Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Information-free Society

Recent irking experiences as a working journalist remind me of a problem I have watched developing to the point that it has become epidemic: nearly every institution has developed a myriad of ways to stonewall reporters and, partly as a result, almost all news publishing operations have come to offer thinner, more poorly verified factoids. It's reached a point that I wonder how the average person in the street finds out anything of significance.

This is not a matter of a loss of innocence. I have long instructed new reporters not to believe government officials if they say the sun is out without first going to a window to see for themselves. Government officials lie as a matter of practice; it must be in the manual: when in doubt, lie.

In my experience covering religion, I have learned that people in religious institutions lie even more egregiously, albeit more stupidly. Professionals of religion don't understand that they can get caught lying, especially if they lie in writing. Clerics think people will be buffaloed about anything they say, so long as they use the right mumbo-jumbo.

Corporations, however, are among the most secretive, most bureaucratic institutions when it comes to information. Since the Reagan era, the private sector's art of secrecy has permeated public discourse.

Even unions, whose officials were once the brashest, most quotable figures in American society, now have layer upon layer of public relations officials to hide just how little their members get for their dues and how much high-paid union executives are in collusion with their highly paid golfing partners in business.

Time to turn shine the third-degree lamp on journalism.

In the world of print journalism, it's no longer a secret that declining portions of the American get their news by reading -- a real loss for democracy. Indeed, we all now know that the majority of people under 30 get their first-hand news from a television program devoted to satire of news, Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."

Most people do not understand the difference between the information content of a written news story and a broadcast newsflash and the consequent effect of the public shift to broadcast news, let alone the effect of learning about something from a comedic version of the news.

Allow me to explain.

An efficient reader can scan about 1,000 words in just about the time it takes to read out loud 50. Because journalistic style writing is crafted to pack as many facts as possible in few words -- wire services typically do not accept lead sentences longer than 30 words -- written journalism has it all over broadcasting when it comes to conveying facts.

This is why print reporters have traditionally called TV reporters "twinkies" (blond on the outside, fluffy on the inside.) I will never forget the twinkie who launched a press conference with the momentous question, "How do you feel about the national unemployment rate?"

But that's not all.

The broadcast news industry, because its is an expensive medium, is controlled by an ever smaller number of investors and holding companies with little real interest in delivering information of actual value and meaning to watchers. If newspapers were reluctant to investigate advertisers, imagine the pressure for broadcasting.

At least one network, Fox, has become a purveyor of all the news conservatives want to hear. I would not object quite as much if there were a counterpart with progressive news.

In England, I learned while working there, the news business has always been explicitly ideological. There is even a job title for the person in charge of protecting the "line," the sub-editor, a creature who does not exist in the U.S newsrooms.

You pick up the London Times and you know you'll get the Tory story, while you pick up the Guardian and you'll read the Lefty take. British journalists have come to regard facts as somewhat of a nuisance and the British public muddles through as it always has.

My point is that broadcast news not only does not convey too many facts, increasingly it misinforms or disinforms.

"Disinformation" (dysinformatsya in Russian) is a Soviet term used in the art of espionage for deliberately conveying false information to an adversary. The Allies used the practice in World War II to mislead the Germans into thinking the invasion of continental Europe was taking place in a variety of sites other than Normandy.

Modern disinformation is more subtle.

In a recent Fox broadcast, for example, a Chris Wallace interviewer asked Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) about the alleged "conflict of interest" in heading the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee while investigating Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. When a clip of Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa) voicing the charge was shown, the word "SCANDAL" was blazoned across the screen.

(The almost complete transcript -- minus the broadcast banner -- is available here.)

In the same show Chris Wallace allowed Newton Leroy Gingrich, former right-wing bomb-thrower in the House of Representatives, to explain himself concerning his calling Spanish a "ghetto language." Wallace described that bit of racism as "something of a flap."

So, according to Fox "news," when a Democrat politician is involved in -- oh, surprise! -- politics it is a "scandal" calling for resignation; when a Southern right-wing white Anglo politician from the party known to have used the famous "Southern strategy" to gain the votes of white bigoted Americans denigrates than language of an ethnic minority, that's "something of a flap" and the politician is allowed ample time, with little interruption, to explain.

This is how we come to the point at which, between stonewalling news sources, a declining general readership press (I work in the specialized trade press, which also is in decline) and a corrupted general audience broadcast media, we are left with a few wire services and the Internet.

How good are these sources? Just last week ago, I watched Reuters blare to the world through the Internet the news headlined "Women's group to stop sponsoring workplace event," leading many newspapers in the Midwest to proclaim that Take Our Daughters and Sons To Work, celebrated April 26 this year, was coming to an end.

The actual story was that this was the 15th anniversary of the event. More importantly, this year sponsors (the Ms. Foundation) were asking parents and children to text message Congress in support of legislation mandating a minimum 7 days of annual sick leave for every U.S. employee. The minor organizational future news, with which Reuters chose to lead, was that the event would henceforth be run by another organization as it had taken on a life of its own.

Never mind that 35 million parents and children participated. Let's proclaim an ending to this.

Result: Reuters eviscerated a feminist event and pushed a major labor legislative battle to the bottom of its story. They even got a woman reporter to do it!

This is the sad, sad state of information in our society. How can we expect citizens to be able to see through the web of lies and deception of businesses, churches and government in these circumstances?

We have reached the information-free society.


Anne said...

Two comments: ~People who complain about frontpage news (content, photos, headlines) do not read pages 2, 3, 5, 7, 10, etc.

~ People who _do_ subscribe and read newspapers are inundated with piles of junk paper which in this day and age supports a scandal of waste. I wish there was a way for the readership to be selective in their subcriptions as to choice of sections that are most important to them, especially in the major 'papers. Cost may go up to offset ads' but it would be worth it.

*Time* to read, or lack of it is a major reason why people hit the internet briefs. If people who want indepth coverage could receive the main section and commentary and forego the chitchatty sections and not see piles of unread papers waiting to be tossed, maybe subscriptions would increase. Perhaps the computer-age will facilitate this for publishers.

My brother who is the most (of all the sibs) like me in in religious observance is completely different in our belief in how our ideals play out in the political and social realm. Because he is (literally) busier than me, Fox (or a cloned source) is his translator. It's disheartening, for me, that he can't read between the lines.

Julie Pippert said...

Oooh I just wrote about yellow journalism (obviously from the reader POV). ITA about broadcast news.

In the same way police changed from "public servants" to "public enemy" in many people's POVs, reporters have morphed in most people's opinion from "friendly conveyor of important information" to "person out to Get Me."

I think you are right: it's from tabloid and television.

Paper to electronic media is a problem for all types of publishing. As is the mindset of "no time to learn the information" and "no interest in information I think is outside my immediate sphere."

Then there's "no actual information that I really believe in the news...I take it with a grain of salt" mentality that detracts.

And all the points you make.

I wonder what the solution is.

I tried to dig down to the bottom of completely contrasting allegations and defense between two mayoral candidates---the media had no interest since it wasn't even covered---and could not.

Excellent post!

violeta bourn said...

You were a semiologist and you didn't know it!!!
I totally agree with your post.