Just Another Effin' Observer

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Location: Huntsville, Texas, United States

Monday, October 10, 2005

Belaboring the Painfully Obvious

Practically everyone with a blog (which seems to be, these days, practically everyone) has posted repeatedly, and with the periodicity of a tolling bell, on the manifold failures of the Mainstream Media, or MSM. (A brief and utterly irrelevant aside: These acronyms always annoy me, in a vague, inchoate way, ever since people started referring to the year 2000 computer bug as Y2K, thereby perpetuating -- and practically trademarking -- the same sort of half-assed, lazy shorthand that got us into that particular mess in the first place!) The evidence abounds, and you don't even have to go near Dan Rather to make the point. The post-Katrina revelations of the media's breathless reportage about the descent of New Orleans into utter barbarism is a good example, probably better than most.

We've all heard the story by now: the lurid tales of widespread looting, rape, wholesale slaughter in the Superdome and Convention Center, Visigoth-caliber pillaging of the city, and general rampant chaos turned out to be -- what's the polite word? -- somewhat exaggerated. In fact, practically none of it was true. So how did the media get so thoroughly snookered? Hey, I'm not a professional journalist -- I don't even play one on TV -- but if an Arkansas National Guardsman told me that there were 30 to 40 bodies piled in a freezer at the Convention Center, before I put that story on the AP newswire, I'd be strongly inclined to open the door for a first-hand look-see into the abatoir. The reporter in question didn't do that. As it turned out, the bodies on the floor that the Guardsman pointed out to the reporter with his flashlight didn't exist, either. It was all just regurgitated rumors, accepted uncritically and without corroboration as fact, and disseminated around the world at the speed of light, less signal attenuation and router latency; the truth attenuated even more dramatically, especially since there was never much of it to begin with.

I found it deliciously ironic that one of the reporters who broke the story -- that most, if not all, of the descent-to-Hell reports were not, in fact, true -- was one of the most enthusiastic propagators of the initial, subsequently-proven-false, horror stories. It was a journalistic trifecta: breaking news, which turned out to be manufactured news, which led to breaking the news about the manufacturing of news. Anyone want to bet that this guy will be in the running for a Pulitzer?

Did these nitwits learn nothing from the New York Times' Jayson Blair debacle?

The big question, in my mind at least, is why? Why did these outlandish rumors start circulating? Why were they so readily accepted as fact by the news media? And why did they gain such traction that practically everyone on the planet believed them, and in several cases (the Mayor and Police Chief of New Orleans most notably come to mind), even elaborated on them? What does it say about us as a culture, as a civilization, hell, even as a species, that we are so ready, willing and able to believe the absolute worst about our fellow human beings?

Tough questions, to be sure. And the answers, if we can summon up the courage to hear them, are liable to be extremely uncomfortable. But what are the answers?

The answer to the first question is both simple and profound: how does any urban legend get started? "Word gets around, guys talk, you hear things," as the old beer commercial tag-line went. The situation in New Orleans, particularly in the Superdome and the Convention Center, was dire; there simply is no other word for it. If it was bad where you were, you didn't want to imagine how bad it was in the cheap-seats or the nosebleed section. And what you don't want to imagine, you just can't help but imagine. And it was all so plausible.

As for the second question, why the media accepted all those horror stories as fact, without bothering to check them out, that one is even easier to answer: because they desperately wanted the stories to be true. Let's be candid here, they made for good copy. The stories had "legs", as they say in the business. They were, in the immortal words of the producers of 60 Minutes Wednesday, "too good not to run with". It isn't necessary to ascribe any venality to the media for wanting to believe the tales coming out of New Orleans; ratings and circulation numbers are all you need by way of explanation. You don't have to believe that the media's eagerness to promulgate unsubstantiated rumors as fact illustrates their shockingly low opinion of humanity -- their pervasive belief that this is the way people in a dangerous, stressful situation are likely to behave -- although I'm inclined to think that that was a factor. The news media are some of the most cynical people in the known Universe; they have seen so much of the absolute worst of human nature, that they think it's the norm.

And why were the stories so widely believed? The answer to that question is the easiest to answer of them all, and that answer is the most disturbing. It is because the tales were so easy to believe. It is true that journalists are among the most cynical people in the world -- with the singular exception of the rest of us. We don't just believe that people, when left to their own devices, will descend to the most loathsome behaviour imaginable -- we know it. Hell, we've heard it from everyone: our politicians, our teachers, our syndicated columnists, our celebrities (with our sports stars providing real-life, show-and-tell examples), even our parents have drilled it into our heads: people are the scum of the earth; we're a blight on the planet. The veneer of civilization is wafer-thin and easily fractured. And when that thin veneer of civilization shatters, we are, underneath it all, worse than animals. We eat our dead; sometimes, we don't even wait for them to be dead before chowing down on Braised Brisket of Barney with steamed asparagus and au jus. The most aberrant, deviant behaviour, the most reprehensible conduct, is blithely explained away as being "only human".

And that, my friends, answers the final question, for it speaks volumes about us as a culture, as a civilization, as a species. We believe the worst about us because we've been told that we really are as bad as we've been told. We believe it because we're just dumb enough to believe it. We believe it because we've heard it so often, and from so many quarters, that we've come to accept it as true, on the theory that "if three people say you're sick, lie down." And we believe it because not enough of us have had the courage to answer the charges with a single, all-encompassing rejoinder: