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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Recovering what’s lost in American news

Published: October 14, 2011
Section: Opinions

I’ve begun to listen to the news again.

It’s been a while. There was a long spell of completely ignoring what was going on in the world beyond the parameters of my desk during midterms and the tiny insulated bubble that is social life, and when I suddenly tried to listen to American news, I discovered that it physically hurt. My tolerance for inanity had diminished in the time away, leaving me vulnerable to every hit, unable to filter out the asinine bias. I had to ferret out a BBC World Service broadcast from the depths of the Internet, which was depressing in so many different ways.

Even though BBC has recently suffered a journalists’ strike, which disrupted much of its programming, it still manages to have better coverage than most popular American programming. It’s state-controlled, there is some level of government censorship, whether it’s direct and aggressive or just in vague influence and, again, even so it’s better than the American channels combined.

The United States has forgotten what news is … or should be. What are facts? What is truth? What is valid news? (Answer: No one cares, no one knows and this adorable seal can sing “Ave Maria!”)

Everyone younger than 30 and left of center is quick to bombast NPR as the saving grace of American journalism. I don’t like NPR. Or, rather, I like “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” and “Car Talk” because I’m a huge nerd, but I can’t whole-heartedly support such blatantly soft-core news. They do have a liberal bias, which it seems everyone does if they are not staunchly Republican, and while I am uncomfortable with any partisanship in reporting, that’s not NPR’s biggest issue.

By listening to both NPR and BBC intermittently throughout the day, I finally grasped what made such a difference in quality. On BBC, there was an interview with a white farmer from Zimbabwe who had tried to fight the re-appropriation of his farm by the government. On NPR, an influential conservative was being questioned about the debt crisis.

Even though the BBC was airing what was more “human interest,” the interviewer was grilling the guy. He brought up hard issues, questioned motives, made the subject prove what he was saying.

The journalist on NPR allowed his subject to talk at length and without interruption for a number of minutes, without making him justify anything he said, even when he gave well-known half-truths or misrepresented facts about the Reagan era, which even my vague, disused knowledge of American history was able to catch.

There is something lacking in American journalists today. Whether it is born of a lack of aggression or biased funding, even the best American news agencies have become … nice. The British are beating us at being tough.

Otherwise responsible news agencies, perhaps for fear of succumbing to screaming matches like we see on some television broadcasts, have become painfully polite. It’s unclear whether they are confusing nonpartisanship with complacency or cower for fear offending a listener, but they don’t take very hard jabs at anyone. No one can find the balance between the two extremes. Either we have talking heads shrieking nonsensically or we have warm fuzzy readings of Facebook comments from listeners who bring up the relevant points, after the subject has hung up, that the reporter should have asked.

It’s not nostalgia, a desire to go back to those hard-boiled reporters with a pencil behind one ear and a cigarette behind the other, because they rarely, if ever, existed outside of fiction.

It’s a rare hope that American journalism one day can balance ethics and still perform its obligation to the American public.