I hated working at the copy desk for my college newspaper. While I did line edits and re-flows on one boring student government story after another, I thought about the powerful media people who never had to perform such mundane labor. This was back in 2000, and at least to seventeen-year-old me, opinion was king. Nobody told David Broder what to write; nobody killed a Thomas Friedman story. This, I thought, was where the action was and always would be. You dredged up a few facts and earned the right to share your opinions.
In the pre-blog era, I deemed reporting, particularly investigative journalism, to be a real snooze, plus lots of work. Investigative journalism was embodied for me by San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, who wrote the stories about the CIA’s involvement in facilitating the crack cocaine epidemic. His stories eventually became Dark Alliance, a book my father wouldn’t stop talking about. (Webb, of course, was driven out of the business by “serious” reporters who dismissed his work, and he later committed suicide.)
Dad, I thought, was off his rocker. The truth wouldn’t set anyone free. After all, the Bill Clinton impeachment scandal hadn’t produced any smoking guns. Meanwhile, the president’s accusers, like Juanita Broaddrick, were dismissed as fame-seeking spotlight hogs by the commentariat.
Why worry about political corruption and abuse of power when you could turn on the TV and watch a bunch of talking heads chatter about Clinton’s odds of survival? This group consisted of distinguished op-ed contributors who wrote the same boring syndicated column week in and week out; political analysts in the David Gergen mold whose reputations were impervious to their endless string of bad predictions; veteran journalists hoping to burnish their reputation by switching from chasing stories to the grift of opining about them; and talk radio blowhards transitioning their spin cycling to cable news.
Little did I realize that the opinion business was going to change in a big way. Blogging democratized the process of editorializing and “exposure platforms” — like the Huffington Post’s unpaid contributor program, recently ended by the company because it had become an embarrassing cesspool of un-vetted reporting — ensured that all had the chance to shout into the echo chamber. Everyone was entitled to their own opinions and facts, as well as $0 paychecks for sharing them.
A few of the early blog stars rose from the muck of insipid opinion-sharing to become well known analysts, commentators, and op-ed stars. Some even secured treasure chests full of venture capital doubloons, paid out by investors hoping to capture the attention and clicks of the fast-rising millennial cohort who had grown up in this swamp.
Unless you were a hardcore reporter steeped in the history and tradition of the newsroom, it was easy to miss what was happening. Investigative reporting, which provided little bang for the payroll buck and inevitably pissed off the bosses, was ditched for blog-style analysis masquerading as news coverage, which was cheap and easy to mass produce.
Writing over three decades ago, New Yorker columnist George Trow observed that public discourse was headed in the direction of Family Feud: “The most important moment in the history of television was the moment when [Feud host Richard Dawson] asked contestants to guess what a poll of a hundred people had guessed would be the height of the average American woman. Guess what they’ve guessed the average is.”
And that is the essence of an analytical piece, not quite opinion and not quite news: what, pray tell, do the voters think about the candidates? “Here are my thoughts about what I think their thoughts are,” writes the wonk. “And I ran a few regressions of a data set selected more or less at random to substantiate this!”
Sure, as a journalist you could still while away the lonely hours hunting down companies evading responsibility for workplace injuries, or chasing dark money pouring into and out of various shady Washington nonprofits and institutions. But that’s hard and tiresome labor, especially if all you really want is a byline.
At the end of the day, muckraking is clearly inferior, career-wise, to pulling on adult diapers and sidling into the office of a legacy publication that pays you $250,000 a year to type up a few vapid columns a week. And better yet, with no consequences if anything you write is patently wrong-headed or brain-dead.
This is the modern news ecosystem. A few investigative reporters continue to track worthwhile stories and, if they’re lucky, get paid a living wage and defeat some bad guys in the process. But the great majority of today’s journalists are engaged in a brutal battle for likes and shares in the Twitter sandbox, eager to sell their pandering opinions in the hopes of establishing a “brand” and “reach.” Meanwhile, sleazy publishers will continue to get caught doing underhanded things to keep their sinking ships afloat, like buying clickbots to drum up advertising dollars.
And Washington Babylon will be here to follow the media gossip and bullshit all the way to Davey Jones’ locker.