Getting the scoop.
Not long ago I was sorting through old papers for disposal. I came across a clipping saved for some forgotten reason. On the reverse was this headline: "NAACP Chief Says More Assistance Needed." This headline might have appeared in my hometown paper today (though I stopped reading it years ago). But the date was May 1971.
Presumably "news" is the report of an event or a situation that the reader cannot experience for himself. When the chief of the NAACP makes a statement, it is an event, though his demanding higher welfare payments is not exactly hot news. The "news" report reeks of advocacy and is all too characteristic of the "news" we have been getting for a long time now.
A worse example. For some years my father attentively took care of my mother during the terrible progress of Alzheimer's. Their life gathered so much sympathetic admiration that word got around, and one day a reporter showed up. The resulting newspaper story mentioned Mr. and Mrs. Wilson in the first paragraph. Then they disappeared, to be followed by 14 paragraphs about how not enough was being done for African-Americans with Alzheimer's. Mr. and Mrs. Wilson were just a hook for irrelevant advocacy.
Back in my misspent youth as a reporter in the mid-60's, if I or one of my colleagues in the newsroom had been given this story, we would have turned out a "human interest" piece that would have touched and been shared by the whole community. And we would have done it without presenting anything that was not an observable fact or a precisely accurate quotation, the latter taken with a pencil and not a recording machine. The paper was part of the community. Readers would read the story and feel that their city was in some sense a shared community, and a decent one.
Furthermore, the paper was locally owned. And it had editorial writers who were intelligent, knowledgeable, and articulate, and had actual opinions. Some readers even turned to the editorial page first thing. Nobody would do that now, though he might eventually get around to the letters. But why read canned opinions that are the same as those on every other paper and television station? And which are not even really opinions but just repetitions of the party line? The same family owned both papers in town, but they had separate histories, took different stands, and actually competed for scoops.
I describe a situation that is (barely) within living memory. Of course, newspapers are obsolete. There are many fewer than there used to be. They are all owned by conglomerates with no interest in their communities, and would disappear entirely if it were not for their websites and those multicolored big-box-store and supermarket inserts. People might read them (from something other than habit) if they had genuine local news and opinion, but they are run and staffed by carpetbaggers who are quite literally incapable of that. Otherwise, anything you want--sports, stock-market quotes, weather--you can get better from radio, TV, and the net. Except perhaps the comics, and I don't think many people read them anymore.
Newspapers, of course, have never been perfect. Through most of our history they were very partisan--which everybody knew and allowed for. You could still get a good idea of the political world from them. In the 19th century papers even printed complete texts of important speeches and public documents. Historians can rely on newspapers as a good source in writing 19th-century history. Future historians will find today's newspapers entirely useless. Welcome to the Soundbite Age.
Television news, of course, is even more destructive, because a lie told with carefully culled pictures is even more convincing than a lie told with words. I have heard that television news has a declining clientele, as more and more people turn to their own sources on the net, and that is all to the good. Disappearance and destruction could not happen to a nicer group of guys and gals than our valiant TV reporters. It is well known on campus these days that student majors in journalism (now called something fancy, like "media arts") are even dumber than education majors. They all dream of being glamorous anchorpersons.
Back in the 90's I had direct experience of this. I was becoming egregiously notorious for having publicly declared that Southerners would be better off out from under the U.S. government (a proposition with which rational disagreement is impossible). Professors were taking class time to denounce me, and administrators were trying to figure out what to do with me (or to me). (One administrator was smart enough to make me a positive exhibit of intellectual diversity to the public and the legislature.) A student journalist came to interview me. The resulting article dwelt on what she considered uncomely aspects of my person and various third-party denunciations of me as either a fool or a devil. None of my clever and moderate observations about the need for devolution or the virtues of Southern culture made it into the article. I did not expect her to like me or to like what I had to say or even to treat me respectfully. However, here was a real story, something quite original, if oddball, going on on campus that an old-time reporter could have made quite interesting and horizon-raising. The point is that this young lady was doing exactly what she thought aspiring journalists were supposed to do--put down what the prevailing powers had declared unacceptable. It was quite literally outside her mental equipment to think that there might be some other approach to the "news." She will doubtless go far.
