"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
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Journalism as we know it is in crisis. Daily newspapers are going out of business at an unprecedented rate, and the survivors are slashing their budgets. Thousands of reporters and editors have lost their jobs. No print publication is immune, including the mighty New York Times. As analyst Allan Mutter noted, 2008 was the worst year in history for newspaper publishers, with shares dropping a stunning 83 percent on average. Newspapers lost $64.5 billion in market value in 12 months.
All traditional media is in trouble, from magazines to network TV. But newspapers are the most threatened. For readers of a certain age, newspapers stand for a vanishing era, and the pleasures of holding newsprint in their hands is one that they are loath to give up. As a former newspaperman myself, like most of the original founders of Salon, I have a strong attachment to my dose of daily ink. I get most of my news online, but I still subscribe to both the local paper, in my case the San Francisco Chronicle, and to the New York Times. At parties and in casual conversations, speculation that newspapers might vanish like the dinosaurs that once ruled the earth spurs passionate jeremiads about the decline and fall of Western civilization.
But the real problem isn’t that newspapers may be doomed. I would be severely disheartened if I was forced to abandon my morning ritual of sitting on my deck with a coffee and the papers, but I would no doubt get used to burning out my retinas over the screen an hour earlier than usual. As Nation columnist Eric Alterman recently argued, the real problem isn’t the impending death of newspapers, but the impending death of news — at least news as we know it.
What is really threatened by the decline of newspapers and the related rise of online media is reporting — on-the-ground reporting by trained journalists who know the subject, have developed sources on all sides, strive for objectivity and are working with editors who check their facts, steer them in the right direction and are a further check against unwarranted assumptions, sloppy thinking and reporting, and conscious or unconscious bias.
If newspapers die, so does reporting. That’s because the majority of reporting originates at newspapers. Online journalism is essentially parasitic. Like most TV news, it derives or follows up on stories that first appeared in print. Former Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll has estimated that 80 percent of all online news originates in print. As a longtime editor of an online journal who has taken part in hundreds of editorial meetings in which story ideas are generated from pieces that appeared in print, that figure strikes me as low.
There’s no reason to believe this is going to change. Currently there is no business model that makes online reporting financially viable. From a business perspective, reporting is a loser. There are good financial reasons why the biggest content-driven Web business success story of the last few years, the Huffington Post, does very little original reporting. Reported pieces take a lot of time, cost a lot of money, require specialized skills and don’t usually generate as much traffic as an Op-Ed screed, preferably by a celebrity. It takes a facile writer an hour to write an 800-word rant. Very seldom can the best daily reporters and editors produce copy that fast.
But the story is more complicated than that. At the same time that newspapers are dying, blogging and “unofficial” types of journalism continue to expand, grow more sophisticated and take over some (but not all) of the reportorial functions once performed by newspapers. New technologies provide an infinitely more robust feed of raw data to the public, along with the accompanying range of filtering, interpreting and commenting mechanisms that the Internet excels in generating.
As these developments expand, our knowledge of the world will become much less broad. Document-based reporting and academic-style research will increasingly replace face-to-face reporting. And the ideal of journalistic objectivity and fairness will increasingly crumble, to be replaced by more tendentious and opinionated reports.
The brave new media world will be one of tunnel vision and self-selected expertise, in which reported pieces are increasingly devoid of human interaction or human stories, often written by individuals who do not pretend to have a neutral stance. Raw, non-mediated video or audio will provide primary stories to anyone who is interested in them. In this imagined future, the New York Times will have died and only one or two wire services will still have reporters in, say, Gaza. In lieu of edited stories will be video interviews with Gaza inhabitants, as well as commentary and analysis from a vast army of experts, semi-experts and kibitzers. Consumers can set one info-dial to “Middle East primary feeds,” set a commentary dial to “expert,” “kibitzer” or “shuffle,” set yet another to a targeted archival search of every academic paper written about Gaza. It will be feast and famine: There will be far less primary reporting done by professionals and far more information available to ordinary citizens.
This brave new info-world will have some advantages. So far, the Internet media revolution has been a huge net plus for journalism. It has greatly increased the quantity and quality of available opinion and (to a much lesser degree) news. Trying to figure out what the truth is about any given subject means reading about it from as many perspectives as possible, and exponentially more perspectives are accessible now. From foreign newspapers to brilliant bloggers, the Internet has given a voice to countless talented and informed people who would otherwise have no platform. It has empowered readers, created an army of bloggers who provide much-needed fact-checking and criticism of the entitled mandarins of the establishment press, and provided powerful counternarratives to the bland, centrist pablum so often served up by the “respectable” media.
