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A veteran journalist's take on such diverse subjects as religion and religious violence, democracy, freedom of expression, sociology, journalism, criticism, travel, philosophy, Southeast Asia, politics,economics, and even parenthood, the supernatural, film criticism, and cooking. Please don't hesitate to participate by starting a comment thread if you have an interest in any of these subjects...or anything else, for that matter... p.write@gmail.com

Let the finger pointing begin…

The News Media’s Responsibility for 2016

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) Some things that rational people have suspected for many years have been confirmed over the last year and a half of the US presidential campaign.

Those of us who watch the United States from outside of its borders have long suspected colorblind-thoughtthat racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and misogyny were alive and well in the US; they were bubbling and seething just below the surface, ready to explode into the mainstream, if societal pressure was released for a moment. The Donald J Trump candidacy did exactly that. It made hatred and intolerance legitimate and exposed the depth and intensity of the hatred that, until Trump gave it his blessing, couldn’t be expressed in polite company. Trump’s campaign even managed to do away with the notion of polite company.

Prior to Donald Trump’s announcement of his intention to seek the highest office in the land and the position of most powerful person in the world, many political observers, including me, have remarked upon the dumbing down of public discourse; some, also including me, have even tried to focus attention on the very real decrease in the average IQ of Americans, as stupidity is being selected for in the patterns of human reproduction in the country. Of course, as intelligence wanes, an understanding of evolution tends to fade away too; there is a correlated disappearance of worry about the increasing stupidity that defines the US.

But even more than those suspicions, which the presidential campaign has confirmed, newsthe frequently noted degeneration of the American news media has become patently evident. Whatever happens on November 8 and in the immediate aftermath, it’s important that we be very aware of the fact that the entire debacle of the 2016 election campaign was largely the result of a news industry that has completely lost its way. The clusterfuck that we have been force-fed for one and a half years is the result of a news media that no longer deserves to be called anything but entertainment.

When television networks looked at their programming lineups decades ago, and50s-tv noticed that their most reliable and consistent viewership was during the time set aside for the news, the powers of capitalism and free enterprise couldn’t be restrained. For years, the news had been broadcast as a public service. It was not intended that news be a profit centre. Back in the days before everyone controlled their television viewing with a remote control, people had to stand up, walk to the TV, and physically change the dial to the network they wanted to watch. Network loyalty was an important factor in programming. So, the only reason ratings were important to news broadcasts was for the bragging rights and the rather nebulous assumption that people would be inclined to leave the dial on whatever channel they were watching when the news broadcast ended and prime-time viewing started.

networksocialmediachart_6But when the big money people realised that they could sell advertising on news broadcasts, it became a race for the bottom. News was only as important as it was likely to increase viewership. If it bleeds, it leads, was always a cynical dictum of news editing; with the race for ratings, blood became only one of the leads. Celebrity gossip, pathos, sex; all of those were sure to bring in the viewers, so they became the standard fare of broadcast ‘journalism’. Politics made the editorial cut if it involved the White House, because the president could be sold as a celebrity. Other politicians were only interesting if they could be reported on as celebrities, too. Salacious stories involving the sexual misadventures of legislators became newsworthy; actual political news didn’t grab the lowest common denominator, the hypothetical viewer for whom the news is edited.

Newsworthiness is judged simply by the ratings. The desperate battle for attention spilled over to other media; print media started to die when it tried to compete for internet-newssalaciousness and titillation; the Internet spawned thousands of sites that cater to every perverted taste. The result was a vast, nearly infinite forum in which genuine professional journalism is given equal time with rabidly fanatic partisan propaganda; with clickbait sites devoid of content but displaying outrageous headlines; with joke sites that parody the news; with hate sites; with sites claiming to be journalism, but lacking any understanding of basics like sourcing, independent confirmation, or fact-checking.

And the bastard child of the media’s infatuation with ratings is the dismissal and rejection of reporting on anything of substance. Only the sexy, the violent, or the outrageous draws enough attention to make it into the mainstream news. And the mainstream news fell for the ploy of one of the world’s greatest media whores and media-whorecheesiest hucksters. They let him define the terms of the election coverage and they played into his tacky, tasteless, deeply offensive strategy.

