One of the fundamental truths you face as someone who reports the news is that everyone lies. Everyone. Some lie to be nice. Some lie to get ahead. Some lie to protect friends. Some lie to make money. Some lie to make trouble. Some lie to get attention. And some lie, amazingly enough, for no obvious reason at all.
On a personal level, lying may or may not matter to you. On a societal level, it matters to us all, because the truth is at some point vital to the functioning of a democracy. The whole thing falls apart without it. If citizenry comes to believe the governing bureaucracy is fundamentally dishonest, a democracy is doomed. See the many historic examples in South and Latin America where exactly this has happened.
There might be no better time to talk about this than on the Fourth of July, the great celebration of American democracy. And besides, I have been thinking about the topic a lot lately for a number of reasons. One of them is that some Alaska supporters of the oil industry don't much like us here at Alaska Dispatch these days because we don't trust the oil companies. Neither should you. The oil companies aren't in the trust business. They're in the big money business, and the big money business is a war fought in the marketplace. Suffice to say, oil companies don't trust each other, which is all you really need to know.
They and their supporters, unfortunately, aren't the only ones who don't like us.
Environmentalists are unhappy, too. I, personally, have called them out more than a few times for distorting the hell out of things, and they don't like it. But the truth is, there are way too many Chicken Littles in the environmental movement screeching "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" when the sky is doing perfectly fine. Their nonsense doesn't benefit anyone. On some level, it is hugely counter-productive to the environmental movement itself. I confess to being a little green, and it worries me that the bullpucky spread by many makes the masses skeptical of the reason advocated by a few.
A little common sense goes a long way
When someone suggests repeatedly that the "world will end tomorrow" because of the latest environmental calamity, and yet you wake up every day with the world still here, it's only natural to develop a jaundiced view of warnings. Some in this situation can easily stumble, as was the case with former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin, into believing that the thoughtful and probing examination of the world around us can be safely abandoned in favor of what is called "common sense."
"Common sense," if you've ever bothered to look it up in Webster's dictionary, refers to "judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts." Simple perceptions work for some things; they do not work for all things. They might not work for many things.
The British have a somewhat slightly different definition of common sense: "The basic level of practical knowledge and judgment that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way."
Common sense is something to help you get by, hopefully, in the absence of real knowledge. Unfortunately for Palin, and those who foolishly cling to her coat tails, this country was built on the foundation of real knowledge. The search for knowledge of all sorts is as much a fundamental part of our democracy as it is of our economy.
What made America great in the 20th century was the developing sense of a societal quest for knowledge. A lot of Americans began to want to know everything about everything.
The quest for knowledge drove this country into a leadership role in all sorts of technology. It led us into space. It helped us create the globe-spanning Internet on which you are reading this now. [Didn't the Cold War and the quest for military supremacy lead us to all these advances?] It made our lives better and more comfortable than anyone coming of age at the end of World War II could ever have imagined. And it fueled the inevitable backlash.
The Luddites are on the loose again. It is to be expected. Change is a scary thing, and our world today is riding a rocket ship of change.
You have to learn something new almost every day just to keep up. It's a comforting thought that you might be able to go back to those days when "common sense" could solve all problems, or yearn for a mother- or father-figure to just tell you what to do.
News for you
We're seeing some of this sort of thinking in America today. We're seeing the development of blocks of people who want someone to tell them what to do, and we're seeing a realignment of the media along those lines. There is what you might call a tribalization of the "news." There is a gravitation on the part of some toward "news" presented in a form to match their preconceptions. There is a reasons Newsmax.com tops Palin's reading list; it reflects her world view.
As a reporter, I don't like it.
I've never been much for anyone's world view. Knowledge doesn't come from marching in lockstep with those who think alike. It's almost the opposite. Knowledge comes from the constant questioning of everything. Everything.
And knowledge is kind of what got me into the journalism business. There was a time when it was a knowledge business. There was a time when it sought to probe and explain the world around us.
Some of that has faded. Much traditional media -- the "lamestream" as Palin has descriptively referred to it -- has sacrificed what reporting should be in favor of what reporting can be most easily defended. This has resulted in cookie-cutter journalism. Take one comment from column A, "balance" it with one comment from column B, and call the story "fair." This you can defend to anyone, even if it satisfies no one.
Palin's "common-sense" view of the world is intelligent enough to inform her that not all views carry the same weight. The probability is high that your physician knows more about medicine than the guy sitting next to you in a bar, no matter what the latter might claim to know. I used to work at a publication that functioned in the style of column A and column B so it could defend its "objectivity." I swear some editors there believed ignorance is the ultimate objectivity.
What a fraud.
Reporters forced to select from column A and column B are sure to do so subjectively. The more you try to force them into some sort of formatted objectivity, the more likely the coverage is to get slanted.
Better to leave them alone to pursue whatever truth, wherever it might lead. Some of the most informative stories I've ever read were slanted, but they contained the information that allowed me to draw a conclusion exactly opposite that of the slant.
If the oil industry and oil-industry supporters have a problem with the reporting in this state at this moment, maybe instead of worrying about the slant they ought to be worrying about helping reporters do their job better. There aren't many out there with a good feel for how this corporate dog hunts. It is dependent not on the reserves and profits of today but of those of tomorrow. An oil company that rests on what it has won't be an oil company for long. It's got to keep moving forward toward new discoveries. Moving forward into today's economic climate requires a lot of money. A lot of money. The oil companies have been less than forthright with Alaskans about how much and how they intend to spend it.
They don't trust Alaskans. They shouldn't. Alaskans seem to want to tax them to the max. But it would seem they're going to have to give a little here if they want to get a little. They're going to have to let some reporters in to provide some context if they hope to get ahead.
