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December 19th, 2018

Insight

Awash in a tsunami of trivia

Wesley Pruden

By Wesley Pruden

Published July 20,2018

Awash in a tsunami of trivia

. The media is guilty of manifold sins, as the Almighty and everyone else know, but President Trump has misdiagnosed what's wrong with the media.


It's not deliberate "fakery," but a tsunami of too much news badly edited, if edited at all. We're awash in information, a lot of it merely provocative, some of it credible, and much of it show-biz trivia that we don't need.


Once upon a time there were newspapers with editors, old guys who brooked nothing that smelled like "opinion." Some of them actually did wear green eyeshades, as in the movies, and very few of them looked like the suave Adolphe Menjou or Cary Grant in successive movie versions of "The Front Page."


The scruffy, boisterous Walter Matthau, at left, was more believable in the 1970 version.


Editors in those days of the previous century were not there to make reporters feel good about themselves or to provide a safe space for earnest beginners in the trade. The reporters only rarely, try as they might, figured out the politics of the editor. Everybody was there to get the story right and get it first, or have a good reason why not. Everybody was expected to be a skeptic — "if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out" — and exposure up close to the real world transformed more than a few into cynics.


The first time I was sent out on a story, this one about a farmer feuding with a tuberculosis sanitarium that was dumping medical waste into a creek that was the boundary of their joint property. The city editor read through the result, typed on a battered manual typewriter splashing ink on actual paper, sighed heavily, invited me up to his desk. In plain view of colleagues, copy boys and a cleaning lady, he wadded the pages into a paper basketball and threw it at me.


I caught it on first bounce and asked, trembling, what was wrong with it. "Everything," he replied. What did he want me to do? "Figure out what's wrong with it if you can, and fix it if you can. But don't come back until you do." Fortunately, one of the friendly old guys who had watched from across the newsroom called me over to say, "You're lucky, he likes you." He offered to help. He read through it and asked who I had talked to at the hospital. "Well, I didn't need to talk to anyone there," I replied, "but I talked to the farmer twice." He shook his head with what might have been pity.


"There's got to be a good explanation for dumping medical waste in a creek," the old guy said, "but even if there isn't, and there probably isn't, your outrage belongs on the editorial page, not in your news story. Reporters aren't allowed to be outraged."


I was qualified only to cover the politics of the future, when it wouldn't be necessary to cover both sides with equal treatment of opposing facts, even if some of the facts are merely factoids, Norman Mailer's famous term for something that looks like a fact, smells like a fact but is actually not a fact. Factoids bloom in abundance in Washington.


The saddest part of the unfolding story of the partisan divide that threatens to swallow the nation's culture is what has happened to the news trade, its tolerance of the assumption that the Republicans, the conservatives and maybe even Christians and white folks are base, evil and undeserving of fair treatment.


The president brings down trouble with his blather, exaggeration, bad manners and abuse of facts, but the free press of the First Amendment, once held in high esteem by nearly everyone, does not. He hurts himself because he could get a lot more done if he would dispense with some of the blather, exaggeration, bad manners, abuse of facts, etc and etc. The red-hots in his base would forgive him for it, and others might pay attention.


Newspaper publishers, pressed to do all manner of things that were once thought disreputable and wrong, just to keep the ship afloat, are always on the scout for corners and budgets to cut, and sometimes they're tempted to cut the wrong things first. The editor of a major newspaper once told me that his publisher suggested cutting everyone whose bylines never appear in the paper, figuring no one would miss them. These are usually anonymous copy editors who give a story its last read before going to press. They have saved many a writer — and many an editor and publisher — from disaster.


Every newspaper reporter, in newsroom legend, once had a novel in his bottom desk drawer. Twenty-five years ago, that changed. The novel was replaced by a screenplay. Then the novel was replaced by a dream to be a distributor of factoids from a slot on a cable-TV channel. Trivia compounded by trivia, and now we're strangling in it.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times. His column has appeared in JWR since March, 2000.

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