Donald Trump is not smart enough to have planned this campaign and then followed through on a pre-existing strategy. But he does have a low animal cunning and some sort of instinct for manipulating the media. Modern media manipulation isn’t all that complicated. All it takes is a willingness to wallow in sewage and have no regard whatsoever for human decency or civilised behaviour.

He started garnering media coverage by targeting those who share his racist views. In his very first speech as a candidate, he fired up anti-immigrant sentiment and described Mexicans as rapists and drug dealers. He followed that up with an absurd promise topoorly-educated build an enormous wall along the US/Mexican border to eliminate illegal migration, despite the fact (barely mentioned in the media) that net migration is southward, as Hispanics overall are leaving the US to return to Mexico. The press, true to its mission of whoring for ratings (or clicks), reported the outrageous promise as though it deserved to be taken seriously. And Trump, true to the B.F. Skinner model of human behaviour, was gratified by the positive reinforcement he received from an uncritical press. He quickly realised that he could press the buttons that result in adulation from his fellow bigots, and they found themselves able to express their long suppressed bigotry without condemnation in the media. Hatred was not only okay again; it was a courageous refusal to kowtow to ‘political correctness’. And the mainstream media kept reporting the increasingly delusional statements, pledges, and promises of a clearly mentally disturbed candidate as though he was making sense.

Trump was a goldmine. He was ignorant enough to appeal (“I love the poorly educated”) to the ignorant. And, as we have seen, the ignorant were forming an increasingly word-saladsignificant block of the electorate. But because Trump could be depended upon to do or say something over-the-top and outrageously offensive, the news media gave him so much airtime that he spent zero on television campaign ads in the primaries. It didn’t matter if it made the slightest bit of sense; Trump meant ratings. Media analysts have estimated the advertising value of the unwarranted coverage he got, for simply being a loudmouthed asshole, in the billions of dollars.

The media was enjoying a windfall and they didn’t want it ever to end. They handed him the nomination and no one was more surprised than Trump insiders that he was now the candidate of one of the two major political parties in the US. Trump, who had started the idiotic campaign with no more of an agenda than increasing his brand’s value through media manipulation, soon started to believe his own press; he began to believe that he is the future of America. And as we watch Americans go to the polls, we can all be afraid that he is.

I'm a defense attorney and this clown is our consultant in the event the case becomes a media circus.

But starting now, whatever happens on the 8th, the news industry is going to have to take a long hard look at themselves. Trump is a refection of every ignoble aspect of the American psyche and is an embarrassment to the nation. He was created by the systemic bigotry and ignorance espoused by the party that nominated him, and he is a logical outgrowth of their platform and policies. But he was elevated to importance and to a level of significance that makes him an existential threat to democracy in the United States by the media. It is time that the news industry does some real soul searching and rethinks the very paradigms that have dominated the news media for several decades.

ENDITEM…

 

Lyin’, and Soundbites, and Memes…Oh My

Attention spans and politics

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) It’s no secret that attention spans are getting shorter. Arguably, that’s the fault of the Internet providing nearly instant response times, and keeping text content small while graphic and video content dominate on most sites. When I first started writing analysis and opinion pieces many years ago, the average column was about 1500 words and contained no visual content other than a headshot at the top, over the byline. Today, most of my editors are looking for columns of half that length, with 800 words the standard maximum.

attention-span

            I’ve had editors argue that the pay for shorter columns ought therefore to be about half of what they’d pay for twice the number of words. Truly professional editors, editors who started out as writers, see the fallacy in that argument. Winston Churchill, when he was earning his living as a political writer after he withdrew from political life, was once asked to write a specific piece of critical analysis for the London Times on short notice. He told the editor that he could get them 4000 words by the next day’s deadline. The editor responded that he would be happy with 2000 words, to which Churchill replied that he didn’t have enough time to write it that short. Churchill was acutely aware that cramming that much insight into a smaller piece was a far more difficult challenge than covering the same territory with enough room to express himself freely; condensing his thoughts and maintaining the same quality of analysis was a much tougher proposition.

