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November 1, 2002 — 5 PM

News You Can’t Use

“If it’s a journalistic crime for Christopher Newton to invent characters who mouth empty but passable clichés, what’s the name of the offense when respectable reporters deliberately harvest the same worthless clichés from bona fide sources?”

Slate’s Jack Shafer on the firing of an Associated Press (AP) reporter for journalistic fraud.

Shafer offers some astute commentary on the state of journalism, especially wire services like AP that churn out ‘just the facts,’ and do so with bland indifference. The reporter, Christopher Newton, made up quotes from fictitious sources to make his Washington bureau reports seem more rounded, a rather spurious practice given the integrity and trust people ascribe to the all-mighty AP.

That said, Newton didn’t create wild, attention-grabbing turns of speech. In fact, it was precisely the nature of his crimes that allowed him to commit them undetected for so long. No, Newton’s quotes were of the tired and trite variety. He invented typical people to add semi-coherent responses about not-too-controversial issues. The quotes offered the much-vaunted ‘other side of the story,’ but contributed nothing useful to a reader’s knowledge.

Sounds a lot like the greater bulk of news reporting. Something happens, someone says something provocative and reporters dutifully write it down and then trot out the Usual Experts who say exactly what the reporter needs to hear to be able to present a seemingly balanced perspective.

Shafer’s point — and I couldn’t agree more — is what difference does it make whether the professor in sociology or advocacy group spokesperson is real or imagined? Newton got lazy, but his laziness was only one step removed from the reporters who drown us, the readers and viewers and listeners of news, in a river of useless banality.

Journalism has always held objectivity as its highest ideal. But I think the world would be much better served by analysis and opinion on events from competing viewpoints. Reporters are a little bit like people, in that they sometimes have opinions. Why not allow those ideas to surface? Then balance them with other journalists’ perspectives and let people negotiate their own opinions. We like to maintain this fiction of two sides to every story, but two sides aren’t enough to make even two dimensions, let alone three, which any worthwhile story ought to have.


You are starting to sound like Michael Moore, Luke. ;)

Emma | Nov. 3, 2002 — 3 PM

You are right; “reality” is a tenuous and frequently unnecessary item. Whether the professor or advocacy group is real or imagined is irrelevant most of the time. What is more important is that the ideas are “true”; the rest is trivia.

Beerzie Boy | Nov. 5, 2002 — 1 PM

Previously: Classic Women and How to Look Like One

Subsequently: Crimes of Office

November 2002
the Archives