Klosterman, Stewart and Thompson: A Conversation on Objective Journalism

Before jumping in to today’s topic, I do want to give an update on my progress through Fear and Loathing On The Campaign Trail ’72. Honestly, it’s making me very, very sad that Hunter Thompson isn’t still alive today to give his opinion on the 2012 election races. The way he ripped apart Democrats and Republicans alike and lambasted the journalists who suck up to them is amazing, not to mention a good dose of reality we’re missing out on today. We need a man like Thompson to step up and speak to our generation in these times of disaffection and apathy.

I wanted to talk about this on Monday, but the post got way too long. Anyway, the three gentlemen mentioned in the title of this post, in my opinion, have some good things to say about journalism. Chuck Klosterman is an author and journalist, writing for Esquire, the NYT Magazine, Spin, the Washington Post, and many others. He writes in a more satirical fashion, as demonstrated in his many books, such as Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low-Culture Manifesto, where I”m getting his essay “All I Know Is What I Read in the Papers.”

Jon Stewart, I’m sure you all know, is the host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. Though he spends a lot of time just plain making fun of everything politics, if you watch some of his off-show interviews, such as when he’s on Fox News debating anchors, or CNN’s now debunked show Crossfire, you’ll find he has some fascinating things to say about the state of TV journalism today.

As for Hunter Thompson, well, this is the man who invented Gonzo journalism, a style where the writer crafts his story with himself as a central figure, often featuring the extensive use of drugs of many kinds. However, for this conversation (and for his book I”m reading), he’s actually drug free (though still drinks a lot of Wild Turkey).

OK, so on to objective journalism. Though I admit I’m inferring (and can’t find the stinking quote), Thompson, in his writings, sees the concept of objective journalism in his time (and up to his death in 2005) as something that simply doesn’t exist. To claim objectivity is to mask your bias, or to suck up to politicians, who just want you to paint them in a positive light. His method of telling On the Campaign Trail, a firsthand account of everything happening as it happened, shows a different side of how the campaign ran that year, though through Thompson’s eyes, every last one of the candidates is a pathetic loser who is parroting what everyone else in their party is saying (and some of what the other party is saying) because they don’t want to look too extreme. The great thing about Thompson’s perspective is that he refuses, as I mentioned on Monday, to be “off-the-record” for anyone. If you said it, it got printed, which is why no one wanted him on their bus. Journalists who allowed people this luxury, in his eyes, were just lying about the candidate in question by pure omission, mostly just to make them look good.

Now, let’s look at Klosterman. He has no trouble denying that reporters can lean one way or the other politically, or that corporate CEOs control the media machine, but, to him, it’s not always about them.  I’ve mostly just read his books, his perspective on print journalism as a whole is not that there is an agenda, per se, but that most of what a reporter writes, and its position in the paper, is dictated by a) whom he calls, and b) who calls back first.  This frame of mind will dictate an entire article’s final draft. I think this may be something Thompson could relate to some extent. This scenario (paraphrased) from his essay might shed some light on the subject:

Let’s say a reporter is writing an article and need’s a call from the mayor’s office, who’s probably just going to say “no comment” on the subject anyway. His daughter has a volleyball game, but he decides to stay around for that comment. While waiting, he decides to go get a Dr. Pepper.  While he goes to the machine, the mayor calls, and because the mayor doesn’t want to deal with a voicemail, or the reporter in question, he just hangs up instead of leaving a message.  Because he missed the call, the editor tells the reporter to wait to hear back from the mayor, and they delay the story.  Then, a hospital catches fire, and that makes the front page, putting the mayor’s story back on page B3.  Most readers won’t notice, or even care, about this, but there’s going to be a few who think that the paper is in the mayor’s pocket and they want to raise taxes and such, or there’s someone who thinks that they don’t want to reveal everything by making it front page, when, in fact, the reporter just wanted a soda.  And stuff like this happens ALL THE TIME.

Another point to note from Klosterman is his views on being proper in journalism, using words like “alleged crime” and such.  While he views these practices as essential, he acknowledges that it does make a liar out of every reporter because they’re not acknowledging things that happened.  Even if a reporter were to witness a murder, he’d still have to call the crime “alleged” in order to remain objective. This kind of language in print, in addition to the fourth grade reading level it’s written at (another point made by Klosterman), leads to a lot of distortion of the facts in order to make things seem “objective.”  I think Thompson saw this problem as well, leading to his promotion of all things Gonzo.

Now, where does Stewart fit in here?  Well, Stewart gives good perspective on the TV aspect of things.  While he does spend a lot of time making fun of Fox News (and, in my opinion, they set themselves up for it; Stewart and his writers must have a pretty easy job) for their blatant conservative bias and poor reporting, he also has no trouble ripping apart CNN and MSNBC, not for their slant, but for what he calls “laziness and sensationalism.” News media stations these days have a bad habit of only reporting what will generate ratings, using the thinking “if it bleeds, it leads.”  This isn’t so much of a political bias as it is a “lie by omission” sort of scenario.  By only reporting what generates ratings, and spinning it to generate even more ratings, you’re not telling the whole truth, and you’re no better than people who do the report with a slant and deny it.

Effectively, to me, all these things are great at demonstrating that objective journalism is just nonexistent.  However, I don’t fully blame journalists, either.  They’re forced to do everything they can to keep their jobs, whether it’s by earning the interviewees’ trust by keeping certain very shocking things “off-the-record,” by writing at a fourth grade reading level so people will read their articles more often, or by reporting on what brings ratings.  These things are what keep the media in business.  It’s unfortunate because we’re not getting objectivity in reporting; we’re getting the illusion thereof.  These guys did away with that illusion, and when I read/watch them do their thing, I actually feel MORE informed than I do if I watch CNN, Fox News, or even listen to NPR.  Bottom line: stop pretending, journalists, and go for the throat on the issues.  You wield a powerful weapon which you’ve dulled in search of a paycheck.  Sharpen it, and cut to the heart of things.

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