FOREIGN POLICY JULY 31, 2010
Anyone who’s worked for a news organization will recognize the phrase “we did that.” A demonstration at an abortion clinic? We did that. Decay of the New York subway system? Rotting bridges in Minnesota? Shoddy levees in New Orleans? Melting glaciers? Fished-out oceans? Ditto, ditto, and ditto.
Other attendant verbs are “rehash,” “warmed-over” and “-up.” Speaking for myself—maybe this is a personal quirk—when I was a kid, I preferred my hash on the second day, warmed up.
“We did that” isn’t a sinister response: It’s occupationally necessary. The number of dead trees to be savaged for the daily paper (or weekly, biweekly, or monthly magazine) is limited by the cost of pulp and the profit expectations of publishers, which are in turn affected by notions about the appetite and attention span of readers—notions that may be more or less inaccurate but are in any event unavoidable. Big-network news has about 21 minutes a day. The world is vast, and events—or, to make a concession to postmodernists, phenomena that can be construed as events—are myriad. On any given day, what goes in is playing a zero-sum game with what stays out. Online news stretches the hypothetical limit, up to some point or other. But anyone who puts together an online enterprise (excepting the Huffington Post) has to make choices too. The primary word in the vocabulary of any gatekeeper must be: No.
“We did that” is unavoidable, then, but in any given instance it may also reflect the jadedness of reporters and/or editors, and a misunderstanding of one of journalism’s prime civic functions. I’ve lost track of how many commentators have declared, this week, that the Times-Guardian-Spiegel spreads on the WikiLeaks from Afghanistan are nothing new. My fellow Entangler Marcus Wilford concedes that the WikiLeaks are “more prolific and detailed” that the collected journalism on Afghanistan but agrees with the White House that there’s “nothing new here” and is confident that “the public, seeking a better understanding of the Afghan situation, is feeling scarcely more enlightened or empowered than they did a week ago.”
Isn’t it a bit early to be so confident? Rather, I think there’s a good chance that some considerable public—not the ones who follow the war day to day—can now wrap their minds around what went wrong in Afghanistan (between 2004 and early 2009, at any rate) more coherently than they could have done before last Monday. And to the degree that this is true, it would not only shore up Adam Kirsch’s point that “transparency is moot without authority,” it would confirm that the Times (as well as the Guardian and Spiegel in their respective countries) have a substantial authority—and should be encouraged to keep exercising it.
Separately, there’s the accusation—for example, this from Joshua Foust at the Columbia Journalism Review online—that some of the more telling elements in the story are inconclusive, badly sourced, and otherwise unsatisfactory in the smoking-gun sense. Points taken—the same points that could be taken looking at any extensive piece of journalistic investigation. There are always loose ends, single-source moments, and other flaws and insufficiencies.
Now, here comes the nevertheless moment: Collating a data dump—selecting, ordering, synthesizing—constitutes a major journalistic service. At its highest, collating—or aggregating, to use the word du jour—connects dots, renders (greater) coherence, reveals figures in carpets. The Pentagon Papers not only told a story of how an awful war was made, they narrated a plot—not in the sense of a Glenn Beckian Trilateral—Commission/Bilderberg/JournoList diagram, but in the sense of E. M. Forster’s famous distinction between story (“The king died, and then the queen died”) and plot (“The king died and then the queen died of grief”). The WikiLeaks exposé doesn’t rise to the explanatory level of such a backstage plot, but by offering texture and volume, it rounds out “the story,” elevates the significance of the details, converts a data dump into a strong first draft of a synthesis.
One of the powers of government is to repeat. Repetition wearies some insiders, but when it takes, it establishes norms. That’s the dark power of propaganda. By the same token, journalism can’t perform watchdog duty unless it keeps barking. A watchdog that only barks once is a self-silencing watchdog.
When the story is important enough—and this is the nub of the journalistic judgment—refreshing the memory of the reader, hooking up the dots, is a central cultural function. As so often, Walter Lippmann said it, almost 90 years ago: news is less than truth. The “function of news is to signalize an event,” he wrote in his great Public Opinion (1922), “the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act.”