Jumping the Shark

I was always a bit cynical about the major media news organs, thanks to twenty years in military public affairs, and the related field of military broadcasting. That is, I didn’t expect much of the poor darlings when it came around to dealing with matters military. The military and all its works and all its strange ways were terra incognita to all but a handful of mainstream media personalities and reporters, all during the 1970s, the 1980s and into the 1990s. Stories of media misconduct were fairly common among us; attempted checkbook journalism, howling misstatements of fact, generalized anti-military bigotry, pre-existing biases just looking for a whisper of confirmation … all that and more were the stuff of military public affairs legend. I expect that most media reporters and editors just naturally expected military personnel, pace Platoon and other Vietnam-era movies, to be drug-addled, barely competent, marginally criminal, knuckle-dragging morons. The air of pleasurable surprise and relief almost universally displayed by various deployed reporters during the First Gulf War, upon discovering this was not so – that in fact, most members of the military were articulate, polite, competent professionals – was one that I noted at the time, and found to be bitterly amusing.

So the usual mainstream civilian media tool didn’t know bupkis about the military: this was not a shock to me. Most other dedicated civilians didn’t know all that much, either. As Arthur Hadley noted, it was a whole parallel world, what he called the “Other America of Defense.” It did come as a bit of a disheartening surprise, discovering that the mainstream media didn’t actually know much about anything else, either — and that over the last decade or so, they’ve been frittering away the credibility and respect accumulated since the middle of last century. It shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise – but it did. Especially to one raised in the baby-boom generation, with the high standards of Edward Morrow always before me, who grew up reading the LA Times when that paper was at the very top of it’s form, journalistically speaking, who had subscriptions to practically every news and commentary magazine going, from Time and Newsweek, to Mother Jones and the Village Voice, Utne Reader, US News and World Report, Brill’s Content, Spy, Harper’s and Atlantic … even the Guardian, courtesy of an English friend. I had a local newspaper subscription, and raised heck if it wasn’t delivered promoptly. I loved NPR and even watched the Today Show – well, that was part of my job, then. I once thought well of the mainstream media. There, I said it. The Fourth Estate, essential in a democracy to keep the public well-informed regarding important issues, our last defense against political malfeasance and corporate shenanigans … all of that inclined me to hold the media in moderate regard. That they might have a particular editorial slant, politically one way or the other, that reporters might be mistaken, or flat-out misinformed by their sources … that I accepted. Like many another news consumer, I rather expected that eventually, the truth would out.

And then … the shark was jumped. Or actually, double jumped, with a half-gainer in between, and I’ve been hardly viewed established news media outlets with favor ever since. More than that – I’ve no subscriptions to any of the above listed publications, some of them because they’re no longer available, but mostly because they’ve dwindled in importance and credibility. They have nothing much to say that I can’t get from various news aggregate websites or special-interest blogs … or because something in a story, or in an editorial pissed me off beyond forgiveness.

Rathergate: that was the first shark-leap, and the audacity of it just about took my breath away, once I considered the implications; a bare-faced attempt by a supposedly reputable news organization, to throw a presidential election, barely days before the polls opened, using a story based upon a faked document with a deeply suspicious provenance. That someone like Dan Rather would rush to broadcast that story meant something sinister was afoot in media-land. Once that of worms was opened, and doubts began to multiply, there was no going back for me. The well was poisoned.

The second was what I began calling the Affair of the Danish Cartoons, or the Mo’Toons O’Doom; when the fearless guardians of the American public’s right to know … caved like a soggy macaroon when given the opportunity to print or post a dozen fairly innocuous cartoons satirizing the fear of … publishing drawings of Mohammed. Well, yeah – there would be threats from the perennially offended adherents of the Religion of Peace, but I had halfway expected our fearless members of the Fourth Estate to display evidence of having a pair. Instead, craven retreat, following a sprinkle of excuses.

And it’s been straight downhill, ever since: Journolist, the Global Warmening Scam, serving as the Obama Administrations’ public affairs arm, sliming the Tea Parties and lauding OWS – the list goes on. And this week, there was a poor schmuck going door to door, trying to sell newspaper subscriptions for the Sunday San Antonio Express News. It was most sad, actually: his main pitch was the many valuable grocery coupons in the Sunday paper. I wish I had thought to tell him that we don’t use coupons much, but if they ever went to printing the paper on soft absorbent tissue, then at least we would have some use for it all.

