Monday, April 23, 2012

Mythical Beings that Inhabit the Matrix, Part 1: News Reporters

     Within the matrix—also known as Plato’s Cave—the world is populated by wondrous, magical beings that exist to perform miracles especially for us. You probably tell yourself that you’re not naïve enough to believe in them; but, to an extent, you probably do. I try not to believe in them; but we all, to an extent, allow our wishes to become father to our thoughts.
     You may have heard the movie definition, “The matrix is the wool that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you to the truth.” The wording of this definition doesn’t tell us who is pulling the wool over our eyes, so we assume that someone else is doing it.
     The “Great Showman,” P. T. Barnum, knew better. Barnum was famously quoted as saying, “The American people love to be humbugged.” Humbugging is a collaborative effort. Whenever we want to have the wool pulled over our eyes, some humbug will sell us the wool for a hefty profit.
     Thus wondrous, magical beings inhabit the matrix world that we mistake for the real world. They include news reporters, politicians, bankers, pastors, doctors, teachers, and many others. Many of them are humbugs; with others, we like to humbug ourselves.
     I've already dealt with bankers as racketeers. In this series of articles, I’ll focus on news reporters, politicians, pastors, doctors, and teachers.  For once, I'll give lawyers a break. 
     In our imaginary world, every reporter is an investigative reporter who is an expert in every area on which he reports, and he has all the time in the world to verify every assertion that comes his way. No one would dare lie to a news reporter. Even if someone were incautious enough to lie to a reporter, the reporter always knows the truth. For all these reasons, we can believe every word of every news report—or so we like to tell ourselves.
     In reality, news reporters are basically like the rest of us. They get the job because they can communicate well enough to be understood most of the time, they’re willing to accept the insultingly low pay that most reporters get, and they’re willing to do such degrading things as sitting through a boring speech from a self-important buffoon while eating pasty instant potatoes and rubbery chicken.
     There’s such a thing as proper news attribution. That’s news reporter lingo for, “I don’t know if what I’m writing is true or not. I’m just telling you what somebody told me.”
     There’s a simple way to disprove the omniscience of news reporters, and it’ll take only five minutes. Take a red pen to the first page of a newspaper and place a red mark under such words as alleged, said, according to, documents show, and all other words indicating that the news reporter isn’t sure if he’s being told the truth. You’ll find yourself underlining more than eighty words and phrases, and the page will look as though it were subjected to lingchi (凌遲)—known to the West as "death by a thousand cuts."
     There’s a saying in the newspaper business that the real news is that somebody said that something is true—not that it really is true. Only investigative reporters can know if it’s true. If you want to know if something is true, you’ll have to research it for yourself. If you research a story and find out that it isn’t true, you haven’t insulted the reporter. On the contrary, you’ve given him another story—if his editor is willing to print it.
      The use of attribution, though, doesn't necessarily mean that reporters are all that committed to accuracy and honesty.  Attribution serves only to protect reporters in the event of lawsuits for libel.
     Let me give you a glaring example.  When Salvadoran leader Roberto D'Aubuisson Arrieta was alive, countless "news" reports said that he "has been linked to right-wing death squads."  So, what was the link, and who did the linking?  Not one of them got into specifics, and it was as if they were singing from the same page of musical arrangement.  The day after D'Aubuisson's death in 1992, the official report in the press said that he "personally ordered the deaths of hundreds" of political opponents.  While it may or may not have been true, no attribution or evidence of any kind was offered for this sudden revelation.  After all, dead men can't sue.
     There’s also the question of bias. All reporters are biased, just as everyone else is biased. Bias is simply another term for frame of reference. Here’s how it works:
     There are far more news stories out there than there are news reporters to cover them. The editor, based on which stories he thinks are the most important, decides which stories are covered and which are ignored.
     When the reporter arrives at the scene, he finds more facts than he could possibly use. Based on what he thinks is important, and what he thinks his editor will think is important, he decides which single fact is the most important, selects the facts that will support that fact—henceforth known as the “main idea” of the story—and ignores all other facts.
     You’re probably familiar with the inverted pyramid style of writing. Supposedly, the most important “who, what, when, where, and possibly how and why” are written first. If you read only the first two paragraphs, you should know the story. The next paragraph supposedly contains less important information, and so on, until the least important information is written last.
     People kid themselves into thinking that the most important fact is in the lead paragraph, and that the story could not have been written any other way. Nothing could be further from the truth. Writers have been known to build their careers on writing articles for which the last paragraphs of news stories were used as the lead paragraphs.
     Below, I have written the last paragraph of a recent news story, reworded in the style of a lead paragraph:
     “International Cooperation Office Director Hsu Min-huei yesterday appeared to suggest that Tibetan officials were lying about the purpose and content of last week’s meeting between Department of Health (DOH) Minister Chiu Wen-ta and Tibetan Health Minister Tsering Wangchuk in Taipei. Hsu said that Chiu’s only intention was to meet former Health Minister Lee Ming-Liang, as Chiu had heard that Lee was in the building and wanted to meet him. Tsering just happened to be at the meeting at the time Chiu was meeting with Lee.”
     That paragraph, by itself, is current, controversial, and of local importance. It makes a more relevant story, in my opinion, than the lead paragraph the newspaper actually used. The newspaper’s lead paragraph was a transparent attempt to use cherry-picked facts to express the newspaper’s editorial slant that government officials of Taiwan (which Beijing says doesn’t exist but threatens to invade anyway) are freely meeting with government officials of Tibet (which Beijing says doesn’t exist but tries to suppress anyway.)
     Just think of what reporters don’t tell you because of their decision to treat one fact as the most important fact, rather than any one of hundreds of other facts.

     In this article, I have dealt only with some of the main aspects of news reporting on which people pull the wool over their own eyes.  Check out the rest of the series:
     "Mythical Beings that Inhabit the Matrix, Part 2: Politicians" and 
     "Mythical Beings that Inhabit the Matrix, Part 3: Pastors
     "Mythical Beings that Inhabit the Matrix, Part 4: Doctors"
     I intend to post the other articles in this series in the days to come.
     To see other ways that people are fooled by the news media—or fool themselves—see the five-part series “How News Reporting Really Works.”

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