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January 23, 2008

BETSEY CULP

I Won’t Keep This Brief

Is anyone else tired of being told that they’re too busy to deal with complex issues? The media love to announce that they’re doing us a favor by winnowing news coverage to a few carefully selected sound bites and factoids.

The latest offender is John Wilcox, publisher of the San Francisco Examiner, who wrapped a fake front page around yesterday’s paper to tell us about the “new kind of newspaper” he’s made available to us. His statement doesn’t appear on the Examiner website. (In fact, a search of the website fails to turn up any mention of Wilcox at all.) But as he says, his statement is brief. In case you missed it, I’ll record it here in its entirety. The language is simple; even if you’re very very busy, you should have no trouble understanding it:

DEAR EXAMINER READER

I’ll keep this brief.

My name is John Wilcox and I’m the publisher of The Examiner, a new kind of newspaper. 

“New?” you might ask. “The Examiner’s been around forever and it’s been in a partnership with the Hearst Company or maybe the Fang family.” The fact is we haven’t been around forever, just since 1865, and since 2004, we’ve been part of Clarity Media Group, a media company that understands the rapid changes in today’s newspaper business.

We know you’re busy, but we realize that you still want to know what’s happening. That’s why The Examiner is the first major daily newspaper designed to tell you what’s going on in your community and in the world in just 20 minutes.

You may have noticed that The Examiner is free. Why a free paper? Our answer is: Why not? Now your news is really free – no subscription fee, no cable fee, no Internet access fee.

By the way, we’re printed on recycled newsprint. That’s only part of our commitment to our environment and to our readers.

Thanks for reading The Examiner. It’s fast, it’s free and it’s here to stay. It’s also a great way to enjoy your Muni ride.

Sincerely, John Wilcox, President and Publisher

The Examiner: SMARTER. FASTER. FREE.

The real problem, of course, is not that offerings like this show a deplorable lack of respect for the gray cells that inhabit our crania. We’re too intelligent to let the insult smart for long. The real problem is that such offerings allow little space for information about any one issue. Official press releases usually hog all the room, with loud snorts and ferocious head butts that effectively remove all critical responses. And then we’re surprised when investigations reveal that we’ve been had.

The obvious example from today’s news is the report issued by the Center for Public Integrity providing excruciatingly careful documentation that “following 9/11, President Bush and seven top officials of his administration waged a carefully orchestrated campaign of misinformation about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.”

Polls demonstrated that the campaign was having its intended effect, molding public opinion to support a U.S. invasion of Iraq. For example, in answer to the question, “Do you think the Bush administration has clearly explained the United States position with regard to possibly attacking Iraq,” the Center found:

The percentage of respondents who answered “yes” to this question more than doubled in this period, from a low of 27 percent in September 2002 to a high of 56 percent the first time the question was asked in February 2003 (and then dropping to 53 percent). This upward trend closely mirrors the higher number of misleading statements by Bush administration officials, beginning in September 2002.

We the public weren’t asleep on the job. But somebody decided that we were too “busy” to pay attention.

Like Samson after Delilah worked her scissor magic, the strength of the once-obstreperous U.S. media has been sapped. Today’s Chronicle places the damage in proper perspective, in a small item from the AP titled, “Student sentenced to die for Internet paper.” (The Chron actually published only the first three paragraphs of the AP story.)

Imagine a country where people die for what they write!

Or in this case, imagine a case where the vengeful arm of the law sweeps up not merely writers but also their family members. In the case of the young Sayad Parwez Kambakhsh, Reporters Without Borders, notes,

Rahimullah Samandar, the head of the Afghanistan Independent Journalists Association, said he was in fact arrested because of articles written by his brother, Ibrahimi, criticising the provincial authorities.

But our handsome American Samson is safe. Any threat he might have posed has long since been snipped away, nibbled away by sound bite after sound bite.

Not to worry, the Examiner tells us today. Handsome Samson is still good for a good story. A new book by Michele Weldon called Everyman News, asserts that a “colorful narrative style can well attract more readers than a traditional news story” that begins with a boring recitation of what and why and when and how and where and who.

How reassuring.

But in the Examiner’s desire to save time for its busy readers, the paper ran only the first five paragraphs of Carl Hartman’s review. If it had carried the rest, it might have had to acknowledge that

her description of "everyman" stories breaks sharply with the aim of informing the voter on events in a way to help govern the country — government of the people, by and for the people, as Abraham Lincoln put it.

Maybe Lincoln didn’t know we were busy.