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Fact and Opinion

It's all just content now.

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Two years ago the New York Times decided to demarcate its contents typographically. "Straightforward news," it explained, would be published in justified columns; opinion—be it a "memo," an "appraisal," a "journal," or some other subjective form—would get ragged-right treatment.

How's that working out? Here are two passages from the September 12 Times:

"The Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns have been going at each other with ferocity and perhaps, in some instances, a touch of mendacity. (No need for details; our lips, to use a body part drawing a lot of attention of late, are sealed.)"

"Ms. Palin did not seem to know what he was talking about. Mr. Gibson, sounding like an impatient teacher, informed her that it meant the right of 'anticipatory self-defense.'... [Otherwise,] there were no obvious gaffes during the grilling by Mr. Gibson."

Guess how they appeared.

I guess in the new world of journalism 2.0 a perhaps or a seem to is enough to establish objectivity. For that, claims the Times via its typography, is what we got. Objectivity (and trust me—by the new standards I myself am being coldly objective here, though old-fashioned readers might think I'm interjecting an opinion) has been defined so far downward that anything this side of an "earned himself a tar and feathering if you ask me" is categorized as cool dispassion.

Being at heart a reporter rather than a pundit, I won't presume to say why. I simply wish to observe, without suggesting a correlation, that Internet values are seeping into print journalism, and Internet values reward instant punditry, the more flamboyant the better. Simple, solid reporting is OK, but flamboyance is what attracts page hits, and page hits attract advertisers—enough of them, in a theoretical tomorrow, to keep journalism afloat.

The other day I had the unpleasant experience of being reprimanded by a younger sister who hasn't bought into the new ethos. Via e-mail, I'd called her attention to a McCain ad that, I said, "suggests Obama is a pedophile." It was a description I'd appropriated from John Neffinger at Huffington Post, who said the ad "basically paints Obama as a pedophile" and declared that "if Obama wants Americans to respect him, they must be allowed to see him react with the kind of anger—controlled, but still palpable—that they would feel if somebody did that to them." (I linked to Neffinger last week on my blog, where I called the ad "rancid and dishonest.")

Finding it hard to believe that even admeisters schooled by Karl Rove would dare say that about Obama, my sister watched the ad and wrote back to say they hadn't. The ad (with a sinking heart I watched it again myself) said Obama's "one accomplishment" on education was "legislation to teach comprehensive sex education to kindergartners," but where did it call him a pedophile? "If the press are pointing this out," my sister wrote, "then I fear they will be the ones planting that idea in heads, not the commercial."

I told her it was subliminal, a "hint of a hint" made by choosing a picture of Obama in which he seemed to be smirking. I lectured: "This kind of commercial making is such a highly refined art that commercials can be made containing suggestions only the press will be aware of." These subtle suggestions put the press in a lose/lose quandary. Ignore them at the cost of not telling the full story, or report them and be accused by the commercial maker of reckless bias.

My sister, who's spent a life in the theater, probably knows a lot more about the power of suggestion than I do, and she wasn't buying my argument. "If the suggestions are so 'highly refined' that only the press is aware of them (a bit egotistical on the press' part, I think) then I posit that they might be irresponsible by mentioning what is really only their opinion. I'd kind of like to go back to 'just the facts, ma'am' and let the readers/viewers form the opinions. Saying McCain's calling Obama a pedophile garners a lot more press quickly than a well researched exposé of political commercials using subliminal messages to sway voter opinion."

Well, it certainly garners a lot more page hits.

It was hard arguing with my sister because the perfect example of the journalism she was calling for had already been published by the New York Times. It was a September 11 analysis of McCain's sex-education ad that said the ad's accusations against Obama "seriously distort the record" and gave chapter and verse. The analysis stuck to what the ad said and left the subliminals for the blogosphere, and was none the worse for it. Absurdly, the paper gave this analysis the ragged-right treatment, denying the dispassion of its documentation.

Cool dispassion is what a few old-school reporters clinging to a dying trade will go on practicing until they disappear. But frenzy's in fashion. It's driven by the journalism 2.0 mandate to attract attention, and by the perceived obsolescence of "due time," the time it takes the public to come to a sensible conclusion on its own. The smartest thing Sarah Palin did in her interview with Charles Gibson was speak so much nonsense that every horrified pundit felt compelled to rush to the barricades. The collective shrieking reminded me of sci-fi movies about alien invaders—the ones where there's one person in town who understands what's happening but no one will listen, and meanwhile more and more of the townspeople turn into vegetables and then it's too late.

But it's not too late—the election's still almost two months off and the debates haven't even begun yet. And although the people are clearly in less of a hurry to embrace revealed truths than the pundits believe they ought to be, I don't think that necessarily means they're turning into vegetables. Well, maybe they are—but there's a serious lack of objective evidence.

Memo From the Wonderful Wizard

Ribbon, the new managing editor in charge of thinking outside the box, wrote an inspirational e-mail every day. The big guy upstairs encouraged him in this, having noticed that since Ribbon came on, staff downsizing had become a problem that took care of itself.

Ribbon's motto was, "There's no wisdom you can't make a little wiser." Today this aphorism held his attention: "A lie travels halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on." It sounded like something an old-fashioned copy editor, back in the day when newspapers had them, might have said when explaining the world to a copy boy. But that was yesterday's world. Nobody understood the new one quite like Ribbon.

"So what does this old saw have to do with us in this busy election season?" his e-mail asked. "Are we in the lie business? Others, maybe, but not this shop. Are we in the truth business? Well, I sure hope so. But are we mainly in the transportation business? Bingo! Facts and ideas—we ship 'em in, add some value, and ship 'em out. It's what we do and we think we're pretty good at it.

"But when the other guy's product travels halfway around the world while the goods we're shipping are just pulling on their boots—maybe we're putting ourselves at a competitive disadvantage.

"In fact, I know we are. And something needs to be done. But what?

"No way to slow down the lie. Gotta speed up the truth. But how? Remember RULE NUMBER ONE—Question everything! Well then...

"What's with those boots anyway? Allow me to throw out an idea so crazy it makes damn good sense—what if we put the truth in boots that aren't so damn hard to pull on! What about boots with Velcro straps? Or gosh, what about galoshes?

"Or, HOLD THE PRESSES! Where's it written the truth has to wear boots at all? What do we think we're doing around here—sending the truth forth by horseback?

"PAUL REVERE IS DEAD LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! So, why think boots when we could think sneakers?

"I'm putting a sign on my desk that says, 'The truth here wears Adidas!'

"No. On second thought, I'm not.

"Because I just got an even better idea about the proper footwear for today's truth.

"RUBY SLIPPERS.

"The ultimate in multimedia transportation. Truth you can click on.

"OK, back to work everybody. And think about ruby slippers."v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on the media, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites.

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