            If a good writer takes a certain number of words to make and justify a point and then edits his

Winston Churchill...5th June 1941: Winston Churchill (1874 - 1965) pins his flag into his lapel after he had bought one in aid of Red Cross Day in London. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

own writing, eliminating any UEUE[1], any further cutting by an editor necessarily takes something away from the point and its supporting argument. And it’s safe to say that Churchill, the winner of the 1953 Nobel Prize for literature, was a good writer. Ideally, in commentary and analysis in periodicals, a writer will produce a piece that expresses a single main point and argue for it in the minimum number of words she or he feels covers the idea thoroughly. If the editorial constraints are too strict, the piece will be too short, and will spark rebuttals from readers who wish to dispute the points raised but insufficiently supported. If the piece is too long for a daily, it should perhaps be submitted to a weekly, or, if still too long, a monthly. If no periodical can accommodate its length, clearly the writer should be thinking in terms of a book.

            When I first started this site, I used to post 800 word pieces, sometimes with a graphic or two. That was because I had developed the habit of writing pieces on opinion pages of daily print media, for attentionwhom 800 words had become the standard. But over the years, I have discovered that 1300 to 1700 words is a far more comfortable size with which to get my point across. And now I add 5 or 6 graphics to each post because my research shows that, on the ‘net, people who are just clicking through, are put off by seeing blocks of text that aren’t broken up by visual content, and are likely to “bounce” as SEO experts express it.

            Having said all that, what is revolutionary about the current state of political reporting and commentary is that even the briefest analysis is beyond the attention span of the majority of people who aren’t either in politics, or in the media, or simply obsessed with the current US presidential election. A little over a year ago, the alt. right, after endorsing Donald Trump, claimed that they would win this election by memes. And of course the Trump campaign has taken on board as their CEO, the former head of alt. right news source, Breitbart, Stephen Bannon. And since Bannon took over, the campaign’s reliance on clickbait, memes, prepared soundbites, provocative tweets, and a refusal to take questions or engage in dialogue at press “conferences”, has contributed to Trump’s resurgence in the polls.

            Today, even the 800-word standard is too much for the demographic that gravitates to Trump. It is too much for them actually to read and understand facts in news reporting; it is completely beyond their grasp to understand thoughtful analysis. Memes are their preferred bite-sized nuggets of wisdom.memes For that demographic, memes are ideal. They say something briefly; they usually say it as though their opinion is an established fact; and the more offensive and confrontational they are, the more they are shared and circulated. Memes can’t be argued against because the person who posts them doesn’t necessarily take responsibility for them, and, like Trump, when called on it, they can claim to have been joking.

            The left doesn’t seem to be restricted to the same extent as the right is to those tiny thoughts expressed in photo shopped visuals and often misspelled one and two syllable words; the right wing, however, seems to employ them to the exclusion of more thorough analysis. Certainly, the left employs memes and tweets, but there is almost no thoughtful analysis of politics from a right wing viewpoint available online. In print, there is the Wall Street Journal, but even that bastion of conservative journalism has abandoned Trump and the alt. right. Right leaning blogs and news outlets tend to be hyperbolic in their condemnation and ad hominem pickard-facepalmattacks on the left; they tend to state opinions as fact, they support the wildest conspiracy theories without any critical analysis. In short, The National Enquirer is the standard of journalism to which they seem to aspire.

            There used to be intelligent if misguided think pieces in sensible right wing periodicals. Besides the WSJ, there was the National Review and other conservative outlets. The right wing, however, has moved so far into fascist territory that even William Buckley’s pseudo-intellectual conservative platform finds itself uncomfortably close to the centre.

            And this is the new face of journalism. On one side you have twfoxnewseets, memes, soundbites, slogans, catchphrases, and low rent sewer attack journalism. This is the Trump universe. There is not one single responsible and professional news outlet, in print, in broadcast, or in electronic format that supports Trump unreservedly. Even the worst excuse for television news, Fox News, can’t bring themselves to get fully behind their own creature; Trump has made the right wing echo chamber hesitate before fully committing to his political psychosis.

            The Trump ascendancy has destroyed civil political discourse, it has eliminated human decency in political campaigning, and perhaps worst of all, it has reduced journalism to the lowest ebb in its venerable and proud history. What Trump will do to international relations and world politics in the unthinkable event of his election is too horrible to contemplate rationally.

[1] UEUE is a word I invented to mean “extraneous and unnecessary additions to that which is essential”. Its genesis is the spelling of the word “queue”, in which the letters UEUE add nothing that isn’t said simply by “Q”.

ENDITEM….

