To say that journalism has collapsed is an understatement. It has been tarnished and decimated. Its owners never understood that when they held all of the control of power of mass communications, audiences disagreed with them, but had no power to voice it. Now that people have the same platform and have become emboldened, these owners are mistaking their sheltered perceptions of the past with reality.
Newsweek’s turmoils are out in the open. Owners demand loyalty from their journalists who were oblivious and blindsided to how their masters conducted their affairs.
But corporations are not in the business of transparency. They are in the business to dominate and hoard profits.
Governments are as obstinate. The CBC received a reprieve when an Alberta judge wanted the broadcaster to remove the name and picture of a murder victim because of publication ban, forcing the broadcaster to alter their records of the past. The Supreme Court of Canada realized that was going too far and relented.
Journalism always had problems, but it benefitted from its monopoly of information control and broadcast. Once it lost its iron grip, all of its faulty base assumptions came back to haunt them.
In 2018, companies have no clue what journalism is about other than being a place to shill their products and services because the news media always obliged.
It is a profession that has always reacted to immediate events, rather than methodically reflect.
I remember when I was a teenager writing to various media outlets, complaining about their skewed coverage during the war in the former Yugoslavia. I was a kid, but I had obtained all sorts of documents to back up my contention that the press back them was being dishonest. I got footage from war zones that contradicted reportage. I had a banker’s boxes filled with UN reports that they had quoted out of context. I had US Justice Department filings from the public relations firms hired to skew the coverage. I had other reports and documents; so I wasn’t just whining that the coverage was unfair: I had proof that the coverage was wrong.
And even from the skewed television, magazine, and television reports, I found logical and physical flaws. In one city where Serb soldiers allegedly attacked and then left graffiti of their own cross:
The cross depicted on the footage had the four Cs is the wrong orientation. Why would they not know their own symbol? In another story, there were children described as “orphans” — and then the reporter used footage of the children’s mothers taking them home. Dads may be off to fight, but those kids weren’t orphans. Then there was the matter of a retirement home that supposedly had no heat in the dead of winter, and not only were people walking around in blouses with a normal complexion, but the numerous plants in the background weren’t dead from frostbite, and when people talked, you didn’t see their breath — all contrary to what you’d see if the conditions were the way the reporter described. There were many other instances where the footage did not match the narrative, and I pointed those all out.
It was war. There was bloodshed. There was hatred. There were atrocities.
But you cannot claim more people died in an area then what the census counted in the population.
So I wrote letters back then, and outlined a lot of things.
I got responses. Some letters, some phone calls. They were always the same, whether they came from the US or Canada, and it didn’t matter if it were television, radio, newspapers, or magazines from local to national.
The first casualty of war is truth…and a journalist’s knowledge is thirty miles wide, but only one inch deep.
In other words, we’re shallow, kid. Deal with it.
I already knew they were shallow. None of the reporters sent there would have known as Serb from a Croat even if they woke up in bed next one. They knew nothing of the culture, history, let alone languages, geography, or any of the customs or Shibboleths. As someone who had family on three sides of the conflict, I did know them intimately. I knew the slang and the culture. I knew the idioms and the hip cafés, such as the Tri Šešira (three hats) and the music all the cool kids listened to as I listened to it myself because I had relatives who got us concert tickets to see the acts (and where I also got to see poet Allen Ginsberg perform live as we were waiting for a famous Croatian duo to give a stage show) and my mother’s friend who worked at a record store and was a music junkie who taught me well:
So when I heard an authoritative report full of holes and hooey, I would do my research (this wasn’t an Internet era, yet with a phone, courier, and a fax machine, I was good and thorough) as a one-woman news outfit, and fire letters, cringing when I got replies.
Thirty miles wide. One inch deep.
I wondered how could a profession just use a systemic flaw in their structure as any excuse to shoo away legitimate criticism, and then go back to doing the same stupid things over and over, knowing full well they were all about scratching the surface in one place, then another with absolutely no desire to find a way to learn how to dig deeper.
