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Journalistic Indifference

Draft -- Version J, October, 2006
Update of Overcoming Indifference

Contemporary journalism has circuit breakers that never seem to pop. Every day, articles get through that fail the smell test. Worse, few readers seem to care. Even if they do, complaints don't generate enough traction to change either journalism or the community. The circuit breakers don't pop because the people and press don't see the problem. Press coverage sets a narrow depth of field on the lens of coverage. They dwell on the action in the foreground -- milestones, trivia, artificial competitions, the appearance versus the reality, games, style -- the easy things at the expense of the important. The narrow depth of field leaves the background, as if it did not matter, stubbornly out of focus for the reader.

If it were in focus, the background would show the threads of the underlying society people overlook. They are not taught to see it. They see only "us" and "them" when cultures interact. They miss the underlying fabric. They see journalists as observers standing apart from cultures, independent and accountable only to themselves. Oblivious of the underlying fabric, journalism has grown up unsupervised, indifferent, with no yardstick by which to measure its own misbehavior. Indulgently unregulated, without a guiding light, journalists wallow in the luxury of shallow work. They rationalize that whatever popularity they earned somehow means they are good.

A reckoning of sorts has been presaged on, of all things, the finale of Seinfeld, the recent, long-running, popular television show. The main characters were tried for violating an ordinance that obliged passers-by to help those in need. At the trial:

FOREMAN: We find the defendants -- guilty.
VANDELAY: Order! Order in this court, I will clear this room! I do not know how, or under what circumstances the four of you found each other, but your callous indifference and utter disregard for everything that is good and decent has rocked the very foundation upon which our society is built. I can think of nothing more fitting than for the four of you to spend a year removed from society so that you can contemplate the manner in which you have conducted yourselves. I know I will. This court is adjourned.
Significantly, the finale left the TV audience bewildered and puzzled. That's no surprise since the common audience does not distinguish "society" as a whole from its cultures. They do not appreciate either the obligations of society or the show's criticism of how those obligations remained unfulfilled.

Society forms whenever two or more people interact. Individuals from every culture make up an abstract committee of the whole called "society" that stands independent of one side or another formed by different cultures and encompasses them all. The price of admission to society is minimal behavior that preserves society. Society underlies all cultures, like the warp and weft cross-threads that hold the pile of a carpet together.

It is in society, rather than culture, that journalism has its place. Socrates deduced the value of division of labor in society ("polis") -- where you work for others and others do work for you. For that reason, journalism serves in society not as a free-reined independent observer, but works as a surrogate for the reader. What is more, as a surrogate for the reader, journalism is obliged to measure what it reports against the background of the minimum behavior for the whole society.

But what does it matter?

From its beginning, journalism's focus hasn't really mattered. Journalism began with a whimper, bumbled through adolescence, and even today seems consumed by self-infatuation and the trivial. Soon after the invention of movable type, a Renaissance blackmailer and pornographer, Pietro Aretino, "produced a regular series of anticlerical obscenities, libelous stories, public accusations, and personal opinion." Even worse, as documented by Eric Burns in his Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism, Aretino's opinion was for sale. But in the grand scheme of things, what did it matter?

Recently, at the other end of history, an Associated Press photographer was captured in Iraq, allegedly in the company of two insurgents -- one apparently an al Qaeda leader. That he might owe allegiance to one party of the conflict compromised journalism. AP's executive editor, Kathleen Carroll, found herself working hard to free her associate while, at the same time, trying to reclaim the wire service's credibility. In a world this tough it is hard to fault news organizations for compromising principles, introducing less reliable locals, giving in to bribery, and putting excellent journalists at greater risk for torture, injury, and death in the first place. But what does it matter?

Further muddying what might matter is the side issue that one culture may not understand another, or may at least claim to be misunderstood. Confounding that, over time, philosophy has spiraled into minimally functional self-absorption. Moral relativism poisons the well of discussion with "What makes you so sure you're so right?" Cultures perceive arguments from another culture as jingoistic, chauvinistic patriotism. Worse, many school graduates are ill-equipped to defend themselves logically against the onslaught of words and images. When nothing seems to make sense and pounding through complacency is hard, there seems nothing to be done. No focus. No tools. No help. No time. But what does it matter?

Unfortunately, it matters a great deal. The difference between journalism during Aretino's time and today is that science has put such power into the hands of anyone who cares to learn about it, that any warped zealot can, in the name of whatever he believes good and holy, mangle otherwise innocent people.

