The media is guilty of manifold sins, as God and everyone else know, but President Trump has misdiagnosed what’s wrong with the media. It’s not deliberate “fakery,” but a tsunami of too much news badly edited, if edited at all. We’re awash in information, much of it show-biz trivia that we don’t need.
Once upon a time there were newspapers with editors, old guys who brooked nothing that smelled like “opinion.” Some of them actually did wear green eyeshades, as in the movies, and very few of them looked like the suave Adolphe Menjou or Cary Grant in successive movie versions of “The Front Page.” The scruffy, boisterous Walter Matthau was believable in the 1970 version.
Editors in those days of the previous century were not there to make reporters feel good about themselves or to provide a safe space for earnest beginners in the trade. The reporters only rarely, try as they might, could even figure out the politics of the editor. Everybody was there to learn how to get the story right, and get it first, or have a good reason why not. Everybody was expected to be a skeptic — “if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out” — and exposure up close to the real world transformed more than a few into cynics.
The first time I was sent out on a story, this one about a farmer feuding with a tuberculosis hospital that was dumping medical waste into a creek that was the boundary of their joint property, the city editor read through the result, typed on a battered manual typewriter splashing ink on actual paper, sighed heavily, invited me up to his desk and in plain view of colleagues, copy boys and a cleaning lady, rolled up the pages into a paper basketball and threw it at me.
I caught it on first bounce and asked, trembling, what was wrong with it. “Everything,” he replied. What did he want me to do? “Figure out what’s wrong with it if you can, and fix it if you can. But don’t come back until you do.” Fortunately, one of the friendly old guys who had watched from across the newsroom called me over to say, “You’re lucky, he likes you,” and offered to help. He read through it and asked who I had talked to at the hospital. “Well, I didn’t need to talk to anyone there,” I replied, “I talked to the farmer twice.” He just shook his head with what might have been pity.
“There’s got to be a good explanation for dumping medical waste in a creek,” the old guy said, “but even if there isn’t, and there probably isn’t, your outrage belongs on the editorial page, not in your news story.
I was qualified only to cover the politics of the future, when it wouldn’t be necessary to cover both sides with equal treatment of opposing facts, even if some of the facts are merely factoids, Norman Mailer’s term for something that looks like a fact, smells like a fact but is actually not a fact. Factoids bloom in abundance all around us today.
The saddest part of the unfolding story of the partisan divide that threatens to swallow the nation’s politics is what has happened to the news trade, the tolerance for the assumption that the Republicans, the conservatives and maybe even Christians and white folks, are base, evil and unworthy of fair treatment.
The president usually asks for it, with his blather, exaggeration, bad manners and abuse of facts, but the free press of the First Amendment, once held in high esteem by nearly everyone, does not.
Newspaper publishers, pressed to do all manner of things that were once thought disreputable and wrong, just to keep the ship afloat, are always on the scout for corners and budgets to cut, and sometimes they’re tempted to cut the wrong things first. The editor of a major newspaper once told me that his publisher suggested cutting everyone whose bylines never appear in the paper. These are usually anonymous copy editors who give a story its last read before going to press. They have saved many a writer — and many an editor and publisher — from disaster.
Every newspaper reporter, in newsroom legend, once had a novel in his bottom desk drawer. Twenty-five years ago, that changed. The novel was replaced by a screenplay. Then the novel was replaced by a dream to be a distributor of factoids from a slot on a cable-TV channel. Trivia compounded by trivia, and now we’re strangling in it.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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