The theory of democracy requires that public issues be presented fairly and debated openly and frankly, so that satisfactory and inclusive decisions can be made. Thus, the people can be informed and their will determined. Political parties and interests work hard to prevent issues from being presented objectively. It used to be thought that it was the duty of the media to inform the people fearlessly and impartially. That is the ideal that one still hears, although the practice has never quite reached the ideal. But the American media today are a massive obstacle to democracy. They are not nonpartisan observers and reporters but a force in competition for political power. Even worse, they reflect and accelerate the ongoing sinking of American culture toward the lowest common denominator. They are instruments of commerce and entertainment, not of information and debate.
Consider the vast power exercised by the owners and directors of the major television media and their celebrity anchorpersons over our public life. Nobody every voted for them. In most cases we do not even know who they are. How did they get such decisive, controlling power over American public discourse that even presidents have to treat them carefully? Who is Campbell Brown? Who elected her to broadcast her shallow and commonplace notions to the world, to the exclusion of several millions of more intelligent citizens? The media quite literally determine what information, ideas, and personalities are presented to the public and what are excluded. And, like any colluding ruling class, they all agree on the agenda. The media now even claim status for themselves as a formal power of the realm and assert royal immunity from the laws that apply to us regular citizens. Whatever this is, it is not democracy.
But then, we live in a regime in which five unelected Supreme Court justices can force millions of people to alter their way of life; in which an unelected minor federal judge can veto the express will of the people of an entire state; and in which a few unelected New York bankers may at will inflate or deflate the money used by everybody. That is not democracy either, and nobody seems to notice or care. Never mind. We will make democracy thrive in Russia, Afghanistan, and Libya.
RELATED ARTICLE: Memories of a reporter.
By Clyde Wilson
As a young reporter I was allowed every morning into the police lineup, where the night's catch was paraded--mostly drunks, check forgers, black domestic-violence perpetrators, and petty burglars. One morning the sergeant said, "See that guy?" He was pointing to a young man seemingly out of place, casually dressed but with Hollywood, almost Robert Redford, good looks. "He's a contract killer we nabbed on his way to Florida. He is wanted up north for at least six hits that we know of."
Once, coming back from lunch in the paper's car with a police radio, I arrived at the scene of a bank holdup and began my interviews before the cops. Luckily, when they arrived they recognized me. As a reporter I have seen the mortal remains on the ground of a man who fell to his death from a high-rise construction site. I have been threatened by a petty judge and lied to by a police chief and an incompetent county manager.
My journalistic era coincided with the coming of the Great Society. I saw city and county governments blossoming into large bureaucracies under federal bribes and mandates. I noticed that the new agencies were usually headed and staffed by "experts" from up North, appointed over the heads of more competent but uncredentialed locals. I also noticed that the agencies were unnecessary, and those who staffed them were well paid for very little work. Multiply that by a thousand towns, and you will understand the election results and why government spending cannot be cut. (A little later I saw the same proliferation of very well-paid and useless people in "higher education.") Another thing I saw in those days was prudent and venerable crime-prevention methods destroyed as the police grappled with the technicalities of court rulings on defendants' rights. I learned something about "liberalism."
Once, walking across the main square of Charlotte at high noon, literally the busiest place in the Carolinas, I saw a respectable-looking young man coming down the street, smashing people in the face as he went. A pudgy and no-longer-young cop grappled with him and was losing, so he gave the fellow a light but effective tap with his nightstick. Two obviously very affluent women came upon this ugly, slightly bloody scene at the climax and began a shocked gabbling to each other about the brutal policeman. The women were no doubt the wives of imported Northern business executives, probably Republicans. I learned some more about "liberalism."
Part of my beat on one paper was a rural/suburban county--a good place to live. The county governors were old-fashioned Byrd men, devoted to low taxes and careful spending. The same sort of carpetbagger women appeared regularly at their meetings and berated the commissioners about the county's lack of libraries, public recreational facilities, free health clinics, and the like. I learned still more about "liberalism." I have ever since wondered why so many people move South to escape Northeastern taxes and immediately begin to recreate what they fled.
