The style of news

March 30, 2010

What is the difference between this post and a random WaPo news report?  Well, start with me:  I have a voice.  I have opinions.  I use the first person singular.  The subjects covered in my blog  are, naturally enough, those I have found interesting.

The WaPo report, when I first came upon it, took up half the newspaper’s website, in the most prominent northeast corner of the screen.  In news, placement denotes importance:  this seems to be about something very important.

Yet the headline is “FDA Pressured to Combat Increases in ‘Food Fraud.’”  It tackles the weighty issue of cow’s milk cheese posing as goat’s milk cheese, and paddlefish eggs impersonating sturgeon caviar.

Why was it selected?  The world is brimming over with information.  Somewhere, a magnificent poem may have been written, or an epoch-defining philosophical principle.  You won’t find out at the WaPo.

If it’s death and mayhem that defines news, then how about this massacre in the Congo?  (In the news, all deaths are not equal:  every Palestinian killed by an Israeli makes headlines, but hundreds slaughtered in the Congo die on a darkened stage, unremarked and unreported.)

But paddlefish?

Those in tune with the ideology of news understand the disproportionate importance of government to journalists – the love of power, of the inside game.  Even FDA and fake caviar can thrill the elitist heart, the more so if requires “protecting” the ignorant, paddlefish-eating public.

The WaPo selected this story, and all its stories, for the same reason I select my posts:  because they found it fascinating.  And Congo massacres bore them.

The author of the report is Lyndsay Layton.  Who is Lyndsay Layton, and how is she (he?) qualified to write about fraudulent foodstuff?  Good questions.  She is described as a “Metro staff writer.”  She has clearly written on this subject with appalling regularity.  But in the age of Google and Facebook, he (she?) seems utterly devoid of online footprints, not to mention credentials.

Not that it matters.  Lyndsay doesn’t have a voice, an opinion, a personality.  First person singular never occurs in the report.

The style is that of a disembodied and Olympian observer – a gigantic eye, like that evil entity in Lord of the Rings.  This style is an affectation, a pose.  It once signified authority.

Journalists and newspapers are, in fact, overwhelmed by their own opinions to a degree that has made them complicit in the ruin of their business.  Unlike most normal people, however, they reveal their opinions by the selection of cause and effect.

Every angry demonstration against the Iraq war was a sign of the war’s unpopularity, for example, while every angry demonstration against health care reform means a return to  the paranoid style of politics.

Similarly, an inexperienced Barrack Obama was the fresh face of hope and change, while an inexperienced Sarah Palin was the political equivalent of a drunk gate-crasher at a society party.  Journalists disguise cheerleading as inexorable reality.

WaPo’s FDA story follows an utterly predictable format.

Act One:  The conflict revealed – in this case, the tragedy of false caviar.

Act Two:  Meaningless anecdotes get trotted out – “last year, a Fairfax man was convicted of selling 10 million pounds of cheap, frozen catfish fillets” faking fancier fish.

Act Three:  A string of “experts” are made to say whatever furthers the plot – “James Morehouse, a senior partner at A.T. Kearney Inc.,” “John Spink, an expert on food and packaging fraud at Michigan State University,” “Mark Stoeckle, a physician and DNA expert at Rockefeller Universit,” etc.  Are these the top experts in the field?  Are there experts who think it’s okay to sell cheap catfish fillets?  Who knows?

Act Four:  Enter the hero, otherwise known as pressure groups calling for more stringent government action.  Ideally, a journalist would prefer a green NGO or Amnesty International, railing about the salvation of the earth and universal peace.  In this particular report, alas, the groups – representing honey packers and an olive oil association – sound a bit lackadaisical.

Act Five:  The government is accused of insufficiently throwing its weight around – “Despite growing imports, the FDA inspects just 2 percent of fish coming into the United States from other countries.”  Luckily, the agency “wants to create a surveillance system,” which is a wholly good thing unless aimed at potential terrorists.

At the end, one is left wondering what it all portends.  After reading 1,200 words about funky food, there’s no clarity about why a subject of no inherent interest to anyone who isn’t a paddlefish has been brought up, at such length, at this particular moment.

I don’t think there’s a reason.  Reading the WaPo – reading the news – is like being stuck in an airplane next to a babbling crazy person.  There’s no reason in the words but they have to come out.

I wrote recently that, as a business, the news are doomed.  Who can be expected to read obscure dramas about fish and FDA?  Whatever the number of that audience, it won’t pay Lyndsay Layton’s salary.

The question whether the style will survive is more interesting, and will be tackled in a future post.