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.’

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I’m Typing As Loud As I Can

I wrote this in early March of 1994.  I submitted it to a few magazines and newspapers, but no one wanted to publish it.  I dug it up, and now that it’s all come to pass, I think it apropos that I publish it here, for the world to be able to see, but not…

Before reading, it probably requires some context.  It was fifteen years ago.  iPods and broadband did not exist.  Color Macintosh computers had only just been introduced.  ATM machines had only just worked their way into the lives of Americans, but older generations still found them daunting to use.  People paid for groceries by cash or check.

The First Gulf War had been over for three years, having made CNN a household name as the only 24 hour news station during the first period where people wanted 24/7 news, to watch the coverage of something so intense as a justifiable and globally supported war.  It even resulted in something termed The CNN Effect.

AOL was on version 2.0, and was the way almost everyone got to the Internet.  You signed on using a 300 baud modem that made a cacophony of sounds in the minutes it took to connect, just to hear it announce “You’ve got mail!”   Thrilling.  No, really, back then it was cool.  Then you checked your mail, and signed off.  Internet search engines were in their infancy, having been started only a year earlier.

The Internet then was primarily used as it was first intended, as a way for scientists and researchers to communicate and share information.  It was very, very, very young.  That was then…


You can’t hear them, the information bulldozers and the information road graters and the information dump trucks.  They’re silently dozing and pushing and hauling, carving out the routes which will lead to the future.  It’s funny.  Everyone was wrong about the next frontier.  With the American continents laid bare, what was to be man’s next challenge:  the ocean depths, the Arctic wastes, outer space, inner space?  None of these.  Not yet.  The next frontier is more abstract.  It’s cyberspace.

What will cyberspace be like?  The information superhighway is coming, oh yes, its coming.  There is no stopping it.  It’s being built on technology and money and profit and dreams and momentum.  Lots of momentum.  Decades of information processing momentum.  It’s being built on the ghosts of electric typewriters, photocopiers, touch tone phones, hand held calculators, digital watches, cable TV, CD players, answering machines, personal computers, ATMs, fax machines, personal digital assistants, and others — all of the devices which have marked the path of the evolution of information processing.

What will it be like?  Information.  More of it.  A lot of it.  ALL of it.  Access to every fact, every picture, every sound, every film.  Kennedy’s speech in Berlin.  The lions of the Serengeti.  The DNA sequence of the 36th gene of the 12th chromosome of the species Antilocapra Americana.  Sound bites.  Information bytes.  Facts.  Lists.

What’s the point?  You get information today.  A lot of it.  Too much of it.  You get TV shows and commercials, infomercials, magazines, junk mail, telemarketing calls.  And they’ve got good aim, very good aim.  You wish you had time for half of the magazines and the TV programs and the special offers limited time only act now.  And most of what you should absorb, you can’t: contracts, leases, insurance coverages, tax laws, loan agreements, the ingredients of everything you eat.

Do you consider yourself an informed voter?  For whom did you vote for president, and why?  Senator?  Congressman?  District attorney?  Any of the dozens of district court judges?  County sheriff?  City comptroller?  Is he doing a good job now?  Do you have time to find out?  Are you an informed voter?

What’s going on in the world?  What do you know?  What do you need to know?  What’s important?  What needs your direct, personal attention: insurance, debts, retirement funds, your spouse, your children, their education, their health, their future?  Think bigger: global warming, global disasters, wars, human rights, abortion rights, animal rights, health care systems, the economy, the ecology, the future?  What do you think?

Which leads to the heart of the problem.  What do you think?  How do you think?  Can you think?  The information superhighway is coming, and it’s important.  You can’t stop it and you can’t ignore it.  Before the printing press few people could read.  They learned.  Before the information superhighway few people can think.  Few people attack problems, solve problems, concentrate.  Few people actually use the wealth of knowledge generations of civilization have compiled.  People should learn.

In the beginning, the highway will be for the intelligentsia, for the people who learned to think before they had to.  The people who learned about logic and science.  The people who didn’t give up on word problems.  The people who like to learn.  The people who make a difference in today’s world.

And the information superhighway will set those people free.  It will give them power.  Power to explore.  Power to create.  Power to change.  Change people.  Change things.  Change history.

And where will the rest be?  Many will be lost.  They’ll stand by the information roadside while the ATM patiently waits, time and again, for them to remember to press the ENTER key.  They’ll watch infodramas and infomercials and infopresentations.  They’ll access their mail and their debts and their legal and civic obligations, because they’ll have to.  Without adventure, without growing, without a sense of wonder.  But their children will be different, more dynamic, more capable, more aware.  Then grandpa will “wisely” say, “when I was a kid, we didn’t do term presentations, we did term papers — you had to be able to write when I was a kid, not just throw together a bunch of images and sounds and ideas.  Back then we had to think!”

What about the ones who are different now, who can think now?  The ones with thoughts, with ideas, with perspectives, with opinions?  The ones who can create, who can change.  Where will they be?

Before the phone and the airplane the world was both large and small.  It was big, too big, but it was out there.  You were here.  You had only so many neighbors, only so many places to go.  You were the best ball player, or mechanic, or doctor you knew.  You were the best around at something.  You had to be, at something.  There just weren’t that many people.  The world was small.

Now the world is both small and large.  You can go anywhere in an hour, talk to anyone in a moment.  You are everywhere.  You have 6 billion neighbors, a globe at your doorstep.  You are average.  The world has a few hundred top singers, top writers, top anythings.  There are just too many people for you to be the best.  The world is too big.  Or is it too small?

So when every thought, every idea can get from here to there, from one mind to the next with the touch of a key, what then?  Where will it go?  Somewhere? Everywhere?  Or into databases, into lists, into a vast super accessible never accessed information void?  Into hardware, software, nowhere?  How far can a raindrop fall before it becomes one indistinguishable fraction of an ocean?  How will “I” make a difference, how will “I” make things change, when there are so many of “I”?

The information bulldozers and the information road graters and the information dump trucks are all out there, silently working away.  And when they are done the noise will begin, will really, really begin.  And then I’m afraid that no one will be able to hear me.  Few can hear me now, and I’m already typing as loud as I can.