Beauty is only skin deep. Don’t judge a book by its cover. It is only the tip of the iceberg. I could go on with how we all know that we have to scratch beneath the surface; so what was the deal with reporters being content with just looking at the surface without wondering what was really going on beneath it in order to get the full picture when at the time they had the resources to do it?
Here I was, a teenager with no news budget who could work the phones and write, and get information from a war-torn region all the way to my home in Hamilton, Ontario Canada.
I had no news-gathering experience. I was a psychology student. I learned who to write to because the library had publications that told you who was on top, such as the Matthews Media Directory in Canada. I learned how to track down information from various sources, and even found out there were trade publications for the diplomatic and intelligence communities.
And it wasn’t as if I was a bored houseteen: I was going to university full-time, and by my final year, I was also writing my thesis in psychoacoustics and going to college part-time.
So I could find things, and I didn’t have special access to things, either. I wasn’t the child of a politician or diplomat. But I could dig more than one inch.
I wasn’t digging traps for people to fall into, nor I was digging anyone’s grave. I was looking for things people wanted to stay buried.
I got so good at it, that when I decided to become a journalist, I already had the training to be able to do more than what a national journalist could do. I would take a report, write down all the facts that would be presented, and go digging, verifying every fact in the story…
That always turned out to be so hopelessly wrong.
And they were over there, and I was over here.
I was good at finding information, and had been told as much by editors. I always respected trying to find as much as I could, and never invested any emotion into a hypothesis I would form at the beginning of my assignment: if my hypothesis was right, it did not mean I was some sort of prophetess. If I was wrong; it did not mean I was a moron. There was neither glory nor shame. Just a quest to find facts and verify them.
I sometimes could not dig as deep as I wished — once, an American federal official could sense my frustration, and told me that he had far more access to information than any journalists, and he couldn’t get to the answer at that point, with him saying, “You’re not a bad journalist. I can’t get that information, either.” Sometimes you hit a rock with your shovel, but the guy with the expensive drill can’t break it, either. Later on, I discovered, we had the same mutual theory — and we were right.
But there is something peaceful about digging. It brings serenity to know you did your absolute best to liberate the truth from lies. You saw it through. You didn’t settle for a perception, an illusion, delusion, fantasy, or interpretation of reality. You saw both truth and reality up close as they are, and faced it alone.
How deep are the deepest truths of the universe? We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the ones here on Earth.
Journalists never bothered. Their “will do” attitude was sacrilege to me. I thrived in learning more. In all my time as a journalist, I never understood how reporters could be satisfied with regurgitating a press release.
I could understand why that lackadaisical attitude would prove to be problematic as journalism was eclipsed by a bigger medium: because all those people who were the recipients of that shallow — and ultimately slanted, skewed, and misleading information were slowly starting to get a chance to register their perceptions and interpretations of reality. They could do what I would have done back in the early to mid-1990s if I had my own blog: I could bypass the system, and post all the information that I was gathering and verifying.
Would it have made a difference? I don’t know what goes on in that alternative universe, but there could be no one who could later claim ignorance or say no information was available. It was, and if a teenager could dig and find; so could have an adult at a national outlet with a university degree from Columbia.
But the chronic shallowness caused the profession to collapse. When people have an alternative venue, and the original venue is lacking, they will go to the other one, even if it has flaws to be endured.
Journalism never thought their own shallowness would do them in — once they held all the cards; so when they lost all their cards, they thought they didn’t need them to play in the game. They thought they’d maintain control because they always did, and it had nothing to do with the fact they were the gate-keepers.
They aren’t special or different. I never thought I was special and different when I started to dig for information: that’s why I was always digging. The facts told the story, and people always try to keep the most valuable facts away from you. You have to fight for those nuggets of truth you find.
I am still one to dig. I am still examining why journalism imploded. It’s why I see that implosion and those in the dead profession are still trying their old tricks of puffing and fear-mongering — but not giving up the idea of just digging one inch for thirty miles.
If they learned to dig deeper, perhaps they’d discover the ugly truth about what happened to their profession — and why.