Because without context, the picture can really get distorted, which is something I have been thinking about more than anything lately with Lance Armstrong is back in the news.
Cheat to win
Armstrong now stands accused of doping for years in order to win the Tour de France. It is the he-said, she-said story of the day that perfectly underlines the problems inherent in much of what the media has become. This is a story that has been reported, by and large, without any context whatsoever in a situation in which the context says more than anything said by either Armstrong or his accusers at the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. (USADA)
And here is the context:
--Jan Ullrich, runner-up to tour winner Armstrong in 2000, 2001 and 2003, is an admitted doper.
--Ivan Basso, runner-up to tour winner Armstrong in 2005, is an admitted doper.
--Alex Zulle, runner-up to tour winner Armstrong in 1999, is a convicted doper.
--Joseba Beloki, runner-up to tour winner Amstrong in 2002, "retired" in the middle of a doping scandal.
--Andreas Klöden, runner-up to tour winner Armstrong in 2004, paid a fine to end a doping scandal.
And it doesn't stop there. If you go through the list of top-20 finishers in the Tour from 1999 to 2005 -- when Armstrong dominated the event -- nearly all of them have either been caught doping, admitted to doping, or been involved in some sort of doping scandal.
The context here says much, and yet The Associated Press left it all out in one of those perfect he-said, she-said reports the day the story broke that the USADA was proffering charges.
"It is the entirely predictable product of USADA's toxic obsession with Lance Armstrong and a process in which truth is not a priority," (Armstrong attorney Robert) Luskin was quoted as saying. "There is not one shred of credible evidence to support USADA's charges and an unbroken record of more than 500 clean tests over more than a decade and a half to refute it."
Luskin later went on to defend Armstrong with the claim that Floyd Landis, a Armstrong cycling team mate who claims to have seen Armstrong use drugs, "is an admitted, proven liar."
Landis is one of two publicly identified witnesses who claim to have been eye-witnesses to Armstrong's drug use. Eye-witness reports were long considered the best of "credible evidence." The USADA says it has at least nine eye witnesses to Armstrong's drug use in addition to Landis.
Landis is the cyclist who won the Tour de France in 2006 only to be accused of doping. He denied it. There was a lengthy legal battle.
Landis was eventually found guilty of doping and stripped of his title. He later confessed to the use of performance-enhancing drugs, although not the one he was accused of using. He said he'd been taking a whole cocktail of other PEDS, as they are often called among professional cyclists. Then, in a lengthy, 2011 interview with reporter Paul Kimmage of England's "The Sunday Times," he said this:
"If I had any reason to believe that the people running the sport really wanted to fix it, I may have said, 'If I wait long enough, I'll have my chance to win without doping.' But there was no scenario in my mind where I was ever going to get the chance to race the Tour de France and win clean. There was no good scenario. It was either cheat or get cheated. And I'd rather not be the guy getting cheated."
Landis might have lied once. He might have lied many times. But given the context of what is now known about doping in the professional cycling ranks from 2000 on, Landis's statement that "it was either cheat or get cheated" sounds like the most rational and honest thing being said by anyone involved with cycling. Certainly there is the possibility Armstrong did not dope, that somehow the one clean rider was better than all the dopers despite what the science tells us about the advantages of performance-enhancing drugs.
That a clean-riding Texan beat all the Euro dopers, and a tiny handful of fellow Americans, to win the Tour will be a wonderful story line if Armstrong proves his innocence as he says he plans to do. But until that happens, all anyone really has to go on is the record of what is.
And the record of what is, requires a reasonable person to at this point believe Armstrong either doped or was Superman. That a clean Armstrong beat the dopers once, well, that's possible. That a clean Armstrong dominated the dopers for years ...?
The latter conclusion is simply illogical. The performance advantages of EPO and blood-doping are well documented. The boost they can provide, especially late in a multi-week endurance event, cannot be denied. Armstrong set a still-standing Tour record in 2005 when he won the event with an average speed of 26 mph. No one has come close to that average before. The next year Landis won with an average speed of 25.5 mph. The speed has been falling almost every year since as the hunt for dopers has heightened. Cadel Evans won the Tour last year with an average speed of 24.9 mph. You have to go back to the late 1990s -- before the real heyday of doping -- to find an average winning speed that slow.
The probabilities are that Armstrong doped. The man has done wonderful things to raise money for cancer research. But as a bike racer, it looks like he was just another doper.
Now his fans can hate me. It's OK.
'Raise hell and make money'
This business isn't supposed to be about being liked. It's supposed to be about trying to find truths.
My only worry is that it might end -- that with the way things go, the media might continue to fracture into separate tribes of like-minded individuals. Then there will be the "news" site for all the people who believe Armstrong dopes, and a "news" site for all the people who believe Armstrong is clean, and no news site out there sorting through the rubble in a search for some indefinable truth among all the lies.
Not that I mean to make myself or Alaska Dispatch all that noble. I know I've lied. We all lie. And that's the point. That's why we need a seasoned, well-reasoned media out there trying to sort things out not just on the basis of what people say, but on the basis of what it is rational to believe. My only worry is whether such a media can survive in this country. My fear is that the funding might not be there to support it because so many businesses now push their money toward media that parrots their positions no matter how short-sighted that view.
The problem with having a philosophical or economic agenda is that people stop listening when they know you have an agenda. And when people in a democracy stop listening, we all lose. The only agenda a media organization ought to have is simple: "Raise hell and make money." The latter because it is necessary to survive in any economic system; and the former because it's important to a democracy and because, to a few twisted idealists, it's fun and it's red-blooded American.