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The Problem Isn't Fast News, It's Dumb News

danps's picture

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

Walter Shapiro picked this week to lament the sorry state of the media. He believes we have become ignorant and easily distracted by an Internet-bred culture that cultivates short attention spans. There have always been good and bad news sources, though, and that continues to be true on the Internet (which after all is just a technology). Shapiro, however, seems to believe we should trust - or at least privilege - the institutions that have been around longest; presumably they will have the best practices.

He characterizes NPR and PBS' NewsHour as "laudable enterprises," but let me tell you: When the Justice Department was melting down under Alberto Gonzales' disastrous tenure, I listened in vain to NPR for ongoing, in depth coverage of the slow motion train wreck. Instead there were brief recitations of conventional wisdom at the top of the news followed by unending doses of human interest pabulum. I stopped listening entirely in the summer of 2007 out of sheer disgust with how poorly it was covering one of the biggest stories of the time. Know who was prioritizing it? Marcy Wheeler, Raw Story and other Internet outlets. Does Shapiro recommend checking with them before NPR? They certainly did a better job prioritizing on that issue.

Also consider NPR's shameful coverage of torture, the New York Times' failures on Iraq, or the Washington Post's repackaging of's scoops as their own. There are valid reasons for being deeply skeptical of the biggest outlets. They have misled their audience on some of the most important issues of the last decade, and more often than not never correct themselves. (They will do so in a smug, self satisfied no-error-is-too-small kind of way: "Ms. Smith received a Bachelor of Science degree and not a Bachelor of Arts as reported," but not on fundamental failures: "We repeatedly hyped a non-existent link between Iraq and the anthrax attacks, thus playing a vital role in advancing the Bush administration's relentless march to war. ABC News regrets the error.")

Most astonishing is this:

We have lost sight of so many significant aspects of our age because they cannot be boiled down to bite-sized news nuggets. It is more than combat fatigue that produces the bizarre reality that -- military families aside -- most Americans appear to have almost forgotten that we are still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are wars that defy easy answers, and the latest updates from the ever-shifting battlefields cannot be encapsulated in 140-character tweets.

He published this two days after the biggest wartime document dump ever! He had just had laid out before him a trove of papers that might have allowed him to make sense of some of that complexity for his readers. Instead he wrote about the media equivalent of a carny barker. (Let's not even go into the perversity of bemoaning the rise of such a creature while devoting a column to him, or launching a withering attack on the culture that glamorizes such a scumbag while approvingly linking to an interview of him in Shapiro's own publication.)

The Wikileaks memos were immediately declared old news (sound familiar?) but you know what? There's a lot of data there! Perhaps a reporter could look into that and see if such a vast store of data really is as mundane as is claimed by those with a vested interest in not talking about it! I downloaded it myself (did Shapiro?) and picked a random document from the "sectarian violence" section:

Organization(s) Involved: HEZB E ISLAMI GULBUDDIN
21 NOV 2006- CJ2X INTSUM- N/I S
DOI: 21 Nov 06; OHR: IT CI FHT/1074
(N/I C) At the end of October, the following insurgents moved to KABUL from the village of QARIA TABLAH, PAKTIA province, near the village of ALI KHEYL (GRID: 42S YD 109 838) IOT carry out suicide attacks:
They have been trained in the area of CHORAT (PAKISTAN) adjacent to PESHAWAR and at this time, they might live in the vicinity of the bazaar of POL-E CHARKHI (around 20 km to the east of KABUL). They are receiving information about the targets from the following insurgents belonging to HIG:
- SAME, native of QARIA BAND NAGHLO (KABUL province, SUROBI district);
- ZANULDEN, native of ANIF KHIL JORJE (SUROBI district),
Currently, SAME and ZANULDEN are living in the SHINAH area (GRID: 42s WD 272 203).
This information MAY NOT be released to any portion of the Afghan Government

How does anyone know that is old news, or that it represents a situation that has vastly changed since president Obama claimed to have switched tactics? "INSURGENTS IN KABUL"? I thought they were in the tribal areas. Are there lots in the capitol as well? And what is that "HEZB" listed in the Organization(s) Involved? As in, Hezbollah - the political/paramilitary organization funded by Iran? Sounds like news to me!

The problem Shapiro is attempting to describe is not one of unprincipled propagandists driving coverage, or a shallow populace dumbly mesmerized by sensationalists, or a chaotic and incomprehensible media environment in which a cacophony of bursts and links prevent the development of thoughtful understanding. The problem is with media outlets so terrified of being accused of liberal bias that they reflexively blurt "how high?" whenever a sufficiently well placed wingnut starts shrieking for them to jump. That, and reporters and commentators more concerned with lazy, rote jeremiads on our sadly fallen state than on challenging received talking points or breaking a sweat trying to make sense of complex issues. Fix those and you'll be amazed at how the discourse elevates.

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