|Lazy Journalist Syndrome |
Will It Be America's Undoing?
By Cheryl Seal
11 August 2003
Lazy journalist syndrome has spread like a virus through America's newsrooms, rendering hundreds of
reporters and editors useless to the cause of journalism, as if they were flat on their backs with the flu. In
fact, journalistic laziness is one of the most critical problems facing the nation. Why? Because these are the
"good men doing nothing" of whom Thomas Jefferson warned -the indifferent majority who may ultimately
allow "evil to succeed."
If these currently ineffective journalists, even those on the bottom rungs of the ladder, were to persistently
do probing research, consistently ask tough questions, doggedly present crucial facts, and diligently follow
through on leads, then the sheer critical mass of this effort would poke a hole in the corporate armor and
allow the rotten matter to erupt into public view.
As it is, the lazy majority now populating the media makes the diligent minority stand out -and stand alone.
Some of the best journalists become easy targets for harassment, smear jobs, and pink slips, while their
lazy, cowardly counterparts continue to thrive undeservedly.
In today's woefully understaffed newsroom, it is tempting to take the easy way out, especially for the
average young reporter, who comes onto the scene with purely academic training. Some honestly just don't
know where to look for truth. Instead, they soon become content to be directed to the public relations
department of whatever institution, corporation, or government branch they are 'investigating' and swallow
whatever the schmooze brigade has to offer them. Worse yet, many journalists don't even stretch this far
and get their 'background information' from sources such as the Heritage Foundation or other rightwing 'think
tanks' who flood newsrooms with their propaganda, making sure it is always right at the fingertips of the lazy.
Doesn't it ever occur to a writer that it's just a bit too serendipitous when a great piece of background
information or a referral to an 'expert' from the Cato Institute (for example) happens to show up in their
mailbox just at the right time? Thanks to this prepackaged 'research,' news stories on critical issues are
liberally padded with quotes from those 'helpful' folks at, say, the American Enterprise Institute or the drug
industry-funded Traditional Values Coalition.
Stupid Repetitious Question Syndrome
Do you suffer daily annoyance at the stupid, repetitious questions reporters ask at news conferences? Join
the crowd. Part of this tedious game is due to media control -control by the White House (which handpicks
who will be allowed at press conferences and who gets to pose a question), control by the media itself (the
answer to that great, probing question ended up on the editing room floor), and the slipperiness of the eels
being interviewed (who just spent two hours rehearsing their answers to the questions they know will just
'happen' to be asked of them). Sometimes reporters aren't even required. You've surely noticed how Ari
Fleischer, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Boucher, Paul Wolfowitz, Tommy Franks, et al. ask themselves questions
and then answer them, so as not to waste those rehearsed lines.
However, a goodly part of the blame for 'stupid repetitious question syndrome' lies with the reporters
themselves and their failure to do any background research on their topics or even on the people they must
(in the case of the White House press corps) deal with on a regular basis. Without such research, probing
questions of paramount importance go unasked.
Here's a list of questions based on prior research, ready-made for lazy reporters, next time they find
themselves at a White House press conference.
For George W. Bush:
Is it true you defended the outlawed practice of branding DKE fraternity pledges with hot irons while at Yale?
Is it true that you spent an average of just 15 minutes deliberating over each death warrant you signed in
Is it true that you supported the 1995 Texas law that mandated that a prisoner could be put to death even if
new evidence proving his/her innocence was produced, if that evidence wasn't presented within 30 days of
Is it true that you were sued in Texas on a sexual assault charge?
Is it true that your marginal hypothyroid condition is responsible for your occasional reddened nose, slurring
speech and for the five pounds you recently gained? And, isn't it true that, contrary to your recent statement,
you have for some years engaged in weight training and thus cannot blame your weight gain on "new muscle
Is it true that your brother, Marvin Bush, was a director on the board of and major stockholder in the
Kuwaiti-based Securacom (now Stratesc) that was responsible for security at the WTC on 9/11? Is it true that
Securacom was never considered in the 9/11 investigation and that legislation pushed by you and your GOP
contingent in Congress in fact benefited Securacom in the wake of 9/11?
Is it true that your plan of conquest includes every country from the Mediterranean to the Bay of Bengal and
Andaman Ocean, a connect-the-dots "oil pipeline" of countries that includes (from west to east) Syria, Iraq,
Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan (you already have your puppet regime in place there), India (a free ride, thanks
to your sending them billions in American government contracts and jobs), and Burma (the next addition to
the axis of evil)?
For Dick Cheney:
Is it true that, in Wyoming, of 27 votes on reproductive rights issues, you voted anti-choice 26 times?
Is it true that in 1985 you voted against a House resolution demanding the release of Nelson Mandela?
Is it true that you pushed relentlessly for the Gulf War in 1991 over the objections of the Pentagon?
Is it also true that you immediately fired Air Force General Michael Dugan in 1991 when he questioned the
ethics of bombing Iraq because he believed it would be like shooting sitting ducks with no ability to retaliate?"
