At Large : Let a little air out of the windbag
To all those who've let me know, repeatedly and in unmistakable terms, that they don't believe everything they read in the newspapers, I say, your skepticism has not been misplaced. Actually, it is a miracle and a thrill to hear that you believe some of it.
Having had years to watch and even bear a hand in the preparation of news reports, I know it's a messy business. Boiled down to the bitter residue, it's people dealing with people, and we know how risky that can be.
A jumble of aspirations, motivations, allegiances, and limited understandings are busy on both sides of the reporter-newsmaker divide. Everyone realizes that each member of the audience watching a car wreck (or health insurance reform legislation) reports the sequence of events differently. And, it's not merely because vantage points or perspectives vary. And, then there's the driver, whose story may not match that of any of the observers and whose interest in the details will certainly reflect a unique bias.
What you read in the newspaper is, like the eyewitness's testimony given the investigating officer at the scene of the crime, a version of the truth, with some of the details, as seen from one viewpoint, by one imperfect observer. It's worth something, but what?
Of course, I shouldn't move on without mentioning you, the devoted readers. Because, you bring something to the newspaper you read. You aren't innocent of opinions and allegiances, prejudices and biases. I've read news reports that appear to be about this, and soon after heard you complain because the very same story was, in your view, about that. And, by the way, it was deficient and didn't belong in the paper at all.
To make it all worse, news hounds these days call themselves journalists. They inflate themselves generously with tales of their unusual access to newsmakers. They opinionate mercilessly. They dress better than you and I, and get paid more, and they never met a cable TV talk show host whose invitation they'd decline. They can't imagine how the republic could stagger on without them. They explain archly that they are the keepers of the record. They write the "first draft of history." They even demand that government, which it is their mission to watch over and unmask, shield them from government snooping into their activities, their sources, even their knowledge of criminal activities. And, astonishingly, they wouldn't mind some government intervention to bring the Internet to heel, because it's stealing their advertising dollars as well as their readers. They're far too important, don't you know, to stand still for that.
The new breed of news reporters, the ones who know everything, are never wrong, demand the reader's respectful genuflection before every column of type, and hoist a collegial few brewskies with the big shots about whom they write may not like Eric Burns's new book as much as I do. I think Mr. Burns, a reporter and writer with a particular interest in how the news business works, is onto something. His latest, "All the News Unfit to Print - How Things Were ... and How They Were Reported" (John Wiley & Sons Inc., Hoboken, 2009) has the pleasing effect of hauling newspapering (now journalism, pronounced in hushed and reverent terms) back down to earth and daily life.