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questions on cynicism

2000-10-06 11:30:14+00 by Dan Lyke 1 comments

I'm trying to figure out a common factor those of us who view the news media as an unending stream of barely edited press-releases. I had a discussion recently with someone who viewed the New York Times as one of the better newspapers, and I and another participant said "faint praise" and pointed out some of the ways the New York Times[Wiki] has fallen down over the years, from foreign correspondents doubling as CIA operatives to falling all over themselves on the Ron's Angels (don't even know if that site still exists) hoax. The original newspaper reader took us to task for our cynicism, offering that it was "the easy way out", and I'm trying to figure out what the common factors are between those of us who don't believe, and how realistic my perceptions of self-interest and sloth in journalism are.

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#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:30:23+00 by: monickels

You've kind of answered your own question with a later entry: the availabity of original material, including press releases, is gradually making the question of regurgitated news irrelevant, if only for those who care. Sloth is becoming obvious and every online forum is a journalism review, every editor's and writer's email address a complaint box.

While I don't appreciate having press releases passed off as news (which is intellectual dishonesty, I believe, that every US media outlet is guilty of), I do know that when I want them, I can go straight to PR Newswire and get them. But having the newspaper pick the best ones out for me is helpful, if only they'd label them as something other than news.

As an ex-journalist, I can usually tell when a story is a recycled press release: generic statements from high officials, the quoting of somebody in marketing or a press officer, quarterly reports just about due, somebody is stepping down "to start their own consulting firm," etc. Much like spam, press releases recycle the same rhetoric and formula. The ability to discern press-release based stories is not unique to me; I think most people can do this to some degree.

I've always felt that the biggest problem with the Media (a term I hate but feel compelled to use) is that they don't choose sufficiently "raw" material. That is, the don't drink the water very near the source, but near the delta. A good example is what I call the Newsweek/Time syndrome: your average reader seems to think that these publications are some sort of distilled weekly wisdom, when in fact, they are generified, generalized, already-out-of-date reprints. Not a lot of original news ideas start in those publications.

Press releases, as useless as they are, are fairly raw because they say: "This is what corporation X wants us to believe." They're a good starting point because the information therein is ready for interpretation.

This is why I believe that first-person narrative (not navel-gazing I-me-my-mine opinions, but real stories) is great in a news outlet: it's as close to the story as you can get. It's raw with pretty much one layer of filtering. Summaries are good, but I always want the original material available to me.

Which leads me to my main point: Euronews runs an interesting feature once or twice an hour on my French cable system called "No Comment." It's a few minutes of video, mildly edited, sound intact, with no narrator, reporter, or talking head. It's usually not a press conference or any one talking to a camera, but scenes of an event: a toxic spill in Romania, storming of the Parliament in Yugoslavia, an athlete winning and then breaking down in tears at the Olympics while being mobbed by team-mates. Although it's obviously an editorial judgment to decide which video to shoot in the first place, which bit to run, how to edit it, etc., there's one less layer of filtering because it's un-narrated and relatively intact. A good thing.

I would say the discerning factor for those who don't trust today's journalism is that they create their own balance while those who believe do not. The balance is found in knowing the biases, predilections and prejudices of a particular media outlet and the allowing for them, adjusting for them, filtering for them. Knowing that the Times tends toward establishment liberalism enables a reader to account or discount as needed.

In Europe it's very common (as it once was in the States) for their to be no pretentions toward objectivity. For example, in newspapers here in France when quoting from other newspapers on a particular subject it is common to include the politics of that particular paper being quoted. It makes sense to me. There's no way to not have bias, and, in fact, to do so would be professional suicide, because who likes a wishy-washy, mealy-mouthed opinion spouter?. A good reader learns to trust a media outlet not to tell them the truth, but to behave in a certain, predictable fashion that will allow the reader to discern a more accurate picture of what might be true.