A Free Press…

is a right; reading it critically is a duty…

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) One thing that we have learned from the bizarre 2016 United States presidential elections is that the media is simply no longer equipped to perform its function as an impartial, objective reporter, and analyst of important events. And in the only thing I have ever or am ever likely to agree with Donald Trump, the media have done an execrable job covering this election thus far.

There are two salient reasons the coverage of the candidates and their campaigns has been so dismal; the first one is an endemic problem with US media and has existed for a long time: news has to be profitable.

Walter Cronkite reporting breaking news: the Kennedy assassination.

Walter Cronkite reporting breaking news: the Kennedy assassination.

At one time, within my lifetime, the news departments of TV networks were expected to be a net expense; nobody expected them to be profit centres. News desks were occupied by actual journalists and anchors had proven their journalistic chops before they became talking heads. Walter Cronkite, before he became the most trusted man in the country anchoring CBS Evening News, had been a print journalist who had done everything from sports reporting to flying on B17 bomber missions over Europe during WWII.

The “Big Three”, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings anchored their respective networks’ evening news from the ‘eighties through to the 2000s, all having started and subsequently retired within

At that point it was a question. Later, it became obvious: profits.

At that point it was a question. Later, it became obvious: profits.

a year of one another. All three were highly respected actual journalists with training, experience, and talent. But it was toward the second decade of their reign as the trusted triumvirate of television journalism that television journalism began to die. Palpably and incrementally, news began to be replaced by entertainment.

Whereas I can remember a time when network news broadcasts were uninterrupted by commercials, the network executives started to ask themselves why, in an hour that attracted among the most viewers of their entire lineup, they had no revenue-generating ad spots. They argued with their news department journalists that the additional revenue from selling advertising in between news stories would offset the cost of new overseas bureaus, newer and better technology, and higher salaries. Seduced, but in reality not having much choice, the network news departments capitulated and, almost instantly, became seen as profit centres rather than the pro-bono public services they had always been.

All kinds of things changed, from the network studios in New York, all down the line to the regional affiliates. The news departments tenaciously, and increasingly desperately, tried to maintain their journalistic integrity. First, and most obviously, the anchors themselves, and all the other on-air talent began to be selected primarily for their telegenic qualities; journalism experience was unimportant, it

NEW YORK - JULY 7:  Actor Will Ferrell aka Ron Burgundy participates in Q&A after a special screening of the film "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" at the Museum of Television and Radio July 7, 2004 in New York City. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

was rationalised, for someone simply to read from a teleprompter. Anchors now were expected to fit neatly into a marketer’s bland, blow-dried conception of a trustworthy television newsman; Ron Burgundy and Ted Baxter were born. And if the public was to believe that the weather reporters were actually meteorologists, one would have to believe that among the pre-requisites for meteorology courses were big tits and a propensity for wearing tight dresses and five inch spikes.

But it wasn’t just the on-air personalities that morphed from journalists into vapid eye candy. Now that the news had started to generate revenue, the suits upstairs couldn’t leave it alone; having found money in a hitherto untapped source, their new mission was to maximise the take. So, in a shameless scramble for ratings, the news weathergirlitself changed. The affiliates and the networks demeaned themselves by running with stories that had no real significance or impact on viewers’ lives but had shock value. If it bleeds, it leads, became the mantra. Any story with violence or carnage was guaranteed a few minutes, while less viscerally appealing real news was barely mentioned. And, of course, anything that could be strip mined for prurience will be covered. If a school board decided to stop teaching cursive writing and concentrate on keyboard skills instead, that would be a story that is of some importance and relevance to a large number of viewers. If, on the same day, a local mall was holding a lingerie fashion show, there wouldn’t even be a discussion as to where to send the camera crew.

With television journalism at such a low ebb, it is no surprise that coverage of the elections this year is so inept. But there is a second element that contributes to the appallingly unprofessional media coverage.

In the absence of any serious coverage by the major networks, alternative media have sprung up like mushrooms after an autumn rain. Given that anyone can have access to the Internet and potentially reach an audience even greater than any of the networks could twenty years ago, anyone with a WiFi hate-pressconnection can report and comment on the news. There is no tradition of responsible reporting or providing balance or fairness to what is posted on the ‘Net. It’s the wild west out here in the cyberworld. There are some highly partisan but nevertheless reliable outlets run by actual journalists but there are also hate-spewing, attack sites. And they form the majority.

