Journalism has changed a lot since I was a boy. Or at least my understanding of journalism has changed a lot.
When I was at school, some or other teacher had sat us down and explained that it was the role of a journalist simply to report the news. A good journalist would offer up the facts, leaving his or her own opinions, biases, and prejudices on one side, and let the reader or watcher draw their own conclusions and form their own opinions based on those facts.
This made sense to me. Biased news is surely little better than propaganda. We’re all grownups here. Just tell us what happened and let us decide what it means. We don’t need Arianna Huffington or Glenn Beck to tell us how to feel about a story.
Wrong. When I first went up to varsity, I once went out for an evening with a bunch of people that included a much older, and smarter, journalism student. At some point, I dropped into the conversation my worldly and sophisticated opinion that it must be very difficult for journalists to stay neutral. “Nobody,” said the journalism student “has believed that journalists are neutral for years.” “Nobody but you”, meant the journalism student, “has believed that journalists are neutral for years. Dumbass.”
This made sense to me. Life these days is busy and complicated. We don’t have time to decide how we feel about each and every story we come across. Isn’t it much easier to find someone out there with the same general worldview and biases as us, whom we trust, and who can save us time by running news stories through their own filters and handing them to us with worldviews and biases already in place? We need Arianna Huffington or Glenn Beck to confirm how we feel about a story.
Wrong. We aren’t nearly as smart as we think we are. We are, in fact, pretty bloody stupid. How else could “Two and a Half Men” be so popular? We are stupid and we are easily led. We pick a couple of people to be our leaders, and follow them blindly far deeper into the wilderness than we should. We need Arianna Huffington or Glenn Beck to tell us how to feel.
Which is all well and good. We have nailed our colours to the mast. Every story we come across will have a neatly packaged conclusion built into it, and we don’t have to waste any energy thinking. Gun control? Abortion? Gay Marriage? Affirmative Action? No problem. For all the anguish and rage that people profess to feel about these things, they’re actually very simple issues. We’ve let other people decide how we feel about them years ago.
Take one of the worst ones. Abortion. It’s a hugely emotive issue. It drives people to rage and to anguish, whichever side of the debate they come down on. What it doesn’t drive them to is independent thought. That’s Glenn Beck’s job. Or Arianna Huffington’s. When last did you read a story about abortion and stop to think about the frightened, anguished, humiliated little teenager who’s usually at the heart of it, trying desperately to make grownup decisions with a child’s brain. We don’t have time for that nonsense. We’re too busy taking up our burning torches and pitchforks and rushing off to join Glenn and Arianna at the barricades.
Which all seems like a terribly serious way to introduce a discussion about Kirstie Alley’ desire to bone an Italian. But not really. Just give me a moment, and I’ll get there.
I was looking for a topic to write about this morning, I stumbled across a headline screaming “Kirstie Alley looking for Italian Stallion.” I’m not too proud to say I immediately checked it out. I wrote about this the other day; these people are our friends. We need to keep an eye on them.
I’m glad I did. This was an important story. And a worldwide one. When I Googled it this morning, I saw it was being given worldwide coverage by some very reputable news services. Ms Alley’s unquenchable desire for some red hot Mediterranean lovin’ is today’s “shot that was heard round the world.”
If you haven’t read about it yet, don’t bother. I’ll talk you through it. Alley, erstwhile star of “Cheers” and “Veronica’s Closet” is going to spend the summer in Italy. While she’s there, she would quite like to have sex with an Italian person. Did she say so? She did not. So where did the story come from? Easy. It came from “a source”. Screw Watergate. This is journalism at the sharp edge. This is the stuff we tune in for.
Most days I would have gone to town with this. Not today. Today I am tired and grumpy because I was driven from the warmth of my bed by a small angry person armed with a teddy bear and a frozen hot-water-bottle in the dead of night. Today I see the importance of a story like this. Today I see value where usually I would just laugh.
You think I’m joking, don’t you? I’m not. These are the stories where you can stand up and be counted. This is where you matter. Kirstie and her tasty little stallion. The story is so breathtakingly vacuous that they’re going to leave it alone. No experts. No panel discussions. No insightful editorials in the New York Times. Just the facts, such as they are, and you.
It’s journalism the way the young me was taught it. You get to decide. Come on. You can do this. Is Kirstie a dirty little minx? Is she a strong and independent adult who can make her own decisions about who she sleeps with or doesn’t? Do you care? Are you slightly taken aback at the idea that a group of grownups sat down at a table and decided that the world would benefit from knowing this?
Enjoy yourself. It’s the only chance you’ll get today. All the other stories will be important ones. Ones you can’t be trusted to decide about for yourself. Gun control in the States. Elections in Australia. Terrorism in the UK. Poo in South Africa. These are significant issues. You cannot be trusted with them. Just sit tight until Glenn or Arianna let you know how you feel.
And if you’re struggling with the Kirstie issue, let me see if I can help you out. Glenn will think she’s a dirty little minx. I guarantee it. Arianna? Strong and independent adult who is entitled to enjoy her freedoms. Me? Aging stranger whose sexual proclivities I would pay good money never to have to think about. Ever.