Saturday, March 21, 2009


I generally avoid radio and television news. Most of the reason for this is that it's just an inefficient way to obtain information. I can gleen the important ideas from written news and blogs vastly faster than I can watch a single news segment. These forms of journalism are also much more interconnected (via links and discussion of each other), which makes it easier to put new ideas in a larger cognitive structure. I also find that written words are much easier to remember than any other format.

But after being subjected to a single news clip on This American Life today (well, I hear bits of that constantly, thanks to a certain Ira Glass idolizing roommate, but that's usually my cue to close the door and turn up the music) it occurs to me that the real reason preference should be given to written journalism has nothing to do with efficiency. It's that the quality and integrity of non-written journalism is absolutely abysmal. Showmanship wins every time.

This particular segment, if it were to be written by an economist blogger for example, would be summed up approximately as "while the United States' comparative advantage in the coming years is absolutely in specialized skills and knowledge, so that higher education will be crucial to developing the workforce we need to thrive, it is still the case that not every single person should obtain an advanced degree since an unskilled workforce will always be essential and nonexportable for the operational needs of the country." Ira Glass took the first clause and decided to have a nice, fair and balanced (*cough*) discussion on the truth of such a statement, but through some miraculous twist of "logic", formulated the debate as such: "Will Bob here, who graduated high school but dropped out of college and now works in construction, have a life that gets worse and worse until he can barely survive, whereas I will have a life that gets better and better?" (No his name wasn't Bob, I just have a terrible memory.) I then got to hear about how Bob wishes he had dropped out of high school to start earning money earlier, and then listen to Ira Glass's shock as his colleague also was hesitant to agree that his skills were more valuable in a global economy than Bobs (*giggle*) and then agree to talk to Bob over time and see who turns out better.

I don't think Ira Glass is an idiot. At least, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I'm even willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he really thinks he is performing a public service, rather than dumbing himself down beyond recognition for the sake of better-selling sensationalism and down-home anecdotes. But how can he feel anything but shame for such heinous journalism?! Every single sentence and conclusion confused aggregates and averages for the prescribed behavior for Bob, without the slightest acknowledgment of the oversimplifications someone of his training must surely be aware of.

Last week we saw Jim Cramer famously pummeled by Jon Stewart for similarly presenting sensationalist oversimplified journalism as serious analysis. Jim Cramer is also not an idiot, knows that his primary objective is to entertain the audience, and indeed shouldn't allow his show to be marketed as serious investment advice and analysis. I personally don't have a whole lot of sympathy for viewers who can watch his ludicrous theatrics and still think the hot tips he blurts out in between represent solid investment advice, but well, that's how the show is marketed and people are gullible and overestimate anyone labeled an expert. At least Jim Cramer appears all too aware of the flaws in TV journalism, and thoroughly apologetic for the results. Ira Glass exudes nothing but smug faux openmindedness and careful consideration of the nuances of every question.

Print journalism certainly gets away with this kind of nonsense too. Tabloids obviously exist, no matter sure we all are that a baby mermaid was not found in a sandwich in Thailand. But print journalism is also the only place high-quality, hash-out-the-ideas-and-ditch-the-heartwrenching-story journalism survives. TV and radio is in fact very good at other types of things, such as purely expositional story telling journalism and fiction. But if there's a point of contention, the debate won't be well presented.