Is it also true that between 1996 and 1999, your key contacts in the Pentagon were responsible for giving
Halliburton $1.8 billion in contracts to build the military infrastructures that made it possible for the US to
participate in actions in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo?
Why were you forced to give up a large portion of the $13.6 million 'retirement package' from Halliburton?
Is it true that the Peabody Coal Company figures significantly in your secretive energy plan, and that the plan
calls for an outrageous expansion of construction of coal-burning power plants and the scaling back of
emissions regulations for such plants?
Is it true that the concern of oil companies about the switch of Iraq, Iran, Korea and Afghanistan to the Euro
as their reserve 'petro-dollars' fund played a major part in putting those countries onto your hit list?
Is it true that one of the only clear-cut plans for 'reconstruction' the administration had was to overhaul the
Iraqi monetary system and reinstate the US dollar as the 'petro' base?
For Donald Rumsfeld:
Is it true that you agreed with Nixon during a taped exchange in the early 1970s that African Americans were
inferior to white Americans?
Has your admitted opinion that blacks are inferior to whites played a part in your failure to press for
intervention in Liberia?
Is it true that you repeatedly lied about the US's accidental bombing of a mental hospital in Grenada in 1983?
Is it true that as CEO of Searle pharmaceutical (now owned by Monsanto) in the late 1970s that, by "calling in
markers" (your own words) you rammed through FDA approval of aspartame despite evidence that the
compound has harmful side effects -evidence strong enough for a Grand Jury Investigation that the research
results were fudged?
Is it true that the only reason the FDA investigation of aspartame was not pursued is because US Assistant
Attorney General William Conlon intentionally allowed the allotted time for the investigation to run out? And is
it true that within a year of the investigation's end, Conlon was put on Searle's payroll as a corporate
Are you aware that, as of 1994, aspartame accounted for 75% of all adverse product reactions reported to
the FDA's Adverse Reaction Monitoring System, and that some of these "adverse reactions included seizures
Is it true that Searle's product research practices while you were CEO were denounced by Dr Marvin Legator,
Director of Environmental Toxicology at the University of Texas, who helped pioneer the mutagenicity testing
at the FDA? Legator said: "All of the Searle tests are scientifically irresponsible and disgraceful."
Is it true that you oversaw a CIA-style 'spy ring' in the Pentagon, which operated out of the 'Office of Special
Is it true that the Office of Special Plans is dedicated in large part to covertly engineering 'plausible' reasons
for the US to prosecute war against nations such as Syria?
For Colin Powell:
Is it true that you derailed Clinton's efforts to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military by threatening mass
resignations of military officers?
Were you a staff officer in the Army's 23rd division in Vietnam when that division carried out the 1969 Mai Lai
Massacre of 400 civilian men, women, children? What was your role in formulating, delivering and carrying
out that order?
Is it true that you oversaw the so-called 'drug raid' in Panama in 1989 that resulted in the deaths of 7,000
The Devil is in the Details
Alas, most journalists seem content to stumble around the countryside in blissful ignorance, asking pointless
or trite questions, hoping someone will at least feed them a good quote or two. If journalists had done just a
little digging over a year ago, they could easily have cracked the Enron case wide open before thousands of
people were ripped off. Information linking Lay to the White House, information showing that the company
was overextending and overstepping itself, has been out there for months -in fact, there were clues right in
the company's own web site! Yet, incredibly, American mainstream reporters never seriously delved into it,
even in the wake of the California energy crisis! Why? No one would spoon-feed them the scoop.
Last spring (2001), I ran a link in Democrats.com to a Baker Institute report called Strategic Energy Policy
Changes for the 21st Century, which mapped out an energy policy that read astoundingly like the
revealed portions of Bush's plan. On the task force that created this strategy, were several very telling
names: Ken Lay, Henry Kissinger (using the name of his firm, McClarty and Kissinger), and the CEOs of
several oil and natural gas companies. It was James Baker, III, of course (leading his army of high-powered
corporate lawyers) who charged into Florida after the last election to ensure the derailment of any recount
effort. Anyway, a vigilant reader passed the Democrats.com link onto a reporter at the San Francisco
Chronicle. The reporter called me, looking for a story. But when I suggested he print out the Baker report
and go over it himself, he grew sulky. He wanted me to just tell him exactly what the similarities between the
plans were, who was on the task force, etc, right there over the phone! He had no interest in spending time
printing out material and reading it, much less assessing it for himself.
In other cases, lazy reporter syndrome appears to disable the use of simple common sense. For example no
mainstream reporter I know of bothered to ask why Yasser Arafat wanted to go to Bethlehem for Christmas
mass. Instead, all news focused on the superficial sound byte: "Arafat Blocked from Entering Bethlehem". If
they had bothered to inquire the reason behind Arafat's intent to go to Bethlehem, they would have
uncovered a fascinating story: Arafat's wife is Christian. It was she who wished to go to Bethlehem for
Christmas, accompanied by her husband -something they'd done together every year of their marriage.
