It’s Time to Judge Journalists

There’s been a tectonic shift in the cosmic balance on earth this week.  Less than a month ago, Rupert Murdoch was the name mothers used to frighten little politicians.  “Eat your vegetables, Tony, or Rupert Murdoch will get you!”  Today, British lawmakers are skipping through the halls of Parliament, singing “Who’s afraid of the big bad Murdoch?” and have actually invited the bogeyman to come and see them.  (Personally, I thought he’d tell them to go take a hike.)  The reason the Members of Parliament from all points north of Land’s End have found their cojones is that in the great game of sleaze, Murdoch blinked.  He admitted he had his fingers in the cookie jar when he shut down News of the World.  Had he brassed it out, I’m not so sure the honourable members of Her Majesty’s realm would be talking quite so tough this morning.  However, they are, and it’s a new world.  The King of Tittle-Tattle, whose very name used to scare the bejesus out of elected officials in Britain, is going to be judged.  And as sure as eggs is eggs, he’s about to get a thrashing – six of the best, trousers down.  Paybacks are… you get the idea.

However, this brings us to an interesting point.  For more than a century, journalists have been collecting, categorizing and rating everything they could get their grimy little mitts on.  Theatre critics pan plays at their leisure.  Food critics can make or break a chef’s Cordon bleu, and movies flare or fade depending on who gets invited to the Premiere After Party.  Plus, every media outlet has an Op-ed section where editors or anchors blow forth on everything from scientists to celebrities.  No one is safe from journalistic judgement.  If you happen to step into the spotlight, expect somebody with a laptop or a camera to peek into your underwear drawer and critique your selections.  They do this because, in general, the public – us — want somebody (in this case journalists) to sift through the crap of life – books, plays, politicians — and tell us what’s good enough to waste our time on.  It’s easier than hunting this stuff up for ourselves.  Unfortunately, as we’re finding out, things have gotten way out of hand.

Of course, journalistic judgement is all just a matter of opinion, but some critics actually start believing their reviews.  They write and speak as if theirs is the lost testament of the prophet Ezekiel, and wield power like a cut-rate Oprah on Book Club day.  In short, the audience goes to their head.  They expect respect, and when they don’t get it, they become savages.  Cross a journalist too many times and you’ll find yourself playing Lord of the Flies, The Home Game – and you’re Piggy.  Rupert Murdoch’s employees are just the major league version.  Believe me, it works the same with the Willow Bunch Shopper or the North Nowhere Weekly Bugle.  This is how Murdoch got so scary.

However, now that the mob has turned against him and his minions, maybe it’s time we quit relying on journalistic opinion.  Perhaps we should even come up with a rating system for journalists.   After all, they’ve been doing it to the rest of us for years.  Some celebrity gains five pounds and he’s over the hill.  Somebody else makes an unsubstantiated charge of sexual harassment (or worse) and the roof caves in.  And there hasn’t been a politician since 1945 who wasn’t compared to Adolf Hitler at least once.  (Currently, Barak Obama is rated two Hitlers wide and four Hitlers high.)  Maybe it’s time we turned the telescope the other way on these gasbags, cracked out the Sleaze Meter and did some comparison shopping.

The problem is how would you rate them?  Like fast food: sleazy, extra sleazy and super-sleaze-me?  Or maybe like movies, except instead of stars, we could use buckets of slime?  That way we could talk about three and four slime journalism.  Or perhaps we could just use an inverted triangle with Rupert Murdoch upside down at the bottom and the rest of them clawing their way down to get there.  Personally, I like a straight number system; International Murdoch Units.  For example, a newspaper that hacks the phone records of teenage murder victims could be assigned 100 International Murdochs.  A television network that convicts a lacrosse team of rape — without any evidence  – could be given 99.5 Murdochs.  Radio stations that blather on about President Obama’s birth certificate could be given 99 units and so on and so forth.  Journalists themselves could also be assigned numbers starting with Rebekah Brooks who could be 100 Murdochs, Nancy Grace could be 99.999 and guys like Glenn Beck 106.  Then a simple formula of accumulated International Murdoch Units divided by the journalist’s own Murdoch Number would reveal just how sleazy each media outlet is.  Eventually, we news consumers could get a pretty clear picture, and we could adjust our reading, viewing and listening habits accordingly.

This is a great idea whose time has come because, while I do NOT advocate censorship, some really despicable characters have been hiding behind freedom of the press for years.  And somebody better take a good, hard look at what journalists have been up to lately — and not just in Britain, either.

