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Over the Horizon

• May 19, 2008 • 12:00 PM

A new British book, “Flat Earth News,” provides a well-researched answer to the age-old question: Why are the news media so dumb?

Why has the U.S. political press found a possibly imprecise use of the word “bitter” fascinating for weeks on end? Why does a search of significant English-language news sources turn up 985 articles in the last year that include the words “Britney” and “underwear”? And why, oh why, do news organizations all follow the same stories almost all the time, moving in such complete lockstep that they might as well be Groucho Marx in the Duck Soup mirror scene?

Because I’ve been a journalist for decades, I’ve been asked why the news media seem so repetitive and, yes, dumb at least several hundred times now, usually at cocktail parties. (Three drinks, I’ve learned, turn anyone into a journalistic expert.) When I was young, the questions would rile me, and I’d spout First Amendment bromides. The longer I worked in journalism, though, the more I sensed that a systemic disorder had infected the news business. It was a malady that led newspapers and television news organizations to copy one another often, while pretending never to. And to quote from the most self-serving of business and government press releases as though they were Moses’ tablets. And to rely on official sources, even when the sources were obviously wrong or lying. And to commit many resources to coverage of transitory and trivial events and very few to investigative or other enterprise reporting that would result in stories of lasting import.

So, when faced with questions about the failings of my chosen trade, I began to evade. No, I’d say, most reporters aren’t secretly trying to sneak their own views into the news pages. And no, although it happens sometimes, the owners of large news organizations don’t generally reach down into the newsroom nowadays to bludgeon enemies and help friends. And no, I’d say, the mayor (or the governor, or the president) can’t usually threaten news executives with anything that would make them kill a story. It’s not that simple, I’d say; the problem’s more complicated than that. But I never could come up with an overarching explanation, the Unified Field Theory of General Media Banality.

British journalist Nick Davies offers just that with his book Flat Earth News, a much-discussed best-seller since its U.K. publication earlier this year. Emend that: It’s been much talked about in England but gone largely unnoticed in the U.S., in no small part because it has yet to pick up a U.S. publisher. It should, and quickly. The book is sophisticated and not just engagingly written, but hilarious in all the right places.

It starts by exploring a remarkable case of the falsity that Davies calls flat earth news, the Y2K computer bug. You may remember the story: Computers that were not updated or replaced would likely fail as the dates in their internal clocks rolled from 1999 to 2000, sending the planet into various forms of uncomputerized chaos. News outlets ran story after story about the “millennium bug,” and billions of dollars were spent on computer replacement and other Y2K protection around the world. And then, as the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve and 1999 became 2000, almost nothing happened — even in the countries where little or nothing had been done to ward off the “bug.” All around the world, news organizations had agreed over many years about the terrible danger of Y2K — and been absolutely wrong.

As Flat Earth News amply documents, the Y2K story is no anomaly; 21st-century news is chock full of uninvestigated and unmitigated falsehood. How can this be? Well, it’s a complicated problem. But there’s this book; let me tell you about it.

Book Review

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Nick Davies is a veteran investigative journalist with a fair collection of awards on his résumé; when he’s not writing books, he writes regularly for the Guardian. But his conclusions — which I believe join into one of the more important explications of media behavior published in recent times — are based not just on his considerable experience, but on what seem to be thorough reporting and empirical research. At his request, researchers from the Cardiff University journalism department looked at news stories created by five English papers in a randomly chosen two-week period. (And no, they didn’t study the sensation-chasing tabs; these were four “quality” newspapers — The Times, the Guardian, The Independent and the Daily Telegraph — as well as the mid-market Daily Mail.) “They found that a massive 60 percent of these quality-print stories consisted wholly or mainly of wire copy and/or PR material,” Davies writes, “and a further 20 percent contained clear elements of wire copy and/or PR to which more or less other material had been added.” In the end, the researchers found that only 12 percent of stories were based on material generated entirely by the papers’ own reporters.

And how thoroughly checked are the wire stories and PR releases that underlie 80 percent of these papers’ articles? As Davies puts it, “The researchers went on to look at those stories which relied on a specific statement of fact and found that with a staggering 70 percent of them, the claimed fact passed into print without any corroboration at all.”