Moreover, bloggers can also be valuable reporters, albeit ones who generally don’t wear out much shoe leather. As Slate writer and media critic Jack Shafer has pointed out, some bloggers have done significant research reporting, digging through FOIA documents or unearthing official secrets.
As for the old media, it has not exactly always done a bang-up job of capturing reality. All too often it has been sclerotic, incompetent and driven by hidden corporatist, nationalist or reactionary agendas. The press’s catastrophic failure to question the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq is the most glaring recent example, but there are many. “Professionalism” can be a vice, evidenced by the pathologically cozy relationship between many bigwig Beltway reporters and their government sources. Huffing and puffing about interloping amateurs all too often conceals the fact that those amateurs know as much or more about the subject as the professionals, and are not subject to being bamboozled by “insiders” with an agenda. Academic Middle East analysts, most of whom probably never picked up the phone in their life, but know the region’s language and its history, were resoundingly right about the Iraq war. The professional journalism brigade, with its access to high-level sources and people on the ground, was disgracefully wrong. And the Internet has greatly empowered such academics.
The MSM’s less than stellar record explains why in online forums and threads about this subject, many posters welcome the impending end of the media universe as we know it. But those who are calling for the demise of traditional media are throwing the baby out with the bath water — and the baby is reporting.
There is no substitute for field reporting, in which a real live human being observes an event while it is happening and talks to other real, live human beings. It is an immutable fact that firsthand observation is the building block not just of journalism, but of all human knowledge. This isn’t just true in journalism, but in all fields, from science to the humanities. Academics acquire their knowledge through primary sources. Historians value firsthand accounts more than secondary ones, and give them more weight. The same is true for the law. An eyewitness to an event has more legal standing than someone who heard what the eyewitness said later.
If field reporting dies out, the world will become a less known place. Vast areas will simply not be covered, and those that are will not be covered from multiple perspectives. Precisely because reporters are imperfect, because they by necessity capture only a fragment of reality, it is essential that numerous firsthand accounts exist. If Reuters, the Times and all the other newspapers with foreign bureaus have died and only the AP reporter is telling us what happened in China, readers will be forced to accept his or her version without being able to compare it. And that faint gleam of empirical evidence will be lost amid the infinite amount of commentary that will instantly dominate the Internet.
The information universe today is not, of course, comprehensive, nor could it ever be. What appears in the newspapers is a result of editorial whim and financial pressures. But this limited and capricious hodgepodge of information is far preferable to the self-selected alternative that awaits us — it stimulates parts of our brain that would otherwise atrophy.
It’s much easier to consume unfamiliar information in a newspaper than on the Internet. Because of the physical layout of a newspaper, you’re much more likely to read a story you aren’t interested in than you would if you were online. Even if the same reported stories were available online, they would not be as widely read. Online media is tailored to respond to the individual’s conscious desires; it is less capable of stimulating latent ones.
A perfect example of why newspapers must continue to exist appeared in the New York Times on Feb. 1, 2009. Titled “Slain Exile Detailed Cruelty of the Ruler of Chechnya,” the 3,700-word piece was reported from Vienna, London, Moscow, Oslo and Chechnya. It obviously took months of work and cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries and expenses. And it revealed beyond any reasonable doubt that the president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, is a murderous, sadistic thug who personally tortured many captured dissidents and ordered the assassination of a former insider who had fled to Vienna.
I would probably not have sought out this story on my own. But because it was on the front page of the New York Times, I read it. And as a result, my world expanded significantly.
If this kind of reporting dies out, the global consequences would be dire. Moral outrage would wither. Regimes would feel free to commit atrocities with impunity. As the Iraq and Gaza wars demonstrate, regimes prefer to wage controversial wars in the dark. Without reporting, dirty little wars would be invisible dirty little wars.
The civic consequences would be just as calamitous. With little empirical evidence about the world, the country would divide further into solipsistic, isolated communities. There would be no agreement on even the most rudimentary facts: We would look back nostalgically at those days when “only” half of Americans were so ill-informed, and susceptible to government propaganda, that they believed that Saddam Hussein was involved with 9/11. Rancorous division into exclusive camps would become even more pronounced than it is now, making political compromises even less likely. In this ignorant yet loudly opinionated future, our shared civic culture would degenerate, and demagogic leaders would flourish.
