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The Piranha Problem

By David Warren

Ah, journalists. Ah, politicians. Two classes of people who consistently score at the bottom of every survey of public opinion. It is not fair: university professors should be ranked lower, in a substratum that might include mad mullahs, drug pushers, abortion doctors, and environmental activists. But then, we're getting down to murky depths in which it is hard to distinguish one set of teeth from another.

Whereas, the electoral process enforces an isostatic principle, at least on politicians. They float up, like icebergs, and as much as one-fifth of them shows above the surface, where they can be easily seen, and with any luck avoided. Journalists being the arctic equivalent of the growlers: smaller, but still very nasty chunks of ice that roll about, barely visible in the troughs of the waves. You seldom have the satisfaction of seeing what it was that stove in your hull. Usually, they were plural.

I thus rank journalists below politicians. This is not modesty, for there is vigorous competition, even among bottom feeders. As I've argued before, a politician is under some compulsion to keep his own nose clean, no matter what else his hands get up to. Their family lives are often models of model family life (that wasn't a typo). Nobody asks the journalist how he conducts himself privately, and it is well that we are not asked such questions.

All of this as necessary preparation for considering what a politician, Britain's soon-to-be retired prime minister, Tony Blair, said this week about journalists. He said that we are feral (true). He said that we make sensible government impossible (partially true). He said that web-based news and blogs and 24-hour TV news channels make us overly competitive in pursuit of "impact" (false).

One has to be in a Canadian hospital waiting room, in pain and stuck watching CNN through the dark night of the soul, to begin to appreciate the falsehood of that last proposition. It is, of Mr Blair's three allegations, the easiest to dismiss. What you have, instead of excitement, is hour after hour of mastication experts, chewing over a piece of hard leather until the protein in it has finally broken down, and the thing is nominally digested. Then they find another piece of leather.

"Breaking news" is generic, and the sensational news story just happens, beyond newsroom control. Whoever was closest reported it first, but everyone else was on it five minutes later. The impact comes from the news itself. A media outlet can only get a corner on a piece of breaking news by making it up; and in that case, their monopoly on the coverage soon becomes something they don't want to have. Whereas, the "impact" that comes from sensational coverage of real news is inflationary. As the newspapers of the world long since discovered, you may gun up your headlines another ten points, but so will everyone else, and while the level of screaming may everywhere increase, the level of impact actually diminishes.

Mr Blair would thus have been more correct to observe that the modern media occupy a madhouse. Everyone is constantly screaming, with nothing much happening. This creates an unpleasant environment, in itself, but usually not a life-threatening one.

That we (journalists) are feral, and hunt in packs, I take as obvious. More true, perhaps, than Mr Blair acknowledged. On the CNN analogy above, it will be seen that we compare to a school of piranhas. I have attended quite a few press conferences in my life (none in the last ten years), and have witnessed incredible spectacles of aggression. Never once from the person who called the press conference. The expression "feeding frenzy" is often used, and is perhaps the mot juste. For the spectacle is not triggered by any desire to elicit information. Rather, it is triggered when the journalists smell blood in the water, and resolve, as a school, on the angle of attack. It is that primitive, and therefore understandable desire, to be in on the kill.

But do the media by such practices make sensible government impossible? I think this is so, but only in two indirect ways.

The first is that the media have sufficient power, through repetition of small bites, to excite the fight-or-flight impulse in the politician. And since he is a politician, that will almost invariably mean flight. A politician can thus be easily panicked into abandoning any sensible policy, by a media-created sensation of alarm.

"In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits," Mr Blair said.

The second, and more effective way, is in what he implied, not what he stated. Good, or anyway, decent men and women, will not get into government, because they will not put their families through that. And even those acting alone will have too much self-respect, to lower themselves into piranha-infested waters. The way Mr Blair did, when he made his remarks.

What can I prescribe? Nothing "systemic." Only something profoundly naive. We need journalists who are more honest and decent, and politicians, ditto. This necessarily means, people willing to make personal sacrifices, and take hits, and suffer lies, and be demonized, and often defeated -- turned out of office or their jobs -- for doing consistently what honesty and decency require. For just one man like that, makes more difference than a thousand of the commoner sort, and will inspire many.

© Ottawa Citizen

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