Conventional journalistic habits

The executive editor of the Associated Press defends its journalism this way, "We're not in this to choose sides, we're to report what's going on from all sides," and "How can you know what a conflict is like if you're only with one side of the combatants?" She adds, "Journalism doesn't work if we don't report and photograph all sides." But what is reported about all sides is not always important and it's not always enough. While the AP editor may only be tailoring remarks for the express purpose of saving that AP reporter's life, the premises don't stand up to examination:
  • Presentation of any side without covering its fit into society leaves reporting incomplete.
  • Providing extra detail about a conflict sometimes misdirects attention away from essential details.
  • To be objective requires using judgment, not abdicating it, to identify logical inconsistencies.
  • Journalism can work even if all sides are not fully reported and photographed.
Sometimes journalists should choose sides. Furthermore, the logic applied to the initial premises is suspect:
  • Casting journalism as an "either/or" choice is a disservice to other options.
  • A philosophical shootout between moral absolutism and moral relativism is unnecessary.
  • Abdicating responsibility, AP's claimed impartiality reduces reporting to observation and regurgitation. Spewing data is not news and risks falling victim to "Garbage in--Garbage out." Football referees are impartial, too, but they also throw flags. AP's position as much as says Typhoid Mary was only a carrier, and so it was not her problem that she infected people.
Knocked off its moorings, buffeted by the rising tide of situational ethics, and under attack for bias by political extremes, journalism claims not to have a dog in the fight. But, as surely as G. Gordon Liddy's moral relativism fails as workable philosophy to facilitate intercultural cooperation, journalists do have a dog in the fight. They just don't know it yet. Individuals, journalism, and society are inextricably intertwined. They share core interests that, once understood, oblige them to oppose threats to society:
  • First, journalism exists to serve as a surrogate for the reader. Without journalism one would be all alone gathering material to improve and refine one's mental map of reality -- which is the only tool the brain has to plan one's very best future. However, one is not alone, but part of a larger group that has advanced to the point where it can take advantage of the division of labor when workers specialize. Specialization of journalism allows practitioners to develop greater skill and productivity, with the caveat that the original service to the individual must be fulfilled. It isn't enough for the journalist to simply gather data, or present it compellingly. Journalism has to help people improve and refine their mental map of reality the better to make decisions about their future.
  • Second, journalism has another less obvious but inextricably intertwined purpose. Journalism shares with individuals the responsibility to protect and defend the few simple things that make society possible. If journalism does not protect society it undermines its own existence. Without society, journalism can?t exist. Similarly, without society an individual would be only another animal, at the mercy of the law of the jungle.
Against this background AP oversimplifies when it says, "Journalism doesn't work if we don't report and photograph all sides." That's incomplete because journalism doesn't work if journalists ONLY report and photograph all sides. While good journalists should approach a story traveling light -- carrying little baggage from preconceived notions -- that does not abdicate their responsibility to defend themselves and society using honed intellectual skills. Time magazine's Scott MacLeod, Sept. 17, 2006, reported without comment an interview from the President of Iran that included responses like this:
TIME: Why do your supporters chant "Death to America"?
Ahmadinejad: When they chanted that slogan, it means they hate aggression, and they hate bullying tactics, and they hate violations of the rights of nations and discrimination.,9171,1535777,00.html
Ahmadinejad?s Orwellian "Newspeak" isn't news; it's noise, devoid of meaning, and Macleod ducks his journalistic responsibilities when he leaves Ahmadinejad unchallenged in the interview and publishes the transcript without comment. Unchallenged bafflegab corrodes the relationship between journalist and reader. Journalists exercise the same tools essential to individuals -- grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The "Trivium," as they are known are the first three of classical education's Seven Liberal Arts. It?s ironic that classical education, which stressed, first, learning to think, and then to practice thinking by studying subjects, lost favor just about the time Renaissance "journalist," Pietro Aretino, invented his grocery checkout counter fishwrap.

While historically, journalism has had its ups and downs, two of the "ups" were the resolve of the New York Times to publish the "Pentagon Papers" during the Vietnam War and the persistent enterprise of the Washington Post to report Nixon?s Watergate criminal cover-up. The Times and the Post exposed commonplace complacent sycophant journalism that had reduced the quality of readers' mental maps of reality. Perhaps those revelations drove embarrassed journalism schools to push the journalistic pendulum towards cynical adversarial journalism that has plagued us for the last 30-40 years. Certain practices are not appropriate for journalism:

  • Abdication of responsibility isn?t good enough.
  • Blind acceptance isn?t good enough.
  • Complete cynicism isn?t good enough.
A more recent failure is advocacy journalism, in which journalists presume to make choices for readers and do their thinking for them. That leaps beyond a Trivium's test for intellectual honesty and beyond protecting the minimal requirements for society to assume to itself a mantle of unchallenged expertise. History exposes how dangerous it is to depend on unchallenged expertise -- of scientists, politicians, teachers, preachers, or journalists. Journalists can fact-check, and recast technical content into lay language, but it?s hubris to presume to make final judgments for people who need to be able to drill down to original sources to fact-check the fact-checkers.

