Magazine article The Spectator

The Trouble with the Media Is Not Dumbing Down, but Its Opposite

Magazine article The Spectator

The Trouble with the Media Is Not Dumbing Down, but Its Opposite

Article excerpt

The better the writer, the worse the reporter? I fear so, because the journalist as writer has no concern with mere facts, if they get in the way of some more important truth that he is trying to make, either in his stories, if he is a reporter, or in his ideas or arguments, if he is a columnist. For the journalist as writer fancies himself as an artist, and an artist, by definition, is someone who has a skill which enables him to improve on nature, as much in words as in paint, clay or music. There is an element of trickery in art - sublime trickery, at best, but trickery nevertheless.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the journalist as artist is not content to report a train accident straight - so many dead and injured; so many carriages wrecked, etc. - but must perforce fill out the picture with a lot of speculation and colour, most of which tells us more about the author - what a good writer he is - than about the train crash. No, that is not quite fair. In the journalism of a great writer, such as Rudyard Kipling, the reader, as it happens, will learn a great deal about train crashes in general - the essential truth about train crashes. But that is not the same as learning all the nitty-gritty, boring details of a minor derailment, say, on the 10.20 from Burnley to Accrington. It is precisely that order of nitty-gritty details that the newspaper reporter, as against the writer, used to be expected to obtain.

In my early days on the Glasgow Herald shortly after the war, for example, a reporter covering a fire was expected to find out the names and ages of all the firemen involved, which were all duly given at the end of the story; likewise with the names and ages of all the policemen involved in the detection of a crime. Even to this day, that extent of detail fills the columns of the New York Times, but never any longer those of the London Times - or any other broadsheet -- whose reporters nowadays regard bothering with such pedestrian details as well below their level of attention. Nor would any contemporary newspaper editor allow his reporters to go into such detail for fear of boring readers into cancelling their subscriptions. In the old days, however, readers of quality newspapers did not feel they were getting their money's worth unless they were bored, rather as patients do not feel a medicine is doing them any good unless it tastes nasty.

One reason for this change, I believe, is that a much more educated kind of person now goes into journalism; someone, very often, with an arts degree who feels it infra dig to be a mere reporter concerned with relating the facts dead-pan, and aspires instead, as an investigative reporter, to find the facts behind the facts; as a feature writer to add a bit of colour to the facts; as a columnist to explain the facts; or as a leader writer to say what readers should make of the facts. Insofar as the contemporary journalist is willing to deal with the facts at all, they have to be exclusives or scoops - i.e. ones which only he is privy to, or ones which he is the first to reveal. Ordinary, humdrum facts, speeches in the House of Commons or communiques or official statements, are of little interest, except as a scaffolding on which the reporter can build a verbal structure of his own designing. When did you last read a speech -- Clinton before the Grand Jury does not count -- reported verbatim or in full? Nowadays reporters are too busy reading between the lines ever to bother with the lines themselves.

Heaven knows, I ought to know about all this, having been one of the earliest offenders. …

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