by Knowlton Nash
Published by McClelland & Stewart
Buy it online
Journalism’s Black Pit
Reviewed by Kent Barrett
In the introduction to Trivia Pursuit Knowlton Nash, a Canadian journalist of 50 years standing, bemoans the fall of journalism into the black pit of sensationalism and oversimplification, then proceeds to bemoan the fall of journalism into the black pit of sensationalism and oversimplification for another two hundred and fourteen pages.
He makes his point early and often. In the first chapter Dumbing Down The News he talks about the proliferation of amateur news gatherers with home video and surveillance footage from cameras in airports, public buildings, corner stores, garages, freeways, etc. and the increasing use of such non-journalistic camera spew in nightly newscasts, "Analysis of events takes the brain power of thinking journalists, but increasingly they are being put out to pasture as being too expensive or too intellectually demanding." This is his battle cry, more or less. He believes in "brand-name" quality journalism and considers The News, if only it will act to overcome its fascination with the sensational, to be nothing less than the "glue of democracy".
To dumb it down: It's the content, stupid! When media are driven to publish news that isn't worthy of the name simply from fear of competition for the eyeballs and channel clickers of bored viewers zapping their way up and down the dial, and when news programs wallow in filth, dressed in optic nerve-popping graphics with gruesome sound effects at the expense of useful information and commentary, they rob the population they are supposed to serve. When The New York Times stoops to picking up coverage from the National Enquirer because it perceives that that's what the public wants, it has fallen from its responsibilities to inform and explain to a point where it may not ever recover, and when any dog with a web page can spout his own version of reality we will all drown in a vast barrage of meaningless barking.
Nash isn't alone in this view. Wise elders have been bemoaning the public's reading habits and the fall of journalism into the black pit of sensationalism and oversimplification since the invention of writing, at least according to Plato. In Phaedrus, Nash reminds us, Plato recounts Amon Ra, the ancient Egyptian Sun God, admonishing Thoth (scribe to the gods) for having invented writing: "You fool. It is one thing to invent a thing, it's another to know the consequences. You think you have invented a remedy for the failure of memory, but what you have made is something that will make people lose it all. Having access to everything, they will think they know everything and they will become insufferable babblers."
Ho ho. This is the best aspect of this extremely well researched book. If Nash cannot give us any prescription beyond hard work and responsibility for the sickness that afflicts our media, he can and does give us an extremely comprehensive history of the disease. Knowlton knows his stuff. He manages to quote nearly everyone with anything to say on the subject of journalism, from William Aberhart to Moses Znaimer. From Thomas Aquinas to This Hour Has 22 Minutes, we get commentary and from Gutenburg to the Gulf War we get examples. If we ignorantly perceive that our current media have suddenly acquired a taste for the rude, bizarre and trashy, we are reminded that journalistic drama made papers "more vendable" in the 17th century when much prominence was given to stories that described things like men found hanging "by the arms in a wood... with his head and hands cut off and his Bowels pulled out..."
If we think the media's fascination with sex began with Peckergate, we are enlightened to learn that the first newspaper in America published reports that the King of France used to lie "with his son's wife." Clinton is most definitely not the first American president accused of sexual misbehavior by the media, he merely joins the short list of presidents so treated, which includes Washington, Jefferson, Johnson, Cleveland, Chester Arthur, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and George Bush. (Also James Buchanan and James Garfield, who were accused of being homosexual.) Indeed, it's an old story. There are cuneiform tablets from around 1500 B.C. exposing alleged corruption involving the mayor of Nuzu in Mesopotamia who was accused of theft, extortion and having sexual intercourse with married women (the tablets also record the mayor's denials). This hadn't improved much by the time of the Roman Gazette, which Cicero complained about in 51 B.C. saying it contained too much coverage of gladiatorial events, burglary and "tittle-tattle." The Gazette frequently included items of gossip on marriages, divorces and adultery.
But Nash does not dwell solely on print news, or even radio or television as might be expected from a man with his background -- reporter for the Globe and Mail, United Press, the Financial Post, MacLeans, Vancouver Sun, director of information programming, and later director of television news and current affairs, at the CBC, senior correspondent and anchor for "The National", etc., etc., etc. He also shows remarkable respect for the power of the Internet (for an ink-stained wretch who's love affair with media began around 1940). He recognizes its power and takes for fact that the 'Net will be where we all get our news in the near future. He also recognizes the immense problems as well as the possibilities that new information systems bring to news reportage. He bemoans the fall of journalism into the black pit of sensationalism and oversimplification... but he never waivers from his satisfaction in his chosen occupation as a foot soldier of journalism, his belief that a free society cannot function without free access to information, or his position that, "The basic job of a journalist is not necessarily to please anybody, with the possible exception of Diogenes, waving his lamp and looking for an honest man."
He keeps in his mind the words of Walter Lippman "We perform an essential service. It is no mean calling and we have a right to be proud of it, to be glad it is our work." | March 1999
Kent Barrett is a writer and journalist with ridiculous opinions on most topics. You can observe the effect firsthand at his den of nonsense at http://www.yes.net/generality. He lives alone in Vancouver, Canada with Land Rights, his cat, and Salmon Agreement, his Alsatian puppy.