Wishful Reporting

“Maybe next year,” I said forlornly, “people will start reading newspapers again.”

“I have a plan,” said A.E. Eyre.

It was the night of our annual Santa Claus watch, when Eyre and I bundle up and retire to the backyard. As usual, I lapsed into melancholy while Eyre, one eye cocked to the stars, was soon unburdening himself of great thoughts.

“With your contacts and my brains,” he said, “we can save journalism from the journalists. All you need to do is introduce me to a press baron who knows a visionary when he sees one.”

I thought it over. Head for the Tribune Company, I told Eyre, where the door is always open to genius. RedEye, synergy, cantilevered bleachers–they all emerged from the Tribune think tank.

“You whine,” Eyre said, “but I’m a man of action. And I’ve had it up to here with your bellyaching about newspapers peddling their product to a population that doesn’t read and can’t handle the truth. To hear you talk, half of circulation these days is accounting fraud.”

Only a guess, I said.

“Not to mention your whimpering about the ethical scandals that give anybody who still needs one a perfect excuse to cancel his subscription. I wish I could retail the gas you’ve passed about the mortal sins of plagiarism and fabrication.”

The duty of a reporter, I said, is to be always original but never too.

“The real trouble with journalism,” he said, “is that it focuses only on facts–obvious facts, superficial facts, trivial, empirical facts that deserve to line tomorrow’s birdcage. My eyes were opened by Philip Roth’s new book, The Plot Against America. Here’s a book that works its way to important, hard-to-get-at truths by making almost everything up.”

Eyre took a sip of eggnog, then went on, “Young reporters make things up because they’re ambitious, desperate, and incompetent. But their blunders point the way.”

He touched my sleeve–he’d spotted red lights blinking overhead. We held our breath. But it was only a plane descending toward O’Hare.

With a sigh, he regathered his thoughts. “So the Tribune Company values synergy, does it? Well, there’s no greater synergy than the one between fact and fiction. What the newspapers of tomorrow need to tap is the full potential of alternate reality. Facts alone get us nowhere. True insight demands a healthy dose of make-believe.”

But the great pundits already know this, I said. It’s why top papers can provide a mix of columnists who reach opposite conclusions yet are all totally persuasive. Each is the absolute master of his own little world, in which inconvenient facts simply don’t exist and tangled human motives become as simple and obvious as bedtime stories.

“Now that you mention it,” Eyre said, with what might have been sarcasm in his voice, “I’ve even heard of columnists who make up recurring characters out of whole cloth. These cheesy expository devices are no more real than Brenda Starr, but media critics a lot tougher than you let them get away with it.”

I told him his accusation was preposterous. But he insisted there were writers who regularly stoop to this fakery, and finally I promised to look into it.

“About time,” he said. “But I leave those journeyman falsifiers to you. My eyes are on the far horizon. As I intend to tell the Tribune, there’s no reason the segmentation of the media market should be limited to age, gender, income, race, avocation, geography, and ability to read words of more than one syllable. All those distinctions add up to one journalistic principle–that each reader deserves his or her own reality. To create realities, writers and editors choose among facts, but as Philip Roth reminds us, facts themselves are optional. Do you remember the ’94 baseball strike? The papers turned a crisis into an opportunity by hiring computer programmers to create a virtual season. It was a brilliant idea, and I said at the time the Chicago papers should do it every year–since virtual baseball was the only way the Cubs or White Sox would ever win a pennant.

The press needs to churn out virtual news–news that hasn’t actually been made but easily could have. Roth imagined the worst. The press can imagine the best.”

Like a Cubs pennant?

“That barely scratches the surface. Imagine that you’re one of the millions of Americans who long to think that the war in Iraq is a good war that’s been wisely fought and that Iraq is well on its way to becoming a flourishing democracy. There’s not much in the papers to cheer you up, is there? In fact, there’s so little you might stop reading the papers.

“But let’s say you pick up the Tribune and read that George Bush has just presented the Medal of Freedom to George Tenet, Tommy Franks, and Paul Bremer–respectively the CIA chief who said there were WMD in Iraq, the general who led the invasion, and the proconsul who ran the occupation. It’s the president’s way of saying thanks for a job well done. Is that good news or what? You’d be so grateful you’d take out a subscription.”

