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.
There's an entire heading in Mollie's column on "The special category that is Matt Yglesias." As a journalist, the Harvard-educated Yglesias has made more cringe inducing errors than any journalist should rightfully be allowed to make while retaining significant professional stature. And there's no excuse for his errors -- he's clearly a very smart guy. But it turns out thinking you can write about any heady topic without lots of thoughtful consideration and/or consulting with those with much more experience is going to get you in trouble. A lot. The amazing thing is that, whether or not he realizes how much his hubris gets him into trouble, Yglesias doesn't even hide the fact that he lies about what he knows. And I quote:
Another reporter is joining the Obama administration. Emily Pierce, the deputy editor of Roll Call, will be joining the office of public affairs at the Department of Justice, the federal agency headed by Attorney General Eric Holder.
Pierce was welcomed to her new position by Brian Fallon, who works in that DOJ office and who used to be Chuck Schumer's spokesman in the Senate.
"Can't wait to welcome @emilyprollcall to @TheJusticeDept Office of Public Affairs later this month. She is a true pro," Fallon said on Twitter.
Like Diogenes in search of an honest man, The Scrapbook has been on an extended quest to find the Golden Age of American journalism. That was the era, not so long ago, when a literate public was downright serious about the news, and America’s newspapers, magazines, and television networks paid close, detailed attention to current events, foreign affairs, and national politics—which, of course, were civil in tone, bipartisan in nature, and concerned with finding solutions rather than exploiting problems.
The Scrapbook has previously commented on the “new breed of pundit/political scientist who seems to think that a pie chart is a substitute for argument.” Whether it’s the fault of an education system and corporate sector saturated with PowerPoint presentations, the increasing desperation of polemicists, reporters, and poli-sci types to cast their work as hard “science,” or just the rising tide of philistinism, it seems an ever-growing number of writers and thinkers have taken to substituting the siren song of the computer-generated chart for the hard work of written argument.
With the death of Jack Germond at 85, the great triumvirate of political reporting is now gone. Germond, Robert Novak, and David Broder were the Clay, Calhoun, and Webster of political journalism with their columns and TV commentary, but mostly with their dogged reporting.
In light of the ongoing, slow-motion collapse of the mainstream media, at least one major journalism school has decided to reassess its priorities. Last week, Inside Higher Ed reported that the prestigious Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California is revamping its master’s degree program.
In a statement released this morning, the Newseum announces that it will "re-evaluate" its decision to include two terrorists on its "Journalist Memorial." The Newseum had been planning to honor former members of the terrorist group Hamas, Mahmoud Al-Kumi and Hussam Salama.
An old journalistic axiom holds, “If it bleeds, it leads.” This means that stories of violence—of murder and arson, tornadoes and hurricanes, floods and carnage—always get primary attention in newspapers and on radio and television news. They still do, but coming up fast on the outside, especially on television news, are stories of deep personal sadness. So regular a feature of nightly television news has the spectacle of heartbroken people become that a new axiom is needed: “If it weeps, it keeps.”
Lots of cultural writing these days, in books and magazines and newspapers, relies on the so-called Chump Effect. The Effect is defined by its discoverer, me, as the eagerness of laymen and journalists to swallow whole the claims made by social scientists.