The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Friday, March 18, 2005

Citizens of the World

Late in 2004, Belmont Club pointed out in "The Odds Against" and "Haifa Street" that the distinction between journalists as Americans commonly understand the term, and stringers acting as terrorist mouthpieces, was dangerously blurred. Readers not familiar with the story would profit from reviewing it in full.

[The short version: an AP photographer produced film of a street murder of two election workers during the morning rush hour. Wretchard pointed out the improbability that the photographer could have been on that particular block without foreknowledge of the attack, and further, that his behavior once the shooting began demonstrated either foreknowledge or implausible bravado.]

Next, consider this Guardian article from October 2004:

In two shifts, starting at 3.30pm and ending at 4am the next day, Mr. Veedon's six-person team [in Bangalore] is part of an effort by the company to expand coverage of small and mid-cap companies listed in New York.
The journalists described here are engaged in secondary journalism, poring through public-domain information for newsworthy patterns or outliers, rather than the primary journalism which occurred on Haifa Street.

One conservative blogger (sorry, can't find the link) recently suggested that the AP/Reuters dominance of primary news could come to an end as other wire services, such as those based in Latin America, gained ground. However, this would make the tenor of news reporting less, not more, American. As this trend progresses, it would seem that the best we can hope for it that the international (non-embedded) press might be neutral between our cause and our enemy's.

However, the situation is worse than that, for two reasons. First, in a place like Iraq, where terrorists have a strategy of dealing random death while American soldiers attempt to keep order, the safest place to be is with the terrorists. Every reporter has an incentive to get close to our enemy (until we set out to kill that enemy, whereupon he will proclaim his neutrality and innocence). There is not much we can do about this.

The second reason is from the old saw that "if it bleeds, it leads." We are trying to stop the bleeding, while our enemies strive to increase it. Which is more compatible with grabbing headlines? As long as spectacular pictures dominate news coverage, the side that is in the business of creating such images will have an unassailable advantage. There is not terribly much individuals can do about this, either; it will improve only to the extent that news coverage begins to have a memory, to be able to compare today with yesterday, or last week, or last year. Right now the entire sphere of news -- the blogosphere included -- is like an infant in the night, terrified anew by each atrocity, beguiled by each pretty dancing flame.

[Update, 21 March: corrected typo -- "less, not more" was reversed.]
[Update, 13 June: Jay Rosen addresses a similar problem, focusing on the mindset of individual reporters.]