Tuesday, June 23, 2009

just the facts ma'am

I was watching some television news the other day when it struck me how deliriously thin and uninformative it had become. Little popups marred the visual scene. But worse than that was the content. One of the ways that news organizations pretend to be offering the news when they are running out of advertisers and money is to do a lot of crime (if it bleeds, it leads) or medical or rich-and-famous stuff.

But worse than that was the passion that newscasters brought to their subject matter... an overarching sense of lapel-pin patriotism, for example, or perhaps a pretense of sorrow at some tragedy they had not been party to. The implication of this faux emotion was that the newscasters sympathized with what they assumed the viewers' reactions might be ... or that they were in a position to tell the viewer what and how to feel. "See," they said implicitly, "I feel just like you. So please keep watching our newscast and its advertising. Stay with us."

In my book, it was manipulative and revolting.

However imperfect it may be -- and it is full of imperfections -- decent news reporting is just that: reporting the news. Offer the facts as best you may and allow (ALLOW) the reader to bring his or her passions to bear. The problem with blogs and the like is that they lack such strictures. Opinion is allowed on the blog playing field, so are the readers getting facts or fancies? And bit by bit, because it requires less effort, opinion and bias is allowed to pass for fact.

Facts. Dispassion. Clarity. These are approximate words. There is no such thing as a fact that does not rely on other facts. There is no such thing as a dispassion that is not informed by passion. There is no such thing as a clarity that is not infused with confusion. "Objectivity," the once-mantram of the news business, is a myth.

But the intention -- the willingness to try, the willingness to set out guidelines, however inexact -- is important both in news and in personal endeavors. Agreement and passion are secondary matters, assuming anyone is serious. At some point there is a real need to look at the facts of the matter, however poorly they may be seen. And to have an organization or group of organizations dedicated to that pursuit ... it's a good thing. Is it enough to say, "I love Israel and hate her enemies?" Is it enough to say "I hate Israel and love her detractors?" Is it enough to get on board with one point of view or another and adore your own righteousness and virtue?

Lowering the bar, whether professionally or personally, allowing the world or myself to wallow in opinion and bias (however deliciously constructed) is too often a fool's errand.

In making a case for dispassion and facts, the passionate are likely to chafe. Dispassion is too cold, too distant ... and basically requires too much effort. Where's the humanity in it? Where's the juice and joy? And I would argue that they are perfectly right ... who hasn't run into some intellectual dimwit who can't find his own ass with both hands, who can explain everything, dissect everything, analyze everything? Dispassion in its way is every bit as foolish as passion can be in its. Every decision, I would argue, is a decision made out of passion and bias. But to argue that since every decision is made based on passion and that therefore there is no point in investigating as many facts as possible is just lazy and smug and dangerous ... whether personally or professionally. It leads to a world full of lapel-pin patriots and Ku Klux Klan members, religious fanatics and warmongers, self-help books and bibles, Tooth Fairies and twits ... and not a hell of a lot of peace.

Ah well ... as baseball manager Casey Stengel once observed, "If people won't come out to the ballpark, you can't stop them."

Since only I can stop grinding my teeth in this department, I guess the best I can work on when it comes to the delights of ignorance, the wonders of laziness, and the magnetism of unexamined passion and bias is Gautama's old saw:

"It is not what others do and do not do that is my concern. It is what I do and do not do -- that is my concern."

I try ... but that doesn't mean I don't whine -- sometimes passionately -- along the way. It's hardly something that qualifies as "news."


  1. Bravo! The weather channel is my favorite for sensationalism and faux empathy. To their credit though, they do send reporters now and again into the thick of it.

  2. Emotional editorializing, as I call it, does make it difficult to sort content from the newsreader's (or the corporate interest's) interpretation. It is something I also find a little irksome in a newscast. It seemed to start really creeping in about 10 years ago that I noticed with many newscasts increasingly focusing on the "human interest" story. Which means soft focus kind of maudlin and cutesy items.And then it spread. I prefer facts too but don't always stick to them.