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Joe Wilson and the Car Mechanic

How much can U.S. media learn from car mechanics when it comes to courage and service mentality?

October 24, 2003

How much can U.S. media learn from car mechanics when it comes to courage and service mentality?

Assume your car is giving you trouble — and that you don’t quite know what’s wrong. What do you do? If you are like me, and use cars for driving, but otherwise do not know much about cars, you take your car to a garage — and have the mechanics there inspect the vehicle.

Next, you expect a phone call later in the day where the mechanic will give you three things: News, analysis and opinion — all wrapped in one package.

That kind of convenience, decisiveness and service mentality is what is sorely missing in the many U.S. media. If only they had the same courage as all car mechanics.

After all, most car owners know that they cannot make an appropriate decision about the repair job at hand without the expert’s advice. First, in order to act responsibly, one wants the overall picture, read: the news (in headlines).

Then, in order to come up with his or her recommendation, the mechanic will need to insert some analysis — and, in the final analysis, even opinion.

Without these elements, it won’t be possible for the mechanic to tell you as succinctly as possible: “What’s wrong with your car is that XYZ is broken — and it’s going to cost X hundred bucks to fix. I can have it all done tomorrow.”

In my view, that kind of service, which consumers/citizens receive from mechanics, is also what they expect to get from journalists. No more, no less.

After all, journalists are the specialists tasked with sorting out what’s really going on. Most people are too busy coping with the main aspects of their life — work, family, friends and finances — to spend a lot of time on news, or on deciphering it all, for that matter.

In many other advanced countries, that kind of assistance is what journalists actually accomplish. They try to get to the bottom of things. Acting on behalf of the citizens, they utilize their power as the "fourth estate" by checking out what the government has up its shirtsleeves.

And if it is something unbecoming, then hopefully the national media will tackle that kind of spin head-on, deciphering it all in a nutshell for the otherwise busy consumers/citizens.

The same kind of checks-and-balances mechanism is to be employed when it comes to spin efforts by companies — or other powerful organizations tempted to pull wool over citizens’ eyes.

Alas, in the United States it is increasingly unlikely that you will get this kind of expert advice. Sorting things out to that degree of explicitness would be mixing opinion with reporting, you are told.

In many subtle — and not so subtle — ways, journalists are discouraged from offering to readers what their key competence is — analysis. Instead, they are told, in mind-numbing fashion, that everything which is not pure news needs to be attributed to a source.

In short, instead of offering analysis, reporters are turned into quote compilation machines. Adding analysis is discouraged — because it could be viewed as opinion and subjective.

Now, ultimately, most thinking is indeed subjective. In fact, outside areas such as math, one could argue that it is hard to think without being subjective.

In other words, in their desire to be objective, U.S. newspapers get to a point where many journalists are neutered — and increasingly feel that way.

Analysis is alright, they are told, we even have an article or two a day — in specially marked sections — that provide such "news analysis."

That separation is one that leaves most reporters outside the United States confused. How, in this increasingly complex world, can you write news stories without providing strong doses of analysis?

If you refrain from presenting this analysis — based on the independence and arbiter function of the press — how can you make sure that media work amounts to more than becoming a megaphone for government policies?

Is there not a danger under those circumstances to turn into cheerleaders? What if the government's best-laid plans, dutifully reported, go awry — as they may have in Iraq? Did the people ever have a choice as to whether their nation should engage in the action?

Were the right questions — and doubts — expressed in the run-up? Who, in a world that is based on a division of labor, could articulate those thoughts on behalf of the citizens — if not the media?

If they fail in that task, isn't a nation's media model possibly degraded to the point of travesty — where the media effectively support the shooting first, to ask questions only later?

These are all unpleasant questions for the world's mightiest nation — but important ones globally. After all, whether the rest of the world likes it or not, any U.S. administration at this juncture has an agenda-setting function.

So the ways and means of the superpower’s media mechanism — especially whether the checks and balances are indeed exercised domestically — have become an issue of global importance.

How then does the U.S. media model work — if it is not based on a solid amount of analysis? In a nutshell, all you need in a straight news-reporting world is two sources.

That's where the recent hubbub over Ambassador Joe Wilson and his wife — an undercover CIA agent — enters into the equation. Venerable reporters, such as the columnist Bob Novak, may claim that they were not spun.

But under the prevailing operating conditions, it is hard to come to another conclusion — other than the even worse one that they were active spinners. How does it all work? Simple. Somebody calls to tell a reporter a real "goodie." That gives you one source.

But of course, you need another one to corroborate the information. So you get somebody up close to the issue in question to corroborate it. In the increasingly incestuous Washington media world, it doesn’t matter too much if it’s (almost) the guy next door. That’s "news" in the U.S. model.

Now, in other countries, reporters talk to a lot of sources as well. But few of them may appear in the actual news story. Why? Because a reporter's natural instinct is to assume that everybody may just be talking to provide their own spin on a story.

So a good reporter calls and calls — to cut through all the clutter. Then, after that painstaking work, the reporter delivers his or her take on what's going on — but hopefully without too uncomfortably close (or sole) reliance on government sources.

Now, no doubt, there is an increasingly fierce debate over the advisability of entering Iraq in U.S. newspapers. The trouble is that it only became intense when it was too late. The United States was committed — and the wisdom of it all is only an issue of academic, read: ex post facto, interest.

And sure, now many Washington reporters are vying to uncover who said what to whom — and deceived whom when in the run-up to the war. The trouble is that the U.S. media model — as a checks and balances mechanism — only works in hindsight, not during the planning stages.

True, during those early stages, there is no “news” about failure regarding an invasion that could possibly be reported. After all, the attack at the time has not yet happened.

But whether it was wise to engage in such action should surely have been a matter for debate in U.S. newspapers beyond just the opinion pages. However, under the current set of guidelines instilled in U.S. journalists, it is hard to see how that could have been the case.

It all leads to an unpleasant situation where the population goes along with the administration, able to claim — as the American people increasingly do now — that nobody had warned them about all the things that could go wrong.

Media outside the United States, of course, were full of such questions, stories and reports. But few were reflected in the U.S. media, which — evidently at the administration's behest — rather focused on how the unwillingness of other nations to join the U.S. cause was a sign of their lack of courage, principle or mercantilism.

It is clear now that asking questions, on behalf of citizens, about what the holes were in the administration’s case for Iraq is crucial.

Allowing only a few chosen columnists — like designated hitters — to opine does not suffice. Many readers have tuned out of reading those particular pages long ago.

Effectively telling the other journalists to leave their analytical skills at home is not only greatly disparaging to some personally. Worse, it is dangerous for U.S. democracy, rational public choices — and, as is now utterly apparent, global cooperation and the future potential for U.S. leadership.

The American media may still believe that they are an island — and beyond reproach. But that's about as delusional as all those constant proclamations from the New York Stock Exchange, preaching to the rest of the world about the importance of full disclosure and transparency (all the while covering up its executives' lavish compensation plans).

The trouble is that fewer and fewer U.S. brands are trusted anymore around the world. It would be a shame if the U.S. media would have to be added to the list.