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Brit Media Savages the Absurd

By Ben L. Kaufman · October 26th, 2011 · On Second Thought
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If you want an alternative to the faux even-handedness of American daily journalism, turn to London papers and news/opinion magazines. They know how to treat whack jobs. None of this same-space “objectivity” that leaves it to readers to decide whether the mainstream of, say, science or climate-change deniers are correct.

Sometimes they savage the innocent, and the smell of blood can be as stimulating as ink, but in general, Brits know how to treat true outliers who cherry pick information to concoct bizarre theories that seduce readers who want simple answers to complex questions.

It’s not just climate change.

Take these excerpts from a column by London Telegraph’s Damian Thompson. He hones his scalpel as editorial writer for The Daily Telegraph and he’s editor of Telegraph Blogs. The Telegraph says he was once described by Britain’s Church Times as a "blood-crazed ferret." He is on Twitter as “HolySmoke.” Here’s the headline on a recent column:

“Ten years after 9/11, the conspiracy theorist nutjobs are still telling lies.”

Thompson begins by noting “the following shameful statistic from a BBC poll: A quarter of young Britons believe that the attacks were carried out by the government of the United States . . . But to believe that the CIA demolished the Twin Towers you have to be a.) mad, b.) malicious, c.) intellectually lazy or d.) drunk – Charlie Sheen is a voluble 9/11 sceptic.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, inevitably threw up lots of supposed anomalies for conspiracy theorists to sink their unbrushed teeth into . . . The problem for 9/11 conspiracy merchants is that none of the anomalies amounts to much on its own.

“It’s surprising that the 7 World Trade Center building collapsed despite not being hit by a plane – surprising, that is, if you choose not to believe the structural engineers who discovered how uncontrolled fires caused support columns to collapse. And that’s the strongest so-called anomaly; other ‘clues,’ such as the supposed missile-shaped hole in the Pentagon and the alleged lack of debris at the crash site in Pennsylvania, turn to dust as soon as you look at photographs other than the ones carefully chosen by conspiracy theorists.

“But the 9/11 deniers have two mighty weapons. One is technological. In the age of the Internet, if you don’t want to read evidence that contradicts your fantasies, then you don’t need to. Just visit one of hundreds of websites that will supply you with freshly minted ‘evidence’ to replace any bits of your theory that have fallen apart on you. The other weapon is cultural: (F)acts have been reduced to accessories in the West’s intellectual wardrobe. The postmodern message is that your version of reality is part of you; don’t let inconvenient truths damage your customised worldview and your self-esteem.

“It’s an irony that, in America, an intellectual method derived from quasi-Marxist identity politics is borrowed by the right-wing nutjobs who increasingly dominate the 9/11-denier community . . . That’s not just a triumph for the forces of ignorance; it’s also, 10 years on, a little posthumous victory for Osama bin Laden.”

Curmudgeon notes:

• Opponents of Syria’s dictator sometimes get videos and emails out of their nation and the news media pick up their efforts . . . from Beirut. If a government wants to dodge or suppress internal dissent or outside criticism, the most effective ploy is to ban foreign press. That is why there’s such attention paid to the possibility that the ruling generals in Burma/Myanmar might relax censorship and barriers to foreign reporters. It would be the rare exception among authoritarian states with pervasive formal and informal security forces and militias.

Relying on reporters on the outside of closed societies puts everyone at the mercy of partisans willing to talk to them and, where reporters are not fluent in the local language, at the mercy of translators.

Vietnam showed how that could go awry when trusted local colleagues proved to be Viet Cong.

Often, it’s the best we can do and at our best, we choose intelligently, identify our sources’ interests and imbed our reports in context. We also use material provided from inside the nations by partisans or unknowingly by freelancers who don’t tell us they’ve chosen sides and their words and visuals are propaganda. It’s bound to get worse as American news media generally pull back from expensive foreign coverage.

Yes, protecting reporters and photographers/videographers in war zones is expensive, but the cost being cut most dramatically is the upkeep of foreign bureaus where reporters get to know their turf. That’s where informed news judgment and context come from. Parachuting in with a new khaki bush jacket doesn’t suffice.

When it comes to foreign reporting, look for reports from resident journalists. While they may have strong feelings about partisans in news worthy events, they at least know who’s playing. Ever-fewer are from newspapers and TV. Radio has the clear advantage: Smaller staffs at any bureau. No photographers or videographers with their support staffs, no sound crews with their boom mikes. Generally, just a reporter with a recorder and mic.

That’s why, say, NPR tends to have one reporter speaking from any one place: Dakar, Tunis, Beirut, Detroit, the U.S. Supreme Court or Modesto, Calif. BBC, along with its Canadian and Australian cousins, share that same lean approach that allows so many resident reporters around the world while others go home.

