This piece first appeared in The Age
It was late and my girlfriend had retired in disgust. She was right to. I was immobile on the couch, watching live coverage of the Boston manhunt from an American broadcast, and dumbly forgiving of the rolling nothingness—the repetition, the inaccuracy, the intemperate commentary (”Wanted dead or alive, but I’m sure we wouldn’t mind dead.”) Three dead, four dead, five—but I wasn’t giving up my ticket to the circus.
In its coverage of the Boston bombing and its aftermath, both the ”mainstream” and social media had disgraced the dead, slandered the living, and left us all with a reminder of the perils of vanity. Was it not bad enough that empty thugs had murdered sons and daughters, that the reporting of it should create its own misery in falsely accusing others?
This isn’t about old media versus new. The errors are evenly borne, sometimes combined. For social media, the most disturbing failure was the misidentification of missing student Sunil Tripathi as a suspect. It seems it started on Reddit, a social news site curated by its users.
A page on Reddit had been created for sharing pictures and stories of the bombing with the vainglorious intention of crowd-sourcing an investigation—determining the identity of those responsible.
When a tweet circulated claiming—it seems inaccurately—that a police scanner had identified Tripathi as a suspect, hell broke loose. The claim was tweeted influentially by the hacking group Anonymous and more ”traditional” journalists followed. Here was a messy confluence of news sources—both old and new—compounding and circulating error.
One tweeter—the one that may have triggered this filthy avalanche—crowed that ”If Sunil Tripathi did indeed commit this #BostonBombing, Reddit has scored a significant, game-changing victory.” But he didn’t and it wasn’t, and later Tripathi’s body was found in the Providence River, an apparent suicide. Suddenly the brave new world looked a lot like the old one.
Notably, two Australians contributed their own forms of vain and destructive inaccuracy—the editor of the New York Post and our own sad clown Alan Jones. The Post published a picture of two innocent men on its cover, while Jones speculated on national television that the bombing might be the work of a ”conspiracy of left-wing radical students” and then questioned Australia’s acceptance of international students. You could fall a long way down these potholes of sophistry, but Jones skipped over them with an athleticism available only to those incapable of self-reflection.
This wasn’t a cautionary tale about new media, but an ancient reminder of the dangers of hubris. Journalism is the patient transformation of data into accurate and useful information—not the polishing of rumour with prejudice, goodwill or giddiness.
Daily there are reminders of journalistic vanity. The other night I caught a six o’clock news bulletin and watched another chapter of death porn hosted by an ex-prom queen.
Standing before the scene of a fatal accident, with the best approximation of solemnity her age could buy, stood a child reporter in a $500 dress intoning hollow proclamations of tragedy through gloriously painted lips. Here was the dubious pleasure of well-dressed and youthful flesh reporting on the mortal damage to someone else’s. It’s mediated obscenity, the more so for its casualness. Cue, chalk marks, cameraman. Pass the lipstick. The rest is ratings.
A similar, subtler vanity exists on The Hill. There are many excellent exceptions, but plenty of dispatches from the press gallery in Parliament House presume in their readers or viewers the same intoxication with The Game that their authors have.
It’s called The Bubble: the feeling that, having gained professional proximity to power, whatever banal agitations you observe among politicians can be passed off as journalism. Never mind that it’s largely irrelevant to the lives of Australians; never mind that you’re being played by professional fishmongers of leaks.
The Bubble exists whenever the vain thrill of possessing privileged information trumps your ability to determine the usefulness or interest of that information for your audience. The Bubble exists whenever a journalist is intellectually content to relay the silly, self-absorbed carnival of egos—and imagine that their reporting is complete or interesting.
I’m sick of the simulacrum of feeling. I’m sick of networks profiting off it. I’m sick of Kens and Barbies playing reporter. I’m sick of political analysis made oxymoronic by ideology. I’m sick of stenography masquerading as wisdom. I’m sick of reporters incapable of hearing the irony and cowardice and historical contingency beneath the white noise of official statements. And I’m sick of rarely reading something that sings—something that recognises, without the assistance of polls, the sloppy hopes and gut-punched disappointments of voters.
It’s not all bad. Far from it. I’ve had the pleasure to share this page with brighter minds than mine, but with similar allergies to bullshit. In the scale of our lives, September 14 is just a few blinks away, but it might seem like forever to those grown sick of polls and prognostications that have the poetry and nourishment of a cheeseburger. Until then, there are some who are unfashionably committed to facts, who have an intuitive embrace of Mark Twain’s words: ”we do not deal much in fact when we are contemplating ourselves”.