To understand the rig that has destroyed journalism, let’s suppose there is a stage magician coming to town to perform. He is the by-the-numbers tuxedo-wearing performer with a comely and scantily-clad female assistant.
And journalists are assigned to cover the event in order to explain the reality and the truth.
Now, typically, what would happen is the reporter would talk about the show and how the crowd reacted to it. They might tell you it was a sold-out show, the crowds loved it, what was the highlight of the performance, and so on.
That is the literal and traditional mode of journalism.
But the mandate was to explain the reality and truth of a magic show.
If I write how the assistant appeared to be sawed in half or the magician pulled a rabbit out of the hat, I did not write about the reality or truth of the situation.
The magician created the perceptions as he cultivated his persona. The assistant is a misdirection so audiences look at her and become distracted enough to miss the obvious signs of trickery.
How the tricks were done is the reality. Trick wires, hidden assistants, rigged boxes, and the mechanics of perceptional interference gives us the truth that our perceptions can be manipulated by very simple means.
We can argue that spoils the fun, but the point was not to add in the fun, but to explain how an audience perceived an event did not align with what actually happened.
Audiences may be convinced that there was some “magic” going on. They may be content with their misperceptions alone — but what they don’t see is that the tuxedo triggers expectations from the audience, the assistant divides their focus, and the props are doctored.
A magic show is meant to entertain, but what if that same magician gets weary of the same routine and then decides that his skill sets are easily transferable to something more lucrative.
He can doctor the books and make himself to be a Titan of Industry.
Or he make sick people feel and look better without actually treating them — and then make himself look like a cutting edge scientist.
He can inflate things and downplay things. He knows how to fool perceptions right in front of people. He has an act and knows what to say, how to say it, and when to say it.
But let’s up the ante.
Suppose he is not the only crooked magician ready to take his show to a new level — he has a rival who wants all that ill-gotten gains for himself — and so, he complains about his enemy’s tricks, all while pretending he is the one with the actual supernatural gifts, and uses his rival’s tricks as a form of misdirection himself.
How does journalism cover these turns of events?
The very same way they cover the magic show: by reporting on the perceptions without question, ignoring the sleight of hand and ruses used to make an illusion look like reality.
They ignore the people backstage. The ignore the ruses. They present the façade, not what is actually happening, allowing their audiences to genuinely believe the illusion is the reality.
That’s folksy logic: that there is no need for deep and critical thinking because the surface is the core.
There is no need to dig because everything is self-evident and neatly processed for us.
When I used to shot list international video feed for one newsroom, stories were not presented nice and neat the way you see on the evening news. There would be long stretches of mayhem with all sorts of gory and messy footage. Television was never honest with how horrific some things actually went down. The knee-slapping when some offended stay-at-mall mom would call in to complain about sanitized footage being too graphic when the truly graphic footage was not used was frequent.
There will be images from that era that will always stay with me. There was one young European woman my age who went on vacation in Asia and vanished. I watched that story unfold until they found her body — and the television crew filmed it. She was wearing the same outfit as one picture that was taken the day she vanished, but she was reduced to a mere skeleton — but the skull’s expression of sheer agony and fright was there. This young woman was tortured to death — and though there was nothing left of her but her dress and her bones, there was not a doubt what the last moments of her life were like.
Seeing that footage changed me as a person. By the time her remains were recovered, I had felt a deep connection with her a world away. We never met, but I knew her from the raw and disjointed snippets I watched every day, from videos of her back home to her family’s pleas for her safe return.
But what ended up on the newscast was none of the elements that made me feel that connection. All the most salient factors were erased from the stories. It wasn’t the same. This is a young woman who will always stay with me, and the feeling has never waned over the years. I am as sad today over it as I was the moment I saw her unhappy ending. Her truth and reality I grasped intellectually, but also emotionally and deeply so.
They found her killer, but by then, I was no longer shot listing, and the snippets I saw on the news were processed. It wasn’t the same understanding.
Newscasts either insight fear and rage — or try to put a sunny spin on rot. You have a busload of young lives cut short — and we have news outlets patting everyone on the back for feeling sad about it. It is an outrage that we are looking for the positive when we have not asked a single hard question about it, from the method of transportation to the accident to even the misidentification of a victim and a survivor. We are obsessed with using the word “strong”, while turning a blind eye to all of the weak that lead to this tragedy in the first place. Put down the paper crowns and start looking at the dead as you grasp their truth and reality. We have become so distracted by trivialities that we no longer have a grasp on solving a single problem.
Because looking for positive is a cold and unemotional strategy so we can avoid looking at how a problem exploded in the first place. Folksy logic is about avoiding reality: we invest nothing, take a quick glance, assume everything is all right, and that there is some They to clean up the mess for us, and if lives are cut short, we hope to find a feel-good image of people holding hands, and then just smile and continue with the status quo because Everything Will Work Out In The End.
Not if you do not face reality.
Some people stray too far for too long, and they never come back. We never truly get to know them, and then they conveniently fade from our memory, as we think we will never stray too far for too long ourselves.
Journalism needed to be the eyes of reason. They needed to face the bad and truthfully report on it without a narrative to taint the incident and give us a false impression of reality.
To have an alternative to journalism, there is no “fact-checking” because it is fact, not narrative that drives the one hunting and gathering facts. It is not about propping up something to tell a story: it is the facts that speak to our minds — and hearts — so that we understand the importance of taking those facts seriously.
As a journalist, there will always be people I have interviewed and written about who have left an impression on me because they brought clarity and focus to me. Some were honest, while other used a façade as a fortress, but each had taught me something that I did not know before.
I learned how to cover a magic show. It wasn’t about playing along, but by understanding how perceptions can be fooled, and how to see reality even when your perceptions want a different interpretation of reality. It is equal parts rationality and emotionality — but at no time does folksy logic help us actually understand our world — its obligations to us, and our obligations to it to make sure tomorrow is more functional than today.
Journalism should have been useful in that regard. It turned into shrill propaganda. We are living in a void right now — but when we can face that reality can true change and improvement begin…