Some truth from a former member of the ‘lying media’

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That’s me wearing an old t-shirt I picked up at the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston, Texas, where I was a member of the working press. Being blamed for everything is nothing new to a journalist.

In light of all the talk about “fake news” and how it may have influenced the American presidential election, someone asked me the other day to explain it from the point of view of a former professional journalist.

At the time I didn’t want to, but have since reconsidered. When you do a job for more than 30 years, some things become apparent to you that might not be apparent to people in other walks of life.

What follows are real questions I’ve  been asked over the years. It’s in question-and-answer format, or as we called it back in the day, “a q-and-a.”

Q) What do you think of the media?
A) I detest that word. I don’t even know what “the media” is. I have no feeling for “the media.” Of course I know what you mean, but it’s a little like asking somebody if they like vegetables. “Yes, I love green beans, but I hate Brussels sprouts!” I was a newspaper editor, never a media editor. Please be specific in your praise or condemnation!

Q) Is the newspaper you work for a liberal newspaper or a conservative newspaper?
A) Of course the question pertains to the general tenor of the editorial and op-ed pages, but a lot of people don’t understand that inside the newsrooms of most traditional newspapers, there is a hard line between news and opinion. As a news editor, I was never once told to handle liberal news one way and conservative news another. I never attended a news meeting where people opined, “We really need to skewer G.W. Bush over this, because he’s an asshole.” Nope, sorry to disappoint, but it doesn’t happen, and I never met a journalist who went job-hunting based on a newspaper’s editorial position. Real journalists are more likely to think, “I’d really like to get a job at the Chicago Tribune because maybe I’ll make a decent wage, and since Wanda’s mother lives in Chicago, maybe once in awhile we can get a free babysitter!”

Q) What stories did you write for the newspaper?
A) Anybody who has read this blog should know that I’m not a good writer, and I can count on one hand the number of stories I wrote for publication during my career. I was a copy editor and news editor, which means my job was to make other people’s lives a living hell. Just because I didn’t write stories, though, doesn’t mean I didn’t write. I wrote tons of headlines, but also blurbs, bwubs, hoochies, widgets, teases, cutlines, refers and skybars. Every newspaper has its own jargon for these devices, and it all adds up to a million ways to screw up.

Q) Why does the media lie?
A) Again, please don’t say “media,” because not all media is created equally! I can only speak to newspapers, and in all the places I worked, nobody just made up stuff intentionally. Of course in a deadline environment, mistakes happen, and mistakes were taken very seriously indeed. Let me backtrack a bit on something I just said. I did know one person who intentionally lied in a story. Many years ago, I knew a reporter who was caught making up quotes on a feature story he’d written. The reporter was confronted, fired, went home and blew his fucking head off with a muzzle-loading pistol he’d personally built from a kit. So ultimately, I guess you could say he took it pretty seriously, too.

Q) I bet working for a newspaper was exciting!
A) It could be exciting, but there was also a fair amount of drudgery. Newspaper reporters and editors have the reputation of being soulless, and I’ll confess that most of us have a rather unique sense of humor, and we do get keyed up by disasters. The three most exciting events I ever worked were the space shuttle Challenger explosion (Houston Post 1986); O.J. Simpson fleeing police in a white Ford Bronco (Houston Post 1994); and the terrorist attacks on 9/11 (Newark Star-Ledger, 2001, offices at the time just across the Hudson River from Ground Zero). I’m not saying that any of those events was fun, but from a professional standpoint, they were exciting, difficult and memorable, and being inside a newsroom was exactly where I wanted to be.

Q) I bet there was a lot of pressure.
A) Yes, there’s a lot of pressure at a newspaper. It’s special when, as a layout editor, you’re told to expect a 20-inch story, and when it arrives five minutes before deadline, it’s 32 inches and has a 15-inch sidebar nobody told you about. You’ve got to work fast, you’ve got to work smart, and you’ve got to anticipate that you’re probably going to get fucked over. The pressure is too much for some people. I’ve written about it before, in one of my most popular posts ever! I’ve seen people cry. I’ve seen people get the shakes. I’ve seen people hit the bottle. I’ve seen people fold up their tent and go home. And as I’ve mentioned, I’ve seen more than one person take their own life — three I’m certain about, and a fourth that I suspect was a suicide.

Q) But who can we trust? What do you read?
A) Look, the internet is great, but it’s packed with bullshit, and that’s another gripe I have with the umbrella term “media.” A lot of these outfits you see on Facebook and other places are not legitimate news organizations, they’re more like public relations entities, and that’s putting it kindly. They steal the reporting from real news organizations, put their own toxic spin on it, and then pony it up as clickbait for morons who are looking for material that only supports their own worldview. I’m not saying that I’ve never read such material, but I always take it with a grain of salt. I have a subscription to the New York Times, but when a big story happens elsewhere, I’m looking for an online version of a real newspaper in that area. If something happens in Orlando, I go looking for the Orlando Sentinel online. Something in Paducah? I go looking for the Paducah Sun, and so forth. Why? Because even though traditional print journalism isn’t what it used to be, I remain confident that at real newspapers, there remains at least a culture of trying to get it right. I have no such confidence in these shady online-only entities that have sprung up like mushrooms on the corpses of real journalists. The best advice I can give is that if you’re on Facebook and you see a story about something or other, and the sourceline says NEWSGENX or some other damned thing you never heard of, it’s okay to be very skeptical!

