Monthly Archives: September 2004

The Death of Journalism

I’ve been dismayed to watch a continuing deterioration in the quality of journalism over the years. More and more, it seems like journalism is being replaced by entertainment and sloppy reporting.

Coverage of the current Presidential election is a case in point. This country faces important issues — and an important decision — with consequences far more profound than anything I’ve seen in my lifetime.

We live in the best democracy in the world, and that provides the media with the right — and responsibility — to educate people in an objective way. With such important issues — terrorism, the war in Iraq, health care, education, the environment — what does the media focus its attention on?

During August, almost all of the stories were about the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. A group making claims easily disproven by any Journalism 101 student. It shouldn’t have been news. But, to the delight of Republican operatives, it became the news. Rather than talking about the future, the entire month was spent gossiping about events that happened 30 years ago. As the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz said in his Media Notes column today, cable news became one big echo chamber.

I’m not trying to be partisan; the same thing started happening early this month, with renewed questions about the President’s National Guard duty (or lack thereof) during Vietnam. That story probably won’t have very long legs, but it’s also a distraction from discussions that are meaningful and about the present and future.

It’s much easier for the media to focus on gossip about what did or did not happen 30 years ago. It’s harder to report on the complex issues we face today.

As a result, the media are doing a great disservice to this country.

The sloppy reporting isn’t limited to politics; I am seeing more and more articles in prominent publications that would receive a failing grade in a college journalism class.

Take, for example, an article in today’s Daily Variety reporting on rumors of a large settlement between Apple (the computer company) and Apple (the record label). The two companies have sparred in the past; Apple Records (which owns the rights to the Beatles collection) sued Apple Computer when Apple began making computers capable of playing music, years ago. The release of the iTunes Music Store (which was briefly called the Apple Music Store when it first came out, apparently until some low-level employee informed Steve Jobs of the previous Apple v. Apple settlement) has sparked off another lawsuit.

The Daily Variety reported that word among “the legal community” is that a huge settlement between the two companies is imminent.

“One lawyer told Daily Variety, ‘People are expecting this to be the biggest settlement anywhere in legal history, outside of a class action suit. The numbers could be mind boggling,” the Daily Variety breathlessly states.

Who is this lawyer that spoke to the Daily Variety? The lawyer is not identified. And who are these “people?”

I haven’t taken a lot of journalism classes, but I have learned that there’s a real easy test to determine if something belongs in a news publication or a supermarket tabloid.

Anytime you see statements like:

“Some people say…”

“It’s been heard…”

“Many believe…”

You know the “reporter” is dealing with rumors and has not done his or her homework.

Immediately, my mind asks: who are these people? Who believes this? Who said that?

These are completely meaningless statements, because they provide no sourcing and no context. In fact, you can make any statement you want by preceding it with “some say”:

“Some say martians will invade Earth any day now.”

“Some say there is no chance Earth will be invaded by martians.”

Seeing these types of statements usually means that the reporter (a) had a pre-conceived notion about the story, facts be damned and/or (b) was too lazy — or unable — to back it up with quotes from real people.

Consider the above examples again:

“NASA scientists said martians will invade Earth any day now.”
“Escaped mental patients said martians will invade Earth any day now.”

The first example might warrant more attention (and worry) than the second.

In terms of the Apple vs. Apple story, the entire Daily Variety article failed to put a single person on record — instead using terms like “one lawyer said…” Here’s another gem:

“Some speculation suggests the settlement could see Apple Corps. becoming a major shareholder in the computer company, with Paul McCartney maybe even becoming a board member.”

Speculation by whom? A mental patient? Heck, even if there was no disagreement between the companies, I could accurately report that Paul McCartney maybe might become an Apple board member. Or maybe he might not.

Apple (Computer) has officially said that they have no intent to settle; that’s why they’ve gone to court. The lawsuit is being handled in England; even if Apple were to lose, it’s hard to imagine that damages against them would be very severe, and an English judge can’t exactly tell Apple what to do outside of England. (England isn’t exactly Apple’s largest market.) In a worst-case scenario, Apple could probably spin off the iTunes Music Store as a separate unit, much as they did with Claris and, for a time, Newton.

But that type of analysis wouldn’t make for an exciting story. Hey — did you hear the Beatles might be taking over Apple Computer? And that Paul McCartney might become CEO? I’ve heard some say that.

There are times when it’s impossible to directly attribute statements in a news article, although these cases are very rare. You often see stories that say “a senior advisor in the White House said..” But if that senior advisor is willing to leak statements to the press but not willing to own up to it, the reporter ought to be pretty skeptical of using the statements.

The Internet acts as an amplifier on sloppy reporting, because there are so many “news” sites that simply repeat — often word-for-word — large chunks of someone else’s story.

I counted no less than a dozen news outlets that simply parroted sections of the Daily Variety story. Did they bother to check with their own sources or legal scholars? Or do any research themselves? Of course not! That would have taken work. They can just copy and paste details from the original article, and they’ll get some click-throughs and ad impressions of their own. Piece of cake.

Sigh.

The problem is definitely getting worse. It’s harder for actual news outlets — the type that do old-fashioned, objective, multi-source reporting — to compete with the entertainment or ditto outlets — which are more concerned about generating viewer impressions with the least cost possible.

This, too, explains all the stories about the Peterson trial and the Kobe Bryant trial. Are these really newsworthy stories? Shouldn’t we be more concerned with all of the issues that will directly affect us?

I suppose the media will argue that they’re simply providing a product that the viewer wants to see. There’s a reason why Fox (aka Faux) News beats CNN in the ratings game — and it’s not because Fox News caters to the far right. It’s because they treat news as entertainment. Like too many other outlets, they’re not trying to be objective or do any “real” reporting — they’re just pushing a weird mix of controversy and entertainment because it happens to generate ratings. Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh discovered this trick years ago; their controversy draws as many critics as it does fans — and they don’t care if you love or hate them, as long as you listen; ratings are ratings.

Addendum to New Toy.

So, I was hanging out with my nieces the other weekend, and decided to show off my new toy. (The Traxxas E-Maxx remote-controlled truck described in my previous blog entry.)

I placed the truck in front of Jessica, and she immediately decided it was ultra-cool and needed to be destroyed. She tried pushing down on it, sitting on it, licking it, and all of the other things 2-year olds gleefully do.

I then switched the truck on and tapped the remote, making it move about a foot.

Oops.

The glee suddenly wiped off of Jessica’s face. This movement was clearly not something she was expecting.

She stood there, staring at the truck with a frozen look of terror on her face, literally for about 30 seconds. I could see the gears in her head turning as she tried unsuccessfully to compare the movement of the toy truck with her previous two years of life experiences.

I knew there was nothing I could do to prevent what was coming next: crying. Sure enough, after staring dumbfounded at the truck for 30 seconds, she concluded that toy trucks do not move on their own, and therefore this toy truck is an evil and possessed toy truck and that she must use all her powers of crying to make the truck disappear.

So I had to quickly hide it.

Hmm. So much for that plan. Apparently little girls do not like remote controlled cars. I imagine Jessica would also be quite terrified of Teddie Ruxpen, or any other animated dolls. (Do they even make Teddie Ruxpen anymore?)

Perhaps we can try again when she’s three.