Monday, September 23, 2002

A recent incident in the world of journalism has shed some embarrassing light on its workings. Christopher Newton, an AP reporter, was fired last Monday for "quoting" fabricated "experts" in his stories--more than a dozen, over a period of years. He's hardly the first, of course; numerous cases, such as those of Stephen Glass and Patricia Smith, have been publicized over the last few years. But in the past, such journalists have typically been exposed after inventing sham encounters with anonymous or semi-anonymous "average folks"; Glass, in fact, was caught as soon as he dared invent an actual company, rather than a mere random individual. Newton, on the other hand, spent years occasionally presenting fictitious characters as official academics at real universities or fake "institutes"; yet he was only nabbed this month. What happened?

The answer lies in an important shift that has taken place in the field of journalism over the last few decades. With the advent of modern communications technology, basic news has essentially become a commodity, generated by poorly-paid stringers, supplied cheaply in bulk by wire services, and packaged and distributed at little cost (or profit) by media companies. The job of the elite professional journalist has thus changed drastically; it now consists of creating audience-grabbing (not informative or accurate) content that can hold the increasingly peripatetic attention of some large cohort of customers, and keep them coming back for more.

This form of journalism is much more synthetic, in all senses of the word, than the traditional variety; rather than gather information, organize it, and pass it along, the contemporary journalist develops a "story", and then goes in search of the necessary facts and quotations with which to construct a factual basis for it. In a story dealing with public opinion, for example, ordinary people must be found (or invented) to provide the quotations that support the story's claim. Similarly, for stories about more substantial topics, experts are needed, to lend credibility to the journalist's thesis.

And the experts have stepped up, in droves, to fill that need. In exchange for the fame that helps them procure money and status, entire organizations and faculties of academics and self-styled pundits have arisen to supply story-writers with the raw material they're looking for: brisk, easily-packaged quotations from plausible-sounding experts, reliably expressing some standard category of view that a "reporter" might like to drop into a story to make it look as though its content was gathered rather than composed.

That's why Christopher Newton's perfidy remained secret for so long: his invented experts, expressing unsurprising opinions that concisely and effectively buttressed his assertions, were disturbingly indistinguishable from the real thing. Far from betraying the very foundations of his craft, he was in fact merely skipping a redundant step in the process of creating modern journalistic copy.

In doing so, of course, he exposed the essential fraudulence of his colleagues' purportedly more "honest" work. And for that sin, he had to be destroyed.

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