As a consequence, the television news media find themselves trying very hard to appear like seasoned, professional journalists. They strive for an appearance of neutrality and an absence of bias. Unfortunately, they are still playing by rules and conventions that prevailed at a time when the behaviour of a candidate like Donald Trump would have been unthinkable. Virtually every one of the mainstream news media have fallen into the trap of treating Trump as though he is a serious candidate.

The press, in an effort to demonstrate their even-handedness, press Hillary Clinton on the tired, and long since laid to rest email story. Despite having been investigated for years by 9 different panels and agencies, from rabidly partisan Congressional panels to the FBI, and exonerated each time, Matt Lauer

Matt Lauer: Journalist

Matt Lauer: Journalist

shamed real journalists by wasting her time and ours, apparently thinking he’d turn up something everybody else missed. He then compounded his incompetence by letting Donald Trump slide when he repeated lie after fact-checked lie.

Trump throws around racial, sexual, and ethnic epithets with abandon; he has made prejudice and bigotry the principal pillar of his candidacy. But when Hillary accurately refers to half of his followers as “a basket of deplorables”, she is vilified for being divisive. And the press, to demonstrate their absence of bias, reports the two candidates’ remarks as though they are somehow comparable in their offensiveness. They deliberately create false equivalencies, because to apply the same rules of comportment to both candidates would result in such breathtakingly lopsided reporting, with Trump taking the worst of it, that it might seem as though he was being persecuted when, in fact, he would only be experiencing the same level of scrutiny and reportage any candidate should expect.

But given the lack of journalistic experience or training, one can expect little more from the mainstream media. The non-mainstream media is even worse, of course, but the heavily right-leaning press is largely a self caricature and no one expects high quality journalism.fox-news At least when one watches Fox News, one knows that what is being broadcast is straightforward Republican Party talking points and right wing dogma.

So, where should people, who want to know the facts and who expect journalists to have some integrity, turn for their news? There is no single source of news that can be relied upon for clear, unvarnished, fact based journalism. There are even very few news analysis and commentary sources that can be relied upon to tell the truth, even as they criticise a candidate or party. All that can be done is to read as many different sources as possible. Nevertheless, I provide the following tips for deciding whether a news outlet is worth following.

Your suspicions of unprofessionalism ought to be raised if:

  1. The copy in the reports or columns is in need of proofreading. Typos can occasionally be missed in the best publications, but if a piece is riddled with misspellings or grammar and usage blunders, the writer and/or editor are not professional.
  2. In place of rational argumentation, the writer relies on distortions of a person’s name to make a point. Expressions like “Killary” or “Obammy” are a tipoff that you’re reading something from someone who has all kinds of attitude but no knowledge of journalism or even argumentation.
  3. You are repeatedly fooled by clickbait headlines. How many times do you have to click on a header that says something like, “Trump surrogate reduces interviewer to incoherence” only to find that an interviewer stumbled over a word and nothing much else happened?
  4. A purported news story is structured so that you have to read to the very end of several thousand words to find the salient fact that induced you to read the piece. A professional news writer will have made a habit of writing in the pyramid style: the lede (journalism jargon) will contain the Who, What, Where, and When of the piece, and the Why will be filled in as you read the next sentences. If any of those Ws are only to be found deep in the content, the writer is not a journalist.

Try using those notions as hermeneutics and I’m sure that you’ll find yourself less outraged at the garbage that you have to sort through to get to some approximation of the truth. You’ll never get all the way there, but by discriminating among the multitude of choices available, you’ll have a better basis for judgment. And if the 2016 US presidential election is in desperate need of anything, it’s just that: judgment.

ENDITEM…

 

Rejecting Doublethink

The Middle Ground

Pagun

VANCOUVER ISLAND) Although as a journalist I have done my share of reporting news, it’s fair to say that most of my contribution has been analysis and, to a slightly lesser extent, opinion. As an opinion writer I don’t have a duty to be objective; on the contrary, I’d argue that I have an obligation to take sides on the issues I discuss. However, as I’ve argued elsewhere, even when we’re dealing with hard news, I don’t believe that there can be any reporting that is entirely objective; the best we objective-journalismcan expect is that the reporter be honest about any bias that exists. But objectivity should be something we in the media should strive for.

