Respect Mahh Authori-tay!!! – Andrew Orlowski is obviously pretty smart, judging from his past articles for The Register. But he seems to have jumped too soon into the clever rhetoric regarding IIS security and didn’t take the time to get educated about the facts. He started out tentatively enough, but when a bunch of rational people educated him, he made the bizarre and paranoid jump to proclaiming that he was being astro-turfed. If someone disagrees with the vaunted knowledge of a journalist, it must be a conspiracy, right? Rather than try to (gasp!) educate himself about the issues, today he posts another defiant non-news item as if to say, “how dare any of you disagree with my obvious expertise!” This late breaking news has someone named “Richard Brain” (I’m not kidding) providing an “expert” viewpoint. This “Richard Brain” says that Apache CGI is the same as IIS ASP, forgetting to mention that IIS implements the exact same CGI that Apache does, and it has nothing to do with ASP. “Rick Brain” continues like this, and to close the article, Andrew quotes another so-called expert making a silly car analogy that doesn’t seem to have any relation to the topic. Many people have noticed that Scott McNealy constantly uses car analogies, but I am sure there is no relationship here. Scott McNealy is from the Detroit area, like Steve Ballmer, so one wonders why Steve doesn’t see everything as a car manufacturing problem; but that also is off-topic.
When covering incidents like the current “War on Terrorism”, journalists are torn between conflicting motives.
- Credibility – Journalists and their news organizations are incredibly dependent on credibility and reputation. People want news that they can depend on, and are quick to seek out more “authentic” news sources when they percieve that credibility is lacking. This fact, the reader would assume, can act to keep the media focused on high-integrity journalism. Unfortunately, it tempts journalists in highly-competetive environments to make some unethical trade-offs:
- Fabricated Expertise – Journalists and their companies can end up spending significant effort on making themselves appear credible, rather than actually putting in the groundwork to get credible facts. Presenting opposing views, no matter how inane, helps show how “balanced” they are. Even if the reporter cannot find anyone who can credibly articulate the positions of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, or the Pakistani people, the reporter can still claim to be “balanced” by interviewing someone who says the opposite of whatever President Bush says. Another method of fabricating credibility is to interview people with credible titles like “market watcher”, “middle-east expert”, “adjunct professor of asian affairs”, and so on. Who needs to know about actual facts on the ground when we can hear it all ‘splained to us by a “former deputy chief for diplomatic relations”? The science of appearing credible has become a fine art in modern media, and it’s not a good thing.
- Defensive Behavior – The scientific method is all about trying to prove yourself wrong, and using objectively repeatable observations to do so. This passion for using facts to correct one’s viewpoint is not something that is widely shared in an industry that thrives on having readers think that you are always right. If a journalist says “whoops, I was wrong!” too many times, readers start to think “maybe he’s wrong this time, too.” Of course, good journalists educate themselves and check all of their facts before writing the story, but people still make mistakes. When a news organization puts perceived credibility ahead of factual integrity, you see journalists playing “payback” with their critics (who are often themselves journalists). Journalists would like to think that this is some sort of glorified checks-and-balances system within their own profession, but mostly it is just people with big egos trying to obscure the facts to avoid having their mistakes exposed. Of course, strategically admitting to a harmless mistake every now and then is equally necessary to prop us credibility and bank up a defense of examples for a rainy day.
- Self-Importance – Eventually, some of these experts start to believe their own credibility. “If all of these people consider me to be an expert, then I must really be an expert!” Eventually, these people write “op-eds”, which now seem to be an accepted form of “news”. How it can be news that “someone had an opinion” is a mystery, especially when Clint Eastwood clued us in so many years ago. But this is what happens when people cultivate reputation and take themselves too seriously. This gets even worse when journalists start to see themselves as some sort of powerful corrective force that must be respected, and are willing to back that up with retaliatory behavior. For example, journalists hounding Condit about the Chandra Levy affair, when asked what they expected to gain replied “we won’t leave until he resigns”. By claiming that “everyone has biases, so it is fine for a journalist to be biased”, they justify crossing the line between “humble fact-gathering servant of the public” to “vengeful dispenser of enlightened activist justice.”
- Fact Avoidance – If loss of credibility is a disaster for a journalist, then common sense would dictate that the journalist avoid as much as possible things that could test his credibility (facts, to be specific). This is another reason that “op-ed” is so popular. The journalist can start with a simple, boring, news-fact and use it like a stem-cell to craft whatever opinion or editorial they wish to write. The cleverest of journalists don’t even need to start with verifiable facts; they can use as a stem-cell something like “Experts agree that there is a possibility that Condit could be tried for petty larceny”. From there, they can write about anything they wish, even reviving old english class essays from college. Since the article contains no facts that can be verified, it also contains no facts that can be discredited. Fantastic!
- Eyeballs – Newspapers today depend on advertising, which is why we saw the intensely absurd situation after Sept. 11 where papers like the New York Times warned that they would lose money by being forced to carry news instead of advertisements. To get maximum revenue, they have to attract maximum readership. And if they don’t, they will get gobbled up and “reformed” by one of the remaining five media conglomerates that own most of the newspapers in the United States. This can have journalists making hard choices:
- Fashion beats Fact – Things like fashion, relationships, lifestyles, celebrities, and electronics are proven draws. These are the things that people like to talk about, and give people a sense of community (and an endless source of idea stem-cells for their own discussions). Unfortunately, fashion is fickle and volatile, which is why we have “fashion rags” to cover fashion. When major news organizations like CNN and New York Times sunk their budgets disproportionately into fashion, they were caught sleeping by the terrorist attacks. These and other news organizations have announced they are going to start spending more money on international reporting again, since (surprise) that is what readers want now. Fashion is not news; it is fashion.
- Controversy gets Attention – David and Goliath stories, probes into Senators’ personal lives, personality pieces about how mouthy some executive is – these are the things that get people’s attentions. If a journalist makes a broad and shocking claim, people pay attention. Again, “op-ed” is best for this. If a journalist claims that 4,000 Jews were warned to stay away from the trade center, he is quickly exposed as a fraud. But a clever journalist can report hearsay (a bunch of Palestinians said it) and build enough of an article to get people’s passions fired up.
- Pessimism and Buying Don’t Mix – Many studies have shown that people exposed to violent and unsettling scenes are not favorably disposed towards buying things that they subsequently see advertised. Does this slant the way that the news (or “op-ed”) gets presented?
Continuing my investigation of the money-laundering and shadow economies that sustain terrorism (CNN today reports on “Hunda”, another name for “Hawala”, which is really another name for “draft”), I was not surprised to find that NATO is still
ambivalent about smuggling and black market activities.