Through other research by his Cardiff associates, Davies ties these failings to economics. As U.K. newspapers were consolidated by what Davies calls the “grocers” — that is, corporate owners interested in the news primarily as a profitable commodity, rather than a public service — the broad dictates of commerce piled more and more work on already harried reporters. The Cardiff researchers found that national newspaper reporters have about one-third the time to find and check stories that their 1985 counterparts had. To meet these increased workloads, today’s reporters are essentially forced to submit lightly rewritten and largely unchecked wire stories and press releases for publication in the newspaper (or on a Web site or TV news), a process that Davies calls “churnalism.”

Based on his research, reporting and experience, Davies lays out 10 “Rules of Production” that govern churnalism today and constitute the most trenchant reading in Flat Earth News. In extreme recap, the rules say that under the grocers’ mandate to control costs, journalists are encouraged to find stories that are cheap and quick to produce, as well as safe, in the sense that they rely on official statements and do not rile any person or entity with the power to hurt the news organization. To grow revenues, the grocers create systems that encourage journalists to write stories that have already been widely published elsewhere; that cater to audience preferences, regardless of newsworthiness; that ignore complicating context, to and beyond the point of actual falsehood; and that support prevailing political sentiment.

I don’t want to ruin your future reading, but to give you a flavor of the dark joy of Davies’ writing, I must mention revenue-producing “Rule Nine: Go with the moral panic.” This rule, Davies notes, applies during perceived crises, such as after the death of a major public figure. In these times, grocer production rules require journalists “to sell the nation a heightened version of its own emotional state in the crudest possible form. Unlike the other rules, it is compulsory: Waverers who fail to express their part of the moral panic are hunted down and attacked.” As an example, Davies describes the English media’s attempt to gin up and then cater to supposed massive national grieving over the 2002 death of the Queen Mother. The Observer ran a 10-page section that included the headline “Millions Grieve for a Gracious Queen”; television crews were dispatched across London. But there was a problem. “The particularly tricky fact,” Davies slyly notes, “was that there was a national shortage of grieving millions, which caused special problems for television.”

Though filled with a kind of black humor that made me laugh out loud at least once a chapter, Flat Earth News is an important work of media theorizing, not just for England but for the U.S., where the news business has also been largely bought up by the grocers over the last three or four decades. As reporters are put under pressure to produce stories quickly, news has become ever more open to manipulation by almost anyone with the money to hire quality PR representatives. In his most frightening chapter, “The Propaganda Puzzle,” Davies explores what happens when the interested party is the government, detailing a series of phony reports on war in the Middle East that appear to have come directly out of the strategic communications operations of U.S. military and intelligence agencies. His account is chilling in its documentation of false report after false report slipped into an overburdened news factory and then churned out, uninvestigated, as news that circled the globe.

In some ways, this chapter of Davies’ book can be seen as an explanation of the general system that enables what The New York Times so brilliantly revealed in specifics in April: For years, Pentagon-prepped military analysts had appeared on television and radio in a coordinated attempt to influence public opinion toward support of the war in Iraq. And why were the motives and apparent conflicts of interest of the analysts never seriously questioned by the television and radio outlets that employed these former military officers? As Davies quotes U.S. Army General Tom Metz in a 2006 article in Military Review: “We must recognize that the current global media gravitates toward information that is packaged for ease of dissemination and consumption: the media will favor a timely, complete story.”

Regardless, in too many cases, of its reliability.

Flat earth news has caused no small uproar in the U.K. By e-mail, I asked Davies why he thought the book had yet to gain much notice on this side of the Atlantic.

“The media reaction to the book is interesting,” he wrote back. “Here, there was a straightforward division between, on the one hand, a small number of journalists who set out to try and murder the book (these were either individuals who came out of the book badly or senior people who couldn’t stand the idea that they had spent decades running organizations that were failing in their central function), and then, separately and slowly, a considerable mass of working journalists who came forward, privately or publicly, to endorse the contents of the book and to write reviews, news stories, comment columns and blogs which spread the word that there is something terribly wrong at the heart of the news industry.

“I strongly suspect that media reaction to the book in the U.S. would take the same shape. And so my answer to your question is that the lack of media reaction in the U.S. is simply down to the fact that the book ain’t published there.”

