The following is an account of a shipwreck published in the New York Times on May 27, 1856.
ALMOST A TRAGEDY—Collision of a Steamer and a Schooner—Two Hundred Excursionists Terribly Frightened and Very Nearly Drowned—an Uncomfortable Night at Sea—Varied (word is unclear) Incidents.
An event occurred on Sunday afternoon which might have resulted in the loss of nearly two hundred lives, but which, fortunately, was productive of nothing worse than severe discomfort to the same number of persons, and which, instead of being a tragedy, has resulted in a comedy of a very laughable description
. . . . the old steamer Robert L. Stephens . . . left the foot of Ames street, North River, at 9 o’clock on Sabbath morning, with nearly 200 persons on board. They were very merry. They inhaled the delicious sea breeze, and poisoned it with the smoke of bad cigars. They boasted of their fishing tackle. They drank themselves, and bestowed (word is unclear) and (word is unclear) on their ladies. They rejoiced greatly, and were bent on having the best of all good times.
Under the sun or moon little comes to pass as we anticipate it. Saturday was hot; Sunday was cold. That was the first blow to thorough enjoyment, the wind being northwest and strong
. . . about 2 o’clock P. M., a schooner was seen rushing upon them, as if for the express purpose of destruction
. . . she struck the steamer direct in the wheel-house, carrying away the greater part of the paddle and damaging the machinery, staving also a large hole in the steamer’s side, a little above water mark. The consternation among the excursionists was instantly very great. They seized stools, chairs and everything that could float. Some stripped themselves of most of their clothing, and awaited the sinking of the steamer with a resolution to struggle desperately for their lives. Of life preservers there were very few and those who attained them were tenacious in their grasp. The ladies fluttered and cried, but behaved, on the whole, better than the men… (New York Daily Times, May 27, 1856, page 1, column 1)
The reporter proceeds to tell us that an oyster boat picked up 60 of the victims and deposited them, soaking wet and shivering with the cold, on land. The schooner that had collided with the steamer picked up 130 more and made for shore but a strong seaward wind prevented the overloaded boat from reaching land for 16 hours. During this time (without food, water, or protection from the elements), the excursionists had to first shove into the sea a shipment of lime that, as it combined with sea spray, emitted noxious fumes, and then bail furiously just to keep the boat afloat. He ends his account with the following condescension: “Terminating as happily as it did, the excursionists can afford to join in and laugh against themselves, and forget the hardships of the first Sunday fishing excursion of the season.”
Okay, let’s take a look at this. Can this even be considered “news?” None of the excursionists died that night, but did any of them catch pneumonia and die later? Were any of the crew from the two boats injured, and what happened to the boats afterward? Why did the schooner (a ship with sails) run into the steamer (a paddlewheeler) in the first place and will anyone be held responsible? Why wasn’t a more serious rescue attempt, perhaps with another steamer, launched during those 16 hours of potentially lethal exposure to the elements? On a more mundane note, how does the reporter know the male victims were smoking “bad cigars?” How did the reporter know that some of the victims “stripped?” How does he know the ladies “behaved, on the whole, better than the men?” Did he record what victims actually witnessed, or what he imagined?
This type of journalism would not pass muster at the New York Times today, but it was common before the Civil War before the ideal of “journalistic objectivity” took root. By the end of World War II, of course, objectivity had become de rigueur for any news outlet who wanted to be taken seriously but, by then, it had also evolved into simplistic formulas and slogans like Get-Both-Sides, Bald-and-Exact-Fact, and Balance, that anyone who reads or listens to news is familiar with. Get-Both-Sides, calls for journalists to report both sides of a controversy equally, even if one side is lying through its teeth. Context and background are deemphasized and interpretation or comment by the reporter are absolutely forbidden: “Today, he said A and she said B. The end.” Bald-and-Exact-Fact requires journalists to report only the observable facts: “This happened and that happened. Then this and this happened. The end.” Balance demands that journalists try to balance good and bad news evenly on both sides: “Trump is accused of forcibly raping a 13 year old, and cheating contractors employed by him into despair and bankruptcy, and Clinton is accused of misrepresenting those emails. The end.” (As philosopher William Berkson wrote, “If Trump was visibly terrible, ‘balance’ required that Clinton be terrible too, regardless of whether they were actually comparable.”) These strategies worked reasonably well for a long time partially because newsmakers, while they would cheerfully dissemble and deceive, still considered bald-faced, in-your-grill, lying-in-spite-of-physical-evidence to be a bridge too far. No more. We are in a brave new world and we have to respond with a brave new journalism.
