7/29 Flashback: Unedited, unverified reporting

7/29 Flashback: Unedited, unverified reporting July 29, 2022

From July 29, 2009, “Reporting the controversy

We’ve been thrown a lifeline, given an unexpected and probably undeserved second chance. The newspaper business is being swept away but here is an opportunity, if we have the sense to take it, to regain our footing and step back onto solid ground.

And it comes from the unlikeliest of places.

The YouTube clip shows Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., taking questions from his constituents at a town hall meeting in Georgetown, Del. [The link to Delawareonline has since been laid off.] “This lady in red has had her hand up for some time,” the avuncular congressman says, pointing to a woman in the audience. And then bedlam ensues.

The woman is a “birther.” Working herself up into a frenzy, she begins shouting that President Barack Obama is “a citizen of Kenya” and not of the United States. The crowd goes wild. “I don’t want this flag to be changed,” she shouts, choking up with anger, “I want my country back!”

Barack Obama’s birth certificate. You can make a lot of money by helping others half-convince themselves this does not exist. Or you could make a lot of money by telling those same people this is an “NFT” and selling it to each of them as a unique copy.

“If you’re referring to the president there,” Castle responds, “He is a citizen of the United States.” The crowd boos and shouts him down.

So here, then, is our chance — a chance to start doing again what it was newspapers were supposed to be doing all along: Telling the truth.

Outside of the sports pages, we don’t really do that much anymore. We don’t check things out and find out what are, in fact, the facts of the matter. We don’t evaluate claims to see if they correspond with any discernible reality. We just repeat the claims. We “report the controversy,” but timidly refuse to suggest whether the facts support one set of claims or the other. We have pitched our tent in the excluded middle and abdicated any responsibility to check things out.

“One faction claims A,” we report — if you can even call that reporting, “While another faction claims Not-A.” It’s even worse than that, actually. Whenever anyone, anywhere makes any claim “A,” we don’t go looking to see whether or not A is actually true, we instead go off in search of some representative to assert the competing claim of Not-A. If we have to invent such a representative, or to elevate some barking mad lunatic to play that role, then we will do so in the name of “balance.” Balance between A and Not-A. That’s another name for madness, but we’d rather be crazy than be accused of bias.

This cowardly irresponsibility is what is killing newspapers.

We’re busily pointing fingers at a thousand other causes, desperate to blame our slow death on something beyond our control. It’s Craigslist killing classified revenue. Or the Internet. Or the geometric explosion of competing news outlets. No. Those things don’t help, but those aren’t the main problem.

The main problem is that we’re no longer doing our job. We no longer think that it is our job to do our job. The main problem is that we refuse to tell the truth for fear that someone, somewhere, might disagree with it.

So the demonstrable nuttiness of the birthers seems like exactly the slap in the face that newspapers desperately need. Here is a claim so outrageously false and so easily disproved that it exposes the absurdity of our irresponsible “report the controversy, not the facts of the matter” betrayal of our vocation.

We needed this. We needed to be confronted with obvious, ugly and ridiculous lies. We needed to trip over a supposed “controversy” that no reasonable person could ever think of as actually controversial. We needed a situation in which we could see, hold, touch, taste and smell the undisputed and undisputable facts of the matter and have some crazy person in a red shirt stand up and angrily deny that reality should be allowed to have any bearing on the claims we make about the world.

It’s a lifeline, a chance to grab hold and pull ourselves back to shore. All we need to do to seize that lifeline is to say that the truth is true and the lies are not. All we need to do is our job. And in this case that would seem to be gloriously easy.

But yet I don’t know if we’re quite able to do it. …

Narrator’s Voice: We were not able to do it.


"That would be Carole Pateman. It seems we were thinking of the same people ;-)"

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