Just the Facts?


January 1, 1999
Washington Monthly


Browse in Journalism



The problem is not just smart-alecky journalists who grind their axes on the front page. The tendentious numb-brained quality of much American journalism today is largely a product of its forms. Daily journalism is frozen in a set of rituals and conventions that preclude nuance and provide formalistic cover for lazy thinking and reporting.

A few suggestions.

Ditch the Inverted Pyramid. This antiquated form requires that a story be about one thing, called the lead. It pushes the reporter to highlight the egregious–the outrageous charge, the gaffe–and often the irrelevant. The relentless built-in metronome sends the story barreling past the questions that are screaming to be raised. Instead there is ritualistic balance in the form of opposing (and generally imbecilic) quotes.

The inverted pyramid is a remnant of the days of telegraph. Telling the story over and over in increasing detail, it provided insurance against the breakdowns in transmission which were common. Today it provides a cookie-cutter form that makes stories easy to write and cuton deadline. These are valid concerns, but they do not justify the violence the form does to the presentation of reality. The inverted pyramid works okay for car wrecks, fires and shootings. For anything more complicated–a congressional debate, for example–the journalist should simply strive to write as an honest and intelligent person relating an event to others.

Enough Idiotic Quotes. The quote has become the main crutch of American journalism, and a source of continual idiocy in reporting. No statement is too obvious or banal to find its way onto the front page of The Washington Post or The New York Times. Henry Hyde says that impeachment is a grave and solemn constitutional duty. Clinton’s pollster says the public wants Congress to move on to other things. What else are they going to say?

Quotes generally are a form of show and tell. They do not convey insight or information. They enable the reporter to say “See! I did some reporting.” “See! I’m getting both sides.” We all know how this game works. Build the story around the sources who echo your own view. Trot out the dissenting voice in a way that makes clear you are holding your nose. Present a formalistic ritual of balance instead of writing the story with a fair mind.

Quotes also have become a symptom of authority journalism, which I will get to in a moment. The answer is to cut them drastically. Reporters should take responsibility for the truth of their own story. They should determine that truth as best they can, in the time available, and then tell that story. They should quote only when it adds real insight or information, not to show that they called both Gephardt and Livingston and therefore have both sides. To get started they might read the Economist magazine, and then go and do likewise.

Exile the Experts and Spinners. American journalism is rapidly turning into authority journalism. The question is not what happened but what some authority said happened. Greenspan said, not what actually is. Hyde or Clinton said, not any action that actually ensued. A fair percentage of front page stories are not stories at ail. They are Big Shot Says stories. Nothing really happened. Instead some big shot said something and the media trumpets it as though something happened.

The Greenspan Says mode of journalism has had a noxious effect upon Washington, a city that has plenty such effects already. It turns the front pages into a spin fest, and encourages the entire city to compete for room on that stage. If Greenspan can say, everyone else wants to say too. People put more energy into contrived saying than into actually getting something done.

The corollary to this pathetic theater is the use of established authority as a substitute for truth. The journalistic standard becomes what a Martin Feldstein says about the economy, what a Norman Ornstein says about Congress, instead of what is true about these. Among other things, authority journalism keeps reporting stuck firmly in the conceptual status quo. If truth is what conventional authorities say,then there’s never room for a new idea or an unconventional truth–which is why such ideas always get banished to the journalistic margins. Behind a formalistic facade of “objectivity,” the journalist becomes a stenographer for an authority’s subjectivity.

My friend Sam Smith of the Progressive Review has proposed a simple solution: Give the authorities, experts and opinionizers their own page. The front page should tell us what happened, the way the old colonial newspapers did. No Greenspan Says stories, no dueling quotes Just what happened. (Often we’d find out that not much happened, which wouldn’t be the worst revelation.) Greenspan et al. could do their saying on an inside page, where he and his fellow spinners–from political consultants to those ubiquitous Wall Street “analysts”–could hold forth to their hearts’ content.

Play It Again, Please. Washington journalism has no memory. Reporters approach the capital each day as though nothing has happened in this city before. Partly this is a cheap literary device and pose that enables reporters to feign shock–shock–when, say, a member of Congress carries water for a big contributor. But it has a more serious implication, too: Reporters never hold authorities and experts–or even politicians–to account for their stupidities of the past.

Reporters quote what Gingrich said yesterday, but ignore what he said a year or two ago that proved to be entirely wrong. They’ll cite the dire warnings of some Wall Street analyst regarding a proposed tax increase, but not mention that analyst’s equally dire warning a few years back that was totally off base. Congress could take the lead on this. It could require experts who testify to prepare a list of their prognostications of, say, the past five years. Then the rest of us could know whom we are listening to. The media should do the same, and it should revisit past pronouncements. Those economists and members of Congress who predicted economic collapse if Clinton’s early budget was enacted–what do they say now, and why should we listen to them now?