Get Used to Reality

It's a pun! Oh, but I am witty!

January 29, 2010

Seeing as how Sarah Palin is everywhere lately, much like oxygen, I think we need to discuss something. Unlike oxygen, we don’t need Palin or people like her. I don’t like her, but this isn’t going to be an article on Palin herself. This is going to be an article on something that’s bugged me for a few weeks. Actually, a few years.

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I seem to remember that, at one point, the Fifth Estate held power. Newspapers, news programs, all of them had a responsibility to report the news, more of a mission, really. I remember watching Live from Baghdad a few years ago and marveling at reporters going out and risking their lives to report on the important events. I’m not trying to make this into a “When I was a kid,” speech, much like O’Reilly, Beck, and others have done.

I’m trying to understand if the image of the hard-hitting journalist is just that: an image. I used to think archeologists were like Indiana Jones. I was a bit devastated when I found out they weren’t. Reporters, too, had a certain aura of power to them. Bernstein and Woodward, Mencken, Murrow… they all still stand as some of the most figures of the 20th century. Reporters, at least to me, had an aura of being like the detectives of pulp noir. They traveled the mean streets, asked the hard questions, and exposed the wrongs of society for others to read or watch. Then, I met a superhero who was also a reporter: Clark Kent. If there was ever was a metaphor for the job or the ideal reporter, he was it. A hero for the people. And he was an immigrant, too!

So what happened?

The media has two jobs. It must inform on the important issues and investigate the facts. This is the job everyone associates with the Fourth Estate. We want to know what’s going on. However, the media must also attract ratings and make a profit in order to stay afloat. Equipment and crew don’t get paid on dreams and Starbucks gift cards. As a result, the news needs to attract viewership and often enlists analysts to supplement their repertoire of reporters.

The result is general confusion between two terms: reporter and analyst.

Oh, and boy is there a difference. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, news analysts, often called anchors or newscasters, “examine, interpret, and broadcast news received from various sources.” A reporter, on the other hand, will “investigate leads and news tips, look at documents, observe events at the scene, and interview people. Reporters take notes and also may take photographs or shoot videos.” This doesn’t seem like a lot, but think of it like this. The reporter is the cook in the kitchen making a dish with available materials, trying to find out what works best. The analyst is the waiter who suggests dishes and smiles and may not know about actual cooking, but tries to find out what you want and sells it to you.

Don’t think I’m trying to demean waiters, though. Used to be one myself.

And no, I never spat in anyone’s food, so stop looking at me like that.

In recent weeks, we’ve gotten official confirmation of what many of us already knew. The most watched news network on American television, Fox News, promotes its analysts as though they were reporters. I think Jon Steward said it best, though.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive – The Fourth Estate
Daily Show
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Why did I bring up Palin in the beginning? She’s recently become an analyst at Fox News. Aside from other… concerns I have with Fox News regarding how much they actually report the news as opposed to serving as a conservative propaganda machine, I’m going to use them as an example for a larger problem that’s been festering for some years. According to the network itself, as shown in the first few minutes of the Daily Show clip above, the personalities most associated and most heavily advertised on the network are all commentators or analysts. In other words, they don’t actually do the investigating, the field work. Fox viewers generally get the news through the filter of the analyst’s television segment, and it seems the network knows the kind of people that watch it.

And this is where we’ve gone wrong. We now have celebrities on Fox that tell us the news. It’s the same kind of criticism the right throws at the left for Hollywood supposedly trying to tell everyone what to do. Now, we have voices on the air that explain the news to us, how we should feel, and what it will mean for us. There is no investigation. That’s another department. I’m sure Fox has its own team of actual reporters, but something tells me they do the kind of work that a researcher does: they gather facts already gathered elsewhere.

I realize none of this is groundbreaking info to many reading this.

Analysts, however long they’ve been reporting news, are NOT reporters. Stephanie Meyer’s been selling books for years, but I don’t consider her a writer. Paris Hilton’s been in twenty-one television shows and movies and she’s not an actress. Hannity’s been an analyst for years, but I don’t consider him a reporter. He started his career in radio and, as far as I can find, never had anything resembling a journalistic career, instead spending his airtime spreading political and social agendas. If we called all these analysts “newscasters,” would we still take them seriously? Would we look to them as entertainers rather than the voice of reason? Would we follow their words as the truth?

Party Like A Pundit by *Shirozora on deviantART

Maybe not.

If there’s one thing I tried to hammer into my students, it’s the importance of knowing your sources. Partial truths are difficult to work with since it’s hard to distinguish where the lie ends and where the truth begins. Watching Palin go from governor of Alaska to presidential hopeful and now to an analyst on Fox, I can only marvel at the kinds of things I’ve heard this woman say. I’m even more surprised people listen to her. In the three years I’ve worked as a tutor and a teacher, I’ve never had students use her, or any analysts, as sources in essays.

I guess it’s a sign that they’re not really acceptable as credible sources on the news. If they don’t look to them as reliable at this age, maybe in a generation, we won’t look to talking heads to tell us the news. Maybe they’ll actually report the news and we’ll demand unbiased, truthful work as opposed to political spin.

This distinction is very important. Analysts are not journalists. They are the speaker. My iPod, shiny as it is, did not write and record Helter Skelter. It can show me nice little graphics to go with it, but it’s not the music. It’s a means for me to get the music. J. Michael Straczynski once wrote that the truth can take care of itself once it’s out there. I’m not going to stop letting it out. I want the Fourth Estate, the news in all its forms, to be what it should be. It’s not Superman in disguise, but it should at least have more guts than Clark Kent.

Seriously. I want to clone H. L. Mencken and have him sit down with Fox News. It’s going to be like matter and anti-matter colliding.

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