You know how in high school dance troupes, all the dancers are sort of looking at each other to see what to do next? They’re not confident enough in the moves to go through them straight-on, so you catch them looking out of the corner of their eye at the rest of the troupe to guide them through the routine.
This is basically how modern journalism works. I was reminded of this reading Walter Kirn’s dispatch from the Democratic National Convention:
They predict with assurance that [Michelle Obama’s] speech will be deemed a success, and I guess they ought to know because they’re the ones who will start the deeming process. Which, in fact, has already begun. And which, in fact, turns out just the way they said it would, which I learn when I finally get back to my room and turn on cable TV.
What I thought I was seeing clearly, through my own eyes—a wandering, vaporous, contrived display of middle-brow sentimentality and word-goo—I entirely misinterpreted, apparently. Or everyone else misinterpreted it, perhaps, which comes to the same thing.
Every newsroom I ever worked in had TVs on the wall showing CNN, the sound off, day and night. Every once in awhile a conversation with a colleague or editor would instantly veer as the newsroom, en masse, attended to the Breaking News banner.
‘Hey, we should get lunch at that Italian oh my god they found Laci Peterson’s body!’ your colleague shrieks, sprinting to his desk.
I didn’t work as a journalist very long (That ‘every’ up there? It’s two. Two newsrooms.), but what struck me then and since is that no one seemed to know what actually constituted news. Murders, accidents, disasters happen every day. Some of them produce great stories, or affect how we live, or change how we understand the world. Others are just remainders of calculations we’ve already made.
Here’s Kirn again:
It’s not just a journalistic challenge, either. It’s the challenge we all face as modern political animals, caught in the feedback loops and logic mazes that come of trying to know the truth, our own truth—the truth worth casting our one and only vote for—when we don’t even know where to look, or through whose eyes.
Why is this murder, this hurricane, this bridge collapse news? It’s easier when someone else has already decided. You look at the other dancers so you don’t have to learn the routine yourself.