The Art of Not Seeing

I have a complicated relationship with Joel Achenbach. On the one hand, I think he is one of the finest science journalists working, bringing amazing subjects to life in understandable terms. On the other hand, I have found him woefully guilty – in his writing on the subject in the WaPo, and also in e-mail exchanges – of the worst kind of false equivalency "one-the-one-hand"ism and of, per Marshall via Somerby, a "Washington right-leaning dinner-party centrism." Certainly he is nowhere near as egregious as, say, Richard Cohen (may he be afflicted with horrible foot fungus), but it is nonetheless disappointing given that Achenbach is such a talented writer.

But…well, on his blog yesterday (yes, he has a blog now), he reprinted excerpts from a speech he gave at Georgetown's journalism school. I can't quite stress how important and revealing this one flippant quote is:
3. You can get to know total strangers, learn all about them, but after the story runs you don't have to speak to them ever again. You can pretend not to recognize them on the street.

This is the modus operandi of professional journalism today, written by a fabulously talented scribe for one of the world's most influential newspapers, and said to tomorrow's elite journalists, who he had also been charged with instructing. And that mode of operation is lying. You lie to people, pretend to be their friend, pretend to understand what they're saying, pretend to be on their side, to be campaigning to right the wrongs in their life, their pain – and then after deadline, they're a fucking peasant, and you're on to the next rube (interviewee and reader).

This is a lesson I was first taught while working on Howard Dean's campaign in Iowa, where I was strictly forbidden from talking to reporters. We were taught that they would pretend to be our friends, in order better to pluck out juicy quotes that would hopefully sink Dean's campaign. As it turned out, the paranoia was justified – the media really did want to destroy Dean's campaign, and used every little trick they could to do it.

But it wasn't limited just to Iowa, just to the campaign, just to political reporting. This is elite journalism today – phonies, phonies who have to pretend to understand normal people, while instead merely using them as props to justify whatever storyline they or their editors are pursuing.

I don't mean to beat up on Joel overly – he is, as I noted, an excellent reporter, comes from humble roots and has worked his butt off to get where he is today. There are still many excellent reporters and writers at both the WaPo and NYT (though they seem to be disproportionately assigned away from the more important beats and stories). All too many, however – esp. the up-and-comers – are phakin' phonies, Harvard-educated twits looking out for their own careers. Time was, a journalist had worked years in the business by the time their words appeared in print – delivering papers, working the mailroom, laying type, editing copy, and only then getting a crappy beat for a couple of years, never earning in all their years more than enough to cover rent, whiskey, bad suits and the cigars that go so well with both. Now, kids my age are pulling down six figures filing on presidential campaigns, kids who wouldn't know a real union job from an Elks' Lodge. At this nation's papers of record, we've got a press corps more interested in the furthering of their own careers than truth; more interested in dinner-party invites than sticking up for the little guy. Who'd laugh if you said that journalism ought to be about sticking up for the little guy.

"You can pretend not to recognize them on the street."

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