Thursday, July 7, 2011

Milly Dowler, News of the World, and Old-School Journalism in the Information Age

Ah, the 'Good Old Days,' when:
  • Spunky girl reporters caught thieves and smugglers
  • Superman / mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent fought "a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way!"
  • Fearless investigative reporters saved the world from
Those stories had entertainment value. And there was a sort of truth behind them. Not that a Kryptonian flew over a city called Metropolis, or that spunky girl reporters had experiences quite like Jane Arden's.

Then, there's the real world of old-school journalism. The Lemming suspects that they don't quite understand the information age:

Hacking, Scandal, and News of the World

"News of the World to close amid hacking scandal"
BBC News UK (July 7, 2011)

"This Sunday's issue of the News of the World will be the last edition of the paper, News International chairman James Murdoch has said.

"In the past few days, claims have been made that the paper authorised hacking into the mobile phones of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and the families of 7/7 bombing victims.

"Mr Murdoch said proceeds from the last edition would go to good causes.

"Downing Street said it had no role or involvement in the decision.

"The News of the World is the UK's biggest selling newspaper and has been in circulation for 168 years...."

Generally, the Lemming's sorry to see a business that managed to last from the 19th to the 21st centuries go away. In this case, News of the World may be more of a phoenix, than a dying swan:

News of the World: Phoenix Act Coming?

"...Labour MP Tom Watson told Sky News it was 'a victory for decent people up and down the land, and I say good riddance to the News of the World'.

"But Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said: 'All they're going to do is rebrand it' and former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott, who alleged his phone was hacked, thought the decision was simply a gimmick."

Not to seem too cynical: but the Lemming thinks Clarke and Prescott may be right. News of the World seems to be a huge cash cow - far too valuable to throw away.

Besides, the Masses are pretty much stupid and have rotten memories - right?

There may have been a time when 'the Masses' really were borderline-illiterate, easily-duped pawns for whoever was feeding them alleged facts and 'expert' opinions.

Today? Not so much.

If a 'new' newspaper pops up in the United Kingdom - one that 'just happens' to have the same staff as News of the World? The Lemming thinks folks in the United Kingdom will notice. Giving at least some of the journalists new names might help. Referring to the new names as pseudonyms would give the false identities a literary flavor - think Mark Twain.

'All the Bad Guys Are Gone - Pretty Much - Trust Us'?!

News of the World's political editor, about his "fantastic" paper:" 'They cleared out all the bad people. They bought in a great new editor, Colin Myler, and his deputy, Victoria Newton, who had not been sullied by any of the things that had gone on in the past.

" 'And there's nobody there, there's hardly anybody there who was there in the old regime....'..."
(BBC News,1 emphasis by the Lemming)

The Lemming has wondered if some of these communications professionals ever listen to what they say. "...nobody there,... hardly anybody there?!"

Spunky Girl Reporters, Investigative Reporters, and Change

There really was a time when "spunky girl reporters" were showing a post-Victorian America that women could be smart, active, capable - and not be 'bad girls,' or 'loose women,' or whatever.

That was before WWII, Rosie the Riveter, and certainly before the '60s.

There was a time when "investigative reporters" saved the world from corruption and five o'clock shadow. Newspapers said so - and they wouldn't print something if it wasn't true, right?

Much as the Lemming likes tradition and nostalgia: 'Watergate' happened in the '70s. 1970s, to be sure - but it's still more than three decades back.

There have been a few changes since 1974:These days, 'the Masses' aren't the stereotype drawling louts or village idiots of 'the Good Old Days.' If a newspaper publishes information that probably came from someone's private data? Some of us will figure that out, maybe even prove it: and word will spread. Fast.

Superman isn't Real - Sort of

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman isn't real. There isn't a Kryptonian refugee living on Earth. For that matter, there isn't a planet Krypton. Not the one in the comics, television shows, and movies.

But parts of the Superman stories were 'real:' the parts that reflected some aspect of human nature or experience. Otherwise, it's very, very, unlikely that anyone would have bothered with Kal-El - much less made Superman into a cultural icon.