• Only The New York Times would have done it: A recent, long Business section cover story on how hedge fund managers, brokers, bankers and other Brightest Guys in the Room consider Occupy Wall Street activist “unsophisticated.”

It had to be written with a smirk although to its credit, The Times doesn’t let on that the irony is almost overpowering. If the guys interviewed fairly represent the industry that couldn’t smell a bad mortgage or understand what they were buying, this story is a howler.

• Page 1 of the Tuesday Times Business section looks at the fat corporate bonus culture through Gannett, owner and impoverisher of The Enquirer. Craig Dubow, Gannett’s top exec — who presided over the loss of most of the value of Gannett stock — walked with high praise from similarly talented associates and tens of millions of dollars. It’s a trend that former USA Today editor, Jim Hopkins, has followed for years on his blog: Slash staffs and pay to maintain stock value and dividends, and reward those at the top as they fire tens of thousands of employees at the 80-plus Gannett dailies and untold weeklies.

There’s a catch: It didn’t support the stock’s value. Granted, a lot of trouble arose from readers dying of old age or fleeing daily newspapers for free stuff online or, worse, TV/cable “news.” And granted, Gannett papers still presumably make a profit, or they wouldn’t be falling on doorsteps. But circulation, ad revenue and content are down.

Count them: how many people do you know who have quit buying Gannett’s Enquirer, saying “there’s nothing in it anymore.” They’re wrong. Good people still work there and no one can rival them locally for local news. But the paper has lost staff, content and before long, it is to shrink again when The Columbus Dispatch begins printing it on its new, small-format presses.

• Where was Martin Luther King Jr. in The Enquirer’s page 1 photo of the dedication of his monument? Or was the point to show Obama speaking at the ceremony in front of the three-storey sculpture? If the photo was that bad when editors decided to use it, they erred. If they could see the sculpture in the stone, something happened between their desk and my front steps.

My gut feeling is that the light was so flat the the sculpture, embedded in stone from which it was carved, was lost. The AP photographer couldn’t wait until the lighting was better, but there must have been someplace from which King’s features would be evident. As it was, it was wasted space on The Enquirer’s front page. It gave me no idea of what the sculpture looks like and that, usually, is the point.

• Two recent slips reinforce my sense that The Enquirer’s editing corps is too thin.

First, there was a long story about the woman whose support for repeal of Senate Bill No. 5 was taken out of context by the Republicans and used in TV ads to imply she supported retention of the anti-union legislation. I had to read almost the entire article to get any idea of which local stations refused to take the misleading ad off the air. That was the whole point: Which Cincinnati stations knowingly put income ahead of integrity. The stations should have been identified within the first two or three paragraphs. That’s what editing is for when the reporter fails to do it.

Second, a headline about the SB 5 battle on a recent Sunday local page 1 said “SB 5 could lower taxes, increase job competition.” Granted, “could” suggests “could not,” but it’s still stating one side of the argument as fact: SB 5 and defeat of the effort to repeal it are desirable. That’s editorializing, whether purposeful or inadvertent. Either way, that headline is an editing failure.

• Anyone can write a bad headline. Good ones are an art. The goal is to capture the sense of a news story in a few words, often only short words that fit into three or four lines in one column. Too often, boring headlines are accurate but hardly scream, “Read this!”

An example of that might be: “GOP: Obama Plays Politics.” Unless that’s a new board game craze inside the Beltway, who cares?

Great headlines enshrine the copy editors who wrote them in an informal hall of fame. Most often, the best seem to come from copy editors at tabloids who rarely have enough space to use long words. A great one in the Daily News characterized a White House response to financially troubled New York City’s hope for a federal bailout in the 1970s: “Ford to NY — Drop Dead.”

This New York Post headline may be the best ever: “Headless Body in Topless Bar.” Those are famous heads with no sexual innuendo.

My collection includes a famous missing space between two words: “Thompson’s Penis a Weapon.”

As a vacation replacement religion reporter at the Minneapolis Star, I was admonished never again to allow the verb “frolic” in a religion section headline. “Lutherans don’t frolic,” was the explanation and that was before Garrison Keillor made Lutherans the coolest potato salad makers since the Wittenberg door.

A veteran copy editor at the Star kept a headline scrap book that I hope wasn’t lost when he died. Among them was one from a weekly paper in suburban Hopkins about the annual berry festival. I remember it as “Beauty Queen Has Bit of Tomboy in Her.”

My own sins as a headline writer include dropping one “s” from assassination to make it fit a tabloid front page story about a failed attack on DeGaulle (my editor didn’t even notice, or, if he did, he said nothing).

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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