Towards more useful journalism

Society exists to support the individual. Journalism exists to support the individual in society. It follows that journalists are obliged to do more than they now do to detect, label and expose specific threats to society:
  • Poor thinking -- Invalid premises, bad logic, and baseless historic revisionism subvert clarity.
  • Lying -- Undermines accurate understanding required for proper decision-making.
  • Fettered speech -- Fails to recognize that people sometimes think they are right not because they are right, but only because they think they are.
  • Thuggery -- Undermines processes of peaceful problem resolution.
  • Wanton violence against innocents -- Returns us to the law of the jungle.
  • Opposition to peaceful processes of change -- Denies society.
In simplest form, society demands just two threads: 1) processes that foster humility -- which is the understanding that there may be a better way of doing things, and 2) reciprocity -- which is the understanding that others can help us find that better way as much as we can help them. Journalism depends on society to exist, so journalism is responsible to detect challenges to the few underpinnings society demands all cultures share. It is this background the lens of journalism often fails to connect to its foreground coverage. Simple tools to help are well within journalism?s grasp, if it can embrace them.

Renaissance journalist Pietro Aretino was ignorant, greedy and malicious. Five hundred years later, recent mainstream media failures make one wonder if journalism is infected with ignorance, greed, malice -- or something else:

  • CNN -- Eason Jordan made a deal with Saddam Hussein to allow the network to continue to broadcast from Iraq so long as it self-censored its coverage. Anderson Cooper repeated the abuse more recently while covering Hezbollah in Lebanon.
  • CBS News -- Dan Rather wanted so desperately for the Bush Texas National Guard documents to be true that "fake, but accurate" was good enough to be news.
  • Reuters -- The agency became the poster child for falsified photography and events known as fauxtography and Pallywood. Reuters digitally manipulated images, photographed staged scenes, set-up scenes to photograph, and composed misleading captions.
  • Newsweek -- Michael Isikoff creatively manipulated -- "Isikoffed" -- a statement by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to change its meaning.
  • NY Times, Time Magazine, Newsweek, MSNBC, and others -- Caught in the scene, the press jiggered and trumpeted the Wilson/Plame "outing" only to be hoodwinked by small-time, self-interested con artists. Their misdirected outrage, in the face of revelations, led a good deal later to journalistic silence or, at best, a barely audible "never mind."
The thread that seems to tie the Associated Press together with these media failures is indifference. Journalists talk past readers much as politicians talk past each other. In the game of Craps, dozens of side games are played that are indifferent to outcome of the game played by the dice thrower. In Craps, the original game doesn't really matter. In society, isolation meant it previously mattered little, but now, with science available to all, it does.

Creeping indifference

Indifference reigns because several generations have had no reason to understand what is important and why. As children of the 1960s and 1970s -- or taught by teachers who were children then -- people in journalism today were cosseted; relatively free of want, schooled but not educated, insulated by parents, protected from the tough responsibilities forged among the horrors of World War II that they, the parents, were obliged to assume. Unfortunately, rather than protect their children, the insulation from responsibilities has only postponed a powerful reckoning that facing sooner might help. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers, gossip columnist Liz Smith reflected, "Gossip is a luxury we can no longer afford." The cosseting, and the hubris it engendered, is a luxury we can no longer afford.

To reclaim journalism from indifference, the task is to inoculate readers to recognize journalistic poseurs and to guard the essentials of society while not unnecessarily trampling cultural differences -- all of it the better to plan individual best futures. At risk is civilization. Naiveté is no excuse; there is no escape and little time remains to redeem the situation. There are enough institutions at fault, but pointing the finger is less important than finding the pivot point and the fulcrum to set things in order.

Mother Nature does not care whether we reclaim journalism from indifference or society from potential usurpers -- but we certainly care. Humanity has manufactured a framework for continuous improvement unlike anything conceived elsewhere in the known universe. The question remains whether we have the will to stand up for it, to see it through to fruition, and to pass it on as a gift to our children.


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This page was last updated: Thursday, November 16, 2006 at 1:25:19 PM
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