A Purple-Skinned, Orange-Eyed Space Alien: and Today's News

Please bear with the Lemming - this does connect with News of the World and journalism.

BUCK GODOT zap gun for hire; October 4, 2008

No, the Lemming doesn't think that News of the World is really run by shape-shifting, space-alien lizard people.3

Phil Foglio's film noir/science fiction Buck Godot comic book detective stories aren't serous fiction. Well, they are, in a way - but not very. Quite a few pages seem to be written for laughs. And all of them for entertainment.

The gags, though? The Lemming doubts that they'd be very funny if they didn't reflect some facts. Or things that readers thought were facts, anyway. Like this 'history' excerpted from one of the Buck Godot comics:

Journalists as Predators?

A sort of unnecessary (the Lemming hopes) disclaimer: this ain't 'real.' The quote is from a comic book.

"In the Prime Mover's comprehensive overview of sentient and semi-sentient life within the sphere of the Gallimaufry: Why We're Better Than All Of You Put Together, there are various appendices which deal with predators that feed upon sentients. Journalists are placed within this category....

"...these concepts were eventually accepted, and the number of journalists a healthy civilization could support was worked out by the mysterious (and, incidentally, scandal-ridden) Mathemagicians of FftFwand, with a very complex and practically incomprehensible formula....

"...Nobody really understood it, but as it called for the euthanasia of vast herds of journalists, nobody really tried too hard.

"When the last editorial writers had been shipped off to the re-cycling vats, it was noticed that things seemed a lot quieter, a lot less tense, and things weren't nearly so bad as people had thought they were. Stress levels went down, and the new system was dubbed a success...."
("THE HERODOTUS COMPLEX: NOTES BY P'OILGOF LIVY / Chapter 6; The Fourth Estate," BUCK GODOT zap gun for hire (October 21, 2008) [emphasis by the Lemming]

The Lemming does not advocate hunting down journalists.

On the other hand, the Lemming thinks folks who make a living in traditional newspapers should think about why the lizard-like reporter is (somewhat) believable - and why at least some folks think the idea of recycling editorial writers is - funny.

Substitute "editorial writers" with some low-status, but necessary, job title - like "janitor" - and the joke isn't so funny. In the Lemming's opinion - your experience may vary.

The Lemming thinks folks in any profession should be a little concerned, when readers of a modestly-successful series of stories think that wiping out all but a handful of their number is funny.

Facts, Assumptions, and Perceptions

Remember the list at the top of this post? The one that included spunky girl reporters and fearless investigative reporters? Those were stock, stereotyped, characters at various times.

Which readers and viewers accepted, the Lemming thinks, because folks either believed that the stereotypes were 'real,' or were willing to do so for the sake of an entertaining story.

That's fiction, and light entertainment. There's probably little harm in much of it.

When folks start taking the stereotypes - and the assumptions behind them - seriously? That, the Lemming thinks, can be a problem.

Particularly when folks believe that
  • They're Superman
    • Earth's only hope against Lex Luthor
  • Being reporters means they can do anything, because
    • 'The public has a right to know'
    • Or whatever slogan is in vogue
Whether or not that's what happened in News of the World - the Lemming doesn't know.

Wake Up: It's the 21st Century

Some folks seem to be in positions where they can get all the 'facts' they need by reading their own books, press releases, and articles. Worse, their colleagues, friends, and acquaintances, get their facts the same way.

Over-simplified? A little, maybe.

But the Lemming's glad that he didn't have a 'successful' career - and so had to keep up with changes in technology and the social order:It's seems fairly easy for folks living in relatively small communities, with little taste for contact with 'outsiders,' to start believing that their preferences are principles, their biases are facts, and that anybody who doesn't agree is - - - an outsider:What does this have to do with News of the World, and other journalists who learned their trade when newsprint was king?

Maybe nothing - and that the 168-year-old newspaper's embarrassment is a one-of-a-kind fluke.

Or maybe too many old-school journalists don't quite believe that 'the Masses' really can collect and share information - fast. And, worse, draw their own conclusions, instead of waiting to see what reporters and the editor tell them they're supposed to think.

