Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The state of the Media

'I don't read newspapers very often. Yesterday morning, I was sitting in our family room, having coffee with my wife* and was reading the San Diego Union. The news story on the front page had something to do with some government budgetary issue. The piece was written like it was a sporting event. There were a few facts and then there were reactions from Democrats and Republicans as if their contests were what mattered. Nowhere in the story did it talk about what the reader was going to face as a consequence of the decisions being made by the government. We had as much to do with what was going on as fans at a football game.'


If recollection serves, and it may not too precisely because this is twenty five years ago now, the Huntsville Times lead article was very commonly a snooze-a-thon like the lead mentioned above. And the other local and regional newspapers I read in my travels around the US were broadly similar. Boring boring boring! Which doesn't make sense in a number of ways.

So what should newspapers be doing? In my view, their tasks are to report interesting stories accurately, and to report boring stories in a way that is both accurate and as interesting as the material allows. The primary job of gathering news has to be followed by an editorial process of digesting facts, putting them into context, and prioritising the reporting of the final mix of facts and analysis so you put out the most important information first.

As K T Cat points out in this post, reporting facts without contextualisation is both ineffectual and alienating. If the city council vote a five percent increase in the parks and recreation budget, what if anything does that effect? Do they do it every year? Is that increase at the expense of say, the Arts? Is it more or less than the increase other departments are getting? Does it put pressure on the overall budget?

Without context, many facts are dull and for most purposes meaningless. If you see the headline 'Parks and Recreation Budget incresed by 5%', would that make you want to read the article? If you see the headline '5% Parks budget increase makes local tax increase probable', are you more likely to want to read the article? Hell yeah.

But this takes us to a political philosophy question. If you have a political program that is highly disliked by voters, and which depends for its successful implementation on corrupt backroom deals, perhaps even the machinations of a political 'machine', what is the best way to stop voters from 'intruding' into the process? Make sure that reporting of government activities is opaque, alienating, atomised and boring.

Not long ago I read about the catastrophically badly run San Francisco city government on a blog. The blogger has been frantically trying to get San Franciscans alerted to the situation for decades, but to pretty much no effect. One of the main reasons for the ineffectual campaigning is that the San Francisco Chronicle and the local TV affiliates are all run by Democrats who support the political agenda of the highly corrupt, politically-correct local Democrat machine. The presentation of city issues in the press is constantly manipulated to make sure that voters don't intrude into this carnival of corruption and incompetence.

But as the common phrase goes, 'the trouble with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money'. Both San Francisco and more broadly California have done exactly that. And how is that being reported?

So, going back to our original point about newspaper reporting, it is entirely possible to report local issues correctly and interestingly. But you have to want to. You have to be happy for voters to be fully engaged, and to have their political priorities and goals implemented.

'By the way, here are a few facts for you. The Federal deficit will be higher in 2010 than it was in 2009 - about $1.5T. The Chinese have less of a surplus this year than they did last year and have already told us that their purchases of Treasuries will slow down. Last year, the Treasury auctions were greased by the Fed printing $1.1T of money backed by absolutely nothing that was then used to buy $300B of Treasuries and lots of other government debt besides. Mr. Reporter probably doesn't know this or know what it means.'

This is another issue. What if the reporter is not educated enough to contextualise what he/she is reporting? This to me is a hiring policy issue. There are vast numbers of business and public policy graduates coming out of US universities every year, some of whom could be persuaded to become reporters and/or public policy editors. They would require paying well, but the vastly improved quality of the reporting would justify it.

So, broadly speaking, I would say that the financial black hole into which many US newspapers are falling is not just the result of one technology becoming obsolete and being replaced by another technology. It is also result of the concerted effort over many years to overtly and covertly impose an unpopular ideology on an increasingly resentful populace. And when efforts to persuade the voters failed, to hide both the actual policies being pursued; and their consequences, whether social, fiscal or moral.

This subterfuge has brought upon the legacy media organisations a tsunami of disaffection, from which many will never recover. Whether the blogs and online media organisations currently seeking to replace them will hold themselves to higher standards remains to be seen, and not all the evidence so far is hopeful. After all, the antidote to liberal propaganda is not Republican propaganda. It is properly- educated journalists working in a properly organised environment, where editorial checks and balances genuinely militate towards well-presented well-sourced coherent stories. The US did have many newspapers and journalists like that, long ago.

But will it in the future?

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