But what to do when a newsmaker (Trump) lies continuously, without stopping to even take a breath? What to do when a newsmaker (Trump) has bound current and previous employees under contract to never say anything bad about him? And what to do when half the country could care less about fact-checking…when half the country prefers Orwellian designer reality to real reality? It’s a puzzle. Well, one thing news media content providers shouldn’t do is exaggerate and tell only half the story all the time. For example – does “half the country” really not care about fact-checking? Does “half the country” really prefer Orwellian designer reality? There is no way to know without a lot of research, but who has time for that?
Exactly! Who has time for that? (In fact, a few minutes can be saved right here by borrowing more from a previous blog.) We are engulfed in media. We are never unplugged. There is an incomprehensible amount of media space to fill and not enough time in the day for media content providers to fill it with well-researched news and analysis based on incontrovertible evidence and flawless logic. Consumers want their daily (hourly? half-hourly?) posts and twitter feeds. So, instead, content providers shoot from the hip – more and more and more. This, in turn, leads to a problem with accuracy and reliability. What sources can a content provider trust when so many are shooting from the hip?
This situation not only keeps consumers on all sides largely in the dark about the real reasons things are happening the way they are, it keeps them angry. Constant anger is a cancer. It is bad for you physically, bad for you psychologically, and bad for the country because when everybody is nothing but angry, nothing gets resolved. This insatiable demand for media content catalyzes bad journalism, which catalyzes anger, which interferes with problem solving and nation saving.
Fact-based, logical journalism would provide both sides with information they could use to build common ground, but where does one find fact-based, logical journalism nowadays? Well, it’s easier than you think. If you can identify contrivance in the entertainment media, you can identify propaganda in the news media. Next time you sit down to catch up, read both The Huffington Post, and The New York Times. Read both Politico and ProPublica. If you have your emotions under control and your brain turned on, you will see the difference. The New York Times and ProPublica (among others) can be counted on more often to produce in-depth, contextually supported information – an approximation of the traditional ideal of “news.” We desperately need real news to counteract this age’s “fake news.”
Does this make The Huffington Post and Politico bad? No. They make quickie news available – in our crazy world quick is often better than nothing – and they help energize the sleeping tiger of majority Centrism/Liberalism/Progressivism. Unfortunately that tiger is still shaking its head trying to wake up and think clearly. Should we Liberals and Progressives try to understand where Trump voters are coming from, forgive them, and work toward common ground? Or should we ostracize them, ridicule them, and beat them mercilessly with the consequences of their act and then mobilize en masse to scare the bejeebers out of them? The first one is hard to do and possibly productive; the second one is more fun…and also possibly productive. Almost every mainstream, heterosexual, self-identified male – and many who do not fit into that box – will have heard at some point growing up, “Sometimes you just have to hit the other guy.” Hitler, for example. Peace overtures didn’t work with Hitler, and arguably were never going to work, because he was just crazy. White supremacists as a group, for example, will likely never respond to Liberal/Progressive offers of reconciliation because what afflicts them goes so much deeper than surface niceties could ever touch (see Life After Hate’s website). A global society is inevitable. Nothing except mutual destruction will stop it from happening. It’s time people on the other side understood what they are up against. So, while “nothing but anger” is bad, “nothing but love” is also probably bad.
Only throwing invective and condescension at Trump voters is likely to alienate and energize them (and sicken us), but only forgiving and forgetting their incomprehensible stupidity and short-sightedness is likely to empower them. Why not do both? You know – good cop/bad cop, carrot/stick. It has worked for millennia. Get the information you need to 1. understand what is going on and understand both sides’ responses so you can 2. channel your righteous anger most efficiently and effectively. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
In other words, don’t forget that other golden rule: “Moderation in all things…including moderation.”