(Cross posted at The Daily Brief)

11 thoughts on “Jumping the Shark”

  1. In 1959 when my family moved from Los Angeles up to the Central Valley, my mother, who was so distraught at leaving things like her San Fernando Bridge Club, continued subscribing to the Los Angeles Times for a good 2 years to give her a foothold to that which she knew.

    Of course, those days are long gone and the current newspaper – even my 91 year old father says they keep it because you have to “know your enemy”.

    If you waited until RatherGate Sgt I must say you got to the party rather late but better late than never!

    My disenchantment with “The Media” began during Vietnam when it became obvious most weren’t objectively after a story but bent the stories to their own preconceived conceptions.

    It is all rather sad as I read somewhere that the UK papers are doing just fine, phone hacking scandals notwithstanding.

    If people believe the reporting is for the most part objective they want to know what’s going on in their hometowns.

    For most, however, the shark was jumped years ago.

    One of the things that keep my historical interest is Wm Randolph Hearst – if you want to visit CA I can’t imagine a better trip than driving up Hwy 1 between San Simeon (where he had his magnificent estate, still surrounded by 126,000 acres of the Hearst family ranch) – and Monterey.

    Point is Hearst knew the business and while he is accused of yellow journalism (the belief that the Spaniards sank the Maine in Havana Harbor was started by him) he knew his readers and knew what they wanted.

    I can’t believe that the biz wouldn’t be radically different had he been alive today.

    Bill (incognito)

  2. I was in the military, Bill – and it was a sheltered environment – and pre-internet. My ability to fact-check their asses as regards non-military stories was kind of limited, until late 2001. After 9/11, that’s when I discovered the internet in a big, big, way.

  3. “After 9/11, that’s when I discovered the internet in a big, big, way.” Ditto. True of very many of us.

  4. zombie knows what you mean

    Anyway, all of this is just a roundabout way of saying that when I wake up in the morning and look at my version of “the news,” it arrives at my eyeballs through a set of very eccentric and individualized filters I have set up so that I can specifically see those things I’m interested in. And so I often find out about odd little incidents and events and facts and so forth that bypassed most news consumers. And when you wake up and look at your version of the news, you too have your own filter — one of which, if you’re reading this, is me, or at least the PJMedia Tatler column, which you have (consciously or unconsciously) chosen to be one of your sources of information. “What have the Tatler authors got for me today?” you’re asking yourself right now.

    Sometimes a particular single news item strikes me as so noteworthy that I’ll blog about it specifically. But other times, such as today, I’ll be somewhat-but-not-excessively intrigued by several different current events, none of which inspire me to highlight individually. In such cases I generally just shrug them off and go about my day without blogging about them at all, but today I’ll do something that many other bloggers do on a daily basis but which I’ve never done before — a “news dump,” or survey of mildly interesting or infuriating stories presented essentially without comment.

    To paraphrase The Velvet Underground & Nico: I’ll be your filter.


  5. What I found perplexing during the Clinton years was that coverage in the UK papers – mainly linked through Drudge – seemed far more objective than what we got here.

    before about 1990 the MSM had a near monopoly on what they considered to be “newsworthy” – If they didn’t report it – it wasn’t news. You didn’t know about it.

    Now, thanks to the Internet they are constantly challenged. Rathergate was opened by a blogger – a simple citizen with a web site – who determined that the font on the “letter” wasn’t around at the time the alleged letter was dated. That’s the power of the Internet. The gatekeepers, of course, are not happy.

    of course, CBS with a few simple checks could have discovered that, but the letter fit their news template. With that discovery you have to wonder how much in years past did get through that was not only bogus but approached fraud.

    I would say that their main sin isn’t outright distortion but omission to that which they do not wish to report but many of “us” want to know –

    I have a friend who recently retired from our last remaining newspaper after a career of 46 years – and he, the usual cynical newsman was very bitter over how things became – the political correctness – hiring – only reason he was able to stay the last 15 years was that he knew where all the skeletons were hidden – the mgt was afraid to fire him.

