I have been right in the middle of international stories on the ground, and seen first hand what a joke the reportage was. I have attempted to correct stories that had huge errors of the upside-down-and-inside-out variety and never gotten anywhere – ever.
My diagnosis of the reasons for this are many.
First, there are no nation stringers anymore. And even when there were, I heard Mike Wallace joking once about how he covered Beirut from bars in Cyprus.
Second, this means that freelancers go in and report. Those freelancers range from dingbats (some have been characterized, on the record, by US troops they embedded with as ‘f*@king b@t$#it crazy’) to people with ideological axes to grind who ignore/refuse to acknowledge anything incompatible, to a supposed rare few who actually are interested in reality. (Coskun Aral, I never met.) I will say that on the ground in Central Asia I never once met any journalist interested in reality. What I met were guys who got cut, generally over 50, needing to establish themselves as international freelancers. A week or 10 days in country talking to random folks on the street and they’re outta there.
Yes- once in a while, high end ‘organization’ journalists will go into the field – as with the feeding frenzy in Tahrir Square during the ‘Arab Spring’. I will point out that the very fact they went there, compounded by sending pretty western women into the square (some of whom were literally stripped naked and raped – stories that were suppressed by MSM) showcased how utterly out of touch and naive they were.
Third, the impact of the employment contraction on journalism cannot be overstated. Today, journalists defend their turf because doing so is a requirement for survival. So no other journalist in the organization except ‘the guy’ who is the ‘international specialist’ will even talk to you. And that specialist is in DC because almost all news organizations are now conglomerates, and obviously, DC is the only place ‘international news’ happens.
Fourth, the international specialist has extreme antipathy toward anyone saying they are wrong. Their job is a good one in the industry, and they keep it by getting the story right. It’s a very big deal for a well-paid specialist to go to their editor and say, “Hey, here’s this guy, he says I’ve got everything wrong.” They won’t do it, because if they do, they could lose their job to an up and comer who wants their office. Only a rival organization that gets a different story into its system will run with a different story.
Fifth, I don’t have proof of this, but in the job-insecure environment of journalism today, I think that freelancers, company men, and editors take bribes. The reasons are obvious: personal gain and survival of the news organization. There are two kinds of bribe. A.) a straight-up payoff from either a national government or a party with skin in the game. B.) a favor demanded by someone powerful in order to get access. ‘Run this story and I’ll give you front row seats for our campaign/inside/etc’
Sixth, the news environment has gotten polarized, controlled by political faction-groups. This has further degraded the quality of journalism, which has become a contest of talking-heads holding forth in an often fact-free conversation. It is just too much trouble and too costly to actually go and collect the news. (Not to say dangerous in some cases.) In this environment, opinions rule, and facts on the ground are secondary because few bother to collect them and editors increasingly don’t care.
Last, I think that establishing journalism as a major in universities was a huge mistake. This has led to legions of people going into it in large part because they couldn’t cut it in STEM. I say this having finished a doctorate at UC Davis in 2009. As a TA I saw what the kids were doing/thinking. I talked to them, was around them all the time. I remember one young lady in the journalism program who asked me, “Um, what’s this, USSR?” She was reading something I had written.
So we have developed a cadre of people who conceive of themselves as the only proper people to report the news. And they can’t do math. They can’t understand basic science. They have no interest in history. They don’t know history. They have no concept of strategy in war nor politics. They are, in short, remarkable idiots. We have, de facto, created a class of people who control our information flow who are, on average, utterly unqualified to do so. This has to change. The most effective way to change it would be to refuse to hire anyone with a journalism degree to work in news reporting or editing.
Journalists should be drawn from sciences, history majors, even car mechanics instead. What makes a journalist effective is that they are connected to the world and understand it.
Altogether, this is very alarming to me. Democracy cannot function without accurate information. And when I have been close to it, or in the middle of it, the official record is now flat wrong. Historians will use it, and real history is simply gone.