GREAT NECK, N.Y. - Over dinner last week, I lost an argument with a crack journalist over the failure of what I called the "mainstream media" - primarily TV news - to edify the public on complicated issues. I lost the argument, mostly because I spoke out of frustration. More and more - to my dismay - important matters of public discourse are being framed by propagandists at Fox News, who force other news organizations to either follow Fox News' lead to an alleged story, or waste airtime debunking Fox's' distortions, diversions, half-truths, cock-ups and fabrications.
The journalist, usually a cynic, stifled my whine by expressing faith in the American voting public to sift through the crap and see the truth. My response, which I never actually got around to, was something about the difficulty of discerning the truth when you cannot gather the necessary facts from the sources entrusted to provide them.
What I really meant to talk about - the thing I always yearn for, unrequitedly, when I watch TV news - was "the dull paragraph."
I've written it thousands of times, typically close to the "top" of the story, so it can't be cut. Until recently, no reporter could escape the dull paragraph, for the simple fact that no news story is really new. Although there is such a thing as a "scoop" - a truly fresh, unprecedented news item - most reporters rarely see one. Recently, reminiscing in Sports Illustrated, Frank DeFord boasted of "discovering" basketball great Bill Bradley before anyone else knew of him. That was a scoop. But he also noted that one of his favorite SI stories, about a legendary football coach named Bull Sullivan, was written first by another reporter, Rick Cleveland, who covered Sullivan's exploits for the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger.
That's the essence of the news. Everything starts in medias res and most stories just keep going on and on, handed down from one reporter to the next. Some stories - for instance, the "race beat:" slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynchings, civil rights, Obama, birtherism, etc. - outlive their scribes and drag on for centuries.
Which is why every day you gotta write the dull paragraph, the one that fills in the (often excruciatingly technical and boring) information that came before, whether it was yesterday, a year ago, or a generation back. You gotta write (and re-write, and repeat) the dull paragraph, because no reporter worth his pittance has ever assumed knowledge on the part of one reader, not even his mom.
I ran a weekly newspaper in Massachusetts for seven years, in a town small enough that most everybody knew everybody else - at least by reputation - and knew what everybody else had been doing pretty much from birth. Yet, as a professional news guy tasked with not only filling, but also editing, the entire "news hole" (an instructive term), I always wrote as though my audience was some total (and mildly retarded) stranger who had just walked into town, didn't know anybody and had no idea which End was North.
This meant that every week, in each major news story, I re-cast, updated and augmented the obligatory dull paragraph. With some stories - the annual Town Meeting, for example - the dull "paragraph" often stretched into dozens of ‘graphs, devouring column inches like Pacman and threatening my very life with the onset of terminal redundancy.
One classic battle in my Massachusetts town involved a woman whom I'll call Freda. She desperately wanted to buy from the town a "paper street" called Garden Street. A paper street is one that appears in the town's plan, but has never been actually built and paved. Garden Street was never going to be developed - ever. Everyone knew this. Freda, who lived next to Garden Street - actually a mosquito-infested ditch - wanted to buy it, own it, fill it, landscape and, perhaps, plant a garden there.
Freda's annual appeal, at Town Meeting, was touching, heartfelt and ostensibly compelling. But Freda always fell victim to the dull paragraph. Every year in the News, I explained (again) (without bias) how the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Health Board, the Town Counsel and the state Dept. of Natural Resources had all argued that privatizing this strip of marshy bottomland would impose on local taxpayers far more red tape, expense and disruption than if everybody just left Freda's skeeters alone.
One of the more entertaining tricks at Town Meeting, usually played by an elder Selectmen, was to wait ‘til just before the Garden Street item finally reached the floor. As Freda rose to speak, the Selectman would peer into the depleted audience and gavel a quorum count. Inevitably, there was no quorum, nor would there be tomorrow or the next night. And so, sadly ended Town Meeting for another year, as Freda shouted at her fleeing neighbors and cursed every local son of a bitch who'd ever done her wrong.
If Freda had only had TV news to cover her story, she would have won her Garden Street war. TV - at least since Cronkite retired - doesn't do the dull paragraph. TV hasn't time to supply background and, besides, the dull paragraph is a ratings-killer.
Worst of all, right now, the establishment press - print as well as TV, radio and the Web - are captives of a cable network that pumps out thrilling propaganda 24/7. Fox News is the antithesis of the dull paragraph. It cherry-picks topics, deletes details selectively, eschews any background that undercuts its predictable point-of-view and, most important, trumpets its pet stories incessantly, at a fever pitch. The resulting yahoo outcry, from Fox News' loyal, half-informed fan base - leaches into other news organizations and leaves them with no choice but to respond, somehow.
Such response, even if it succeeds in putting the lie to the latest Fox travesty, inevitably requires news rivals to regurgitate the original Fox News story, adding ironically to both its viewership and its credibility.
Meanwhile, the dull paragraph - never much of a factor on TV and fast-disappearing from every other message-bearing medium - shuffles silently into the back room, behind the furnace, in the cellar of the Museum of Ancient Journalism, right next to a dusty, rusting Linotype machine.