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Memories of the 28th Century

Journalism and Ignorance

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The recent retraction by Rolling Stone of their story about the University of Virginia rape story brought to mind some of the major problems with journalism. I have linked the Columbia University School of Journalism report below. There were specific problems, and thatís what the report is about, but there are more general problems with journalism, and those are the underlying reasons for the specific problems. I learned decades ago that news outlets donít report news as much as they try to get people to look at everything and notice the ads. A reporter told me that his editor said: ďcontroversy sells papers." The more papers sold the higher the ad rates can be and the more money the paper earns. The new programs on television are at least as bad, and the news programs exist only to get people to sit through advertisements; the reporting is selective and superficial. But a large part of the problem stems from the people who become reporters. Most of the reporters want to Bob Woodward. That may be admirable, but there aren't many positions available in which a reporter could break a huge story. Another problem in journalism is that the journalists don't have a sufficiently broad background to understand what they are trying to report.

Most reporters in the U.S.A. report for small local outlets, and they report ordinary, commonplace matters: petty crime, school committee meetings, local politics, etc., but sometimes there are unusual events. I was involved in setting values for property taxes, and the reporters wanted to write something about the matter, but they had no idea what was involved, so I sometimes wrote press releases that they could use instead. That's a minor thing, but the same issue exists in international politics.

In 1980 Iraq invaded Iran, and the war continued for eight years. It was a bloody mess, and both countries used up their military potentials. Iran was reduced to using human wave attacks, but numbers were on the side of Iran, and it won. If you are interested, then start with the Wikipedia article I linked below, and try searching for more, if you like bloody messes. That war set the scene for much that has happened in that region since then. There were some Americans who paid attention to that war, but G. W. Bush wasn't one, nor was Obama. Even worse, most American reporters didn't know anything about that war when the U.S. became involved in that region, as a result they were willing to swallow W's lies about Iraq, even though they were clearly and completely false. The U.S. press barely covered that war, but the rest of the world, and those of us who read The Economist were kept up-to-date.

I mentioned The Economist because it has serious standards for reporting. The U.S. used to have news outlets that were excellent, but they have gone for selling ads instead of providing facts. The Wall Street Journal was a world class newspaper until about twenty years ago, as was the New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times, and several other papers, but the fight to keep their heads above water have forced all of them to cut everything necessary to produce good, accurate news. They have blamed the internet, but they destroyed themselves by failing to provide something that people were willing to pay much for, and it costs money to attract and keep good people. Newspapers used to attract some very intelligent and widely knowledgeable people, but they can find better work elsewhere; although there still are some good reporters.

To get back to the point, we shouldn't be surprised that the UVA rape story happened. If you read what happened, then you will learn that the woman who made the claim appears to have been an inveterate liar, and the counsellor and the reporter should have been able to tell that by making a few inquiries. I never expected much from Rolling Stone; it is an entertainment rag, rather than being a serious newspaper; although Hunter Thompson worked there for a number of years, but he wrote "gonzo journalism", rather than ordinary factual journalism; that tells me a lot about Rolling Stone including that I would expect good general reporting. Put it all together; a weekly that reports on entertainment with some entertaining articles reported a story that was serious crime, but the article was researched the regular way; the reporter talked to a couple of people and depended on what they told him. That would have been fine if an aging rockstar told the reporter that he was becoming a Buddhist monk, the source in this case claimed that a serious crime had been committed. If the rockstar was lying, then it would still make a good story, but it doesn't work that way if a serious crime in involved.

I hope that everyone reads the news with a skeptical eye. If you didn't before, then remember Rolling Stone and the UVA rape story whenever you read, listen to, or watch any news report in the future.

Rolling Stone and UVA: The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Report

Iran-Iraq War


  1. Iain Sparrow's Avatar
    The sad state of journalism, particularly here in America is a reflection of society itself; with so many people having the attention span of squirrels, in depth investigative/reflective/introspective journalism isn't profitable. The best such reporting I've read of late, is by Welsh journalist/humorist Jon Ronson... he often takes a few years to complete a book, and it shows. Nor does he place himself above the subject matter or force square pegs in to round holes, making the facts fit a preconceived notion, often being forced to change his views as interviews and information come to light. I wish there were more journalists of his wit and humor, and fearlessness.
  2. PeterL's Avatar
    The people with attention spans of squirrels seldom read newspapers; they aren't the ones who ran to other media. I think that most people who used to read newspapers look at multiple sources now, because there are multiple sources available. The online versions of newspapers are more designed for squirrels than the paper versions were, but I don't blame consumers of news; I blame the corporations that are trying to get rich from selling news. Those people think that therir audience are squirrel-brained, so they produce stories that may be set in suitable places but are semiliterate and most of the facts are wrong. That may entertain the squirrels, but those of us who were accustomed to getting information from news outlets are annoyed.