Saturday, January 8, 2011

We're Receiving Conflicting Reports

I was working on a couple different entries yesterday.  Both got shelved at about 10 am this morning.

Let me start by stating the obvious.  I am not a real journalist.  I never went to J-School.  I've never written trite copy for some independent rag.  I've never toiled away a day, tracking down sources, rooting through public records, trying to get a story.  I've never been to Iraq.  I've never seen a disaster scene first hand.  I'm not that guy.  That guy is awesome, he's got some killer fucking boots.

But that isn't what you pay me for.  Well, you don't pay me at all.  But, in theory, if I had a significant readership, that wouldn't be what you feed my traffic stats so that Google could pay me for.  You read me, or at least skim me, because I provide wit and insight into the world.  I'm the guy that stands on the outside, casting stones at the glass house of the establishment.  I sit on the couch and make snide remarks and profane observations.

But you WANT me on that couch!  You NEED me on that couch!

I don't have awesome boots.  But there is one thing I do have in common with the media establishment.  We both suck at reporting the actual news.  But, in a way, it's all my fault.  Well, not MY fault, because nobody gives a shit what I write anyway, but the fault of my trade.

There was a golden age of journalism that peaked in the 60s and 70s.  In those days, when dinosaurs still ruled the Earth and the Chinese were at war with the Egyptians, the news media consisted of only a handful of viable institutions in any market.  In even the largest cities, you had three network broadcasts and maybe, maybe three or four newspapers.  In a smaller market, three networks, one or two of which might have a local arm, and a single daily rag.  The market for news was an oligopoly.  Each of the limited competitors carved out their own little niche and brand loyalty reigned supreme.  You watched NBC because you always watched NBC or you read the Tribune because that's the one you subscribed to or that was being sold on the corner store by your work.

Well, even that is a somewhat halcyonic view.  In reality, you watched NBC because you loved Carson and their news happened to precede it or you read the Tribune because they carried the best comics.  I mean, let's not kid ourselves, Americans have never been that thoughtful or enlightened.  They go where the entertainment is.  Again, this is how I stay in business.  Or will, once anyone actually reads my blasphemy.  But I digress, the point is most networks weren't concerned about getting viewers, but keeping them.  Same applies to those icky things with the ink that required actual literacy.  Consumers consumed out of habit and continued to drink from the same well unless that well became soured.  It didn't matter if you had the story first because your viewership never even knew.  They weren't paying attention to the other outlets anyway.

What mattered was getting it RIGHT.  You beat a puppy often enough, eventually he stops coming up to you.  The network has to make sure to get the story right, to make their viewers believe they were being honest and treating the viewer with respect.  If not, then the viewer would change the channel.  A story had to be sourced and resourced.  It had to be proofed and tightened up before it was ever presented to the recipient.  Journalists were paid to be right and to find out as much as they could.  The more truth, the more facts that a reporter could uncover, the better regarded he was.  And good reporters dined on caviar and baby seal meat.

Then, some asshole invented the internet.

Now the internet has been a boon for a lot of things.  Porn for one.  And, you know... Star Trek.  And, well, more porn.  It's also been huge boon for consumers of many products, such as music and books.  Remember when a novel cost thirty bucks for hardcover?  Or an album cost fifteen?  That was due to oligopolies... well, in the case of music, actual, illegal price fixing that somehow those bastards got off scottfree on then used that new found confidence to imprison grandmothers and drive the parents children into poverty.  Sorry, a little bitterness there.  Won't happen again.  Well, the reason you can afford books and music now is because those oligopolies have been broken by the mass competition of the internet.  A bunch of rebellious young companies and, yes, even pirates, rose up to free the market and drive price down  Golf clap.

The problem was, that same competitive force emerged in the realm of news services.  Now, what happens when you don't have a price to get lowered.  The media is funded by advertisers and offer themselves up like a drunk New Jersian to their customers.  Cheap and smelling slightly of garlic.  They have to find a different way to attract viewers.  A different way to undercut the competition.  But how?  HOW??? FOR THE LOVE OF GOD HOW???  Brace yourself for the other side effect of mass competition: rampant disloyalty.

The average consumer now has so many choices.  No reason to stick with one outlet when there are dozens or hundreds of sources.  Websites and blogs and feeds, oh my!  More options tend to make people more fickle.  We feel a need to try them all out, to explore.  So, we tend to move from provider to provider, maybe even on whim.  I want to check the morning headlines.  Maybe I'll see what the BBC looks like this morning.  MSNBC's gotten boring.  It's put on 15 pounds and hardly takes me to the movies anymore.  Oooh, BBC drives a new corvette and is into Nietzsche.

