Hills of Beans

Hard on the heels of the story about New York Times reporter-trickster Jayson Blair comes this Guardian examination of the Jessica Lynch ‘story’ and the various forces that played into that exercise in media manipulation. Saving Private Lynch is one of the stories Jayson Blair was reporting on when he concocted the porch overlooking the tobacco fields and the herds of cattle, the porch that ‘overlooks no such thing,’ as the Times account says so acidly that I found myself wondering what the porch does overlook. A pile of rusting cars? A still? A tennis court? A swimming pool?

I thought when I first read the long Times story – so, they had him covering the Washington sniper, and then the Jessica Lynch story, that is to say the talk to the family part of the story. The final, undoing charge of plagiarism came with another human interest, talk to the family story. I did think, in passing, that perhaps the Times has had a touch of the old hoist by its own petard here, in grubbing after all this Capraesque sentimental cloying Peggy Noonanish real Amurica human interest ‘how did you feel?’ stuff. Rick had it right: the reactions of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. No, they don’t, and nor should they; not disproportionately. In the larger scheme of things, the human interest stories are not really the ones we need to know about. Is it possible that if the New York Times didn’t feel a need to cover general human interest stories it wouldn’t be hiring young unfledged reporters with journalism degrees in the first place? That it would instead hire people with more solid knowledge and expertise, people who could report on diplomacy, politics, world affairs, Islam, history, economics, sociology? Anybody can go and ‘interview the family’ or, indeed, pretend to; not anybody can analyse and explain the context of wars in the Middle East.

Surely our bottomless appetite for gossippy ‘news’ serves us badly, and the willingness of serious papers like the Times to feed (and keep nurturing and increasing) that appetite has some connection to the ability of a reporter to fool his editors with fairy tales and boilerplate ‘reactions of the family’ stories. Maybe the Times should make that part of its understanding of this particular bump in the road.

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