Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

I was so Disappointed

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Fanning a Fire

As I listened to the Friday News Roundtable, which is hosted every week by OPB, one of the panelists said how “disappointed” they were that Republican nominee Donald Trump did not pick a more explosive and contentious vice-presidential running mate.

I thought to myself, “So, to be clear, you are disappointed that a potentially destructive candidate did not pick a more equally destructive running mate because that will make for a more boring story for you to report.”

This is another one of the long list of problems I believe permeate the news biz.

I loved the mid 2000’s TV show “Scrubs” because of its biting commentary on medicine, hospitals, doctors and culture.  One episode I remember was an argument between long time staff nurse Laverne and Chief of Interns, Perry Cox.  Laverne was asking about the tendency of surgeons to always choose exploratory surgery over other options and Cox said, “When was the last time you ever met a cutter who didn’t want to cut? Laverne! You have been here 40 years now, have you ever heard such a thing?”

Likewise, news people apparently don’t prefer a news story that is interesting but without the poisonous consequences over one filled with prurient and insane interest that also results in horrible consequences.  Part of the reason, I think, is because the more messy, complex, bigoted, disgusting story is guaranteed to have plenty of news babies; each of which can then be teased out ad nauseum and in gruesome detail.

They might say they don’t choose the stories they must report, and I expect that’s right.  One problem with the media is it is a competition.  Whoever can claim to be the fastest to report is seen as the best, the “news authority”.  That brings ad dollars.  And the worse, the better.  But there are a list of other “reasons” that I’m sure would be a counterpoint to each of the four points in the code of ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists.

But here’s the bigger problem.  Societies run by demagogues or plagued by fanned fires don’t suffer free media for long.   And I harken back to a Saturday Night Live bit for some support.  When Sarah Palin had appeared on the October 22, 2008 airing of SNL, with her Tina Fey doppelganger, there was a segment with Ms. Palin seated comfortably in an easy chair facing and talking to the camera directly.   And she essentially said that once she and John McCain become president, there would be some changes in how a TV show like Saturday Night Live could parody cultural figures.

I couldn’t tell if she was kidding or not.  After all, SNL is a program of humorous satire.  But there was no hint of humor, and her veiled threat of censorship sounded less like satire and more like a warning.  If Trump becomes president and if he had, instead of choosing Mike Pense, chosen Newt Gingrich or Chris Christie or even Sarah Palin, I wonder how long the sometimes, nose-high Fourth estate would continue feel invulnerable.  He has already threatened the media and the constitutional basis of a free press. A story that delights for its messiness, but raised to a sufficient temperature, can cook up some really nasty policy consequences.

So when I hear news people lament over how they wish a political story was more spectacularly shit-filled, or how they futz that a personal collapse is less compelling because the sufferer isn’t doing more to blow themselves up in front of cameras or microphones, I wonder if the American people (whoever that really is) might have a point when surveys show large swaths on both sides of the political spectrum say they don’t entirely trust the media.

I don’t mean the hard working journalists who report the facts and refuse to prognosticate or editorialize.  I mean what’s left.

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