But that wasn’t virtual news, I said. That actually happened.

“Technically, you’re right,” said Eyre. “It actually happened. But aside from that, it’s a perfect example of the kind of story I’m calling for–a totally unreal event concocted to make certain readers blubber with gratitude. Don’t worry, your whiny liberal friends will get news that makes them blubber too.”

Like Kerry defeats Bush?

“You cannot invent a new alternate reality every Monday morning. I mean like Gore defeats Bush. ‘We put you out of your misery’ would be a pretty good slogan for the virtual-news section, which I would introduce on Sunday but add to the daily paper as soon as humanly possible.”

Somewhere back after the comics, I supposed.

“Gosh, no! If President Gore makes news and President Bush doesn’t, Gore belongs on page one. ‘Gore Fires Rumsfeld–Calls War Strategy “Harebrained”‘ is one helluva story. You don’t bury something like that.”

But Gore would never have hired Rumsfeld in the first place, I said. And there wouldn’t be a war strategy.

“Aha!” said Eyre. “You’re finally beginning to catch on. A mere lie is squalid. Invented history is revelatory.”

But it isn’t journalism.

“Possibly not,” Eyre mused. “But talk to the Onion. Talk to The West Wing. There’s a huge market for it.”

Winning in a Dead Heat

Remember the “statistical dead heat” that was the standard way of describing this year’s presidential race? For example, “The CBS News poll . . . gives President Bush a 48-45 percent lead over Kerry among likely voters, a statistical dead heat due to being within the poll’s margin of error.” And, “A Newsweek poll also found that the president’s lead has vanished and the race is now statistically tied among all registered voters, 47 percent of whom said they would vote for Kerry and 45 percent for George W. Bush in a three-way race.”

A Google search for “statistical dead heat” with the candidates’ names during the month or so before the election found the phrase turned up around 19,000 times. But rarely were the numbers for Bush and Kerry identical, and that Newsweek poll was the aberration: most polls, whether taken by Gallup or its rivals, reported Bush a point or two ahead.

I asked Gallup’s managing editor, Jeff Jones, if “statistical dead heat” was simply an elegant way of not acknowledging what these polls were telling us–Bush probably led. If a poll shows Bush two points ahead and its margin of error is the usual three points, then Bush might have as many as three more points’ worth of support than the poll reflects–or as many as three fewer. The same with Kerry. Or the poll might be dead-on. But if you make a list of all the possibilities, you’ll see that Bush leads in most of them. Each new poll showing Bush leading in a statistical dead heat was better news for Bush than it was for Kerry.

“Repeated samples would converge on the actual outcome,” Jones said. He meant that the more polls there were putting Bush ahead, the more likely they all were to be accurate. The election showed they were.

News Bites

The Tribune posted a story on its Web site December 14 knocking down a phony press release that pretended to be from CTA president Frank Kruesi. Transportation reporter Jon Hilkevitch wrote that the announcement, e-mailed to news outlets early that day, “apologizes for pending service cuts, and ‘in the spirit of the holidays’ announces ‘One Day of Free Travel’ on buses and trains beginning 5 a.m. Wednesday.”

The story went on to say that the CTA denied any knowledge of the fake press release. There were many ways to phrase this information. Hilkevitch (or an editor) chose, “Nothing could be further from the truth, officials of the transit agency said today.”

In other words, no day of free travel, no apology, no spirit of the holidays.

Did I detect a scintilla of attitude? The version of this story that ran in the Tribune the next morning was dialed back to “Not so, said CTA officials.”

Irrelevant angle that only the steeliest journalist could have resisted: “LITTLETON, Colo. (AP)–A U.S. marine who was a freshman at Columbine high school when two students killed 13 people there in 1999 has been killed in action in Iraq, his family said.”

“Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a spectacular job”–White House chief of staff Andrew Card, Sunday, December 19.

“I would like the FDA to continue to do the job they do. They do a spectacular job”–Card, same day.

And all’s right with the world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Brian Gubicza.