The War on Journalism

For as long as I can remember, there has been a War on [Popular Social Cause Here]. It started with Lyndon B. Johnson’s The War on Poverty in 1964, and has been adopted over and over again to add extra weight to anything… The War on Drugs, The War on Crime, The War on Anything. Eventually, it was even warped (like playing the Hitler card) so that in our modern times we even get warned about The War on Christmas.

The idea is simple, really.  War is the ultimate, unrestrained effort.  There are rules, but in war everyone knows that if you play by the rules, you lose, and with things this important, you can’t afford to lose.  So that’s what it really means, to have a War on Terror or a War on Bad Hygiene.  It means you’re going to cheat (except in this case it’s called “strategy,” not “cheating”).  It means you’re going to win, at any cost, because the cost of losing outweighs all else.

Sadly, I’ve become aware of two covert wars being waged, without being named, and seemingly without anyone really even realizing they were going on.  They haven’t been publicized.  They don’t have catchy names and slogans.  The effort is clandestine.

The first is The War on Journalism. Journalism died somewhere along the roadside. It was never all that healthy to begin with (see “yellow journalism”, and how far back that goes). But it seemed to get pretty darn good in the 70s (see the original, true “Gate” — Watergate and Bob Woodward). Journalists had a higher purpose, and did something valuable beyond making money. They were heroes, or could be.

But somewhere it all went astray. There was the obnoxious reporter in “Die Hard” that would do anything to get a great story, even if it risked the lives of the hostages. When he gets punched out by Bruce Willis’ wife at the end, everyone grins. It was almost as good as seeing the terrorist fall to his death. Remember? That was when people started to hate journalists. That was when being a journalist became a dirty thing, instead of a heroic, admirable thing.

That became the stereotype of a reporter. But it wasn’t just reporters. The organizations behind them took up the banner — get the story, the interesting story, to attract readers and get advertisers and get money. They started to compete to see who could be more outrageous, and find a niche that would eat up whatever they were told.

Then it wasn’t just get the story, it became make the story (see Jonathan Leake, and David Rose).

Then bloggers came, with no training, and no reason to be ethical. Not that there aren’t lots of ethical bloggers, but like the main stream media news organizations, the unethical, hysterical bloggers attract more readers. They’re the ones you hear about. That’s where the excitement is.

So here we are. Journalism lies dead and buried. We need it to inform us, to bind us together, to rescue us from all of this disinformation… and it’s gone. Instead we have pundits that gleefully say whatever makes them seem smart and important to their ignorant fans.

[ As an aside, knowing now how badly climate science is being misunderstood, misrepresented, and brutalized… what else don’t we know about that is really going on in the world? Do you now trust a single word that you read anywhere? ]

The other war, the other silent war… is The War On Science. The tobacco companies started it in the sixties. They couldn’t win, but they “fought the good fight”, and learned a lot of tricks, and made it last far longer than it should have. But what we didn’t notice along the way was how very poor the average man’s education is in science, and that they have been taught along the way how “unsure” scientists are.

People, or at least most people, don’t understand science, and they don’t trust it. They don’t trust science, or scientists. Once, NASA was the coolest thing anyone could imagine. I grew up thinking that NASA was the future of everything.

Now, people can’t wait to dump on NASA as a bloated bureaucracy that couldn’t possibly have ever put men on the moon (that was a hoax, right?).

I actually think a lot of people instinctively don’t trust scientists. People don’t trust other people who are smarter than they are. People don’t trust people that use fancy mathematics and complex, foreign sounding words they don’t understand.

It’s like magic. People don’t trust warlocks. They burned witches.  They’ll put up with the village witch doctor because if they don’t the rains might not come and the crops will die, but they really all rather (quietly) wish that he’d just leave the village. He makes everyone uncomfortable.

That’s really how people feel about doctors and dentists. You want them around, in case you need them, but they scare the crap out of everyone. You don’t want to need them.

Now the war has really, really flared up. The War on Science has gone nuclear. The pseudo-journalists are using their new found power to utterly destroy people’s respect for and belief in science. They’ve done it bit by bit, casting doubt on simple things like the ozone and DDT and vaccines (they cause altruism, don’t they? damned evil scientists).

So, here it is, 2010. We desperately need journalism, and science, but they’re both casualties of war.

`And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!’

