Apr 28, 2010

If your mother says she loves you

In his big book about the New York Times, Gay Talese writes about the reporter's instinct, "a special sense that good reporters develop and use in a crisis" to separate rumours from facts, to feel their way to what's true. If they have to, he writes, they can "write blind." He describes how Tom Wicker covered the Kennedy assassination, with the incredible chaos of information and misinformation, sheer pandemonium, and how Wicker nonetheless knew, perhaps in a way he couldn't have articulated, what was reliable and what wasn't.

"He was feeling the facts and guided by instinct," according to Talese.

This is amazing when it happens and feels amazing when it happens but what bothers me is that bad reporters, and mediocre reporters, and good reporters on bad or mediocre days, don't do anything like this. Instead they report everything, putting it all in without any sort of serious winnowing, all of it equal, and all of it attributed, all of it dubious. The reporter, on a normal day, takes a position of complete gullibility and complete, simultaneous, skepticism. All of it's treated as true, and as though none of that truth is believable.

Reporters have a tendency, too, to oscillate between being idealist believers and real cynics. And both of those are in their stories at the same time. They don't believe their mothers love them and they'll have to check it out, as the old line goes, but they'll print it as it is as long as it's got "she said" after it, and they'll do it exactly the same for the drunk guy who won't go home when the party's over.

"I love you, man," he said.

Maybe it doesn't matter if it's just the journalists, but what happens when the whole national conversation -- economics and politics, foreign affairs and everything -- is this wild oscillation between gullibility and believing nothing?