Why reporting stories are not hard news

The journalistic imperative to “find the story” will spin countless newspaper, magazine and TV correspondents into drunken rages, declaring that the only way to keep you engaged is by adding layers upon layers of newspaper and TV-website reporting. The biggest shots from Fleet Street — News of the World, Gerry Conlon — ended up drowning their sorrows in inexpensive pubs after losing all their money, or waking up to the news that all their phones had been smashed in police raids. A generous severance package is now the second most valuable perk (if not job) in journalism. However, humans are not machines and, at the very least, they know how to self-consciously obscure unpleasant truths and grab for hard data. This is one reason that the advancement of fake news on social media (Twitter users “recommend” stories they agree with, in response to the news-based algorithms), has dismayed traditional media so much.

But Nora Ephron in her then-office TV show After Hours had the right idea. Broadcasting in the 1980s, After Hours involved hilarious drama and analysis of reports and issues, presenting the facts and myths about what happened as if a kind of TV-news style bingo hall. In her classic essays about my then-boss, the late political reporter Felix Gillette, Ephron pointed out that journalists could not actually “find the story” when they were on deadline and fighting to deliver the next night’s nightly report. They had to extract some kind of story, or twist some numbers to some degree of artistic approval, from the event. They came up with a movie plot line, or used fictional interviews and weird figures to create order out of some chaos of information.

Much later, it’s Nora Ephron’s Oscar-winning parody of the Today show, Sleepless in Seattle, that was used by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Gabriel Fry, from the University of Zurich, to teach a big seminar in 1990 (according to Fry, they were open to up to 250 students). The slide show showed Gross explaining his research as if in a contemporary theatre of the absurd, with examples of the mass-media’s mindless repetition of information, and I thought of Sleepless in Seattle. It made me see that though there was a contest to create the news story, there really is no story worth writing. You end up with rote repetition of the same story over and over again, and don’t get me wrong — Sleepless in Seattle is great (it contains many of my favourite movie quotes). But just in case you got the impression that our culture wasn’t seriously overestimating its own role in the way we communicate, it should be said that Ephron, in her first posthumous essay for The Hollywood Reporter, wrote a remarkable summary of the future of the newspaper. She said it’s too late, probably, for papers to become involved in writing compelling, single-issue news stories. They can continue with color-coded mastheads and savvy out-of-print publishers, but what they don’t need is anything that means a reporter can get out of bed, and start writing about a story.

It didn’t take long for Stefan Poher Rasmussen to figure out that journalists aren’t content to trudge out stories, and anyone who tells you they are is a liar. They are content to jump from topic to topic, looking for an angle to make the next story fit. Stories, without context, are gold to the journalist, who can use them as a vehicle to proselytize, or send a semi-cryptic message to readers.

In Flee, Jonathan Steinhardt’s first nonfiction book (following his highly regarded philosophical novels), Steinhardt narrates a classic Swedish police killing spree from the point of view of his long-estranged friend Olle. No longer in touch with him, Olle is called back to police HQ to assist in an investigation of his childhood friend Adolphe.

On the surface, Adolphe seems like the sanest guy in the world. He is writing a memoir of his years at soccer-mad Malmö Football Club and wants to talk about the most exclusive high school on earth, the Hotel Aztollen, where a local premiere came about before the game. We learn that Adolphe often looked up his classmates in the newspaper and waited up late for late nights. Olle, the cutest kid in the ninth grade, writes down the names of the crewboys who he still works out with. Olle was a rich guy in the 1930s, but now he’s got nothing to look forward to.

Leave a Comment