Q) Why’s all this shit happening?
A) It’s your fault! No, it really is your fault! With the advent of the internet and digital media in general, people got it into their heads that they no longer needed to pay for services rendered. Newspaper advertising cratered, thousands of experienced and talented people lost their jobs, and those jobs were taken by cheaper, less experienced people who didn’t grow up in a get-it-right culture. I’m one of the lucky ones who took a buyout when I got too expensive, but many weren’t as lucky. One more thing, which will probably ruffle some feathers. I think television news shows like the Daily Show played a role, because all of a sudden a younger generation of people wasn’t looking to be informed, they were looking to be entertained, and when you’re always trying to find something funny about something serious, it becomes a problem. All of a sudden people start thinking, “Why do I need this old newspaper that’s just presenting me with, you know, facts, and I’m not laughing?”  Well, plain truth isn’t always funny. Think about it, and feel free to tell me I’m wrong.

Q) What can I do?
A) Buy a subscription to a traditional newspaper, whether hard copy or online. Real journalism takes money, and what else can I say, you get what you pay for.

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10 Comments

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  1. Thanks Glenn. It needed to be said. I have this same conversation over and over…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well done. Lemme mention some things:
    1. You said you are not a good writer. It’s clear from the article that this is not true. You have stated your point of view with style and clarity.
    2. I never found our work exciting. The word innocuous comes to mind.
    3. “The media” (a term you do not like and neither do I but we both kinda know what we mean) for sure is biased, but not the way people think. It’s biased toward advertisers, who can show their disapproval over a story by simply withdrawing their business. That’s why you’ve seldom seen a mainstream look into how most clothes are made with slave labor, or a piercing look into income inequality. Instead, here is the model for a mainstream story:
    * It’s got some interesting side to it. (Hurricane hits Jersey!)
    * It can give the appearance of really digging behind the scenes. (Here’s how Mr. and Mrs. Smith saved their cat!)
    * It never challenges rich or powerful interests. (This speaks for itself.)
    Here’s another model:
    There’s a banquet table loaded with food. At the table sit two people, who gorge themselves and, in their frenzy, knock some scraps to the floor. Under the table ate 98 people who must fight for the scraps. They claw, fight, blame each other. The media’s job is to observe this scene and recommend changes: different pictures on the wall, a new tablecloth, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hadn’t thought about the advertising angle, but I’m not entirely sure it’s true. I remember pulling airline ads after a crash, but I suppose you’re right that negative coverage is sometimes absent unless the story gets so huge that it can’t be ignored. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico comes to mind. But overall, Mike, you sound even more bitter than I am, which I thought was damn near impossible!

      Like

  3. As a former community journalist, I endorse this post. Sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I find it so weird when people talk about The Media, like it’s one thing rather than a gigantic, diverse collection of people and publications. It’s impossible to make sweeping statements that accurately reflect every one of those people and publications.

    I don’t really read newspapers and tend to get my news online, although often from the websites of newspapers, and I do this (possibly weird?) thing where I actively seek out publications with content that doesn’t necessarily reflect my existing views and experience.

    My father is an immensely intelligent man with views considerably to the right of my own and tendency to assume that my world is filled with protests and leftie disapproval (my world is only slightly filled with these things). On the odd occasion that we’re in the same country and have physical reading material in front of us, we give each other things to read and sit there tutting, sighing and shaking our heads at how much we disagree with each other’s views…then realise we’re both learning something 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Tanya! I think it’s great to diversify your reading material and discuss other points of view. I think one unfortunate result of the internet is the prevalence of so many sites that are only liberal or only conservative, and people flock to whichever banner they’re most comfortable with, never challenging their own views. As for online vs. physical paper, I read online myself, and I’m an old paper-and-ink veteran. There’s nothing inherently wrong with reading off of a screen, though I do believe it’s easier to get distracted with pixels rather than paper because there are so many other things competing for your attention, and right at your fingertips.

      Like

  5. I disagree with only one point you made. You say you aren’t a good writer. I disagree. You’ve made your arguments well. My sister in law is a laid-off copy editor. I am no grammar geek but I see so many errors in our local newspaper. It wasn’t like that even five years ago. Now, it is painful to read. Were all the copy editors laid off? Still, newspapers deserve our support, now more than ever.

    Liked by 1 person

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