Friday, April 17, 2009

the dangers of journalism, or why I love research

When Obama ascended to the US presidency in January 2009 (yes he was elected in November 2008, but GWB didn't go back to Texas until the inauguration), there were lots of 'death of satire' articles floating about the news. Jon Stewart of The Daily Show publicly mourned his impression of the Washington Cowboy and wondered where they would now find humour. As it happens, they found it in their competitors.

In the US, big media is very big. Print media is on the same downward slide as it is everywhere else - less people read newspapers anyway, most organisations botched their entry online, dissatisfaction with their response to the last decade, particularly homeland security and the Iraq war - but television news is another story. The best way to understand them is to imagine a cross between the Sun and a glossy lifestyle magazine. TV networks like CNBC, Fox, Bloomberg & CNN sell (as they feel they must) the most distilled version of the news and have all the access that they require to the corridors of power. But when they get in there, they ask not why decisions were made and what has resulted, but rather, what wallpaper they choose and how awesome it is to be a billionaire.

In the boom market, there were (of course) many who criticised that approach. But let's not kid ourselves - it was the minority. this last decade was the one that gave us Big Brother, Celebrity Insert Reality Show Name Here, Cribs, The Fabulous Life of... and so on. We could shuffle right up to the velvet rope, because the veneer of success was so easy to achieve. When you can look like a winner, you can start to feel like one too. The real cost of things gets lost and your perception of both your wealth and the distance you are from losing it starts to become very skewed. As you start to believe in what you see in the mirror, you ask less questions about how it's being held up and by who.

This is why we're in the mess we're in right now. Not because capitalism failed, or because globalisation is universally bad, nor can we blame GWB or his cronies. We fell asleep at the wheel. If you questioned the rollercoaster, you were a naive lefty. If you questioned the left, you were a rabid neocon. These were convenient labels, especially in Ireland, where every party was equally left, right and centrist. At a recent talk by Malcolm Gladwell, someone from the floor raised the question : 'how did this happen?' to which the afro'd one replied that it was a consequence of intellectual laziness.


Paul Krugman, Nobel prize winner for economics, had been warning about the dangers of a crash for some time. He wasn't alone. Vince Cable in the UK, our own David McWilliams (full disclosure: I'm occasionally employed by that fellow), are notables among countless others. But who in Ireland did we listen to when warnings of a property bubble were aired? Esteemed economists who worked for the estate agencies and banks that most stood to gain from an improving market. This felt awfully close to scientists, employed by cigarette companies, telling the world that there was no link between their products and any ill-effects. Unless you could be too cool.

So all the signs were there. Why then, did we let things come to this pass? In Ireland, we're facing one of the most ridiculous budgets in years, which will profoundly affect everything about our country. We elected these people, these Galway tent cheerleaders, even though all the evidence shouted caution. Despite warnings that even after a decade of an unprecedented boom, little in the way of real infrastructure had been accomplished for this country, which would inevitably mean that we would be ill-prepared for any future problems, we voted in Bertie and his merry men. Who did we punish? The PD's, who allowed themselves to be manoeuvered into the whipping boy of Irish politics. Watching the Green party be even more inept and so comprehensively bullied, any languishing support so decidedly eroded, you develop a sort of respect for PD's (the last people in the Fianna Fail ejector seat).

Of course, you have no respect for these guys - but you don't have to. They don't need your respect. They'll get elected anyway. Watch how the media heat got turned off Bertie and where the money was from the moment he jumped ship and left Cowen to figure it all out. We are an electorate that has been bought and paid for in speed ramps and mortgage relief. Make sure your name is on short term local projects, or on a party level, small initiatives that make people think that they're saving money. Don't worry that it won't last long, or that you haven't dealt with the costs of the health service, or the iniquities of education. No-one will remember until after the election. If you don't quite make the grade, fret not. You can throw a bone at one of the other smaller parties, or better still, a few independents. All they want is a few extra traffic lights and they'll keep quiet for a few years.

It may well be that Fine Gael manage it this time round. But it won't be because they have a series of coherent policies, or are effecting a sea-change in Irish politics per se. It will entirely be about getting the only other party with anything approaching large enough numbers and support outside Dublin. But be in no doubt that whoever it is, as it stands now, you're just choosing between card sharps.

So what does that digression into a rant have to do with the beginning of the post? You may have seen this already - I've been meaning to write about this for a few weeks, but have a look at this:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
CNBC Financial Advice
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic CrisisPolitical Humor

Stewart and The Daily Show found another target after all. CNBC was a big cheerleader for the boom. Everything was great, even when it wasn't, just as in Ireland, when we were buying duplexes in invented towns with no infrastructure for more than a house in a nice part of any good city in the US. Every property section was our Jim Cramer. For a while there, it seemed as though his entire extended family were in some way involved in Mexican waving the entire Irish economy.

What NBC did have was access. More so than any person on the street, and more than most print or online outlets, even many television networks, they could get close to the halls of power. It's something of a shame that when they got there all they did was open the doors and ask if sir needed anything else for the evening. The Daily Show never had that sort of access. Sir Allen Stanford would never have turned up for a Stewart grilling. Bush never did, either. What they did have was the motivation to research. It was digging for the facts, as they did above, that has made this comedy show one of the most respected news programmes in the western world, and one that nobody in the US media can ignore. The thing is, the facts aren't hard to find. It just requires that you care more about them than who is going to be America's next top model.
When you have a media outlet that cares more about how those at the top feel than what they do, have done or will do, you have film and music magazines that are extended advertisements for whichever company is selling something that month, interviewers who ask soon-to-be-exposed-as-Ponzi-schemers 'how it feels to be a billionaire', or even, national television stations that report a news story then apologise for doing so, because a politician's feelings may be hurt. When a 27-year old woman's decline from cancer is relayed through every possible medium, but we are afraid to poke fun at our leaders, or watch our watchmen, we're doing something wrong, surely?

Apologies for the long rant. Someone give me a column so I can work these personal problems out in a more public forum.

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Welcome to my blog. I'm a freelance writer/journalist/researcher/editor. I write about education and ideas I've had for the Irish Times. I also research, write and edit for writers, publications and websites. Here I put things that tend not to fit anywhere else. Enjoy.

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