Karl Marx’s prediction that capitalism would end up devouring itself has not stood up well (although there’s a bit of leg-nibbling going on right now). But his dictum might end up being true for the news media.
The Internet gives readers what they want; newspapers give them what they need. And in a culture where the almighty market is always right, you can always get what you want — but you can’t always get what you need. In their bottom-line desperation, newspapers are imitating the Internet. As Michael Hirschorn pointed out in a recent Atlantic article, papers are giving readers and advertisers what they think they want, blowing all their money on lifestyle and “consumer-friendly” pieces rather than on in-depth reporting.
If capitalism wins the battle, the result will be an unregulated marketplace of ideas in which consumers choose their own news — in effect, choose their own reality. Ironically, conservative devotees of the free market would find themselves living in a postmodern world right out of a seminar taught by Jacques Derrida. Nietzsche’s credo that “there are no facts, only interpretations” will become our epistemological motto. In this deconstructed universe, not just readers, but the very idea of objective reality, would be the ultimate victim.
Historically, the only countervailing force against the market and the apotheosis of consumers’ desires has been the institutional power of newspapers. Newspapers are institutions that adhere to a tradition of journalism and have the financial resources to carry on that tradition. Today, those institutions are threatened as never before, in part because of the disappearance of old-school publishers who regarded their media properties as a public trust, in part because of the rise of new media.
This bleak situation has given rise to a once-unthinkable notion: removing the news from market forces altogether by subsidizing it. In a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, two business analysts suggested turning newspapers into “nonprofit, endowed institutions — like colleges and universities.”
Most journalists probably find something vaguely creepy about this idea; it’s a little too high-minded, abstract and self-congratulatory to fit with their self-image as regular Joes and Jills. There are also legitimate concerns whether foundations or other public supporters would influence editorial content or direction. But the alternative is disturbing.
A world without primary reporting will be literally less human. Talking to actual, live human beings, as opposed to reading documents or commentary or what they say online, has an innately moderating effect on one’s approach. A good reporter sees issues in greater complexity because humans are complex. The Roman playwright Terence’s credo “Nothing human is alien to me” is a noble one. But it will be harder to believe in it when actual human beings have vanished from the news. There is a reason why the online world, where humans are virtual, is prone to flame wars and creepy trolls. It is easier to despise someone you have never met. As writers who have worked online know, the simple act of replying courteously to a hostile poster usually leads them to become much more civil. And that is even truer of face-to-face interactions.
With all their flaws, traditional media institutions served as unifying forces in society. No one wants to go back to the days of network TV or the old Time magazine, when the media served as a quasi-official info-nanny telling citizens what to think. But a society without any shared sources of trusted information will be in danger of fragmenting. The old media acted as an institutional check on individual passions and prejudices. It served a Lockean function, upholding the social contract. The new world could be a Hobbesian one, a war of all against all.
Finally, the death of reporting will dangerously erode the ideal of objectivity. Newspapers embrace the institutional mission of objectivity: Their goal is to find out and report the truth about a given subject, no matter what that truth is. They are not supposed to go in looking for an answer, or holding preconceived beliefs. Of course, the distinction between fact and interpretation is only absolute in the simplest cases — it breaks down as soon as the event being covered acquires the least complexity or controversy. Reporters, like all human beings who are trying to make sense of complex experiences, must constantly make judgments that go beyond the mere facts. And the he-said, she-said approach mandated by objectivity can be ridiculously stupid. If Joe says the sky is blue and Jack, who is widely known to be a delusional psychotic who has just taken two tabs of acid, says it’s purple with pink polka-dots, is it really necessary to report what Jack says?
But if perfect objectivity is impossible, that doesn’t mean that it should not be the goal. The reporter’s predisposition toward fact and fairness serves as a kind of ballast, a corrective to her natural instinct to make up her mind prematurely. And those who have not been trained and inculcated in an institution dedicated to objectivity are less likely to be able to do this. Institutions matter. And traditional journalistic institutions, newspapers in particular, are weighted toward fairness and objectivity. The Internet is not. Of course, bloggers or untrained writers are capable of being fair; indeed, the better bloggers are precisely those who fully and fairly engage with those who disagree with them. But the blogging ethos as a whole runs in the opposite direction. Being a reporter does not come naturally to bloggers.
No one can predict what the new information age will look like, and my version may be excessively dystopian. But one thing is indisputable: Reporting must be kept alive. With all its limitations and faults, it is a light that illuminates the world outside ourselves. And in an increasingly virtual and solipsistic age, that light is needed more than ever.
Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.More Gary Kamiya.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)