Monday, May 23, 2005

It's only a game

Originally posted Friday, September 10, 2004

In the June New Criterion Anthony Daniel writes about the children's games and makes an astute point about the human psyche:

Our hearts pounding, we would creep into [a neighbor's] garden, as if it were full of danger, and then run away, experiencing the joy of a narrow escape. Of course, we knew it was make-believe, and yet we took it seriously as well, a curious instance of man's inherent ability to split his mind into irreconcilable parts, and yet retain his personal identity.
In most case individuals do not have any problem keeping the game and reality in mind at the same time. Football fans become emotionally involved with a team, our team, and care about the outcome of the games. But we know, in our hearts, that it is still a game.

I often wonder if modern journalism has lost its ability to keep the game separate from the reality reporters cover. The profession plays by a set of rules which add excitement and permit score-keeping. The former is superficial and the latter is spurious, BUT THE PRACTITIONERS NO LONGER RECOGNIZE THIS. They think such things matter in the larger scheme of things.


1. On election night, the networks will compete to see who can "call" each state first. The "winners" will trumpet this fact as evidence that their political coverage is best. Yet, what does it really matter if CBS calls New Jersey for Kerry at 8:05 p.m. or 8:16 p.m.? We will all know the outcome by 7:00 a.m. Wednesday morning.

2. Everybody loves their "exclusive" stories. But there seems to be only a weak correlation between "exclusive" and important/relevant/trustworthy. In fact, the hunt for the blockbuster scoop leaves the media vulnerable to getting conned and punk'd. (Just as Dan.)

If we compare the message boards at Free Republic or the Democratic Underground to Instapundit, it is clear that the juicy stories appear where fact-checking is weakest. During the Clinton years, the USENET boards had more "exclusives" in a day than Isikoff has had in his career. The MSM understands this when they compare themselves to bloggers and Drudge. Yet, they turn around and act in a contrary manner when competing amongst themselves.

3. The Wall Street Journal won a Pulitzer Prize for "uncovering" the Spiro Agnew corruption scandal. As with most such awards the implication was that if they had not pursued the story, the public would have remained in the dark and a crook would have continued in office. However, this is demonstrably false. The U.S. Attorney in Maryland was meticulously taking down the corrupt operators and building a case against the VP. The Journal reporters simply passed along the information that was leaked to them. The public would have learned of Agnew's legal problems because eventually he would have been indicted. The Journal performed no grand public service.

This is often the case with investigative journalism. Others do the real investigation; the reporter just repeats what his sources choose to give him. By allowing the journalist to take a star turn, the prize-givers both inflate the importance of the journalism profession and hide from the reader/ viewer a lot of crucial information about the source of the story and the motives behind the exposé.

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