I suppose I could have blown up a few trucks, put bad food back on the deli counter or accused the military of nerve-gassing deserters and kept my journalistic integrity throughout. But I realized early on, it is easier to sleep at night if you can say at every step that you reported the truth as you knew it.
– Matt Drudge
Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I refer to it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)
Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.
– Michael Crichton
The opinion of the press corps tends toward consensus because of an astonishing uniformity of viewpoint. Certain types of people want to become journalists, and they carry certain political and cultural opinions. This self-selection is hardened by peer group pressure. No conspiracy is necessary; journalists quite spontaneously think alike. The problem comes because this group-think is by now divorced from the thoughts and attitudes of readers.
– Robert L. Bartley, Editor Emeritus of the Wall Street Journal
Based on my experience at J-school, I can generalize a couple things about journalists around my age that could explain some of the problems. First, nearly all of us were in J-school not because we wanted to be reporters, but because we wanted to write. . . . Thus reporters are ripe for the temptation of press-releases: and most press-release-writing flacks are people with journalism degrees who know exactly how to write a release so that the reporter can edit out obvious promotion but still buy the overall spin.
Second, almost all of the J-school program at Stanford was spent trying to get us to think about the implications of journalism, the politics of reporting, the influence of journalists, etc.
I think this is a long-term big problem for Journalism, the profession. It has been eating its seed corn for a decade or more, and so much of its cultural authority is used up. This can be good, in that it reduces the influence of unaccountable institutions, like the big daily papers. But it’s also bad, because once everyone stops believing the newspapers, you have a huge problem of vetting and evaluating information.
– Michael Drout
There have been three stories of interest that have made very little splash in the “legacy media” recently. The first one dates back over seven years, and it is the story of media manipulation in the Middle East. Media manipulation in the Middle East is hardly shocking. We’ve seen photoshopped smoke clouds from Beirut, and a green-helmeted man using a dead child for repeated photo-ops there as well. We’ve had an Iraqi woman used to claim that (unfired) ammunition struck her home in Iraq. We’ve seen the AP (and others) mischaracterize government reports in big headlines, only to recant in fine print – but that’s nothing compared to breathless stories of headless bodies that apparently exist only in the fevered imaginations of their sources.
And that’s just a few examples.
Boy, it’s a good thing professional journalists have all those layers of fact-checkers and editors above them, like Scott Thomas Beauchamp’s girlfriend at The New Republic, huh?
But this particular story is most interesting in that it gives unmistakable evidence that not all of the media manipulation is being done against the will of those editors and fact-checkers, and that it has taken fire and tongs to pull that evidence into the light.
Seven years ago, September 30, 2000, twelve year-old Mohammed Al-Dura and his father Jamal were filmed by a Palestinian freelance journalist for France 2 television as they were apparently caught in a crossfire between Palestinians and Israeli Defense Forces. The film showed what appeared to be the deliberate killing of the boy and wounding of his father by Israeli soldiers. The film of the killing was a propaganda nightmare for the Israelis, and a gold mine for the Palestinians, as best exemplified by this column defending the “truthiness” of the story in 2003. Journalist James Fallows has been pursuing the facts of this story ever since, almost single-handedly.
Well, the story has finally broken, but you won’t hear about it in our major media. Instead, bloggers are spreading the story that the incident was staged. Not only that it was staged, but that such incidents are not uncommon, and the media is often fully complicit. Why? “Fake but accurate” serves the purpose of “truthiness.” Dan Rather knows all about that.
The other two stories? Well, the first is that the New York Times is upset about missing on its “defining atrocity” in Iraq like the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, or Mohammed Al-Dura’s “murder” in Palestine, and the second is an interview of Robin Wright of the Washington Post and Barbara Starr of CNN who tell CNN’s Howard Kurtz why it isn’t a good idea to report on good news coming out of Iraq.
It doesn’t fit the template, you see; it doesn’t tell the “higher truth” that the majority of the media has decided on and will not be swayed from.
There are still some good journalists out there, James Fallows is evidence of this. But Robert Bartley illustrates the source of the problem, and Michael Drout points out its glaring result: lack of trust. The Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is going away, as more and more we instinctively distrust everything coming out of the major media.
“You know, I wanted to sit on a jury once and I was taken off the jury. And the judge said to me, ‘Can, you know, can you tell the truth and be fair?’ And I said, ‘That’s what journalists do.’ And everybody in the courtroom laughed. It was the most hurtful moment I think I’ve ever had.” – Diane Sawyer, Good Morning America, 7/12/07
For those of us connected to the web (and we’re still a minority – even most of the people with web connections barely know how to use Google), we’re able to fact-check, view alternate sources, and find ones we can trust.
Regardless, however, we’re stuck depending on the legacy media to do the leg work, and most of them don’t. As Drout points out, journalists don’t report much anymore, they edit press releases – and their peers tell them it’s OK to do so, just so long as the result of that editing fits the template. That template is that everything is going to hell, and the U.S. is at fault for it all.
Antonio Gramsci is laughing his ass off in his grave.
UPDATE: Were you aware that there was a list of the 101 top incidents of media dishonesty? The Mohammed Al-Dura story isn’t on the list, but lots of plagiarism is. I think that list needs reworking, but the links in it are fascinating in a sickening sort of way.