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Jamison Foser, over at Media Matters recently went on an extended riff about how the press has been beating up on progressives while being nice to vile conservatives. When I've had the opportunity to corner reporters about these charges, many  respond with some variation on the theme that the public is too stupid to follow complex themes---occasionally falling back on the "hey, we have to sell papers" argument.

Of course, not all reporters do that. Some get it dead-center perfect. But they really are in the minority.

And as for the stupid reader concept---deep down they know that's hogwash--regular people on a Houston jury recently saw right through Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling's convoluted defense--and as a guy who has testified as an expert witness on technical matters, I have found time and again that regular people can understand facts when they are presented properly.

It's just that too many reporters and pundits seem unable to present complex things at all.  Another way to put it: too many reporters simply don't appear to have the tools to do the job we expect.  When interviewed, we hope we'll be talking with Edward R. Murrow but then find out it's some combination of Mallard Fillmore and Snuffy Smith.  Then we complain when they get it all wrong.
  I've been interviewed by all sorts of reporters---usually on the environmental beat. Since what I do involves statistics and technical issues, I usually ask the interviewer about his or her background in science.  Often as not I learn that the reporter has no background in science.  Likely they ended up on the science/environmental beat because they "really like writing about the environment."  

But as fluffy as that sounds, in practice, it follows an age-old formula established by some long-forgotten editor from the 1950s:  five-minute interview with the person of interest, jot down a few notes, then call Professor X at the local college for the opposing view.  

Balance 101.

A few years ago, I--along with a lot of other interested parties--- testified at a National Academy of Sciences meeting in Salt Lake City about compensation regarding cancer from fallout exposure. Afterward, I was interviewed by a reporter from the Chicago Tribune.  After a few minutes, I noticed that she seemed to be writing only one or two words per notebook page.  Then, to top things off, after the twenty-minute interview, she spilled her Pepsi all over her notes, the table and the floor.  A few days later I read her account of the event, and it didn't resemble anything I'd remembered.

Put another way, if your computer tech poured a glassful of Pepsi onto your motherboard, would you hire his company again?  I don't read the Chicago Trib anymore, either.

How far up the food chain do the problems go? Let's return to Slate. The stupendously awful pop music politico-psychoanalysis of Hillary Clinton's Ipod was apparently penned by none other than Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg--a guy who apparently also isn't interested in fact-checking.

As someone who used to play in a cover band, I think I can say with authority that the type of music a person likes has no relation at all to their political persuasion. Three of my own favorite songs are Boston's Don't Look Back Village of Love by Nathaniel Mayer and the Twilighters, and the Gayne Ballet Suite by Aram Katchaturian. Figure me out based on that, Jake.  No, on second thought---please don't.

Of course, you could try to psycho-politico-analyze the 45-year-old pasty-faced white Republican guy I work with who loves gangsta rap and knows all the words to Don McLean's Vincent.

From a political perspective, of course, musical taste means nothing.  Which is the point.  

It is not enough to dismiss the premise of the article as being wrongheaded, patently dumbassian, or a waste of bandwidth.

I propose that instead of complaining about media bias, we should begin to think of a media outlet as an information shop. Initially we assume that the workers in that information shop are there because they are competent.

But if we subsequently find that some are in fact seriously dumbassian, we should fall back on our criteria for the bricks-and-morter shops. Like computer-repair places.

If the tech at the computer shop can't repair our whack-out HP, we tend to take our business elsewhere. So why should be put up with media workers who get it very, very wrong--time and time again? Shouldn't we vette our information sources at least as thoroughly as we do our computer repair shops?  If we care about the quality of our information, we should.

A lot of people complained when Weisberg blurted out that unintentionally hilarious Hillary Clinton Psycho-Ipod article.  The Media Matters author suggested Weisberg was biased.  But he did NOT challenge Weisberg to list his qualifications for writing such stuff. For example: 1. Has the Slate editor ever taken any courses in the psychology of music? 2. Any courses in the culture of pop music (yes, horribly, such courses exist.)3. Is he even a musician?  Does he know who really wrote Dazed and Confused? 4. Is he thoroughly familiar with the concept of irony? Or was he just having a lame day when important concepts simply refused to come into his head?

Instead of complaining that a reporter---be it Jacob Weisberg, or David Broder or, well, anyone--as being merely unfair, I suggest critics stop complaining about bias and go to the heart of the matter: Can the writer offer evidence that he/she is competent to write such stuff at all? If Weisberg is unqualified to write about music choice as politics then maybe we should just skip those articles of his that involve a discussion of politics.  Or maybe we could just skip Slate altogether.  More to the point, if it looks like the pundit is putting one over on us, then maybe we should think twice before reading any of his articles again.

That's not to say we should ban them from writing about what they want.  This is America, after all.  Thus far, anyway.  But when they go into flake mode--as I believe Weisberg did---they should warn their readers that the usual guarantees have been temporarily suspended and what comes next will have all the gravitas of a song by The Tee Set.

And if the readers still want to put up with that kind of fluff, well, fine.  Some writers are so good that you can both disagree with them but still love the way they write, i.e.  William F. Buckley.

But sooner or later pundit-darwinism will take over, the better journalists will get the bulk of the readership and the hacks will be forced to find work elsewhere.

Maybe as Senate staffers, doing what they all do best.

Like scanning Beatle's lyrics for political clues.

Originally posted to RMiller on Sun May 28, 2006 at 01:24 AM PDT.


Weisberg is on to something, and. .

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