One can have an opinion and still be objective. For instance, if someone asks a man whose child has just been murdered for his opinion on capital punishment, you may well get a strong opinion in favour of the death penalty. We wouldn’t call that an objective opinion. But if we were to ask someone who had no personal investment in the issue the same question, we would get an opinion, perhaps pro, perhaps con, but the opinion would be more objective. It is difficult to be free from bias, but an attempt to be entirely bias free does not mean that both sides in a dispute have equal merit. When reporting or analysing a news story, we must not fall into the trap of reporting it as though both sides are necessarily equally valid or likely to be right. The middle ground, as any practitioner of informal logic can tell you, is not always the right wayCartoon-global-warming-is-a-hoax to go.

It is incumbent upon reporters of the news to make some distinction between a rational position on a subject and one that is patently absurd. If a reporter attends an astronomy symposium, for example, he wouldn’t be expected to give equal time to the various scientists who discuss their field and to some nutjob who shows up insisting that the earth is flat. We wouldn’t expect the reporter to “report the controversy”. There is none. Nevertheless, there are those who insist on equal time and equal consideration for pseudo-scientific views that are every bit as much scientific outliers as is the flat earth proposition.

There is no scientific controversy over evolution. Evolution is as much a fact as it is possible to be within the strictures of sciecreationism_by_jollyjack-d9277o5nce. Neither creationism nor its better dressed cousin “intelligent design” is a scientific theory; they don’t even qualify as hypotheses. Within the scientific community there is no controversy, there is no dispute. There is some discussion as to the specific mechanisms and how they work within the evolutionary framework, but there is none whatsoever about the fact of evolution itself. There is no reason at all to teach bible stories as alternative science.

Equally non-controversial is the question of anthropogenic climate change. The climate is changing and that change is caused by human action. The only people who disagree with that scientific proposition are people who have somehow been persuaded that the question is a political one rather than a scientific one. Because the oil lobby is so firmly up the collective politicdenialal right wing’s ass, a controversy denying the palpable, observable, measurable effect of the burning of hydrocarbons in our atmosphere has been ginned up. The controversy doesn’t exist in the real world; it only exists in the echo chamber of the right wing and in the fevered imaginations of people who believe that any uncomfortable scientific fact is a conspiracy dreamt up by the liberal intellectual elite. Like it or not, folks, global warming is real and it is caused by us.

Why the press is so inclined to give equal time to people who spout the kind of paranoid nonsense that we would walk away from if it was expressed where it belongs – shouted from a soapbox in a park – is probably a result of the quixotic effort to be even-handed in covering an issue. The problem, though, as stated earlier, is that the ridiculous is not entitled to equal time. It deserves mention perhaps, but only for what it is. And it is, in the most technical sense, dumbfuckery.

It’s time we in the media call bullshit, when bullshit is being sold as science. The fact that it is religion trying to pretend to be science doesn’t give it immunity from being called out. Bullshit is bullshit and whether it wears a bishop’s mitre, a yarmulke, or a Klan hood, it’s still bullshit and should be reported as such.

ENDITEM…

I have seen the future, and it’s murder…

Loonies, and teabags, and prayers…oh my!

Pagun

VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – Since it is now true that most people in North America use the Internet as their primary source of news, I’ve been trying to take the pulse of the Internet surfing public. To that end, I’ve been following news commentary on Internet news providers like Yahoo; I’ve even posted a couple of comments on a sampling of news stories to get a sense of the level of news discussion in which the general public engages. I’m here to tell you that if I have seen the face of the future, we’re in for a rough ride.

A few weeks of using the most popular Internet portals for daily news and commentary is a sobering experience. In the first place, the editors at Yahoo, to use the most popular source as an example, don’t seem to draw a distinction between news and commentary; click on a headline and your chances of opening an opinion piece by one of Yahoo’s bloggers is about the same as getting a Canadian Press, or Reuters, or other newswire piece. I have no idea how Yahoo chooses who is to be one of their contract bloggers, but they certainly have strong opinions, with, it seems to me, a right leaning predisposition. This is fair enough, of course; unless of course it is run without clearly acknowledging that the opinions expressed are personal views and not news reporting. Imagine if my opinions in the posts on this site were run without being distinguished from news! Even I would object to an unbalanced, partisan op-ed – like most of my pieces – being run under a news headline on the news section of a news site.