All too often, lazy journalism syndrome fuels public fears. By rehashing the same endless 'terrorist alerts!'
and other sensational bits, reporters can create a critical mass of fear -sometimes even a sort of mob
hysteria- while failing to add a single ounce of constructive information that could help improve conditions.
But this is because lazy journalists and their editors have a secondary condition I'll call 'headline fever.' The
'delirious' editor or reporter can see just one thing: a hot headline. The facts of the story behind the headline
become immaterial. Who cares? "Researchers report new treatment for Alzheimer's disease" sounds so much
better than the actual facts, which may be that an experimental treatment showed some promise in mitigating
Alzheimer's-like symptoms in rats, but that its potential effect in humans is not only unknown, but also years
from realization, even if all goes well.
Lack of fact-checking can also lead to a dangerous downplaying of information. Recently, a story ran in
several news outlets about some missing nuclear fuel rods. Reporters just accepted the comments of a
government spinmeister at face value: there was nothing to worry about because the missing rods were
probably just disposed of with "other nuclear wastes." The fact is, there is no other type of nuclear waste like
spent fuel rods. They can be disposed of safely right now in only one way if they are moved from their
holding pools at the reactor facility and one way only -special dry casks. There are four levels of waste, of
which spent rods are the most dangerous. That a spent rod is not accounted for as being in a pool or a dry
cask is a huge story. But, by failing to do a little reading on nuclear wastes, not one reporter appeared to be
aware there were questions critical to public safety that needed to be addressed. Such complacence makes it
oh so easy for the bad guys to dupe even honest reporters into being their unwitting accomplices in spin.
At the very least, reporter laziness can be comical. In 1990, a writer from a weekly paper in Maine was sent
to do a story on a falcon release at the Borestone Mountain Audubon Sanctuary. She had done no preliminary
background research on peregrine falcons or release programs and arrived on the scene armed only with
enthusiasm. As a result, she wrote down the quotes fed to her by the biologists, without asking any questions.
Unfortunately, she didn't ask what they meant by a "hack box" (a type of cage) or even how it was spelled.
The day the story ran, the newspaper and sanctuary office were swamped with calls from outraged readers
demanding to know why these magnificent wild birds were being kept in "hat boxes"! Then there was the guy
from a daily paper in southern Maine who covered the visiting Boston Ballet's production of Nutcracker.
Ignorant of ballet, this reviewer, alas, relied exclusively on the program for background material. The
program mentioned that the choreography was "after Petipas" (as in based on the work of French
choreographer Marius Petipas). The review the next day, to the county-wide guffaws of the culture-conscious,
declared that the "magnificent choreography" was the work of that famous Russian, After Petipas.
It isn't just the young and unseasoned that are afflicted by the 'lazy journalist syndrome'. Most folks assume
that because Dan Rather, Barbara Walters, Jim Lehrer, et al., have been 'journalists' forever, they are
'veterans' who really know their stuff. This is no more true of corporate newspeople than it is of corporate
politicians. Folks who have been in either of these games for a few decades are much more likely to be out of
touch with the public -the money more they make, the more out of touch they become. In fact, I have
noticed a strong correlation between how much money a newsperson makes and their political leanings: the
more they make, the more conservative they are, thus leaning toward the side of the bread buttered most
thickly by their corporate employers. A good case in point is former Democrat Tim Russert, who now lives in
the same neighborhood (Kalorama) as Dick Cheney and has declared that "integrity is for paupers." In any
case, corporate lifers like Tom Brokaw and Barb Walters are more likely to be entrenched in an exclusive
network of people to whom they owe favors, in one way or another.
The best journalists are the least lazy. They are the ones who spend most of their time out in the trenches
(be it a war zone or a city planning board meeting). And I mean for real, not propped in front of the cameras
in Kabul for a few minutes with a bombed out building as a backdrop before hustling off to cushy quarters and
cocktails. Not sitting in their penthouse apartment in New York or LA leisurely scanning through a pile of notes
and 'background material' compiled for them by interns and assistants, the night before filming a 'hard-hitting
interview' with a subject picked for them by the programming/advertising office of their station.
September 11 has got to have been the biggest dream come true ever for the lazy journalist and lazy
politician. All a politician had to do to gain credibility -even hero worship- was to stand in front of the rubble
looking concerned, or better yet, with their arm draped around a firefighter or police man or two. All a
journalist had to do was grab someone -anyone- within 10 miles of ground zero and ask them a question
-any question- and, voila! Instant story! In fact, I really think the lazy journalist/lazy politician syndromes are
now working synergistically to keep the September 11 stories coming. and coming, and coming. As long as
they do, neither group will have to put in an honest day's work.
As the Bush administration now continues to fight war number two, while looking about for the best site of
war number three, news stories have become a fill-in-the-blanks template supplied by the White House
-custom-made for lazy journalists and their armchair followers.
Copyright © 2003 by the News Insider and Cheryl Seal