As many of you will know, in the fifth and final season of The Wire the viewer is taken inside the busy newsroom of The Baltimore Sun. Unfortunately, the view is not a particularly inspiring one. The central figure of this fictionalised journal of record is one “Gus” Haynes, a thinly veiled portrait of the show’s co-creator, David Simon, who was himself a crime reporter for the fictional paper’s real-life equivalent. As such, the sense of dirt being dished is unavoidable while watching it. Haynes is an old-fashioned reporter: he has principles, he has guts – he’s a bulldog for the truth. Unluckily for Haynes, his style of reporting – with its non-sensationalist commitment to fact-gathering and truth-checking – is falling out of favour. He watches good men let go, while an eager young pup who fabricates a story involving a serial killer is patted on the back and taken upstairs.
Despite verisimilitude being one of this show’s most remarked upon attributes, I couldn’t help wondering, while watching all this, how much veracity lay in this depiction of a newspaper’s commitment to truth being compromised by commercial pressures. For one thing, it is a fictional portrayal. For another, I am under the impression Mr Simon’s tenure at The Sun ended on, shall we say, somewhat less than amicable terms. It may have all seemed plausible enough (after all, the story of the reporter fabricating his reports was clearly inspired by the real life case of Jayson Blair at The New York Times), Simon may have claimed that the theme of this season was “what stories get told and what don’t and why it is that things stay the same,” but how was I to know his vision hadn’t been warped somewhat by the perfectly understandable motivation to get one over on his old bosses by pointing out how shitty their paper is?
If Nick Davis’ account of contemporary journalistic practise is anything to go by, David Simon’s portrayal of an industry in decline was something of an understatement. If Flat Earth News is to be believed, the actuality is much, much worse than the fantasy. “Most of the time,” Davis’ writes in the apocalyptic tones that characterise this book, “most journalists do not know what they are talking about. Their stories may be right, or they may be wrong: they don’t know.” Gosh! It isn’t their fault though: “They work in structures that positively prevent them discovering the truth.” Oh dear. How did this happen? According to Davis, reporters are simply not given the time or tools to do their job properly anymore. The explosion in the demand for news content from corporate owners has not been matched by an equivalent rise in staff, resulting in an ever-decreasing number of reporters trying to fill ever-expanding content with stories gleaned from a dwindling number of sources. Davis calls this process “churnalism” and the result is the ‘Flat Earth News’ of his title: distortions and falsehoods that are picked up by the news machine and beamed uncritically around the world. Davis’ offers us a pertinent selection of examples to illustrate his thesis – from drugs, to millennium bugs, to the ‘War on Terror’. “The ethic of honesty,” he tells us, “has been overwhelmed by the mass production of ignorance.”
Davis’ book is an incredibly juicy read. Barely a page goes by without a disbelieving snort, laugh, or shake of the head. Revelation follows revelation to the point where you begin to wonder if you wouldn’t be better informed if you never read another paper in your life. Davis’ is at pains to point out that it is not all bad – there are still good reporters out there (I presume he includes himself in this) and the truth can still get noticed. But if even half of this book’s contents are true, journalism is in a very perilous condition indeed. The news man’s ability to convey ‘just the facts’ has been severely hampered by an industry that demands more for less – and damn the truth. If the news is, as it is often claimed to be, ‘the first draft of history’, then by Davis’ analysis the draft we are currently writing will prove next to useless to future historians, based as it is on a quicksand of mistaken facts, downright lies, and PR drivel.
Despite being written in a language that is sometimes a little too hysterical for its own good (“The scale of it is terrifying”), it has to be said that Davis’ analysis is, to my mind, far more convincing than Noam Chomsky’s convoluted and slightly paranoid “Propaganda Model,” not least because it posits no grand, over-arching, conspiratorial network behind the failings of the modern mass media. Davis’ expose is not that of an ideologically driven secret plot to keep the masses in a blissful state of ignorance. Davis’ portrait of an industry in decline is much more human, the result of “all kinds of manipulation, occasional conspiracy, lying, cheating, stupidity, cupidity, gullibility, a collapse of skill, and a new wave of propaganda,” rather than a grand plan of some sort. Squeezed by market pressures and overwhelmed by the information revolution, modern reportage is lost at sea.
The last part of the book – ‘Inside Stories’ – is somehow the most enjoyable yet least successful part of his critique. In a series of quite eye-popping ‘case studies’ he takes us through embarrassing episodes at the Times, the Observer, and the Daily Mail. During these chapters he really goes to town. He names names and dishes the dirt with gleeful, muck-raking abandon. At this point I came up against the same nagging questions I had while watching the final series of The Wire. Seeing as Davis is himself a reporter, and therefore knew and has worked with many of the people he calls so righteously to account, mightn’t there be a little bit of point-scoring going on? Was the tone and content of these chapters perhaps coloured by old grudges against hated colleagues? Not being an insider like the author, it was impossible to tell. This suspicion was only heightened by the fact that Davis informs us at the beginning of his book that “dog doesn’t eat dog” has, “always been the rule in Fleet Street,” but that his crusading tome is, “a brazen attempt to break that rule” (You can just picture him rubbing his hands).
Nonetheless, Davis’ work is a must read for anybody who is troubled by the state of journalism. I guarantee it will shock you, no matter how jaded and cynical you think you are about reporters and their nefarious deeds. If, like me, you consider a free press an essential ingredient of civilisation, you will despair at its contents. At a time when we are constantly bombarded with information from all sides, and the ability to critically asses such information becomes ever more paramount, our media have been unable, or unwilling, to rise to the challenge. The lure of illusion is ever present. The task of resisting it difficult and sometimes painful. Fact-gathering and truth-checking have become more urgently needed, and yet less affordable, than ever. Our newspapers ought to be a candle in the dark here – a refuge from the deluge of nonsense cloying for our attention. Instead, they have themselves succumbed to the tide, and are – I fear – becoming part of the problem, not the solution.