Imagine a World With No Reporters? Be Careful What You Wish For

The Lemming thinks that too many reporters and editors haven't quite come to terms with the idea that Watergate is history, and that broadcast network news is no longer cutting-edge journalism. And that a combination of deadline pressure and time zones put editorial decisions for most of America in the hands of a small number of east coast newspapers. The Lemming's posted about that before:4The Lemming is also very, very concerned about folks who want to 'save the children,' 'safeguard democracy,' enforce niceness, or attain some other goal - by controlling what the rest of us are allowed to know.

McCarthyism wasn't a good idea - political correctness wasn't an improvement - and the Lemming sincerely doesn't want to go back to the 'Good Old Days,' when 'I only know what I read in the papers' might be true for many folks.

So, much as recycling editorial writers, or imposing pre-publication controls on 'those people over there,' might appeal to a desire for a calmer, more tranquil, and more orderly society - - - the Lemming thinks that freedom of expression is important. Very important.

Related posts:Background:
1 More from that BBC News article, about the 'nobody's here - hardly anybody' thing:
"...News International has refused to comment on rumours that The Sun could now become a seven-day-a-week operation.

" 'What happens to The Sun is a matter for the future', a spokeswoman for News International said. The Sun, another News International tabloid, is currently published from Monday to Saturday.

"The spokeswoman also refused to say whether the 200 or so employees at the paper would be made redundant, saying: 'They will be invited to apply for other jobs in the company.'

"The News of the World's political editor, David Wooding, who joined 18 months ago, said it was a fantastic paper.

" 'They cleared out all the bad people. They bought in a great new editor, Colin Myler, and his deputy, Victoria Newton, who had not been sullied by any of the things that had gone on in the past.

" 'And there's nobody there, there's hardly anybody there who was there in the old regime.

" 'The people are very clean, great, talented professional journalists and we pull out a great paper every week. And we're all paying the price for what happened six years ago by a previous regime.'..."
2 Actually, 'Arab Spring' is still happening - and that may not be the name it winds up with. Instances of traditional establishments failing to deal with Information Age social structures aren't limited to the Middle East, for starters. The Lemming's discussed part of that readjustment in another blog:3 See:Those space-alien, shape-shifting lizard people are among the Lemming's favorite conspiracy theories. And quite real. Not space aliens ruling the world - there being an unusually colorful conspiracy involving lizard people:4 The Lemming doesn't have anything against The New York Times. It's an old, established paper, and serves a useful function. But not, in the Lemming's considered opinion, a reflection of national character. The Lemming harangued about that in another blog:

"From the Pier-Bound Shores of Chelsea to the Austere Grandeur...

"The New York Times, serving all the land: from the pier-bound shores of Chelsea to the austere grandeur of the United Nations Plaza; from the verdant wilds of Van Cortlandt Park to the cloud-capped towers of Broadway.

"The Big Apple's a diverse and wonderful city, and is America's biggest city. But it isn't America.

"I see The New York Times as a hometown paper with a long history and a dedication of bringing news of the world to its readers: people who live in the boroughs of New York City. I don't expect The New York Times to reflect my interests or views, any more than I read The Straits Times of Singapore to find out what's going on here in Minnesota, or to get a view of the world that takes American Midwestern interests into account...."
(Another War-on-Terror Blog (October 21, 2008)


Brigid said...

Why is there a hyphen here? "all but a handful of their number - is funny."

Missing a comma: "folks who want to 'save the children' 'safeguard democracy,' enforce niceness, or"

To? "might appeal a desire for a calmer"

Number agreement: "Traditional establishments failing to deal with Information Age social structures isn't limited to the Middle East"

There's a big gap after this paragraph: "The Lemming harangued about that in another blog:"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...


The "all but a handful" hyphen was intended to indicate a break - but didn't 'read' right, so I've change that.

The missing comma? Fixed!

"To!" (For "might appeal")

Number agreement, fixed. And the sentences clarified. I hope.

The harangue gap? Fixed! And, oops.

Also, thanks!

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