Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Fourth Estate in a Sorry State

The whole Jeff Gannon/JD Guckert brouhaha has brought great merriment to the blogosphere, but I have a slightly perverse take on it all. Guckert's journalistic sins consist of asking softball questions and writing stories that largely regurgitate White House press releases and Rovian talking points. Now how does that distinguish him from most of the gaggle?

Most reporters are not as blatantly partisan, but their output isn't very different. At best it includes some additional transcription of remarks from a "centrist" Democrat, but no attempt to sort out who is telling the truth. One reason that reporting for the corporate media consists largely of stenography is simply that reporters, as a rule, don't know anything about the issues they cover, and their editors don't care -- their mission is to attract eyeballs that they can sell to advertisers, not to enlighten the public.

Many suns ago, when a mighty big-nosed bubba bestrode DC like a colossus, I attended a grantee meeting in the Imperial City, where the editor of the Washington Post weekly "Health" section spoke to us about how to attract coverage of our programs. With my typical effrontery, I asked her why the media had failed to explain to the masses how the Clinton reform proposal would really work and how it would affect people's finances and health care.

I have to give her credit for honesty. She said that stuff is wonkish and boring. "Reporters bring me stories and I tell them, 'That's a four bowler.'" That referred to her vision of the typical American family (baby Maggie is too young to read the paper, but she includes Bart and Lisa) sitting around the breakfast table, and falling asleep with their faces in the cereal bowls.

Nope, the stories had to be about intriguing medical mysteries, news you can use for a healthy lifestyle, and heroic scientists and doctors conquering death. Of course the universities and drug companies feed them these stories, and they just write down the conquering heroes' boasts.

The example today is a good half page-worth of dead tree in my local bird cage liner about some local sorcerers who have found stem cells that grow into heart tissue. Some day, they will grow new hearts for us all, and heart disease will go the way of appendicitis. There is no real discussion of the actual probability that this might work, and how soon, but more important, there is no mention of why people get heart disease, how we might prevent most of it in the first place, or of what this all will cost, who is going to pay for it, and what happens to people with bad hearts who can't afford it. All that, of course, would make it a four bowler. It might also require the reporter to know something, and to think critically. That is too much to ask.

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