Monday, April 10, 2006

An Appalling Theological Ignorance

After following the "Gospel of Judas" kerfuffle for the past week, I wanted to do a piece on how the nearly complete theological ignorance of the press affects their coverage (i.e. since they don't understand Christianity, they have no idea what's important to it and are therefore consistently exactly wrong about what matters and how much - in the case of Judas: not so much). I started it twice and deleted it. Boringboringboring. But the point is important, so I figured I'd just publish a rerun instead:

In thirty years in the writing trades, I’ve covered a lot of things, but three in particular: The military, the sciences, and the police. For years I had a military column syndicated by Universal Press Syndicate and later carried by the Army Times papers until I was fired for political incorrectness. For half a dozen years I rode with the cops all around the country for my police column in the Washington Times. And I’ve written tech columns and pieces for technical mags like Signal forever.

This isn’t my first rodeo.

In each case the reporters I met were, with very few exceptions, pig ignorant.
-- Fred Reed, "The Media in One Lesson"
Until December of last year [2003 - El B], I was the Voice of Sauron. I worked as a Public Information Officer for a statewide office-holding politician, meaning that I sat in meetings where news was discussed before it hit the papers and decided what facts would be given out, how they would be presented, and what the message ought to be. I also wrote a weekly newspaper column under the name of the officeholder that was carried in more than a dozen papers (150,000 readers), wrote dozens of press releases, and did daily radio and TV interviews talking about the events, cases, and policies that impacted peoples' lives.

My experience with the press is the same as Fred Reed's.

The problem was not that I was a conservative (the office was conservative, I am a Libertarian) dealing with the "liberal media," a hostile force looking for a slip upon which they could pounce to spin it in an unfavorable direction. While that was a concern it was never really a problem, for in hundreds of interviews I was never embarassingly misquoted, though I was misquoted more than once.

No, the problem I saw, and what makes me doubt the veracity and completeness of nearly everything I read, was the fact that sitting in a place where I knew the relevant facts, I read in the papers every day many simple misstatements of those facts - facts that were at the disposal of the reporter but which became gummed up between my writing/speaking and the reporter's story or between the reporter's story and the finished product. Sometimes even simple errors I made (and I made plenty) like misspelling a victim's name appeared in the paper due to lack of cross-checking on the reporter's part. I don't recall receiving a single followup where a reporter said, "You have 'John Doen' in your press release, but the court records have the name as 'John Doe'. Which is it?" When I erred as a news provider, most often the reporter simply ran with it, failing to make even the most cursory checking of my facts.

After seeing scores of stories that had 2 or 3 serious errors that I knew of, I wondered how many others there were in stories where I didn't know the relevant facts. And I also wondered what it was about the press that made these kinds of errors so common.

The answer to the first question is obviously unknowable but I think it's reasonable to assume that there are as many errors in stories I could not independently verify. That means that a plurality if not a majority of press stories have at least one error which seriously impacts the truth of the story, enough to make me doubt the veracity of most of what I read.

The answer to the second question is complicated, but possibly not as complicated as Reed makes out - though he's doubtless right in many instances. My immediate boss, who in the past had been a press agent for Johnny Cash as well as being the "face" of a number of prominent people in and out of politics, told me when I started, "In six months, you'll hate the press." I didn't hate them (in fact, I found that most of them are darned nice people) but I did come to agree with his most notable conclusion concerning them: members of the press are, by and large, both ignorant and lazy.

There are several ways in which they are lazy, the biggest of which is that they fail to cross-check facts. Part of this is a function of deadlines - no one has time to cross-check everything - but most of it lies in the fact that much of the media are not fact-gatherers as much as story tellers. They simply take what is given them from whatever soucre (politicians, for example) and make it into a story. Successful reporters are good storytellers. Ones who are both accurate and good are rare as hen's teeth.

A second bit of laziness is not so much the reporters, but editors. I saw many times whole paragraphs that I had written appear in a story. In fact, several times I saw press releases, in toto, appear under a byline with my name on it as if I were a reporter for that paper. And remember, I was the guy who sat in a meeting deciding, for many reasons, what facts were relevant, what would lead, and what would be excluded. If you read those articles as an objective and complete account of what occured, you were woefully misled. You did not have all the news that was fit to print; you only had the facts that I thought you should have. It wasn't even a matter of a politician hiding facts but the simple truth that we couldn't provide all the facts and by law we could not release many of the facts. For political reasons we did not volunteer some of the facts, and sometimes we chose which facts to release based on nothing more than that we didn't have time to answer questions on facts that were too complicated to explain easily.

The second, and probably most crucial area you are misled, however, lies in the "why" of a column. Reporters seek to offer reasons why something occured, even if they don't know, and much of the time they are simply making it up. This is most obvious in financial stories, where millions of investors' decisions are summarized in a pithy little phrase such as "Technology stocks closed lower Thursday, as investors chewed on worker-productivity figures and worried Friday's employment report may spur the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates sooner" (from a WSJ/Quicken story this week).

Now, needless to say not all investors, and maybe not even a significant minority of investors, took note of worker productivity figures of all the day's news, calculated the likelihood that rates would rise in the future (there's a 99% likelihood, btw), calculated the effects of that rise on their portfolios, and made investment decisions concerning specific stocks primarily on that. The fact is that the Fed meeting was not known only Thursday (it was not "news") but for weeks and months ahead of time. Everyone also knew ahead of time that the labor report would be released Friday (it was not "news") and no one knew what it would say (it was not "news") or what the effect might be on the Fed. But some stocks in the tech market went down Thursday and some went up, and no one, especially not the reporter who wrote this, knows if there is a causal link between any of the above. Rather than not saying anything the reporter filled in the blanks and passed it off as a fact. It's not a fact. It's a nothing written into a story to become a something that fills the story up.

Getting back to Reed's contention that the press is, in addition to being lazy, Pig Ignorant, there's a little story I made up to explain this to the person who took my place when I left. Each member of the press, each day, comes into an office that is empty but for a dart board and a dart. The dartboard says, "Today I am an expert on..." and has divided areas noted with such titles as "the inverse relationship between interest rates and bond prices", "the specific people involved in intra-party power plays and the effects of those on primary elections", "14th century Roman Catholicism", and "the effects of digital photography growth in China on the recycling market for silver." The reporter then throws the dart and is off to write about his new-found expertise.

In other words, press stories deal with specialties that no press person (given that their education is seldom in any of these areas) can possibly master, and even the generalities are foreign to many of them. More than once I had to explain that the laws of Kansas do not apply in Canada or South Korea, that a felony conviction does not mean automatic prison, or that local law enforcement officials have no say over what the Supreme Court of the US decides. I had an army of attorneys to help me and I still could not answer many of the questions; most of the press had nothing but me and their own pencil to answer them. But they still answer them.

No person can possibly be an expert or an authority on all of the literally thousands of subjects upon which the reporter must write, and the reporter is demonstrably not an expert in many of the basic things we assume they are when we take a press story as authoritative. So many stories in the press are written by people who do not really know the subject matter, do not cross-check facts which are given to them by people with an agenda, and fill in the blanks with made-up commentary to try to make sense of it all. Add in Reed's contention of political and corporate correctness, less than stellar intellectual capabilities, and the vested interest the reporter has in keeping on the good side of his meal ticket, and you'll find that much of what passes for news is not only not news, it's not even true in the specifics and is probably misleading in the generalities as well.

When people ask me why I don't bother to get the paper or watch network news or why I don't have up-to-the-minute knowledge on many of the events of the day, the answer is obvious: I'm afraid I would believe what I read.

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