Do not think; the press will do it for you

I’m so thankful. I no longer have to think. I no longer have to consider facts all by myself and assess them for their meaning. And I owe it all to The Buffalo News.

Today’s front-page story in The News (“Area colleges reassessing security“) by Jay Rey and Gene Warner features interviews with western New York college officials and their comments on campus security plans following the murders at Virginia Tech.

Fine, I think. I’m a professor at one of the institutions mentioned. And, like so many thousands of teachers and professors nationwide, I wonder what my institution is doing — and whether it plans any changes. What news has The News gathered for me?

I begin reading the story. At the jump line (“See Campus on Page 2”), I do as instructed and turn the page. There’s the jumped portion of the story under a four-column, 48-point headline: “Virginia Tech is the college ‘9/11′.” (You can’t see that hed in the online version, however.)

Good grief. What’s next in the headline-writing wake of other possible (God, I hope they never happen) mass murders? “The shopping mall 9/11”? “The stadium 9/11”? “The post office 9/11”?

The hed turns 9/11 into the currency of comparison. That sad date should rest uncompared with any other tragic date, even one as sobering, frightening and horrendous as April 16, 2007. September 11, 2001, should not become a stereotype.

That’s an opinion in The News’ jump-page headline. It has no attribution. It is The News applying a label to an event. It’s not the editorial page where opinion should reside (and only reside). What the hell was that “headline” based on? Buried in the story is this paragraph:

One thing is certain. The mindset of college administrators has changed in the last 96 hours. “Virginia Tech” has become the new “Sept. 11” for college administrators.

Wait. That has no attribution, either. Is that a fair summation of the reporting? Or is it a blanket opinion supplied by the reporters? I read on for evidence to support that paragraph. in the remainder of the story, I find only this:

“We’re in a post 9/11 environment, and we need to be better prepared,” State Sen. Antoine Thompson, D-Buffalo, said. Tough issues loom.

That’s it. And Sen. Thompson isn’t even one of those “college administrators.” That’s the entire support for that “fair summation” paragraph, which is the only support for the headline for the jumped portion of the story. (Frankly, I’d like to decide for myself whether the issues are “tough,” what the “issues” are and whether they “loom.”)

The News has done a lovely job pre-digesting the facts and churning out opinion so that I am not required to think for myself. But The News is not alone in doing my thinking for me.

I’m sure our regular S&R readers have many such tales to tell. I no longer feel compelled to think. It’s so much easier when the press does it for me.

I can still hear my newsroom godfather, the late Neil Perry, yelling at me when I put opinion into my stories instead of fair summations of the facts: “Just get the facts into the story and get them right. If you want to find truth, find it on your own time.”

Thank you, Neil. Some of us remember what a journalist’s job really is: Find out what you can and tell people what you know. The readers get to decide whether it’s the Truth.

7 replies »

  1. So, a philosophical question. When we were colleagues at a certain northeastern private university, I spent some time building a prospectus for a graduate program in Interpretive Journalism. We talked a great deal about it then, and my guess is that the idea died the moment I left, if not well before.

    But what you describe here is part and parcel of what I felt was inevitable. Objectivity is dead – and you can quote folks like Geneva Overholser on that – and it seems as though a new mode of advocacy journalism is inevitably overhauling the media landscape.

    So I proposed that we at least harness the wisdom of the university J school to the task of helping students, who were going to do it with or without us, at least cultivate some ethics and principles by which they might at least do it WELL.

    Based on the instance you’re writing about and so many others like it, do you think I was right, wrong, somewhere in between, not on the right planet, what?

  2. You’re closer to right. We’d differ on execution.

    For me, the question boils down to this:

    What is the difference between a fair summation of the facts (which requires judgment and experience in gathering and assessing facts) and opinion (which is often the refuge of those who just didn’t know how or did not want to bother gathering the necessary facts)?

    Those who would cast out objectivity must at least recognize that the burden of being a damned good, dogged reporter would increase, not decrease.

    I’m more than willing to read, admire and take credence in an interpretation of an event or issue — but not unless I believe that the interpreter has first been a thorough reporter.

    That was not the case with the front-page story of The Buffalo News. It made interpretations carelessly.

  3. That was part of the program, though – nobody ever suggested that facts ceased to matter. On the contrary, the kind of program we were talking about was important to making sure facts DIDN’T stop mattering.

    Trying to make the best of a mess, I guess….

  4. Yes, it is pretty sad that we can’t think for ourselves anymore due to the media. Hell, even if the media didn’t think for us and only gave us the facts, we wouldn’t be able to make an intelligent choice because we would only be reading what the media wants us to read.

  5. If the media IS going to insist on thinking for us, it would at least be nice to see a little evidence that they’re capable of, you know, THINKING. There are some great voices out there in the media world, but it seems like with each passing day the big networks post more guards to keep them away from the high-profile jobs.

    Katie Couric is the rule, not the exception, and that’s bad.

  6. One part of the problem is the fact that a city the size of Buffalo, for the past . . . what? going on 20 yrs? –has been a one-newspaper town. Back when there were two, the News sure wasn’t the thinking person’s choice. When I lived in the Buffer zone, though, the News had one glorious staffer: Tom Toles, still my favorite nationally-syndicated editorial cartoonist, now long gone from there.

    It counts as a small victory, it seems to me, every time the prevailing “wisdom” is questioned at all in the media-concentrate. Last week or so, my hometown paper ran a column by Zbigniew Brzezinski repeating his view that there shouldn’t be a war on terror at all, and I was astounded that they would run it, although I’d been saying the same thing from day 1.

    9/11 changed nothing real. Our actual safety level was precisely the same before it as after it. In reality, there is no “post-9/11 era.” But reality is not what counts most in large-scale public media, and if it ever did, that was merely a blip in history. For a few decades following WWII, mainstream big media in this country tried to be objective and thoughtful. Now they’ve given up again. So it goes.