Advances in technology sometimes make things faster, but not necessarily better. Train travel is much more comfortable and civilized than air travel. But we put up with being jammed into modern airplanes because we are addicted to speed.
And yet speed is not always the most important value. There are people who type quickly, but their accuracy is terrible; others who read quickly, but their comprehension is low. It doesn’t help to drive fast if you’re traveling in the wrong direction. One of those funny signs people put next to their coffee makers says: “Drink coffee. Do more stupid things faster.”
So too, modern news reporting has admirable speed but often lacks precisely the ingredients I most value: truth, accuracy, and reliability. It is of no value to me to “get the news” two minutes after the event if the report misrepresents what happened.
To get what I want, I have had to “turn back the clock,” as it were, to a time when people didn’t get the news for a week or more after the event. A pope would die, and it would take a week or more for the news to reach the United States. My practice now, whenever I hear a breaking news story, is to remind myself that I should wait at least a week for things to “settle out” – a week for all the false reports to be corrected and the many one-sided, partisan reports to be balanced or corrected by reports from the other side.
You hear a shocking story. The pope said x or the president did y. It might be true, but then again, it might be entirely false. As contrary reports mount, news commentators begin to be more circumspect about the facts, but not about the threat. Okay, so now we aren’t sure the bad thing happened (which we reported as a fact yesterday), but we are deeply concerned that it might have happened; and if it did, what would this mean for the public?
As things start to sort themselves out, we discover that the pope didn’t say x, someone merely said he said x or someone heard someone else say he said x. Nor did the president actually do y; he merely mentioned doing y or something like y or something that someone interpreted as being y. Perhaps the police shot a poor, innocent, unarmed man, but maybe not. Some poor girl may have raped by merciless college boys, but we don’t know.
Not knowing what actually happened won’t keep the media from continuing to comment, mostly about how all this is playing with the public – the public that still doesn’t know what really happened and is mostly just reacting to the media reports. Angry blogs will be written and snarky Twitter comments posted, even while the truth remains unclear.
Is truth really a value anymore? The late Tom Wolfe once wrote about modern art that the art has become less important than the “elite” commentary on it. So too, it seems, with modern “crises”: the truth of what happened has become less important than the angry, self-righteous commentary.
In all this, it is the public who are being “played.” Someone is piping a tune, and we are supposed to dance, to jump up and down in anger and high dudgeon every time the media trumpets another “scandal” or “crisis.” The media uses those terms so often now, it is hard to know what words they will use when we have a real crisis. “No, we really mean it this time.” Cry wolf too many times and people stop heeding the call. But unfortunately, they won’t stop playing the “media madness game.”
A friend had the interesting experience of reading a “breaking” news report the other day that said possible Supreme Court nominee Amy Barrett was on a flight to Washington, D.C. with her family. Since he lives across the street from the Barretts, he could see them at home, with the two news reporters in their cars still sitting, waiting like vultures, outside her house. The report was a total fabrication.
Sadly, many people will forget this falsehood and continue to get their “news” from this source. Who has any credibility anymore? Is that a luxury news people feel they can no longer afford and largely do without?
Compare the quantity and quality of the news coverage of politics or local community affairs with the coverage of sports. Sports commentators are armed with facts and statistics; they often have talked with all the major stakeholders and players; they ask probing questions and try not to let their team prejudices hinder their commentary, or at least they are honest and open about those prejudices.
What does it say about a culture when its sports reporting is more thorough, professional, and less childish than its political reporting? It tells us what the books Entertaining Ourselves to Death and How the News Makes us Dumb (both worth reading) taught us decades ago. We have precious little serious news anymore, and we won’t, as long as the news continues to be seen as another form of entertainment, driven by money and ratings, yet with presumptions of grandeur and a faux seriousness.
The framers knew that the republic they were founding required a strong, free, and responsible press. When I was younger, people used to worry about corporations getting control of the news. No one talks that way anymore. Not on the major news shows, at any rate. Perhaps because they’re all owned by major corporations. Media people are concerned about capitalist corporations; just not their own. They’re worried about other people’s falsehoods and misstatements; just not their own. They’re worried about hundreds of things each day; just not the truth. And the truth is the only thing that can keep us free.
But truth requires what the poet Randall Jarrell once described as “the tenderness of patient minds.” Will we learn to have that patience?
*Image: The Pied Piper by Maxfield Parrish, 1909 [the Pied Piper bar, Palace Hotel, San Francisco]