I won’t even bother going on about the preponderance of celebrity gossip, gotcha photos of “celebrities” I have never heard of since I don’t watch reality shows, and intensive analysis of the wardrobe choices of virtually anyone who has ever had a picture taken. There is no need to click on those headlines, and to maintain one’s self respect, one simply doesn’t.

I’m not even going to spend time bemoaning the wretched quality of the reporting and writing of the actual news they run between their lists of “10 things Men Hate About Women” and “12 Foods That Will Reduce Stress”. Let us just say that the content of the news logs is supermarket tabloid level and the form is barely literate.

But for a glimpse into the heart of darkness that seems to be at the centre of the Internet surfing experience, you need to follow one of the interactive threads provided for readers’ commentary after each piece. Now that can be truly frightening. A casual or even a serious look into these threads reveals a subculture dominated by vicious, hate-spewing, intolerant, uneducated, right wing bigots. If you want to challenge this observation, just pick a Yahoo News story on any high profile issue. Make a mild comment that suggests tolerance, or compassion, or human decency, then sit back and watch the replies come flooding in.

Is it just me, or does this guy look like Reagan?

I read a piece on Hilary Clinton’s release from the hospital after she was treated for the blood clot she incurred when she recently fell; I commented that I was happy she had recovered and hoped that she was in renewed good health. The very first comment that was posted was a carefully thought out discussion opener. I quote it verbatim: <<Pagun, your a scrotum sucking Liberal %$#@*& who needs to be frickin shot. You and every other *&^%@#$ dont understand freedom or democracy!!!>> (No, my interlocutor wasn’t sparing my sensibilities with that collection of symbols…Yahoo apparently runs an algorithm that censors unacceptable words. Perhaps to avoid racist comments it won’t let you post the word “white”. This led me to read one of my own posts after it was cleansed and I found that I had referred to the President’s dwelling as the @#$% House).

Apart from the clear stupidity in the response to my somewhat innocuous comment, there is a worrisome undercurrent that runs through the Internet news forums. The right wing violent rage is palpable and it manifests itself in outbursts of venom at the slightest hint that someone may hold a differing point of view on even the least contentious issue. For the right wing, it seems, it’s not enough to disagree with Hilary’s politics; it’s not enough to resent her bitterly; it’s not even enough to despise her; they have to wish violent death upon anyone who even treats her with a modicum of courtesy.

Imagine the fun if you comment favourably about the @#$% House’s proposals for gun controls. Since I post comments using my “Pagun” handle, it’s fairly easy for even the none-too-bright trailer trash to find this website; one mild comment supportive of the need to reign in the gun violence in the US and I was inundated with death threats apparently intended to persuade me that they were from responsible gun owners. I know they were responsible gun owners because they told me so, and then promised to use their assault weapons to <<*&^%#$  shoot (my) mother&^%$*  Liberal  &^%$  off and teach (me) about being a real man>> since I am <<a frickin fudgepacking %$#& hole>>.

Hand in hand with this extreme intolerance is an inclination to politicise virtually everything. A woman stabbed her husband and two children to death; the first response in the midst of the that tragedy and the overlapping mourning of the children who died in the Sandy Hook school massacre? <<Now Obammy’s gonna want to take away knives from law obiding citizen’s>>

Something I am learning is that there are two categories of people, according to the audience who chooses to engage in public news analysis on the Internet. If you say anything vaguely positive about environmental efforts you cannot escape your categorisation as: a gay, hippy, Marxist, unemployed, welfare sucking, intellectual, abortion pushing, gun-hating, deluded, atheistic, anarchist. And on the other side, if you are a fiscal conservative, you find it necessary to espouse unfettered civilian access to weapons of war, killing the poor, rejecting all science, Christian fundamentalism, life beginning at conception, eating the whales, drill and frack in Banff, pave the forests, torture prisoners, invade every annoying country, and arm teachers. No middle ground; compromise is failure; shout the others down and deny their right, not just to an opinion, but to live.

