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Media mindlessness

Instpundit brings to our attention The New Republic's view of how the national media botched the Arizona shooting by descending into mindlessness.  Please click on the E.B. White YouTube video that explains the whole phenomenon of "descend."  Just a few minutes long.
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Good old E.B. White.

Some of the first coverage I heard about the tragedy was after Loughner's identity had been discovered. I was driving and the speculations about his motivations were raging and the reporter on radio ended her bit of blab saying that the parents of the shooter were in their home and would not speak to reporters. This was said with such a tone of censure, my mind agreed. "How dare they?" Until hard after was the next thought, which was "If it were you...." and then I knew they were doing the only possible thing. They were besieged and pitiable in every way. God save them from the rest of us!

The only thing lacking in the E.B. White piece was how the parents would be blamed for not being proactive in the matter of the appendicitis the boy did not have. I suppose that is more modern?

When disaster strikes, journalists have to write something about it—and write it fast.

Therein lies our problem.

There is this notion that "journalists have to write something about it." No, they don't. Well, nothing beyond the uncontested facts.

If there's a "profession" I hold is less regard than self-proclaiming "journalists," I can't think what it might be. "Journalists" -- I've come to despise the word -- have come to see themselves as some kind of guardians of what is to be known. Rather than following events and simply reporting on them, they do their best to be out front and lead the events.

I am becoming more and more cynical in my old age. All this talk about the "tragedy," and the need to "find outlet for grief."

Sorry. But no. That is a sign of a societal weakness, not a strength.

I live in Tucson. The events that day took place a few short miles from me. But the truth is, I don't really know a single person harmed or killed. I met Gabrielle Giffords once. That's it.

I am reminded of the ridiculous outpouring of grief when Princess Diana died. Grown people, a world removed from her, wailing on street corners. I thought it foolish of them back then, and I find it foolish of people today to take the events of last week -- far removed from their personal lives -- and seek to turn it into an Oprah-esque / Dr. Phil / The View group hug.

There is a difference -- an enormous difference -- between having proper compassion for those affected, or viewing the state of our society with some distress ... and this national urge to find the nearest camera and draw attention to outward expressions of grief. It's as if we've found sport in trying to "out-grieve" others. It's the modern day Pharisee who sounds a trumpet so that their works may be seen by men.

Can you imagine what London during the early days of World War II would have been like if every night's raids resulted in candlelight vigils, piles of notes stacked up against make-shift shrines, and hand-wringing cry-fests ... rather than taking an attitude of soldiering through the events.

To modern ears this may sound harsh. And perhaps it is. But frankly I am getting damned sick of this push to make all things emotional and personal. Some things aren't. Most things aren't.

Well said, Don.

Doesn't sound harsh to me - just honest. And the fact is that America experiences something like this every few years, so the shock value is lost (on me at least). It's best to heal the wounded, punish the wrongdoer, and move on.

In theater, a good tragedy produces catharsis in the audience. A public tragedy does the same thing naturally and theater is only supposed to imitate that. Radio and TV blurred the distinctions between delivering news to people and entertaining them. "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances;" comes to have new meaning when we are all brought closer to the stage by news broadcast into our homes.

When I was in college I had an acquaintance involved in a holography project. The goal was to produce holographic equipment that every person could use in their homes like TV. "It is the future...," they said. At the time, they needed a whole large room full of equipment to produce the three dimensional figure of a man with light. Of course then, mid 70s, a computer took a whole room, too.

Their vision was not just to bring theater and television programs into living rooms, but to have the news play out there, as well. Something like the Kennedy assassination would have more immediacy if it were playing out in a 3D light show in your living room, over and over. War: which to them meant the Vietnam war experiences of correspondents, could be right in your home and one young visionary imagined they could can the smells as well as the sounds and have you almost there.

"Who would want that?" was my question at the time. They estimated that the project might not be completed for another 25 - 50 years. By then people would be bored with TV. Maybe so. Subsequently, seeing some video horror and thinking about having it light-projected into immediacy -- yes, I am sure there are people who would like that. I wonder whatever happened to the project.

Anyway, people enjoy catharsis and therefore, journalists, to offer that, might have to go beyond the uncontested facts. Public sympathy is a reminder of our humanity and stirs our sense of community.

Aside from that, the amount of news produced in a day will not necessarily fill up the time allotted to delivering news on all outlets. Those news outlets are in competition and they must do something to satisfy demand and keep public interest.

Finally, they absolutely are the guardians of what we know as truth in the news. What I know of Tunisia is totally controlled by what I read (or watch or hear) in the news. That is going to be true of what happens across town, as well. That's why the competition between news sources is a good thing, despite its reducing "the news" to entertainment. If there were only a few sources of news or if the state controlled the delivery of news, the cathartic impulses of the news media might be reduced, but then they, journalists, would be even more guardians of what the public can know. We don't want that.

