YESTERDAY, I created a link for the reply of Peter Alford, a Tokyo-based journalist for The Australian, to my previous post. Those interested can find it as an Update at the end of that post.
I make it a point here not to spend any time on repeated back-and-forth in the comment section, so his reply will stand as is without rebuttal. I offered my observations on a newspaper article, he answered, and there you have it.
But one sentence at the end of his reply is worth examining, however; not for what it says about Mr. Alford, but rather what it says about journalists. He said (while noting that he wasn’t referring to this site):
I feel the general standard of web commentary in the world today is woeful (and, of course, much of it wouldn’t exist without newspaper reportage to sneer at).
Where were the grapes for that whine grown, I wonder?
In fact, I tend to agree with the first half, which is why I read very few blogs. Most of the ones I do read are produced by vendors from the legacy media itself and attached to their websites. There are so many from those sources nowadays that it’s possible to read only a few. But I suspect Mr. Alford doesn’t mind that sort of web commentary. They’re members of the same guild, after all.
Focus instead on the self-defensive snark at the end of the comment, which is the Pavlovian response to any criticism of journalism or its practitioners. He observes that many of those web commentators rely on the journalists they dislike so much to peddle their own wares. That’s accurate so far as it goes, but it avoids the obvious-as-neon fact that those commentators exist only because they actively challenge a self-defined elite that abuses its monopoly with every edition. Instead of self-correction, their response to this challenge is to come out of the closet and to abuse their position even more flagrantly.
You think not? It takes no special talent to pick up any daily newspaper written in English and spot their political bias on the front page inside of two minutes. Often all that is necessary is to look at their selection of photographs.
In another sense, however, that snark hides a cri de coeur from someone stuck in a sunset industry. It is undeniable that journalism as has been traditionally practiced by the mass media is in serious trouble—newspaper readership is cratering and more people simply change the station when it’s time for the network news broadcast.
The evaporating interest in their product cannot be attributed to a declining interest in current events or reading in general. Indeed, the rise of web commentary demonstrates that an intense interest remains. The people for whom the content of the legacy media is packaged realize they have been patronized and betrayed, so of course they turn to other sources.
There is also no question that the legacy media’s wounds are self-inflicted. The bias in their reporting, both obvious and subtle, hangs awkwardly from the outline of their stories like a colostomy bag.
It is surely no coincidence that of the 596 articles on this site, the one with the highest number of hits is this report on the New York Times endeavoring to get Abe Shinzo in Dutch with the world by mistranslating (probably intentionally) one of his remarks during question time in the Diet. In second place is this report of (who else) the New York Times beclowning itself by claiming that a costume created as a joke by an avant-garde artist is in fact a sign of Japanese alarm over rising crime. (That post alone got at least a half a dozen overseas links.)
These two cases are not isolated examples–it is the standard operating procedure for daily journalism, and always has been.
During the American presidential election in 2004, the Associated Press’s White House correspondent was caught telling a colleague that he thought it was his “mission” to prevent George W. Bush’s reelection.
One female journalist during the Clinton presidency said she would “get down on her knees” and service the president herself if it helped preserve access to abortion on demand.
Reuters has been caught doctoring photographs with the sole intention of making the Israelis look bad. They routinely describe terrorists as “insurgents”.
Just this week, a Japanese blogger pointed out that the BBC was babbling idiotically when it attempted to describe the political views of the members of Prime Minister Aso’s new Cabinet. They didn’t have a clue, but it didn’t stop them from filing a story.
In America this month, ABC news correspondent Charles Gibson interviewed Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin and misquoted one of her statements to her face. When she objected, Mr. Gibson insisted that the quote was accurate. (It wasn’t.) ABC news then used another isolated quote to publicize its broadcast of the interview, claiming that Mrs. Palin accepted the possibility of a war with Russia.
No greater testimony is needed of the contempt in which ABC holds its consumers by their release of the full transcript of the interview, not even caring that the people who read rather than watch would immediately discover the fraud. Comparing what was broadcast with what was cut out and left on the studio floor shows that the governor’s views were considerably more moderate than the network wanted its consumers to believe. Indeed, ABC cut off one answer about Iran in mid-sentence lest she sound too reasonable.
And of course it was those woeful web commentators who caught CBS newsman Dan Rather in a stunt too stupid for a high school student to attempt when he tried to discredit Mr. Bush during the 2004 election campaign. Mr. Rather was eased out to pasture a few months later, where Kenneth presumably told him the frequency at long last.
This is not a new phenomenon. U.S. President Harry Truman once said that he felt sorry for his fellow citizens who “wake up in the morning, read the morning paper, and thereby think they have an idea of what is happening in the world.” Navy Yeoman Chuck Radford was Admiral Rembrandt Robinson’s aide when the latter ran the liaison office between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Natural Security Council in the U.S. He told author Len Colodny, “I even stopped reading newspapers…They didn’t know what they were talking about.”
The problems are much the same in Japan. Here the mass media is called masu komi, an abbreviation of “mass communications”. But some also refer to it as masu gomi, or “mass garbage”. And they aren’t smiling when they say that.
