Rush Limbaugh has famously said he has “talent on loan from God”. This claim isn’t particularly hard to believe, seeing as how Limabugh has no talent. He can’t entertain (he failed repeatedly as a radio entertainer before starting his hit show). He can’t write (his book is ghostwritten). He’s completely clueless (bizarrely, he claimed AIDS didn’t affect heterosexuals). He doesn’t remember the past. He doesn’t communicate well (that’s why he takes few calls and cuts even them off). And much of what he says he’s taken from right-wing sources. (David Brock describes how he once faxed Limbaugh a script about his work; Limbaugh proceeded to read it verbatim.)

And, you could say, maybe Limbaugh listeners deserve this. But the exact same traits seem to apply to reporters at the New York Times and other major papers. Far aside from the systemic problems with news, modern journalism just seems to suck.

Entertainment: Newspapers are deadly boring. You can see the authors to try desperately to liven things with personal anecdotes and flowery language (apparently this is what makes a star reporter at the Times) but it’s like putting lipstick on a chicken. Now maybe serious newspapers should be boring (although the world’s stories are fascinating, and the news is essentially the product of the world’s stories), but this half-hearted gussied-up prose is just the worst of both worlds.

Writing: I find myself having to read articles several times just to understand what they’re saying, and even then I don’t understand the subject. By contrast, collaboratively-written Wikipedia articles are almost always clear and informative. Is this because reporters are stuck on style? (“He said this. But she said that.”) Or do they assume their readers are idiots? (“And the teensy tiny electrons go wizz! woosh! inside the atom.”) No, I think they just don’t understand their topics. (If you don’t know what you’re writing about, there’s no chance your readers will.)

Clueless: This would also explain why reporters seem to miss both the background facts and the context. If the administration absurdly predicts that 130M jobs will be created, this fact will be duitifully reported without dissent. Even if this is the third time the administration has made absurd forecasts, that history will simply be forgotten or ignored. The only time any such context or history is included is if it’s conveniently provided in a clever soundbite by the appropriate expert in the reporters rolodex.

Right-Wing: The Republicans understand how the system works. And this lets them steamroll right over the reporters with their message. Republicans want to make Al Gore look like a liar? Bam! It’s in every news source. But George W. Bush lies daily while spending millions on lying ads? We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. When reporters become glorified stenographers, the people they’re transcribing get to make the news. And so, in large part, they have.

Conclusion? It takes no talent to be an average reporter at the Times. Just call up the usual suspects and write down what they say. But to be a star (Jayson Blair, Judith Miller) requires an ability to make stuff up. But folks have got it backwards — the latter upsets them while the former does not.

Why do people continue to respect a newspaper whose output is so lame? (Is it because everything else is so much worse?) Why does a newspaper continue to hire reporters whose work is so bad? (Is it because the people hiring them are no better?)

On final note: What does real professionalism sound like? See reporter Amy Goodman interview then-President Bill Clinton. Goodman doesn’t ask one easy question, but Clinton, although completely unprepared, can rattle of dozens of facts and figures to respond to each. (transcript, audio)

posted June 17, 2004 10:51 AM (Politics) (7 comments) #


Film Recommendation: Brazil
Brazil: The Sucky Story of Sid Sheinberg
James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds: A Review
Did You Know? Ronald Reagan Edition
Weblogs: More Driving by the Rear-View Mirror (or, Static Documents by One Person)
The End of Professionalism: Why do talk radio hosts and Times reporters have no talent?
Who makes a movie?
Watch the Comedians: The Daily Show
Watch the Comedians: The Daily Howler
Watch the Comedians: Fafblog!


A few years ago, I worked as a copy editor for a company that produced a chain of telecom-industry newsletters. The bulk of my work involved taking various corporate press releases, editing out the PR-speak (e.g., changing “XYZ Corporation, the world’s leading high-performance framistan subcontractor” to “framistan subcontractor XYZ Corporation”), and laying out the edited releases to be printed in the newsletter. People paid hundreds of dollars a year for a newsletter that contained little more than these reworked press releases.

If consumers of “news” aren’t demanding critical thinking from reporters, why should the reporters bother to provide it?

posted by Seth Gordon at June 17, 2004 12:10 PM #

Speaking as a former and kinda current reporter (I’m really more of just a plain ol writer these days though I do run an ezine), essentially it comes down to two things.

1) Laziness. It’s very easy to just follow the pack, and following the pack makes nonleading news outlets feel secure. If station XYZ is airing it, then we have to air it. If the New York Times is covering it, we have to cover it. And conversely, if the leaders of the pack are NOT covering it, it doesn’t get covered pretty much. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard regional stringers for NPR say, “I pitched that story six months ago and they weren’t interested until the Times covered it yesterday.” (At which point NPR would send out one of its own people. Drove the stringers crazy.)

It’s also easy to just follow the scripts you’re sent, as Seth points out in his comment. The internal dialog goes something like: Why bother? This stuff is so boring it makes my eyes cross, how could anyone else possibly care. It’s something to fill column inches/airtime with.

Keep in mind I was an extremely lazy reporter, but I knew enough to be ashamed of myself and get out of the business when the beancounters ended my position. I never cared for the reporting part because I was never very good at it; I always liked the producing and writing part best. I’m still nostalgic for my little heavy deadline yet no real pressure job at a local TV station. That was fun, especially Gulf War I.

