Rumors are circulating that somewhere deep underground, in a huge laboratory complex underneath Virginia, Dupont Corp. scientists are working on a machine that will actually provide objective reporting to those willing to pay a high subscription fee. With the release of this machine, there will be no need ever again for text articles. Facts and quotes will be beamed directly into the heads of news consumers. And to get around the question of biased selection of information, all known facts and all spoken quotes will be transmitted instantly, as they occur, resulting in a consumer base that will have access to total knowledge 24 hours a day.
Until then, however, it looks like we're stuck with the current system. As it stands, reading the news is a little like looking at the shadow of an eclipse through a pinhole cut in a shoebox; you get a tiny, second-hand regurgitation of events, bolstered by a small smorgasbord of fact and opinion carefully chosen for you by your hack-waiter.
The problem with reporting as it stands is that the medium in which facts and opinions are presented is, no matter how much he lards it up with cliches, the reporter's own personal narrative. This means that every piece of reporting exhibits the full range of human imprecision. Among the loopiest parts of that narrative is the article's tone.
Nowhere is tone more conspicuous than during a crisis, when the facts everyone reports are all the same, and only the reporter's attitude toward them are different. Let's take for example two different articles that were published by Western writers over the weekend.
Both of the pieces listed below told the reader that Russia's market was now officially the worst-performing in the world, that its interest rates had been raised to 150 percent, and that there was a threat that its currency would collapse. Both articles also cited a number of quotes to illustrate their stories. If you read closely, though, it was hard to tell what illustrated what. Pop quiz: which of the following quotes were clipped from piece that said the crisis was over, and which came from a piece that said the crisis was still going on?
a) "We are in a very deep and serious financial crisis, and there's no obvious way out," says Vilen Pervamotrov, an analyst at the independent Institute of Market Problems in Moscow.
a) "At the heart of our troubles is the decline of industry in Russia over the past ten years. Production has fallen by half, and in such circumstances it's impossible to maintain financial stability."
a) "The government's options are very limited in this situation," says Mr. Pervamotrov. "It can cut spending, raise taxes or get a big bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund".
a) "There is already a wave of strikes among workers, which has subsided somewhat for now, but if they squeeze the population much more there could be an explosion," says Mr. Pervamotrov.
In every case above, the first quote came from an article by Fred Weir of the Hindustan Times, while the second quote in each pair came from an article by eXile favorite Kathy Lally of the Baltimore Sun. Hard to tell the difference, isn't it? Both articles were full of quotes which used words like "panic," "crisis," and "explosion," yet the conclusion reporters drew were completely opposite. Weir's piece, the "crisis continuing" story, featured the following lead, which ultimately proved appropriate:
Lally's, headlined "Economic Crisis Fades," told readers in the first paragraph that the crisis was essentially over:
The difference between Weir's story and Lally's (or Peter Heinlein's Voice of America story, which was entitled "The Crisis that Wasn't") goes a little bit beyond the difference between calling a glass half-empty and calling it half-full.
Think about it from the point of view of the striking miners. The way they see it, saying that ordinary people are best served "persevering and hoping for the best" isn't called being optimistic. It's called taking sides.
When you don't write news articles but only read them, you don't realize just how wide the tonal spectrum is for news articles. Straight-news reporters generally choose a tone of passive concern, but they can also be alarmist, boosterish, mocking, ironic, gloating...the variations are endless.
You need to pay the most attention to tone when it conveys a message that's different from the reporter would have you think. With her soothing, optimistic tone, Kathy Lally would have you think that she was only being even-keeled, positive-minded, and responsibly non-alarmist, but under the circumstances her article was a work of radical boosterism.
Striving to avoid sounding alarmist during a period of alarming news events doesn't make a whole lot of sense, from any point of view-least of all from your readers'. In Lally's case, there are probably at least a few people in the Baltimore area who had money in Russian GKOs who read Saturday that the crisis had faded, only to wake up Tuesday to find that the market had plummeted 15%.
Even the wire services, which ostensibly strive for a robotic, non-ideological tone in their coverage, have a specific narrative voice which deserves your attention. Reuters, for instance, instills in its writers the personality of slavish, power-worshipping lackeys, creating an army of little nodding monkeys in fezzes who follow around government officials with notepads. Its Oleg Schedrov was one such monkey last week:
Again, from a miner's point of view, he and his fellow strikers aren't "political foes" of the Kiriyenko government. They're guys who have been crawling around in the dirt for over six months without being paid. It's a pretty big distinction.
The AP's Anna Dolgov, meanwhile, came across last week not as a monkey, but as a finger-wagging ghetto yes-man, President Yeltsin's own personal Flavor Flav. As in, yo Prez- kick that shit!
"President Boris Yeltsin assured investors Thursday that the government would not allow the crisis to spin out of control.
`I heard today that Yeltsin said (inflation) won't happen, that it's out of the question,' said an office worker in her mid-thirties, who only gave her first name, Tatyana. `We ought to believe it.'''
Any time a reporter quotes some "average guy" obediently following the advice of the ruler, you can skip the whole narrative right away and go straight for the facts.
Why throw it out? Because the tone of that kind of piece, and of pieces like Lally's, sends the reader the following message: "Everything is under control." But in a society with a free press, you're supposed to be the judge of that. In theory, anyway.