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”’

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’


6 comments on “The War on Journalism

  1. MapleLeaf says:

    Well written.

    Any ideas how one turns “the war” around?

    • sphaerica says:

      Sadly, not really.

      Capitalism fails in any endeavor where people are going to pay for what they want instead of what they need. People want shabby journalism, or at least, they vote that way every time they tune in to drivel, but they really need someone to be telling them the truth about what’s important instead of lies about what’s just candy anyway.

      Capitalism also, I think, started to fail when corporations realized that they had more power than individuals, and started to wield it. Industry and science are strange, antagonistic bedfellows. Each needs the other in many ways, but modern industry has too many scenarios where it doesn’t want people to actually know the truth. Industry wants science to help it make money, but to otherwise move to the back, sit down, and shut up.

      Mind you, I’m not knocking capitalism. It’s the best economic system there is. But it needs brakes, and a steering wheel. There have to be other motivations, other driving factors, beyond what will make the most money for the most people. Without social conscience, nobility, a respect for truth and law and the human condition… without human elements balancing out the power of money… society will ultimately fail.

      I think people need to realize, too, that human society has changed. We’ve made the world into a very, very complicated place, and if you don’t have the tools to understand it, you’re going to help to drag it into the abyss. People have to take ownership of their intellects, expand them, and use them.

      How to go about this, how to get people to place an importance on moral behavior, and to educate themselves and to use their intelligence… I have not a clue.

  2. Mark D. says:

    Interesting observation (and probably true) about journalism. It seems though that if it is a war then there must be a side. Who is that side?

    I don’t really agree about the war on science so much. The negative opinion about science is BECAUSE of the lack of good journalism. It means that the garbage information we have about anything science is what garbage has filtered through poor or manipulated reporting.

    • sphaerica says:

      Sides in the War on Journalism is an interesting question. Sadly, I don’t see anyone fighting for journalism. The antagonists are definitely the media corporations, who are now interested only in advertising dollars, with no pretense of values. Sadly, I would expect the journalists themselves to be on the other side, trying to be good journalists, but as often as not, I think they fall into the trap of being sensationalist themselves to try to make a name for themselves, or else selling their souls and giving in to their masters just to keep their jobs. I think that’s why I feel that that war is over. Journalism already lost. Maybe at one time some hearty souls tried to be good journalists, and they got passed up by their aggressive and unscrupulous peers.

      On the War on Science, admittedly bad journalism contributes to it, but poor education on the part of the populace is more to blame. It leads to the bad journalists (who don’t really understand what they’re writing about), but also to a public that doesn’t understand what they’re reading, or how weak the presentation is. It doesn’t help when networks like CNN fire competent science staff to save money, so that the people reporting on the issues don’t have the training to do so.

      But corporations absolutely have warred, continually, against science (tobacco before, oil now). So have religious groups (evolution being a prime case). Sadly, they have learned that it is as or more effective to attack science as a whole than it is to just attack the issue. Creationists don’t merely argue their point. They try to make scientists look silly for supporting evolution. The same went for tobacco, and goes now for greenhouse gases.

      The thing is, with the Internet, if you have the foundation knowledge in science, everything else is at your fingertips. You can understand climate change, instead of trusting other people to tell you what’s right.

      But people are too lazy, too insecure, too arrogant, and too well coddled by the media that tell them what they want to hear, and make them feel good about it.

      I think that’s the biggest thing. People will believe anything if it’s repeated enough, and if it already plays to what they’d rather believe. That’s really where the War on Science originates. People only want science to tell them nice things. When it has something scary to point out, people get angry.

  3. JLKrueger says:

    They’ve done it bit by bit, casting doubt on simple things like the ozone and DDT and vaccines (they cause altruism, don’t they? damned evil scientists).

    Did you mean autism? That was the alleged issue with the MMR vaccine. Altruism is the concept of unselfish behavior for the welfare of others.

    [ It was meant as an intentional, ironic pun. — Sph ]

  4. Hank Roberts says:

    > what else

    Well, all the big fish are gone, since about 40 years ago. Does everyone know this? (Not the NYT, which is still publishing health-friendly recipes for tuna.)

    Google “jeremy jackson” scripps “changing baselines”

    His point — whatever we are born to we think is the way the world always was. Nobody who isn’t a scientist and knowledgeable about what we had can even believe what we’ve already lost.

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