News Is a Verb: Journalism at the End of the Twentieth Century
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LIBRARY OF CONTEMPORARY THOUGHT
"When screaming headlines turn out to be based on stories that don't support them, the tale of the boy who cried wolf gets new life. When the newspaper is filled with stupid features about celebrities at the expense of hard news, the reader feels patronized. In the process, the critical relationship of reader to newspaper is slowly undermined."
--from NEWS IS A VERB
NEWS IS A VERB
Journalism at the End of the Twentieth Century
"With the usual honorable exceptions, newspapers are getting dumber. They are increasingly filled with sensation, rumor, press-agent flackery, and bloated trivialities at the expense of significant facts. The Lewinsky affair was just a magnified version of what has been going on for some time. Newspapers emphasize drama and conflict at the expense of analysis. They cover celebrities as if reporters were a bunch of waifs with their noses pressed enviously to the windows of the rich and famous. They are parochial, square, enslaved to the conventional pieties. The worst are becoming brainless printed junk food. All across the country, in large cities and small, even the better newspapers are predictable and boring. I once heard a movie director say of a certain screenwriter: 'He aspired to mediocrity, and he succeeded.' Many newspapers are succeeding in the same way."
Even Ted Koppel appeared unable to believe that he was actually saying what he was saying on the air. Newspapers struggled to find ways to convey the language on the tapes made by that wonderful guardian of public morality, Linda Tripp. Posing as Ms. Lewinsky’s dear and consoling friend, Tripp taped everything the younger woman was saying. The details did not resemble the novels of Jane Austen. One newspaper’s solution was to run the phrase “b… j…,” the first time in mainstream journalistic history that either “blow” or “job” had been placed on the obscene list.
To begin with, I am a citizen of this country. I believe that all those noble clichés about newspapers are even truer now than they were in the past. Without good newspapers, operating primarily as instruments of knowledge, we cannot truly function as a healthy, continuously evolving democracy. In the age of the ten-second spot, the superficialities of political coverage on television, the sometimes hysterical urgencies of the twenty-four-hour cable news cycle, the blather of talk radio, the unedited paranews of the Internet, newspapers are essential to our political discourse.
For many editors, one of the surprising things about these sections is the number of men who read them. When I was at the Daily News, Thersday provoked as many letters and calls from men as from women, some of them outraged, some of them full of praise. Men read the sections in a different way, of course: primarily to discover what women are thinking (run a story about the female orgasm and men always read it, too), but sometimes for more casual reasons: to have something to talk about on dates, for hints about gifts for women or kids.
They should be encouraged to write critical memos to editors without worrying about provoking thin-skinned responses. And then their opinions should be respected in the best possible way: by being put into effect. The other failure is more about promotion than it is about journalism. Newspapers do a pathetic job of telling the potential audience about the women on their staffs. Every newspaper should promote its stars, regardless of gender: the columnists and prizewinners. It should never spend a dime on promoting the publisher, about whom the general public doesn’t give a rat’s ass.
Nobody will remember a thing by tomorrow night. But among most of the journalists I know there was a deepening sense of what can only be called shame. They didn’t want to look at their own newspapers. They didn’t want to bring them home and explain them to their children. They didn’t want to be in them. It wasn’t the essential grunginess of the story; it was the way it was being told, with eyes popping, tongues hanging out, and counterfeit emotions larding the writing. “There’s only gonna be one loser in this mess,” one columnist told me.