Monday, May 26, 2003

Gaming the System

Everybody would like to believe that political and social problems could be resolved once and for all by some clever mechanism or universal rule. Reform the Electoral College and restore democracy. Limit campaign contributions and eliminate corruption. All of which is not very different from the universal fantasy of golfers that a new putter will miraculously improve their putting. But politics, like swinging a golf club, is not something done once. As Hannah Arendt wrote to Karl Jaspers, “There is no nonpolitical way of escaping politics.” Every reform generates its own counter reform because what’s at play are the creative and destructive energies and intelligence of real human beings. We know from the prophet Jeremiah that the “heart of man is devious and desperately corrupt.” Meanwhile it is a theorem of theoretical computer science that there can be no universal defense against parasites. Consequently…

All of which is supposed to serve as a highfalutin introduction to an observation about one particular class of parasites and their practices. The recent scandals at the New York Times made a peculiar impression on me because the same editors and executives that are currently wringing their hands about the deceptions and plagiarisms of Jayson Blair, a relatively junior reporter whose stories were human interest pieces whose authenticity or falsity had no larger significance, cheerfully harbor and indeed honor Jeff Gerth whose dishonest journalism figured in the fabrication of the Whitewater scandal and the later martyrdom of Dr. Lee. From there own perspective, the editors are right. While Gerth indeed habitually misrepresents the truth, he follows all the regs, writes every word himself, and always has two sources for everything, albeit sources he has reason to believe are unreliable. He deserved his Pulitzer Prize because he excelled at journalism, which is, after all, the manufacture of stories for money. Of course Gerth would be out of the running if there were a prize for the activity of accurately reporting on important matters, but we don’t have a name for that.

At this point, I should anticipate an objection. Confronted with the evidence, journalists always respond to radical criticisms of their profession by reciting the speech about how free societies need watch dogs. But nobody disagrees with that sentiment. The problem is that journalism as it is actually practiced is anything but a watchdog. For the most part, it’s a lap dog. Changing the technical rules of journalism or burning Jayson Blair at the stake won’t help that. Somebody has to judge themselves and their profession by whether or not it succeeds in informing the public and not by a set of guild rules. It isn’t really a sonnet just because it has fourteen lines and rhymes ababcdcdefefgg.

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