So, off I go.  Now, with no loyalty and countless rivals, how can anyone draw me in?  Now, the goal isn't to keep me, for I'll leave on a whim anyway.  The goal is to bring me back, or replace me with someone else.  The media is just as disloyal as I am after all.  It won't lie baby, it just want you for your clicks.  Your massive, double D clicks.  So, now... how to get a consumer...

Begin the clusterfuck of this morning.

A story breaks.  A shooting.  A shooting on the north side.  A shooting on the north side at a political rally.  A shooting on the north side at a political rally for Gabby Giffords.  Shit man, shit.  This is big.  This is real big.  We've got to get people watching our station.  Shit man, how.

I'm sitting on my couch.  I hear about a shooting on the north side at a political rally for Gabby Giffords.  What hapened?  I must know.  I go to the newspaper's good, they haven't even said that Giffords was involved.  The national media website... no nothing.  Local news!  Oh, this is good, they've got that Giffords was involved.  Was she shot... they don't know.  Change the channel!  No... no news from that channel either.  Try another one.  Good, good, they do know.  Crap!  Giffords was shot!  How badly?  Channel click again.  No. Click. No.  Click.  No.  Back to the computer....

Fuck man, fuck, nobody's watching our station.  We didn't even know that Giffords was shot.  Three other outlets had it first.  We've got to get them back.  How badly was she shot?  FIND OUT!  NOW!  Wait, we've got reports from a different outlet.  The head.  Shot in the head.  Run it, run it now.  Dammit.  We still got beat.  We've got to get ahead of this thing...

It spirals from there.

Remember when Al Gore won Florida.  And then he lost.  The outrage over that.  That was a somewhat legitimate mistake.  Election results are often based on statistical analysis.  And, while they pushed that analysis farther and father, to obscene extremes, they were still dealing with established probabilistic determinations.  They didn't know that those determinations would be flawed.  They also didn't know the obscene degrees to which Florida could fuck up an election.  In the end, they were reporting on something that wasn't objective truth.

Today, the media was reporting on something that either true or not true, not a probability matrix.  Yet, for a short period today, Gabrielle Giffords became Schrodinger's Cat.  She was reported as dead on half the outlets and alive on the other half.  Every outlet jumped as fast as possible to claim whatever "fact" there was as their own.  Being first trumped being right.  The terrifying thing was that these weren't blogs reporting on rumors from other blogs.  This was NBC sourcing to NPR.  How could such major establishments fuck up so badly?

Because, the internet pushed them to it.  For years now, blogs and fringe media have gained popularity.  The Smoking Gun and the Drudge Report.  These are who "The News" has to contend with.  These are who they have to get viewers from.  So, they've gotten faster and they've gotten sloppier.  People don't care about truth and in depth reporting.  They want information as fast as possible and they pay with their attention for fast news.

I'm not going to hammer on how short the American attention span has become.  At this point, it's basically a presumption for all that I convey.  Nor am I in the business of assigning blame.  Really, in a way, that's maybe the most tragic thing out of all this.  Aside from, you know, all the people who were killed and injured, or not.  Who knows anymore?

I am in the business of outrage.  I'm also a cynic, though, so while I sell you on indignation, I also normally am surprised by little in the line of depravity.  We're at the end of the day and a noted politician has been made to be alive and dead and alive again.  For the record, she is alive as I type this.  Her life, her actual life, has become the victim of rumor and sloppiness.  Meanwhile, countless people's emotions have been toyed with.  We've been betrayed and mislead.  We've had to contend with shock, then disbelief, then confusion.  None of which was necessary.  None of which had to happen.  That disgusts me a bit.  Not as much as the political backlash soon to follow, but I await that storm for now.

For now, though, the part that disgusts me the most is how little outrage others have.  There's been some commentary, some observation that the media screwed up, but no real condemnation.  And of course there won't be.  The media all live in their own glass houses, not daring to throw a brick when they either screwed up the story all the same or were too slow to be relevant in the first place.  So here I stand, or, well, sit.  Chucking snide stones into their walls.

Shame on you, media.  Shame on you.  You can botch the reporting on an election or on the content of a proposed bill.  But how dare, how dare you fail on finding the truth about a woman's life.  How dare you fail to report honestly and responsibly about a mother, a public servant.  How dare you mislead us all.

And how dare we tolerate it.  Shame on us for not demanding more.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't agree more. In particular I agree with the fact that we, for some reason, stopped expecting/demanding that the information we receive is correct. In retrospect, how could we-the-people be so careless?

    Ultimately, we are the ones with the power, we are the viewers, the information seekers, and yet we do not ask for accountability. It's completely unacceptable and yet it happens all the time, and we do nothing about it.

    Nice post by the way, it echoes much of my feelings on the subject today. I read it all the way to the end. =)