This may be apocryphal; I did not see it myself: A New York tourist appeared at the north-end tollgate of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike. "How much further is it to Florida? "he asked. Obviously a rather telescoped idea of Southern geography.
During my time on the police beat in Richmond, a sniper-killer, never caught, was at work. The victims were all black men, so it was a while before the pattern was noticed.
I covered a spectacular cat-burglar trial. A young fellow was climbing into second-story windows and raping older women in the very wealthiest section of Charlotte. His lawyer uncle from Iowa showed up to defend him at the trial. The court bailiff had a very Deep South country accent. Every time he announced the opening of court, the lawyer from Iowa and the rapist from Iowa would turn to one another in laughter and mock him.
RELATED ARTICLE: More memories.
By Clyde Wilson
Lately, memories, good and bad, have been flooding back unbidden. I suppose it goes with the territory of the Golden Years.
I have seen three presidents in the flesh: Nixon, a fleeting glimpse in a motorcade; Ford, when he was a mere House leader making the college-lecture circuit; and Reagan, during the 1980 campaign. I was not too far from him as he spoke from the capitol portico in Columbia to an enthusiastic crowd that filled the grounds. He seemed a sunny and likable man. I remember only one part of the speech: Federal spending must be cut; when he was president, he would send people into every part of the government to root out fraud and waste. I half-believed and was heartened.
I have met Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, and several other senators; William Buckley, Ron Paul, and Pat Buchanan. I have been in spitting distance of Teddy Kennedy and Billy Graham. I have interviewed Eddy Arnold, Joan Baez, and a famous scientist from IBM whose name I forget. I have been interviewed by George Will and Stephen Colbert.
Fame and greatness are not necessarily the same thing. Sometimes they are almost opposites. I have been blessed with some glimpses of real greatness: a couple of mentors who taught me valuable things without desire for reward; some of my kinfolk, especially three aunts with grace, humor, and boundless love and charity. And I have known many notable men and women of Southern literature and scholarship, which has enriched me beyond measure.
During World War II, while I was a mere toddler, Mother and I lived with the grandparents. Father and every one of the uncles on both sides were at sea or overseas. Grandmother and I were alone when the telegram came. Uncle Paul had been killed in the havoc of the Bulge--exactly how, we never knew. Grandmother staggered and collapsed to the floor in tearless grief, her long and beautiful iron-gray hair flying all about her.
Uncle Paul left a wife and a little boy who grew up fatherless and wild. Much later, I knew a man who was the same age that Uncle Paul would have been if he had lived. He was wealthy, well connected, well educated, Jewish, and a homosexual. During the war he had been given a direct commission as a major and assigned as "race-relations officer" at a stateside base. When I knew him he filled several significant academic posts, contributing nothing to them, and spent his time with his modern-art collection and entertaining various boyfriends at his Mediterranean villa. So much for the "Greatest Generation." I continued my education about "liberalism."
Where were you when you learned that Kennedy had been assassinated? My memory is clear and, unlike most, not in the least maudlin. I was walking across a college quad when I heard, through an open dormitory window, a television turned way up loud. Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, was announcing that the President had been shot by right-wing extremists in Dallas, Dallas being obviously an alien and evil place that was collectively guilty of the crime. As the news got around, upbeat cheers erupted from rooms on all three sides of the quad. In those days the rank and file of students at Chapel Hill were still actual North Carolinians, the real thing. My stomach still turns at the thought of the sickly sentimentality that dominated every media outlet in the weeks following. The Catholics had lost their first president, and the leftist pseudo-intelligentsia had lost their bright star, whom they had been duped into believing was one of their own.
This is a true story--I kid you not. Nobody could make it up. I was collecting luggage at the air terminal after arrival. They were a young couple, good looking and well dressed--college students or junior Army officers. He was at the carousel next to me. She was across the room. "Hey, Big Shit," she yelled in excited recognition. "Hey, Little Shit," he yelled as he opened his arms in welcome. Terms of endearment. It was then that I knew that Western civilization was over for good.
Clyde Wilson is a retired professor and a longtime contributing editor to Chronicles.