The [Monday] Papers
By Steve Rhodes
Today is the 10th anniversary of Columbine, and a New York Times review of Denver reporter Dave Cullen's new book about the tragedy makes clear once again just how poorly the media does its job.
"Columbine is an excellent work of media criticism," Jennifer Senior writes, "showing how legends become truths through continual citation."
Sometimes the continual citation is simply the result of laziness; reporters read something somewhere and repeat it without checking it out themselves. Sometimes the continual citation is the work of media strategists and political consultants who pound embroidered and polished narratives about their clients into the soft heads of journalists - and similarly build false negative narratives about competitors.
Either way, it's unacceptable. And yet it continues year after year, decade after decade. Why?
For starters, training. I am so grateful that my training as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota - and in practice as a college journalist at The Minnesota Daily - included reform-minded faculty dishing out heavy doses of ethics and media criticism. I learned a lot about the industry - and at the Daily we found it wasn't hard at all to do the right thing. Just do it. What's so hard about that?
That's one reason why I am such a strong advocate for undergraduate journalism degrees. Would-be journalists need to be drilled in the history, economics, ethics, laws, principles and issues of our business. Whenever I hear the common canard that journalists are better off getting a degree in some other liberal arts field like history or economics I want to scream. What makes anyone think an undergraduate education in those fields is so special?
Besides that, journalism degrees typically demand a large dose of classes - in my case it was 75 percent - outside of the major. That solves that.
Similarly, I believe the media continues to operate at a generally low quality because those in it pay little attention to their own trade. How many journalists read the industry's trade publications? More importantly, how many read wide swaths of media criticism? Successful businesspeople read The Wall Street Journal every day - along with a plethora of other publications related to their industries. What do journalists read? Maybe the New York Times, which can be instructive but ultimately has nothing to do with the industry. If only there were a continuing education requirement for journalists like there is for, say, Realtors.
Anyway . . .
"[T]he most subtle distortions of the media echo chamber, it seems, did not concern logistics," Senior writes. "They concerned motive. As early as two hours into the live coverage of Columbine, news stations began to report that something called the Trench Coat Mafia, a group of disgruntled goths, was possibly behind the attack. Many of the students, watching this coverage on classroom televisions while still trapped inside the building, began to repeat this information to reporters on the outside once they'd escaped. (And it made sense: the killers were wearing trench coats.) And so a loop began, reinforced by four eyewitnesses who said the gunmen were deliberately targeting their victims. One offered such a precise level of detail - the killers were taking aim at 'anyone of color, wearing a white hat or playing a sport' - that it proved irresistible, both to students and to members of the media, who (Cullen speculates) were out of their element in this teenage universe, and therefore willing to repeat this rumor whether their 'witnesses' had seen the gunmen or not."
Even worse were the reams of experts called upon to talk about two kids they knew nothing about - along with the pundits expounding without ever being held accountable. They're still on the air.
And for what?
Ratings. Attention. Sales. Promotions. The exploitation of tragedy for profit and career-building.
And just because so many in the media don't know any better.
"Of course, tragedies often lend themselves to myths, so as to meet the needs of the day," Senior writes.
But whose needs? The job of the journalist is to pierce myth, not propagate it.
"For weeks after Sept. 11, the lovely legend persisted that the Rev. Mychal Judge, a New York Fire Department chaplain, died from falling debris when he took of his helmet to give last rites to a firefighter," Senior recalls. "As I wrote sometime later in New York magazine, that's not how he died. But people had a stake in that belief."
But who? Senior doesn't say; I suspect she means people seeking comfort in a heroic tale, but to me the folks with the biggest stake in that belief were the media itself, the better to move magazines at the grocery checkout and win newspaper awards for their cherished brand of "storytelling." I prefer "truth-telling."
"Columbine generated a similar tale of spiritual martyrdom," Senior writes. "A boy who witnessed the murders in the school library told people afterward that a slain student, a fellow evangelical named Cassie Bernall, was asked by one of the killers if she believed in God. 'Yes, I believe in God,' he said she replied. Two other witnesses, both sitting near Cassie, heard no such thing, and Cullen goes on to say that a 911 tape from that day 'proved conclusively' that she hadn't uttered these words. It didn't matter. The story caught the imagination of the evangelical world, and Cassie's mother, Misty Bernall, wrote a book, She Said Yes, that has since sold more than one million copies."
Before you get smug about the imaginations of evangelicals, I challenge you to read through today's local daily newspapers. I guarantee they are packed with myths that are nice to believe but don't hold up to even the least bit of scrutiny.
Start with the political news and work your way through to the sports sections. You'll see what I mean.
Central Playoff Time
* Don't hassle Hoffpauir. In The Cub Factor.
* The good (Josh Fields), the bad (Alexei Ramirez) and the ugly (Carlos Quentin). In The White Sox Report.
Chicago Way Memoir
Also, thanks again to everyone who came out on Friday night. I was particularly glad to see intrepid reporters Erica Christoffer and Becky Schlikerman there; they are truly deserving of all accolades.
It was also fun to see so many Beachwood contributors in one place, many of whom have never met each other before. Let's do it again soon and I'll do a better job of making introductions.
The Beachwood Tip Line: Tumble the dice.
Posted on April 20, 2009
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