The End of the News of the World

I remember a time when journalism was an honourable profession.  I’m even old enough to remember Edward R. Murrow’s boys, albeit at the end of their careers.  These were the folks (Sevareid, Cronkite et al) who came home from World War II determined to change reporting from the William Randolph Hearst school of half truths and outright lies to something better.  I used to read the columnists who followed after them: Mike Royko, Buchwald and Safire.  They reported what they saw, what they investigated, what they could prove, what they knew to be true.  When Cronkite said it on the 6 o’clock news you could believe him.  In those days, journalists were an important part of our society.  They had one simple, extremely difficult job: cut through the spin and tell us the truth — and they did it, or at least tried their best.  Woodward and Bernstein were the last of their line.  So how the hell did we get from there to Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World?  The short answer is we didn’t.  Responsible journalism (as I remember it) was just a bump in the cycle; as Murrow’s boys culture died off, so did their brand of integrity and journalism.

In case you’ve been in a tunnel for the last twenty years, News of the World is a despicable British newspaper.  You can read about it here. It is so sordid and tawdry that, in a land known for contemptible tabloid presses, it has no shoddy rival.  In an international sleaze-off contest, the News of the World would beat The National Enquirer without breaking a sweat.  And for those of you who think this is Rupert Murdoch’s doing, no, the News of the World has always been disreputable.  Here’s a quote from a book written in 1950 about an incident that took place in the 1890s.

“Frederick Greenwood, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, met in his club one day Lord Riddell, who died a few years ago, and in the course of conversation Riddell said to him, `You know, I own a paper.’ `Oh, do you?’ said Greenwood, ‘what is it?’ `It’s called the News of the World—I’ll send you a copy,’ replied Riddell, and in due course did so. Next time they met Riddell said, ‘Well, Greenwood, what do you think of my paper?’ ‘I looked at it,’ replied Greenwood, ‘and then I put it in the waste-paper basket. And then I thought, “If I leave it there the cook may read it — so I burned it!’ ”(J. W. Robertson Scott, The Story of the Pall Mall Gazette (1950), 417—as cited in Wikipedia)

There is nothing good to say about the News of the World and when it announced its impending suicide nobody, except the dregs of humanity who worked there, shed a tear.  Are we clear?

What we call “yellow journalism” or sensationalism has its modern roots in the mid 19th century.  (Incidentally, the News of the World got its start in 1843.)  Believe it or don’t, the industrial revolution actually created leisure time for whole segments of our population.  Meanwhile, as we inched towards universal education, rudimentary literacy became the norm.  In other words, most ordinary people could read, and after about 1850, they had the time to do it.  It was the golden age of the penny dreadful and the dime novel.  It was also a time when the only news available came from newspapers.

As newspaper circulations began to increase, a few enterprising young media people — including William Randolph Hearst, a guy by the name of Joseph Pulitzer and a few others — discovered an interesting phenomenon. The newly literate social class much preferred exciting stories about fires, robberies, murders and corruption to ordinary daily news.  They learned that sensational stories and even more sensational headlines sold newspapers.  It was a no brainer; they gave the people what they wanted.  By the 1880s, sensationalism was firmly established in the print media – all it needed was a name.  In the 1890s, an all-out media war in New York between Hearst and Pulitzer provided that.  As the newspaper headlines got wilder and wilder, the result was the international expansion of “yellow journalism.”  The other side effects were the de facto death of truth in the news and, quite possibly, a media generated conflict — the Spanish American War in 1898.  Plus, the battle proved one thing that everybody already knew: the public was more interested in sordid details, true or not, than factual reporting.  To be fair, not all newspapers of the time were sensationalist rags, and even the sensationalist rags covered hard news stories sometimes, but, in general, murder usually got the front page in even the most respected papers.  For example, one of the biggest stories of the early 20th century was the titillating love triangle murder in 1906 of Stanford White, by jealous husband, Harry Thaw with ex-chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit coyly posing in the middle.  At the time it was called The Trial of the Century.  It was followed immediately by the murder trial of silent film comic Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, and the murder convictions of two anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti: both trials equally dubbed The Trial of the Century.  Soon after that there was the Lindbergh kidnapping and subsequent trial of Bruno Hauptmann which satirist H. L Mencken mockingly called “the biggest story since the resurrection.” It’s pretty plain that the O.J. Simpson Trial of the Century in 1995 doesn’t hold a candle to what the media was doing decades before.

In less than 48 hours the News of the World will cease to be, thank god.  Of course, its brand of journalism will still ooze out of the pages of a dozen other British tabloids.  Enquiring minds will still buy millions of National Enquirers every week.  Lindsay Lohan’s picture will still guarantee magazine sales and Casey Anthony will get enough ink to drown Cameron, Merkel and Sarkozy combined.  The world might not have changed that much since William Randolph Hearst took over the San Francisco Examiner from his dad in 1887 but for one brief, shining moment, after World War II, there was honour in journalism.  Mike Royko, clearly a man of his time, summed it up best when he wrote, “No self-respecting fish would want to be wrapped in a Murdoch paper.”