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.’