For an example, try this post from last year when Miyazaki Prefecture Governor Higashikokubaru Hideo gave a speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Tokyo. In the aggregate, the media coverage of his talk more closely resembles the plot structure of Rashomon than what one would expect from journalism. Eight different media outlets report on the story, yet an interested citizen can consume every one and still not know exactly what went on.
Part of the problem in Japan is the kisha club system and the informal pressure exerted keep the scribes in line. But Japanese journalists have a way of subverting that process by passing along stories they can’t use to the weekly magazines and Akahata (Red Banner), the house organ of Japan’s Communist Party. And the villains aren’t just in the bad old Liberal Democratic Party, either. Here’s a story about a political charade staged by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan that only Akahata had the cojones to cover. The reporters of the masu gomi could only hint at it.
Is any foreign correspondent in Japan capable of following several daily newspapers, Akahata, weekly magazines, and the monthly magazines—in Japanese—to get a clear view of what might be happening in Japan? And still have time left over for Roppongi bar-hopping?
Of course not. What they offer instead is a view of a zebra through a picket fence, spiced with an artificial narrative to keep the news consumer reading long enough to turn the page to the advertising section, which is the real point of the exercise.
Another charade borrowed from overseas by the English-language press in this country (but not so much by the vernacular press) is the vacuforming of opinion by quoting college professors to say what they really want to say themselves, but can’t. This provides a convenient fig leaf to pretend that they’re just reporting the learned observations of experts in the field instead of promoting an agenda.
Why the second-rate obscurantists of the journalistic profession should think that news consumers are more likely to swallow a hook because it’s been baited with barely coherent comments from obscurantists in another racket is a puzzle. The former group can no longer fool even so much as a part-timer working at a convenience store, while the latter has never been able to fool anyone but a few teenagers who enjoy the warm tofu atmosphere of the campus so much they want to stay there forever. But their only response to failure is to do the same thing, only harder.
In Japan, they usually don’t bother with the professors, instead outsourcing their biases to other commentators, called hyoronka. Their bona fides are seldom mentioned; just being presented as hyoronka by the masu gomi is bona fide enough.
Some of these mythomanics have even infected the overseas press. One whose name and bite-size observations crop up in English-language articles is Morita Minoru. Mr. Morita is identified as a political independent, when anyone bothers to identify his orientation at all. That’s almost comical; read this interview with the Japan Times and see if you don’t start to wonder why anyone would listen to him for any reason other than common courtesy. He hacks at and misses former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro several times and shows off a man-crush on Ozawa Ichiro. (That cooled when Mr. Ozawa engaged in the grand coalition talks. Hell hath no fury, etc.) On his website—which I will not link to—Mr. Morita once claimed that Abe Shinzo would get Japan involved in a war. That’s the grand thing about being an on-call pundit for newspapers—you can be wrong every time and still get paged when a few column inches need filling.
In other words, Mr. Morita has no more insight or intelligence than the beery fellow warming a stool at the neighborhood tavern and ranting about that commie Franklin Delano Rosenfeld. But the journalists trot out him and the troupers with degrees in political “science” as the performers in their dog-and-pony show, and are offended when their consumers would rather patronize “woeful” web commentary instead.
To be sure, Japanese bloggers are not without their faults either. The one I linked to above regarding the BBC’s air ball on the Aso Cabinet sweeps so much DPJ dirt under the rug he might as well be moonlighting for Duskin.
The man who saw journalists with the clearest of eyes was one himself. H.L. Mencken, perhaps the finest non-fiction writer in English to use the press as a medium, dismissed the editors and scribes of his day as pecksniffs, after the character in the Dickens novel, Martin Chuzzlewit. (Does not the combination of pecksniffs and chuzzlewits perfectly describe the pairing of journalists and college professors?)
The legacy media prefers to ennoble its trade by claiming that their objective is to speak truth to power. But what they’ve really been doing is speaking lies to consumers in exchange for ad revenue and a seat at the table with the powerful. Once upon a time they were able to get away with it, but technology and the contours of the modern world have allowed the consumers to see not only that the faux emperors have no clothes, but that they might as well be practicing nudists. The average daily newspaper today is merely a milquetoast version of Pravda (“The Truth” in Russian) and Völkischer Beobachter, dumbed down and fleshed out with sports, comics, celebrity gossip, and horoscopes for easier digestion, and left for the waitresses at the coffee shop to dispose of.
Notice that there’s always room in the newspaper to combine celebrity gossip and politics by providing a venue for the vaporous political theories of actors and singers, most of which sound as if they were received as broadcasts from the Big-Eyed Beans of Venus on tin foil hats. For the press, this is just another form of entertainment—why else provide their consumers with examples of the political theory of people who dress up in fancy clothes and makeup and play pretend for a living?
So is the profession upset when their former consumers would now rather turn to the arbitragers of the web than suffer any longer the mimeograph machines of the legacy media, hired primarily because they hung around campus long enough to receive that imprimatur of mediocrity: a degree in journalism?
Cry me a river.