What We Say When No One’s Listening

I’m going to be sick.

“Why have those who have continually howled at our treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo met the recent kidnapping and sadistic and brutal murders of our two young soldiers with deafening silence?” the letter began. “Where is your outrage now?” It then stated that the U.S. “should” behead 100 prisoners in retaliation, as well as ” editors, commentators, college professors and left-wing congressmen who would suddenly break their silence to come out in support of these enemy jihadists. We need to stop listening to these sanctimonious hypocrites who apply the rules of war only to our side.”

The E&P piece spends most of its time talking to Mr. Wolman (full disclosure, a brief acquaintance of mine and fellow alumnus of Wisconsin) about whether he should have published the letter in the paper. So I don’t want to get into a whole thing about giving people platforms and so forth. Besides, the crack den is all over that today. Go over there and talk about it if you like.

I want to talk about the fact that that sentiment exists at all, much less that we hear about it in the pages of the papers.

I’ve long thought Americans had a schizo relationship with the press. When I used to tell people what I did for a living they had one of two reactions: they thought I was an incredibly glamorous person, or they thought I was the scum of the earth. I much preferred the latter reaction, as it was more fun to argue than to dispel illusions.

There’s more …

But seriously, in films journalists are rock stars. Julia Roberts wears high heels to a train wreck. George Clooney runs around New York exposing corruption and making out with Michelle Pfeiffer. Robert Redford was never hotter (and he is a very hot hot thing) than when he was bringing down the Nixon administration. And don’t even get me started on His Girl Friday or Deadline USA, I don’t have time to fan myself that much.

At the same time, journalists are ambulance chasers, paparazzi. Journalists killed Princess Di. Journalists are traitors, according to the conservative media. They undermine the war on terror. They’re anti-American. They’re pointlessly negative (I’ll never forget the contempt in the voice of my husband’s former boss’s wife as she asked me, “So when’s the last time you did anything positive?”) and at best inconvenient to the functioning of noble government employees, who’d get away with everything if it wasn’t for those meddling hacks.

And people don’t distinguish. They say “the media.” What do they mean? Woodward & Bernstein or the National Enquirer? Did the writer of the letter cited above really mean he wanted to behead me? My friends? I covered city council meetings, what did I ever do to him? Media encompasses everything from blank VHS tapes to CBS, and this isn’t just a conservative problem. The main reason I jumped into commenting over at the crack den was because somebody had been incredibly indiscriminate with the tar-covered brush and it pissed me off to see people who were supposed to be on the reality-based side of things spouting the same halfbright bullshit.

Journalism doesn’t do a good job of making distinctions, either. News vs. “analysis” vs. punditry vs. column vs. “interperative report” vs. blogging vs. commenting … and all this fuss over who’s a journalist and who’s not, as if the breakdown was even possible while reporters are going on news shows on weekends and giving their opinions.

I don’t think good journalism gets the recognition it deserves, from fellow journalists. I don’t think newspapers in particular do a good job of reminding people why they exist and what they’re for. The news industry spends so much time flagellating itself over, as Atrios notes, relatively small mistakes and no time lifting up what’s done well and defending itself from the kind of attacks that result in letters like this.

That letter is from more than an anti-fact wingnut. That letter shows an utter incomprehension of what journalism is for, what it’s about, what its purpose is. I don’t think you should have to pass a test to have an opinion on something — imagine the chaos that would create in our pundit classes — but this is truly base-level ignorance. I doubt this person knows a single journalist, has ever talked to one.

This stuff used to make me angry but now it mostly makes me sad, because I know so many good journalists, so many good people, whose only concern is the world around them, whose only thought is that if they point out the problems in the world then somebody will listen and begin repair. I know many, many people who are frustrated by trying to explain public service to a public that no longer values it, frustrated by trying to explain that they didn’t create the pictures, they just brought them back. And it scares me, that this is the conversation we’ve created, that this is the level at which we’re talking.

Later on in the E&P story, Wolman says:

Wolman said he did not know what, if any, reaction the letter had prompted, but said, “I wasn’t expecting anybody to be beheaded if that is what you are asking.”

And you know, it’s the hysteric in me saying this, the person who all day reads all this online hate and rage, but I’m saying it anyway:

Just wait.

Keep talking this way, keep the conversation at this level, with no resistance, no pushback, no lines drawn anywhere, and just wait.