Following my recent lectures about popularization and accommodation, Cody Lewis (a 1SC student) emailed me about an episode of South Park, titled "Margaritaville," in which the South Park team takes a shot at explaining the recent economic meltdown, albeit crudely (pardon the double-entendre). Mr. Lewis pointed out that it was a fairly good popularization (and I, having also seen it, concurred), despite being dressed up as fiction.
Over the course of a few emails, we discussed the state of journalism today, with Jon Stewart and the creators of South Park somehow seeming -- despite the humor -- to be more like investigative journalists than our journalists are. Since I used to be a journalist, and a newspaper editor, I have a lot to say on this topic, and after telling a true story to Mr. Lewis that I thought captured the current journalistic mindset pretty well, I decided to share it here on my blog.
Here it is:
Many years back, I was a newspaper editor for a business journal. I had assigned one of my reporters a pretty standard business story -- a local company had filed for bankruptcy, and it was a big enough deal to warrant an article. He turned in his first draft, and it didn't have a lot of information in it: He said the company wouldn't return calls, so he was stuck with what he could find in the court filing itself. It took a lot of work on my part to get him to do any real digging -- to call people other than company representatives, for instance.
At one point, I asked him this: "How many creditors does the company have?"
Him (sighing): "I don't know. I'll go try to find out."
Later, he returned: "The court filing doesn't say, and the company won't call me back, so I don't know."
Me: "But you have the court filing, right?"
Me: "And it has a list of the creditors, right?"
Him: "Yes, it does, but it doesn't say how many there are."
Me: "No, of course it doesn't. But it has a list."
Him: "Yeah, so?"
Long, long pause, as I waited for him to figure it out. He didn't. So ...
Me: "Count them."
Him (shocked): "You want me to count them?"
That's what I dealt with, pretty much every day, in a newsroom. When I read or watch the news, I still see that basic attitude, that same overreliance on pre-packaged information. Many (not all) reporters seem inclined to lean back in the child-seat and wait to be spoon-fed pre-digested, infantile matter. Didn't use to be like that, but it is now.
And that's why Jon Stewart can show them up. He knows how to count, and isn't afraid to use his fingers to do it.