Most of us can remember that kid we knew growing up who, when anything “good” was about to go down on the playground, we never wanted around. Bitter experience had long since taught us that this no-good rat would no sooner witness something just maybe–technically–against “the rules” than make a beeline for the nearest authority figure–even after we’d taken, for our ages, the extraordinary, adult precaution of first bargaining for, and then extorting, his solemnly sworn silence.
This was a kid without a conscience, clearly–and strangely desperate–yet only to ingratiate himself with the wise grown ups, teachers and the parents–not at all interested in fitting in with the rest of us. Thus, he was a spy in our midst. Heck, the little bastard could be at your house and tell your parents on YOU.
Now, as the school years passed, and swing sets and jungle gyms were abandoned to younger generations, we learned to be more discreet in our fun, or we at least marginally outgrew the thrill of bending the rules.
But we never really came to like that kid–because he never really changed. That anti-social compulsion to spurn us and to roll over on his fellow classmates only evolved into a new, more intense ambition–to be a reporter of consequence for the school paper, perhaps, or a school monitor–and then, someday, so his teachers told us, a reporter for the New York Times.
The news media serve an indispensable role in any society. At their best, they act as a fail-safe and check against abuses of power in all three branches of government, in addition to apprising us of arising issues for which we ought concern ourselves.
Yet all too often we watch as the public interest is sacrificed to an empty, “gotcha” style of reporting, in which small missteps and inconsistencies are doggedly exposed in lieu of advancing our understanding of complex issues and broader realities in play. Exposed to us then is that odious schoolyard anti social, whose disdain for his common contemporaries spurs him to betray even our genuine curiosity and legitimate concerns, all to a standard of “integrity” for which no infraction is too small–a standard we ourselves would be rightly loathe to meet.
But what such neurotic misanthropes likely cannot appreciate is that what we learn is more important than how we learn it– that just obeying all the rules isn’t nearly human enough. We’re very different souls. And our every interaction, each argument–even the worst assaults–reveal to us our mutual failings.
The job of the press is to transcend personal failings, including their own–and with them a “gotcha” style of ad hominem journalism–reporting to us instead upon the concerns common to us all. Unfortunately, a unifying, circumspect journalistic style such as this requires of them something beyond the skill set of the average schoolyard tattletale.