misquoted. It’s that they reported word for word what you shouldn’t have said in the first place.”

TV news depends on conflict, drama, confrontation. It’s a lot easier to air a political attack than do all the research necessary to show the accuser held the now-discredited view when his or her party was in power. Why do reporters let them get away with it? Because they’re lazy. Or no good. Or pressured by management to “sell the sizzle, not the steak.”

Why does the public reward political blowhards with support and votes? Sadly, because most Americans are just uninformed. We’re forgetful. We lack context. We’ve come to rely on our newscasts to keep them honest. But the media is as complicit as the politicians in keeping America in the dark.

Whose Sari Now: Perhaps it’s been reported already, but I’d be curious to know how many red saris similar to the one worn by Michaele Salahi have been sold since she partied at the state dinner at the White House. If you know, please email me.

Birthright: My “younger” sister Lee who is older than I am by two years (she has a biblical complex—she thinks she sold me her middle-child birthright, whatever that is) is displaying maternal instincts towards me. She worries about my venturing out sockless in the cold.

“The head and the toes are the first to feel cold and to allow body warmth to seep out. Given your diminishing hair amount I’d think again of no socks policy...just a helpful sister’s advice...not that you ever take my advice...,” she wrote in a recent email.

Didn’t realize I was losing my hair, at least in any noticeable fashion. She has peculiar eyesight for someone nearly 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles. But she’s right about it getting colder. It was 38 degrees when I went outside early Sunday afternoon, sockless. Wasn’t bad at all.

But Lee did have an interesting suggestion: “I suggest that you give in to Mother Nature and start wearing socks. To distinguish business dress from free man's dress, wear only funky, silly socks.....there are many on the market.”

Not a bad idea, but as she suggested in her motherly tone, when did I ever take her advice? I’m just not ready to give in. My “public” keeps demanding to see me sockless. Last week I didn’t disappoint four separate inquirers.