August 2, 2009

A Failure to Communicate


No more Walter Cronkite!

No more watered-down television crap!

—Fear, “No More Nothing”


The following is an Associated Press story that appeared on the morning of Monday, July 20. I have not altered or edited it in any way. This is the full story as it appeared.


Officers Make Grisly Discovery in Queens

NEW YORK (AP) -- New York City police officers on patrol made a grisly discovery in Queens: a dead body.

      The officers were patrolling Jamaica early Monday when the [sic] came upon a man's body.

      Police say the man had several punctures to his torso and neck, that may have been from gunshot wounds.

      Emergency Medical Services technicians pronounced the man dead at the scene.

      The medical examiner's office will determine the exact cause of death.


Without going through the story word by word to analyze everything that’s gone so horribly wrong here, let’s just say that the above is an example of two related problems facing journalism today.

            First, of course, the writing is incompetent. It reads like it was written by a thirteen year-old who wears a hockey helmet whenever he leaves the house. After reading it for the third time (suckered in initially by that promise of a “grisly discovery”), I found myself thinking “So . . . what the hell happened now? And why in the hell did the AP choose to run this?” It simply wasn’t news, this story. It was more like a modernist haiku or a child’s letter to God. There was no information here. No name, no age, not even an exact location. Worst of all, it wasn’t even “grisly,” unless it turns out those “punctures” were left by some horrible fanged monster who sucked out all the man’s bodily fluids. I won’t hold my breath, though, much as I’d like to read that.

            In those terms, this story is hardly a unique example. I see news stories every single day that leave me thinking “What, exactly, is this dullard trying to tell me?”

            This leads to the second problem. In this age of instantaneous communication, news agencies across America are in a never-ending race to be the first to break the story. Granted that’s always been the case in the news media, but these days it no longer matters if all the facts—or even any facts at all—are in yet, so long as you’re the first to get it out there. You can play catch up and fill in the details later.

            (Although for the record, it’s been over a week now and there has been absolutely no follow-up on the punctured corpse story.)

            I see so many examples of illiterate “news” like this nowadays that I would’ve been willing to let this one slide if it wasn’t for one small thing. Ironically enough, this particular story popped up less than forty-eight hours after it was announced that Walter Cronkite had died.

            I can’t say I was all that broken up by word that Cronkite was dead. That sounds a bit more crass than it was intended, but he was in his nineties for godsakes, and ceased being a normal fixture in my daily routine in 1981. That he was one of this country’s greatest broadcast journalists is undeniable (though he lacked Edward R. Murrow’s tenacity, storytelling skills, and mastery of the language). Still, what struck me was a recurring theme in all the memorials I heard in the days that followed.

            All the big newsreaders were trotted out—Dan Rather, Ted Koppel, Diane Sawyer, Brian Williams and the rest of them—and they all said the same things (I’m paraphrasing here): He was our hero; he set the standard for all who followed; he was the most trusted man in America and there will never be another one like him.

            In short, “Ever since Walter Cronkite retired, American journalism’s gone straight down the crapper, and it will never be any good ever again.”

            They all stated it in different ways—I don’t think any of them used the word “crapper”—but they were saying the same thing. What passes for “news” nowadays is for shit, wherever you get it.

            I guess that too is hardly “news,” but it’s worth reminding people now and again.

            During those same memorials, the producers kept trotting out those two tired clips—his Kennedy assassination and moon landing broadcasts. But there was another one, much less seen nowadays, that says a helluva lot more about why he was a better straight journalist than that lot of snot-nosed mooncalves we’re stuck with today.

            In January of 1973, Cronkite took a phone call during a commercial break in the newscast. The man on the other end informed him that Lyndon Johnson had just died. Now, instead of slamming down the phone when he went back on the air and running with that little tidbit and nothing else, he stayed on the line as the cameras rolled and 18 million people watched, gathering enough information to tell a coherent and accurate story. It amounted to two or three minutes of dead air—just Cronkite sitting there on the phone. Only after he got all he needed did he hang up the phone and announce that LBJ was dead.

            Compare that to, say, the nonsense that was broadcast live on September 11, 2001—frantic, wild-eyed (but very well-coiffed) reporters screaming that car bombs were going off all over the city, putting crank calls on the air live, even reporting obvious urban legends as the God’s Honest Truth.

            Or you get the whiz who composed the opening example, running to press with something that bears some passing resemblance, maybe, to a news story. But then when you look at it more closely you see there’s not a fucking thing there—it’s nothing but the thinnest vapor of words.

            You want to know why things are like this now? I can point you to a couple of examples. First, go back and watch Network again (not just that Peter Finch scene, but the whole damn thing). Then after you’ve done that, go online and read any three random blogs. Any three at all. Then go read some Mencken for good measure if you have the time.

            There you have it.

            The news was as much a business in Cronkite’s and Murrow's time as it is now. Of course back then they didn’t have the Marketing Department calling editorial shots the way it does today—though Murrow’s takedown of Joe McCarthy cost him his sponsor (Alcoa) and ultimately his career.

            Okay, so maybe that’s not the best example. But at least someone with Murrow’s smarts and command of the language was on the air in the first place—which I can’t well see Marketing execs allowing nowadays. If your newsreader isn’t a complete moron, you might alienate most demographics.

Cronkite and Murrow also didn’t have to contend with the sort of bare-knuckled competition with cable and internet crap they have today.


            Media analysts say that the real journalists nowadays are the bloggers and that corporate media is useless and dead. I have no problem with that second bit—corporate news is pretty funny. But until these little blogging characters start hiring a few fact checkers and copy editors and realize that they have to be held accountable for what they publish, I don’t think I’ll be paying much attention.

            Ah, fuck it—who am I kidding? I don’t believe anything anyone says. And that includes Walter Cronkite, that cagey devil. But at least he could tell a coherent goddamn story. As things stand, the day is gonna come—and I think we’re pretty much there now—when none of us is going to have the foggiest fucking notion what’s going on in the world, no matter how many pinheads are trying to tell us.


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