NYU media guy Jay Rosen has an excellent post about the “he said, she said” formula that yields news stories in which reality-based assertions from one person or group are “balanced” by shameless lies or fantasy from another. Press critics and bloggers have been criticising this sort of thing for a while—think “Scientists, White House Disagree on Shape of Earth”—but Rosen goes beyond establishing its intellectual hollowness; he also talks about why it happens, how it’s a readily-available “solution to quandaries common on the reporting trail.” But all I wanted to do here (other than urge you to read Rosen’s post) was reproduce an amazing paragraph he quotes, from See How They Run, a book by one-time Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor about the 1988 election.
Sometimes I worry that my squeamishness about making sharp judgments, pro or con, makes me unfit for the slam-bang world of daily journalism. Other times I conclude that it makes me ideally suited for newspapering—certainly for the rigors and conventions of modern ‘objective’ journalism. For I can dispose of my dilemmas by writing stories straight down the middle. I can search for the halfway point between the best and the worst that might be said about someone (or some policy or idea) and write my story in that fair-minded place. By aiming for the golden mean, I probably land near the best approximation of truth more often than if I were guided by any other set of compasses—partisan, ideological, pyschological, whatever…Yes, I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge. I’m taking a pass on the toughest calls I face.It’s unclear whether Taylor realizes, implicitly or otherwise, how this rhetorical posture makes him the willing servant of whichever powerful person or organization decides to stake out a completely crazy position—say, that the United States military should be directed to undertake a project aimed at blowing up the moon. Or, even nuttier, that the most urgent priority of the Federal government during an economic collapse should be cutting taxes and reducing spending. That doesn’t matter, because all by itself, that paragraph clarifies something I’ve always wondered about—the internal dialogue of the reporters who write this kind of thing, how they manage to live with themselves and pretend they’re doing something useful. They’re not tools of players more powerful than they are, they’re judicious analysts “aiming for the golden mean”! Well, actually they are tools. But it helps explain their durable self-regard.