In the end, Flat Earth News is a pessimistic book, its conclusion summarized by this dark passage: “I’m afraid that I think the truth is that, in trying to expose the weakness of the media, I am taking a snapshot of a cancer. Maybe it helps a little to be able to see the illness. At least that way, we know in theory what the cure might be. But I fear the illness is terminal.”

As editor of Miller-McCune, a magazine dedicated to practical solutions for social problems, I’d have to perform some complicated verbal gymnastics to join fully in Davies’ pessimism. Luckily, I don’t have to; even though my experience confirms much of what he describes, where Davies finds only darkness, I see some evidence for the glow of pre-dawn.

As dedicated to reported fact as it is, Flat Earth News only occasionally mentions, and consistently underplays, the importance of the journalists still dedicated to reporting, context and truth. They may constitute only 12 percent of some organizations, but in others — let us take The New York Times and The Washington Post as examples — enterprise and challenging official misstatement remain central values, from the executive suite down. And though Davies mentions the digital revolution, he does so almost as a side note, when it is, actually, the story at the top of the home page.

The shift of readers and viewers to the Web has worked a disaster on established news organizations, cutting into their revenues and forcing them to show journalists the door by the thousands. So, in the short term, Davies is right: Our dark and stormy media night will only be darker and stormier, with fewer reporters, more work piled on the ones who remain and more uninvestigated flat earth news, spread ’round the world at Web speed.

But by its very nature, the Internet is attacking churnalism at its root, competing with and undermining the commercial system that compels the churning. Where newspapers and broadcast and cable TV networks once had monopolies or oligarchies over the news — no one without access to tens or hundreds of millions of dollars could hope to enter a major newspaper or television market — the barriers to entry have fallen. Antidotes to churnalism — the investigative expertise of the Center for Public Integrity (PublicIntegrity.org), the multimedia documentary brilliance of MediaStorm.org and the green élan of Grist.org, among too many other quality sites to list here — are emerging. Many of these non-churning organizations (including Miller-McCune/Miller-McCune.com) are funded as nonprofits and have already demonstrated less of a grocer approach to the news than the News Corporations, the MediaNewses and the Gannetts of the world.

Which of these quick and networked Web mammals will eventually win out, as the least imaginative and flexible of the legacy media dinosaurs die off? That’s a question a decade of media evolution will only begin to answer. But the winning out and the dying off are not in question. All that remains to be seen is whether and to what extent the disease of flat earth news is still epidemic among the mammals and surviving archosaurs that dominate the new media ecosystem, once the impending extinction has run its course.

As I noted in our premiere issue, I’m no fan of the standard editor’s letter and its blithe praise for all the fine stories that the editor has, in his infinite brilliance, placed inside the current issue of his magazine. So in this column, I’ll tend not to spend too many words on our stories, but I should offer this explanation now: Our two long articles dealing with education — Delaine Eastin’s soaring call to improve primary education, and a powerful essay on the results education can and cannot produce for society, written by the renowned Norman Nie and Saar Golde of Stanford — were printed in the same issue deliberately. Yes, those quick to jump to superficial judgment may well see the articles as diametrically opposed and, ergo, evidence of the low critical-thinking abilities of journalists in general and this editor specifically. But I have confidence in the perspicacity of Miller-McCune readers and feel sure many will see our purpose in juxtaposing the two pieces and write us basketsful of letters, explaining the forest others may not have seen behind two educational trees.

Miller-McCune welcomes letters to the editor, sent via e-mail to theeditor@miller-mccune.com; via the comment sections of our Web site, Miller-McCune.com; or by standard mail to The Editor, 804 Anacapa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.

John Mecklin
John Mecklin was the debut editor-in-chief of Miller-McCune, serving from its birth through May 2011. Over the last 15 years, he's also been: the editor of High Country News, a nationally acclaimed magazine that reports on the American West; the consulting executive editor for the launch of Key West, a city/regional magazine; and the top editor for award-winning newsweeklies in San Francisco and Phoenix that specialized in narrative journalism. In an earlier incarnation, he was an investigative reporter at the Houston Post and covered the Persian Gulf War from Saudi Arabia and Iraq for the paper. His writing has won national acclaim; writers working at his direction have won a panoply of major journalism honors, including the George Polk Award, the Investigative Reporters and Editors certificate, the John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism and the Sidney Hillman Award for reporting on social justice issues. Mecklin holds a master's in public administration degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a bachelor's in psychology from Indiana University.

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