Sunday, March 15, 2009

Oh, stop the press

It's Sunshine Week, when newspapers around this great land of ours are supposed to publish hard-hitting stories and editorials underscoring the importance of open-records laws. Like, say, this lead story from Orlando:

We know when Casey Anthony orders a ponytail holder, candy bars and deodorant.

We know whom she has slept with, and we've read the racy instant messages she shared with an ex-deputy.

And we know that Anthony's father lost money in an e-mail scam.

The public has learned a lot about Anthony, her family and friends since the 22-year-old mother was arrested last summer — and that's largely because of Florida's broad public-records laws.

Right -- if you don't pay much attention to Fox or CNN, or if you live in some part of the country where one-off cases of family violence in distant states don't merit much interest, that's Caylee's Mom. And thanks to the courageous efforts of Florida journalists, we know all kinds of stuff about her (and her sex life, and her dad's finances) that goes to the very core of our democratic rights and responsibilities! Casey ordered some deodorant! Yes to the school bonds! Power to the people! See how it works?

Does it strike you that using an industrial-strength public-records law to put together a lead story like MISSING TOT'S MOM ORDERS CANDY BAR IN JAIL is a little like using your high-speed online access to the OED to look up naughty words? Maybe we ought to set aside a day* during Sunshine Week to reflect on the fine print: The guarantee of press freedom is not a guarantee of press quality, or even of press competence.

This is a more-than-average-salience question around here, especially in light of the recent poll suggesting that, in general, people wouldn't miss their newspaper a lot if it went away. In a couple of weeks the papers here are going to do exactly that -- if your idea of "daily newspaper" is "one that arrives every day," that is. The one that still lands in the driveway has done a couple of pieces of genuinely noble work with public records over the past few years, but day to day, am I going to miss it? It's apparently working really hard to make sure I don't.

Today's 1A centerpiece, for the second day in a row, is Death of Local Sports Owner (today's different, of course, because Albom! weighs in, in addition to whom there's another columnist's remembrance in the A section and four more in the sports section -- half a dozen columns, if you score the way I do). On the local front (it's Double Albom! Sunday), Albom inveighs against That Octomom. And the centerpiece on the feature front is Intrepid Reporter Tries Out New Birthing Center -- the same Intrepid Reporter, if I recall correctly, whose adventures as a balloon-wrangler in the Thanksgiving parade were a centerpiece themselves a few months back.

There isn't, in case you're wondering, a nation or a world to speak of in the Freep, and that's mostly why I'm moving toward the "won't miss it" column. For all the value of bird-dogging the laws on records and meetings, that's really a latecomer to what journalism does -- and, valuable as it is, it isn't why the Founding Dads gave pride of place to freedom of speech and the press. The "press" that the FDs read wasn't filing FOI requests with the crown stationer's office; it was telling people in Philadelphia what people in New York and New England and South Carolina -- and, not inconsequentially, Europe, which is what "the world" looked like** -- were doing and hearing and lying about, and thus suggesting what they might want do be doing about it.

When our national report is reduced to stories about Tiny Caylee and Missing Haleigh, we're missing the core of what journalism does, which is remind us of stuff that's of public interest and ought to be on our agenda before someone else forces it there. Whom*** Casey Anthony did or didn't biff has nothing to do with the rest of the country -- but how Florida approaches property taxes, and subsidies for favored agriculture industries, and demands from the pointy-headed to Teach The Controversy when it comes to creationism in schools, that's actually stuff that Michigan or California or Oklahoma or Texas might want to pay attention to. We're actually a rather interesting country, once you get beyond the mundane tendency of people to commit stupid idiosyncratic violence against their friends and relatives.

The world, of course, might as well be on the other side of Jupiter; there's barely enough space for Iraq to suck all the air out of the room, let alone for the notionally voting public to have some idea of what might have gone into the Georgia-Russia war that last fall's candidates paid some brief attention to. If you're going to trust people with the vote, you need to trust them with some pretty general concepts, so here's one:**** One of the most disruptive things the US could do to Iran is engage it diplomatically, because Iran doesn't have a strategy for that; they'd be on their back foot, and we'd be calling the game. It's not a stunningly subtle idea -- hell, it's basically a basketball metaphor, which ought to suggest that a large part of your audience can understand it, but that's really a framing issue. A journalist who can't come up with a metaphor that illustrates why diplomacy is as valuable as armed force is a journalist who isn't paying attention, and no FOI law in the world is going to fix that.

So let's celebrate open-records laws and people who hold the bureaucracy's feet to the fire about 'em, but let's remember to set aside a month -- at this point, honestly, I'll settle for two or three hours on a Thursday afternoon, as long as we're all happy about it -- for all the routine sinews-of-citizenship stuff that's about to be thrown out the window. Because when that's gone, we aren't going to get it back.

* We could call it Judgment Day, but I think that's already taken.
** For the white, moneyed, enfranchised ones, which is a different story itself.
*** Was "we know whom she has slept with" a candidate for Most Annoying Pronoun of the Decade, or what?
**** I heard this during a panel session at the ISA conference last month, and if I had been a remotely competent notetaker, I'd know whether it was Vali Nasr or Amitai Etzioni who introduced it. Apologies to both for the sloppiness -- but a better reporter would have gotten it right, which is the point.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Am I the only person who was thinking, from your snippets, "what business of the public is the personal-care habits of someone who is not yet convicted of a crime?"

12:25 AM, March 16, 2009  
Blogger Old Word Wolf said...

Our local front-page headline this morning is the incredibly silly and misplaced "Obama nips big business in the bud." I wish my local would just admit it's disintegrated into a penny advertiser in large format (except it doesn't cost a penny) and shed any pretense to investigation, actual useful information, nevermind international news, or even basic watch-dog reporting. Move me to the Won't Miss It column.

10:28 AM, March 17, 2009  

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