    Of course this change has not gone unnoticed by their viewing public, which is why subscriptions are plummeting.

  6. My moment of clarity came in the early 80s. I was taking some measurements for an analysis I was leading at a nuclear power plant on the East Coast. An alarm went off and a flashing light started not far from our team, above a door to a small room next to the reactor containment.

    An operator went in for a moment. Then the NRC resident inspector came by, and entered, also for just a moment.

    Finally, the public address system announced the little problem was a traveling neutron detector had retreated too far back into its housing after taking measurements inside the core. No biggie – they would fix it before they needed to do so again.

    Driving to the airport to return to the office on the West Coast that evening, the big news was the “emergency” at the nuclear power plant. And I had been standing ten feet away!

    Back in San Francisco the next day, there was a big article in the SF Chronicle about the “emergency.” A careful reading showing 21 FACTUAL errors in the story, besides the lack of perspective in selecting the event for a big story. I marked up the article and sent it to the paper’s editor, expecting a call-back. After waiting a respectful period I called the editor and was told what was important was that the reporter had won awards from his peers.

    The truth of the world and the needs of the readers both took a back seat to the self-esteem and self-righteousness of the journalists.

  7. For me, it was the day after a local election in 1994. In the days leading up to the election, the paper had repeatedly editorialized on behalf of a property tax increase. Needless to say, on election day, the issue went down in flames, receiving less than a 20% “yes” vote. The following day, the newspaper published a bitter editorial chastising its subscribers for not voting the way the newspaper staff had instructed them to, and stating that the newspaper would hold the idiot voters accountable for the complete and utter collapse of the public school system that would inevitably result from the issue being voted down.

    The next day was the day that I cancelled my last-ever newspaper subscription. Needless to say, there were no dire results stemming from the failure to throw yet more money at the public schools.

  8. I guess my take on all this is a bit diferent. I’ve never expected the media to be objective and unbiased, and was always amused by their claims that they were.

    From studying the political history of the country, I learned that the media in past eras was not only openly biased, but crude and polemical to an extent only rarely found today, and always disguised in any major media outlet.

    What disgusts and repulses me about the current state of the major media is its cowardice, triviality, and abysmal ignorance about important areas of social, economic, and cultural life.

    I long ago adopted a very specific approach to reading any media publication, i.e., assuming it was filled with all the unthinking CW and assumptions-as-fact that I heard all the time in conversations with all sorts of earnest, caring types at school.

    I don’t bother watching tv news unless there is some major event, and then only for the first few minutes, bailing as soon as the endless speculation to spin, and fill air time, begins.

    Over the years I have had subscriptions to several magazines, journals, and newspapers. Now I just get the local rag in order to keep up with local events, and sports schedules and results.

    The most interesting part of reading the paper now is noticing which stories they’re pushing, and which ones they’re trying desperately to ignore or downplay. After using the web for several years now, the paucity of actual information in the daily rag is glaring.

    I doubt they will survive the generational turnover. None of my kids ever reads a newspaper except in unusual circumstances, or for the comics.

  9. I think to me, the most exasperating and disheartening part is how clueless the major media organs are being about all this. Like – they didn’t think we would all would have noticed all this, over the last two, or three decades? Like, all of this would have passed, unnoticed? Exactly how stoooopid did they think the general public was?
    Urg… given that a large portion of the general public still appears to care about the Kardashian sisters, the Twilight series, and Dancing With the Stars … maybe Mainstream Media does have a basis for considering the general public about as bright as your average lump of granite…

  10. I think the 2004 campaign was a watershed and not in a good way for the country.

    Through 2004 the media generally reported things and then tried to spin them. That worked somewhat but wasn’t fully effective because people, once aware of an issue, sometimes could not be led to the “correct” view.

    After 2004 they figurd out it worked better to just ignore anything that didn’t fit their narrative. This tested well in the 2006 election and was brought to a high level with Obama in 2008 and subsequently—if you got your news just from the NYT and Time and one of the big 3 network news shows you would not have known that a Rev. Wright even existed until Obama’s “race speech” in Philadelphia.

    Later, the first time the NYT mentioned Van Jones was when he was fired as a White House czar, the whole previous 2-3 weeks of controversy had never been reported there.

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