When I wrote Don’t Believe It!: How lies become news, my research had many facets, but the bulk was tracking down original stories that were either flat-out lies or hoaxes. Some of these articles were decades old, while others were only a few years old. I used a variety of databases, microfilm, universities, and libraries, along with my own large library of files I collected over the years.
Some of these bogus articles came from tiny community newspapers, and I had to get in touch with those libraries to send me a photocopy…by snail mail. It was not hard to find television transcripts as well. The trickiest article to find was one in the New York Post that was just a little too early to make it into their online database, and I had to ask my local library to requisition it from the New York Public Library (my library was actually reluctant to do it, and rudely turned me down, but changed their tune when I called their New York City colleagues who graciously set them straight). That was 2004.
Fast forward to 2017 when I wrote When Journalism was a Thing.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, it was not the same experience. Some of the articles were nearly impossible to find. Quite a few were scrubbed from databases, and even large libraries did not have any kind of copies available. I found everything I needed (free or for a fee, like before), but what once took me minutes sometimes took me days.
Even though I noticed the information erosion before, it didn’t quite hit me until I wrote my book. I never thought I would stump librarians before, but I did this time, unlike the last.
But even with libraries, sometimes the fees for finding certain things became pricey. Information wasn’t free or easy.
You (a) had to have the money to pay for information, and (b) you had to have the ingenuity to find some of the more obscure stories, particularly the original articles that had flaws. A media outlet could wipe the slate clean by expunging the sins of the past, leaving shards of a trace of their bad reportage.
But bad reporting is still a part of the historical record, and even its removal is deceptive. It would be like a country or company shredding evidence of their illegal practices, or at least their offensive documents.
But it goes further than that.
Journalism was never a science, but the job losses ensured it became a lost art. Stories don’t get covered, and of those that do, there are so many factual and logical problems to render it nearly useless.
The grains of information are eroding quickly in 2018. We have become too complacent, assuming the mysterious collective known as They will record everything for us, and yet the traditional venues are slowly doing away with not just hard copies, but electronic copies as well.
And with the explosion of partisan and even propaganda reporting, our understanding of the world around us is ever-shrinking.
We are losing information every day, and yet we stare at the computer screen smugly as well believe that everything we need to know is accessible and accurate when both assumptions could not be more wrong.