The media minions are not detached observers, not only because certain partisans among them wilfully "inject" their views and feelings into their accounts but because the men and women employed by the media are also citizens. A mere personal or professional commitment to "objectivity" is not sufficient for "reporting the news" "straight," but rather a combination of learning and experience in the right souls. Were our greatest statesmen lacking in "objectivity" because they understood men and events from the perspective of "the laws of nature and of nature's God?" Or was that not the necessary condition for giving an account of human events that is accurate and useful to othe citizens of a free republic? Factual accuracy and dispassionate analysis are not the special preserve of the non-opinionated or even nihilistic observer of the human scene with no stake in the outcome. Rather, a devotion to perceptual acuity depends upon a more substantive dedication to "self evident" "truths."

While emotions can be overdone, a lack of them (as opposed to a sublimation of them) is hardly a barrier to journalistic accuracy. At age 20, I felt little emotion at the news that John Kennedy had been assassinated, although I was no less shocked than others that it had occurred. But as I grew older, and knew better the importance of friendship and citizenship, I felt such events more deeply. For example, when I watched an airliner crash into the second building of the Twin Towers, thinking as as I was of the thousands of people still inside (less than I thought, it turned out, but no less horrible), I emotionally grieved for them. It is true that grieving has become a national fad, but it has its time and place.

Do we condemn the radio announcer who "lost it" when the Hindenberg suddenly caught on fire? Or do we understand that such a reaction is perfectly normal? Of course, we do need for our national leaders to show quiet mourning and heartfelt concern in the midst of national tragedies. That is consistent with the capacity to rise to the occasion. "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us," as Abraham Lincoln put it in the Gettysburg Address.

We have a right to expect our journalists to be accurate and have self control, but not expect them to be the disinterested spectators that exist only in theory. Everything in moderation.

That is true. We cannot expect any human being to disassociate himself from his own perspective. It is just stunning how often they, reporters & co., seem to have the same perspective. It is the group-think that we are deploring here, not really individual emotion.

Don't we have a right to be appalled when that reportorial perspective en masse means that they insistently put themselves into the events they are reporting? That was the point of the E.B. White story. They "descend" and that distorts the story. Wasn't that the horror of the Princess Diana death? I never felt more sorry for Sarah Palin than, after her response to being accused of responsibility in the Tucson shooting, ABC was accusing her of putting herself into the story. Absurd.

Maybe we cannot even think of such things as distortions, because they are too normal.

You're right about group think. Back in the 1980s, Joe Sobran coined the term "hive" to describe the emotional response of the leftists, who needed no "talking points" (as we say today), but expressed themselves as soon as the Pavlovian bell rang. The descent into group think, the most mindless form of partisanship, results from the pretense that one is not a partisan. One simply repeats what one hears from one's primary group. But overcoming rank partisanship requires the clear-eyed choice of what is right, which is the necessary condition for partisanship for the Constitution. One does not cease to be a partisan, in other words, merely because one professes nonpartisanship. And partisanship per se is not the problem: partisanship for utopian goals is the problem. Our country's best defenders combine partisanship for the Constitution with a dedication to scrupulous accuracy. There is no tension between these ends. But a commitment to the political equivalent of fantasyland must bring fairy tales, not to mention libel and slander, in its wake. The tales are for the gullible; the abuse is for those who don't believe the tales.

I remember Sobran's article on The Hive. Looking for that, I found this:

Since he recently died, this is all archive and we should read it while we can. This indicates that Tom Bethel came up with the term. I honor him for it. Sobran developed the metaphor.

But since liberals profess to be non-ideological, they have been able to adapt to these facts of life, giving lip service to the free market. Yet they continue to favor more centralized government, more state economic power, higher taxes, and limitations on property rights whenever possible.

By using pragmatic language for its agenda, the Hive misleads the general public about its ultimate goals. It gains power as ordinary people adopt its language without grasping the implications. After all, who could oppose such worthy causes as “civil rights,” “a woman’s right to choose,” “protecting our children,” and “saving the environment”? The news media use the buzzwords of the Hive so habitually that they have become virtual organs of the Hive.

Nothing new in all these years.

However, scrupulous accuracy total honesty in the media brings to Julius Assange, doesn't it? That is one son's argument, anyway, that I cannot argue for honesty in the media without embracing the transparency that Wikileaks brings us. Must we embrace that kind of forced openness of government information? Must conservatives love him?

Scrupulous accuracy is one thing, wilful assaults on the government's capacity for defending the country and representing its interests abroad, are something else. Journalists have as much of a stake in the government's ability to keep its own secrets as any other citizens. I am taking issue with the assumption that a partisan commitment somehow thoroughly compromises a journalist's ability to be accurate. Are our leading conservative columnists noted for a careless disregard for facts? No. Are so-called "reporters" with a left-wing bias more likely to misrepresent the truth? Yes. Accuracy does not require the sacrifice of prudence or a concern for the health of the polity. We don't "have to love" anyone who disguises his war on the government's legitimate functions with the claim of "total honesty."

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