It’s also the laziness of the news consuming public. “We” got into a funk of not wanting anything but McNews. Finally, though, people seem to be SuperSized-out and are turning in frustration to primary and alternative sources for their news. The blogosphere is a case in point; the blogosphere also can help keep the “legitimate” news organizations accountable.

2) The “professionalization” of journalism. Bear with me. Most people can’t write, including people who write for a living. Writers are still almost literally a dime a dozen, but even so, few of them can write a simple declarative sentence. I was lucky enough to have had a boss/mentor/enemy when I was young who was a fanatic on this topic, and I’m pretty good at writing simply given a little time and enough sleep (or a deadline). Blog comments don’t count. :)

People are not taught to write that way. Simple declarative sentences are not taught because—why? Bueller? They’re simple. Journalism has become a profession rather than a trade, which means you have to go to college and get a piece of paper from a school in order to practice it at most outlets.* If you’ve ever been to college or dealt much with academia, you know just about the last thing that’s rewarded are simple declarative sentences.

Combine these two trends and you get our current state of affairs.

And are you still homeschooling, Aaron? If so, you’re using your time well. :)

*I had a devil of a time at my last job with the management because I didn’t have a college degree, and yet I could write at least as well as my colleagues and had their respect on that level if not as a reporter. But then I don’t give my reporting much respect myself.

posted by Lynn Siprelle at June 17, 2004 01:34 PM #

Hi Aaron — be careful not to fall into the “US is the world” trap on this one. There’s some incredible journalists in the UK in particular; my own favourites scribble for The Guardian, The Independent and The Observer. And their output makes it into print, too.

(Over here those papers are frequently labelled “anti-American” by the right wing. But more correctly, IMO, they’re not so much “anti-American”, as not “pro-Bush administration”. ;)

PS: I don’t know if I’ve said this before, but thanks for reenabling comments. I greatly prefer commenting if I know it’ll be posted publicly; that way, I can simply point to that, find it again, cut and paste from it, or a myriad other ways to reuse the text, if needs be.

posted by Justin Mason at June 17, 2004 03:13 PM #

Problem is that today’s “reporters”, especially on cable news, are star fuckers, plain and simple. One just has to watch them oo and aah over Bush, Arnold or other tool brought in front of them in an effort to please.

posted by i,nayshon at June 18, 2004 07:09 AM #

First, you’re just being blind to say Limbaugh is not a successful entertainer. He clearly is. 20 million listeners don’t tune in just because they agree with him. They tune in because they are entertained. You may not be entertained by him — I’m not, even though I am generally in agreement with his overall views, and I’d be surprised if you were — but he is entertaining by definition, proven by the fact that he entertains millions of people.

The same thing goes for his purported lack of communication skill. Now, I agree he has some significant communication problems, but no one could have that many listeners if he didn’t communicate well to a certain degree. I personally thought Clinton was not a good communicator, because I thought most of what he said was garbage. Perspective matters. Maybe you don’t like what he communicates and recognize his several communication problems, but that doesn’t mean he can’t communicate.

For the record, I used to be entertained by Rush, and I was certainly informed by him (which required certain good communication skills that he has), back in the early 90s. But even then his communication problems bothered me. Then the Internet came and I was able to discover more information for myself, and I simultaneously was leaving adolescence, and I realized how one-sided Rush’s presentation of facts was, and I stopped spending my time listening to him.

Second, why do you believe David Brock? As Timothy Noah said: ‘Chatterbox yields to no one in his eagerness to believe the awful things Brock is now saying about himself and the conservative movement in America. But the more Brock insists that he has lied, and lied, and then lied again, the more one begins to suspect Brock of being, well, a liar.’

Third, “If the administration absurdly predicts that 130M jobs will be created, this fact will be duitifully reported without dissent.” Several things are wrong about this. First, no one said 130m jobs would be created; that’s the number of jobs that exist now. The number was 2.6m (and frankly, it’s not looking like a horrible projection at this point …).

Also, I heard a ton of dissent about this at the time, so much so that the White House actually distanced itself from the report! Maybe you didn’t notice because you were busy reading boring newspapers. :-)

posted by pudge at June 21, 2004 12:45 AM #

Aaron, answer me one question: when exactly has mainstream journalism not sucked? The term “yellow dog” is not a recent one, you know.

I think most people just grow up with the notion that jounalism is supposed to be unbiased and accurate and then they wax nostalgic about how it “used to be” when disabused of that notion. Well, guess what? There ain’t no good ol’ days!

Just like always, it’s up to the consumer of news to filter the information they take in. Unfortunately, some people never learn to do that. Do you really think that if somehow the quality of reporting magically increased (it would be magic, because the market clearly wants infotainment, and the government doesn’t want anything better, nor would a rational politician want better reporting) that people would suddenly become better informed? No, they’d go for other news outlets that told them what they wanted to hear.

What you should be complaining about is that you’re surrounded by morons who want infotainment. Unfortunately, you can’t force education on people, and of course, it would be government doing the forcing anyway, and do you really think politicians want an informed populace who can see through their lies? There are, however, solutions to having morons able to control your life by voting for the moron party at the ballot box…

posted by Sean Lynch at June 28, 2004 10:38 PM #

Oh, BTW, Clinton got asked the hard questions because he could answer them and look good. If he didn’t look good answering the hard questions, the reporters who asked them would lose access. Bush doesn’t get asked the hard questions because they make him look bad and the reporters who ask them don’t get invited back.

The media is not left wing or right wing. They’re front runners.

posted by Sean Lynch at June 28, 2004 10:45 PM #

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