Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Cry bullshit!
and let slip the dogs of news

Daniel Froomkin argues enthusiastically over at the Nieman Watchdog blog that newspapers are missing a big bet by not encouraging reporters to challenge conventional wisdom and un-spin some of the dizzying blitz of propaganda we all face nowadays – in other words, to call "bullshit" a lot more often.

Here's a taste (a sniff?):

Calling bullshit, of course, used to be central to journalism as well as to comedy. And we happen to be in a period in our history in which the substance in question is running particularly deep. The relentless spinning is enough to make anyone dizzy, and some of our most important political battles are about competing views of reality more than they are about policy choices. Calling bullshit has never been more vital to our democracy.

This put me in mind of a talk I heard Molly

Ivins give when she was in Alaska at a journalism symposium in May, 1987. I kept the note I sent to the Daily News staff about her talk, and this is what she said almost 20 years ago:

Thus spake Molly

ADN is about to start running Molly Ivins’ syndicated column. I thought you might enjoy these notes from her workshop on newspaper writing at Alaska Journalism Week, May 1987:

On reporters and editors who shy away from colorful, powerful language:
“Ours is the only craft I know where we would purposefully dull our own tool.”

On why newspaper circulation is declining:

The average American newspaper delivers “a dry turd of lifeless facts on peoples’ doorsteps every morning...”

On the standard newspaper version of objectivity and fairness:
We must get beyond “the false idea that truth always lies exactly halfway between two opposing ideas ....”

“The cannons of journalistic objectivity only put a megaphone in the hands of those with power.”

“An amazing number of politicians are genuinely admirable people—but my rule is: ‘The geeks are fair game.’ ”

About the effect of TV news on politics:

“You go to Washington these days and you can’t find a sumbitch with bad hair.”

On characters she admires in American journalism:
William Brand, Waco publisher of The Iconoclast ... Shot by an outraged reader, he then pulled his gun and shot his own murderer.
For what it's worth, I heartily endorse the sentiments of both Froomkin and Ivins. Of course, I don't have to answer the phone at the editor's desk any more ...
–Howard Weaver


  1. It's great to call BS on politics - and that's where it's needed.

    But in these days of protecting healthy profit margins and managing to Wall Street and stock prices, we are more lapdog than watchdog. We can't write honestly about even mundane subjects such as how to buy a house without a real estate agent because our best advertisers will suddenly pull $500k in ROP.

    I'm currently re-reading H.S.T.'s "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72." The good Dr. Gonzo sure didn't worry about who he pissed off.

  2. For what it's worth, his name was William Cowper Brann. I wrote about him here: http://billingsnews.blogspot.com/2007/05/iconoclast.html