Men Biting Dogs


I don’t know. If there are two types of news, the ones about the dog who bit a man and the man who bit the dog, then we are surely getting the latter type in the crime reporting that suddenly swamps the media. But will that make us believe that men biting dogs is a common and serious problem?

Echidne’s reminded me of the seventeen hundred things I’ve always hated about this goddamn trade. A couple of years back, after the Steve Bartman baseball fiasco, there was a huge journalism debate. Should the Chicago papers have named the poor schlub? Under what ethical guidelines did they make that decision? A friend of mine, who works as a journalism professor, e-mailed me: what did I think? He was planning on having an ethics debate with his class over it.

At the time, I told him (with more anger than he deserved) that a better ethical debate might be why multiple reporters at multiple news outlets were pursuing that story with great urgency, while night after night after night young men killed one another in the city, and nobody gave a damn. Because it’s over drugs or territory, because they’re black or Hispanic, because their faces all blur together after a while. Everybody knows Steve Bartman’s name, I said, and nobody knows theirs. It’s not a fun debate, it’s not sexy, it doesn’t sell, and these are excuses to mask the fact that journalism doesn’t debate this stuff because we just don’t wanna and the person who brings that sort of stuff up is a shrill killjoy. You want to have an ethics debate with future journalists, have that one. It’ll at least teach them something new.

It’s become a fucking joke, honestly, this whole “problems of the pretty” programming/coverage we have. Mr. A will catch part of the local news broadcast and bet me five bucks on what the “Health” segment wil be about: New plastic surgery advance, breast cancer treatment, prostate cancer treatment, flu remedy, obesity surgery. Not that there aren’t legitimate stories on all those subjects, or that I’m belittling those who live with those conditions. But if you watched TV news stories about “health,” you’d think those were the only threats to our well-being. I can’t remember the last time I saw a “health” segment about AIDS. It might have been in the 80s sometime.

One of our stations regularly does investigative reporting. Of bad hair days. Lost luggage, junk mail, and I kid you not, “lunchbox dangers.” And now it’s February sweeps, which makes matters even worse. This is what we end up getting: Designer Dogs. I’m not opposed to a little lighthearted story now and again, but they promo’d this thing so much you’d have thought it was the next Watergate.

The newspapers follow suit. The Chicago Tribune has this odious feature called “What’s Your Problem?” in which they use the considerable power of “Hi, I’m calling from the Chicago Tribune” to help people get their money back from the phone company and the like. Consumer advocacy is nice. I’m not sure I want my newspaper doing it. It seems so … small.

For years we’ve been told that the problem with journalism is bias, that perceptions of bias are causing this erosion of trust in the press. It’s not. It’s laziness. Triviality. The two-part investigative series on which mascara really does work the best. “News You Can Use,” which implies all other news is useless. Constant and public self-flagellation over our perceived flaws (polls can be self-reinforcing; keep telling everybody how much everybody hates the press and pretty soon …) and kow-towing to every conservative nutjob what thinks he has a problem, and shying away from controversy: Designer Dogs doesn’t get you hate mail. News for what we imagine our audience to be, rather that what we imagine our audience to need, and then blaming the audience for desertion. We dumb down and down and down and grasp ever more desperately for a time when people wanted the news, as if our giving them nothing but Pixie Stix hasn’t affected their appetite for sugar.

We tell them, over and over, that the men biting the dogs, that’s the story that’s the most important, and then get mad when that’s the story they want.