This week I’m reading Andrew Marr’s ‘My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism’. I should have known better than to read anything with the author’s giant face displayed on the cover, but here we are.
News is a relatively recent, made-up human commodity. It is designed, copied and passed on in a tradition that goes back only a few hundred years. Almost all reporters are imprinted after a while with the sense of how news stories read, but they didn’t get this from their DNA. There may be inquisitive and persistent people, but there are no ‘born reporters’.
Charles Reiss, former political editor of the London Evening Standard, told me he was struck how, sitting at the back of some interminable, tedious committee of MPs he and rival hacks suddenly found their pens moving across their notepads, all at the same time. Barely conscious of why they were doing so, they had restarted a shorthand note of what someone was saying. Why? Years of listening to political language and being able to spot the unexpected nuance.
This is one of the unremarked-upon structural weaknesses of our current media landscape. Have you ever read a speech, watched a debate or seen an event in full, before it was chopped up, interpreted and re-packaged as news? Your impressions about what is notable about it are inevitably different than the groupthinky interpretations of the press corps.
Try watching a presidential debate this year without watching CNN or reading the newspaper afterwards. For you, a citizen, the news will be the things the candidates said that will impact your life. Higher taxes, fewer buses, a war with a faroff country in which a relative or friend might participate. To the journalists watching, news is simply where a candidate deviated from the script. Marr’s journalists aren’t furiously writing legislative changes in their notebooks, they’re counting gaffes.
Here’s where Marr completely misses the point of his own book:
Because of its problems, one could simply try to opt out of the news culture. I know people who barely read a paper and who think most broadcast news is mindless nonsense. I think, however, they are wrong. They might go through their weekly round, taking kids to school, shipping, praying, doing some voluntary work, phoning elderly relatives, and do more good than harm as they go. But they have disconnected themselves from the wider world. Rather like secular monks, they have cloistered themselves in the local. And this is not good enough. We are either players in open, democratic societies, all playing a tiny part in their ultimate direction, or we are deserters.
Notice how he never answers the question of whether newspapers, as they currently exist, are the shimmering informers of democracy that they could be. It’s objectively the case that a populace needs accurate information to vote and participate in a true democracy. But the media landscape that we have fails consistently to provide us with the information and tools we need.
Check out Marr’s own example of how newspapers distort the news:
Take the great British paedophilia panic. The number of child sex murders in Britain carried out by a stranger is roughly static, about five to seven a year. The number of convictions or cautions for sex crimes involving children has fallen in recent years. An exhaustive study of the statistics on the abuse of children reveals only that we have no knowledge at all of how widespread it is: ‘The number of children sexually abused each year in England and Wales lies somewhere between 3,500 and 72,600. In other words, a detailed analysis of the statistics produces such a wide margin of possible error that no published figures can provide the basis for reliable assumptions, let alone sensible policy-making.’
Yet the number of stories about pedophiles has rocketed since the mind-1990s, particularly in the tabloid press. The effect has been enormous, not only on the government legislation on sex crimes, and onl the treatment (or lack of it) for pedophiles, but onl the way families live their lives–How much children are allowed out by themselves, how worried parents are about the internet, how suspicious society in general has become about men who work as Scout leaders, in youth groups, for swimming clubs and so on.
In other words, our chimpanzee brains like to be fed grisly anecdotes in which children are kidnapped and murdered. If there aren’t enough real ones to go around, we’ll settle for panic about ones that have already happened.
Apply this principle across all of the challenges we as a polity confront—economics, crime, abortion, hunger games, global warming—and you have a severe distortion of what’s actually happening ‘out there’ and what we think is happening. The institutions we’ve entrusted to inform us have ceased interpreting their mandate beyond entertaining us.
Journalists like Marr will always tell you that journalism is the first draft of history. Unfortunately, the journalists we’ve got never pause to write a second one.