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The Death of Explanatory Journalism

1:06 PM, Jul 15, 2014 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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Someone I'm related to by marriage has written a superb column on the problem of media ignorance. The fact I'm not a disinterested observer shouldn't stop me from noting that the column and the event that prompted it has attracted some attention. The piece is pegged to a much discussed interview talk radio star Hugh Hewitt conducted with Zach Carter, the Huffington Post’s “senior political economy reporter.” Hewitt asked Carter why he was spouting off various critical opinions related to Dick Cheney and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Certainly, Carter's not alone here -- the rise of ISIS has had liberal journalists queuing up to insist President Obama bears minimal responsibility for the disintegration of the situation in Iraq. Joe Biden bet his vice presidency Iraq would extend the Status of Forces Agreement, and had they not failed, it might well have prevented the current mess. But here we are.

Still, perhaps there are reasons to criticize Cheney and the invasion of Iraq, but the trouble was that Carter couldn't articulate any of them substantively, and what's more, Hewitt asked a series of questions establishing that Carter doesn't even have an acceptable baseline of knowledge to spout off on the topic. Some of the questions, such as whether Carter has read specific books, might seem pedantic. Others seemed to be a pretty basic litmus test about knowledge of al Qaeda and the U.S.'s involvement in Iraq. The 31-year-old Carter was unaware Clinton had bombed Iraq in 1998, and had no idea who A.Q. Khan was. Carter's inability to respond to Hewitt's inquiries is damning. Still, I have to commend Carter -- he was a good sport and honestly tried to respond to Hewitt's pointed questions.

The problem is ultimately not Carter's ignorance. The problem is that we live in an environment where you can become a "senior political economy reporter" for a major news organization at age 28. (You might bristle at Huffington Post being described as a "major news organization," but like it or not, its reach is vast and they get their questions answered at White House press briefings.) It's hard to fault Carter for taking advantage of what he tells Hewitt is the "best job title in the world," despite lacking some of the experience and knowledge that might justify pontificating on subjects outside his area of alleged expertise.

Anyway, my wife Mollie uses the Hewitt/Carter interview as the launching point to discuss the much broader epidemic of media ignorance and details quite a few embarrassing errors. It's a loose taxonomy, but the examples Mollie lists generally fall into one of two categories. The first is the general ignorance of conservative/religious issues and failure to understand the arguments that undergird them. Liberal media bias is, of course, a long established problem and has been discussed to death even as the problem remains obdurate and infuriating. The second category, however, is much more novel. It's the result of Google-age hubris.

For reporters, basic information gathering was a tedious process even a few decades ago. Now it can literally be done at the speed of electrons. But while the ability to get information is instantaneous, the capacity for reporters to synthesize this information is still limited by their own basic intelligence and lack of curiosity.

In fact, reporters' capacity to synthesize information may even be getting worse. Not because journalists are getting dumber -- they seem to be better educated than they were a generation ago -- but because the emphasis on speed and financial collapse of the industry has eroded professional journalism standards, as well as devalued experience and acquired wisdom.

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