The Outstater: Journalism for Dummies
A FRIEND EXPRESSED ADMIRATION for how quickly I was able to go through the morning newspaper. No, I explained, I’m not a speed reader. Reductions in newsroom staffing have had a lot to do with it, but also I am aided by a lifetime of amalgamated discernment. I know which stories can be ignored at no cost to my working knowledge. I am encouraged to list them here:
- Stories with headlines imploring that this or that “must be done” or “now is the time to . . .” These are certain tells that the articles have been assigned, edited and written by advocacy journalists. They see their job as helping readers think correctly rather than provide useful information. Their readers, deserting their papers by the droves, are rejecting that help.
- Ditto for headlines that end with a question mark. This is a trick to make you think the article is a sincere query rather than another tiresome lecture.
- This is an optional eschewal, but I do not subscribe to newspapers with headlines in other than title case. It tells me that the editor has abandoned rigorous copy editing.
- Stories about politics cast in sports terms. Sports are serious endeavors complete unto themselves. Their trials and glory cannot be transferred to the debased. (A corollary: Follow the example of a great sports writer, Red Smith, and read only stories about what actually happens on the field of play.)
- Stories implying that a politician “fights” for his constituency. Politicians today are in the business of attracting monetary support — period. They have no time for fighting, and few of them look capable of any sort of actual tussle in any case.
- Articles that presume to know how a legislative session will end. Public Choice economists can explain the science behind this, but modern statehouse leadership has become detached from any real constituency. As such, it doesn’t have a clue until the last minute as to how the membership will vote on critical issues. But leadership, being leadership, must pretend to know, and political reporters, similarly detached, go along with the charade.
- Any series of articles accompanied by lavish graphics and special promotions. These are written not for you but to impress the Pulitzer board or some lesser self-congratulating journalism entity. There is unlikely to be an information there that is trustworthy or useful (a huge time-saver).
- Articles that claim to have found evidence of a hypocrisy. Public moral standards have fallen below the point where the word has meaning.
- Stories topped by headlines with scatological references. Here is an example from a Fort Wayne paper: “When Sewer Issues Bubble to the Surface, It’s not Always Easy to Flush Them Away.”
- Reports of opinion surveys that ask for a social judgment by the respondent. The respondents will lie, and biased pollsters know that. They use it to feed their narrative.
- You will of course need to read any news of natural disasters near you, and the first hours of such reportage will be filled with heroism, charity and displays of uncommon character and citizenship. After which, however, the government will take charge. When you see the first reference to the Federal Emergency Management Agency you can quit reading. The rest will be posture. (How, really, do the stricken cities continue to operate with all of their officials crammed behind the microphone for the obligatory disaster press conference?)
That will leave articles about animals. Although few, they will provide the models you’ll need to live to God’s specifications without delusion, complaint or excuse. “I have been studying the traits and dispositions of the lower animals and contrasting them with the traits and dispositions of man,” wrote Mark Twain. “I find the result humiliating to me.”
Is there a better story than that of Seabiscuit, an under-sized, knobby-kneed colt with a reputation for laziness that lost its first 17 races before retiring as the all-time leading money winner? How about Skip, the Oregon dog left by the road on a family vacation that finds its way home two years later?
There, you’ve saved a mess of time and you’re off to meet the day well-read and intellectually girded.
— Craig Ladwig