journalism & its discontents: benghazi, obamacare edition

Having been a practicing journalist for nearly 40 years, I’m not surprised by many things when it comes to the craft itself. But I am surprised by how quickly and thoroughly my line of work is retreating from the idea that it’s in the verification business, and by how  it not only doesn’t much bother the people it should, there is a full-throated defense of the retreat.

I date the retreat from Judith Miller, ex of the New York Times, who famously said a reporter is only as good as his or her sources, which skips the part about journalists bringing any sort of critical intelligence to bear on what they’re covering. When Miller said that, she was seen as an outlier; we have enough evidence now that she isn’t.

CBS, for instance, spends what it says was a year investigating a story on Benghazi, but misses a key, and obvious, discrepancy in what its main source says. As well, both CBS and NBC have done critical reporting on Obamacare that was – being charitable here – based on partial information.

However, what jumps out at me in these cases and others is that the stories as written/broadcast only confirm narratives that are already out there; “Benghazi was an example of fecklessness/incompetence/disloyalty” and “Obamacare is a rolling disaster.”

Folks, the pleasure of being a reporter lies largely in finding out something you didn’t know before, something that more often than not runs contrary to the “common sense” or “everybody knows” story line. The fundamental thing about the 60 Minutes piece and the others is that they contained little that was surprising, even if they were true. They just checked another box in a set of ongoing narratives.

Clearly, some of this is driven by a fear of the right, which has made blood sport out of convincing journalists they need to be “fair” by going after moderates and liberals, regardless of what the facts say, and some of this is driven by journalists who skew to the right and who have found their way into mainstream news organizations, and who see it as their mission to impart a contrasting world view. But even with all that, where is their curiosity? Where is the thing that makes them go “Oh, so that’s how this works.” Where is that annoying, bedeviling, neccessary sense that the world as-it-is comes before your view of how the world should be?

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