My journey through the muck of the lowest common denominator on the web was profoundly depressing. I know there is more out there; I also look at genuine sites with actual news and therefore actual discussion, and I am sometimes refreshed by the thoughtful comments and I’m occasionally inspired by the insights found there. What is depressing is that such reasonable discussion is hard to find whereas the easily accessed surface stuff would embarrass Jerry Springer. This seems to me to be a perfect example of what I used to call The Pagun principle when I taught critical thinking to first year university classes: Ninety percent of everything is crap. 

And, judging by the level of stupidity of the content of the Internet news and those who weigh in on it, that principle needs to include people. Yes, as Leonard Cohen put it, I have seen the future and it is murder.

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Kindergarten – Grade 4 Children Slaughtered in Connecticut

The state of journalism

Pagun

 VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – As I write this, I’m watching live reports coming in from Newtown Connecticut of yet another mass shooting. This time it took place in Sandy Hook Elementary School – a school with students from kindergarten to grade four. I will undoubtedly have something to contribute regarding the ghastly tragedy when exactly what has taken place becomes clearer; what is standing out from my perspective in the meantime, however, is a different kind of tragedy.

 Journalism, which at one time was an honourable and respectable profession, has devolved to such a degree, that it is difficult for an old-school journalist like me to take much pride in it any more. Although it has been years since I was an active reporter, having moved on to opinion, editorial, and analysis, I still hold the business of disseminating the news in high esteem and see it almost as a sacred calling. And journalism has always been a business as well as a public service. From the days when news was transmitted by wandering minstrels who brought gossip from town to town on their travels to the days when town criers read out the headlines at dawn and dusk, right up until today when we can access breaking news on our cellphones, people have earned their livings reporting news. Nevertheless, to be a journalist carries real responsibility beyond just making money.

 A journalist has the responsibility, first and foremost, of reporting news accurately. That is to say, a journalist, above all, must get the facts and get them right. The facts then must be presented fairly. Since journalists are human beings, it is impossible for them to be entirely objective, but fairness is within the grasp of even the most partisan journalist. Fairness is achieved by presenting all the relevant facts, not just those that support the bias of the reporter; by stating any bias that is held; and acknowledging – to the extent ethically permissible – one’s sources.

 However, a journalist has a responsibility not just to the consumer of the news but to the people involved in the story itself. (As I write this, the death toll is climbing. 26 dead, 18 children and 8 adults at the scene, and a parent in a different state, are all reported dead). And like any human being, a reporter has a responsibility not to be an asshole when it can be avoided.

I watched in utter disgust as a heavily made up and coiffed twenty-something beauty queen pretending to be a field reporter buttonholed a young mother carrying one sobbing child and holding the hand of another as, escorted by a SWAT team, she ducked under the yellow police tape and headed for an ambulance. The “reporter” stuck a microphone in the stumbling and panic-stricken mother’s face; the bimbo’s incisive and sensitive question? “Would you describe this as a close-knit community? Would you say the people know each other well?”  In the live feed you could make out the voice of a SWAT team member as he shoved the mic away, saying “Fuck off, you stupid bitch.” Predictably, that one sane comment was excised from all subsequent replays of the piece.

THE DEVOLUTION OF JOURNALISM

 While the pros are gathering information from the hospital, the police on the scene, and other potential sources of reliable relevant information, and reporting what they know with caveats until details are confirmed by independent sources, the local news video crews are running around sticking their mics and cameras in the faces of traumatised and anxiety-ridden parents waiting for news of their children. “How do you feel?” was among the more inane  and frequently asked question. One blow-dried, capped-toothed idiot strode up to a weeping and hyperventilating mother waiting to hear if her daughter was among those shot, and ponderously intoned, “Do you attribute this slaughter to the easy availability of firearms?”

 News has degenerated into voyeuristic, Jerry Springer level entertainment. But there is no excuse for letting entertainers loose in the middle of an unthinkable tragedy in an effort to exploit the grief and horror of the deaths of kindergarten children. If you have the responsibility of assigning stories to news crews, by all means send your clueless beefcakes and airheaded cosmetic models out to report on mall Santas and lost kitties. But for the sake of journalists everywhere, and the people impacted by the events, leave reporting on serious tragedies or any real news to people of intelligence and professionalism.

I am sickened and ashamed of the halfwits who call themselves journalists as though they are on the same level as professionals who have learned their trade and paid their dues. Meanwhile those genuine journalists are doing their jobs. The facts are coming in.

 More on the shootings when the facts are clearer.

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