Duped Daily By The Liberal Media

My approach to going through a morning newspaper has evolved over decades into a liturgy that if not honored in its every nuance can jeopardize the coherence of the entire day to follow.

With all in its requisite order; side table lamp turned a full three clicks to one-hundred and fifty watts of incandescence, coffee cup comfortably accessible, reading glasses on, I settle in to confront the larger world as defined by whoever happens to be publishing The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The codified start of my newspaper ritual begins with a scan of the front-page headlines. If a sufficiently dramatic event or items of compelling interest have made it to the front page, my journey starts there. I’m on alert for the bold headline; for stories of the rich and famous humbled, for a Supreme Court decision legalizing pot, or for features on the astounding talents of local pets. Once assured that life as we know it has not come to an end overnight, I revert to my default process for absorbing the contents of an ink-on-paper, home-delivered, mediated snapshot of the world I am told I inhabit.

My starting point is the inside back pages of the paper’s front section, the Op-Ed pages, as we newspaper junkies know them. First rule of advanced newspapering; Never waste so much as a moment reading an editorial. Editorials, particularly in a local metro paper like the Inky, or its now deceased afternoon counterpart, the Evening Bulletin, a paper I once delivered to subscribers in the Lindley section of North Philadelphia in the early 1950s, will never reveal anything you didn’t know from birth. Invariably editorials are comprised of little but warm air, platitudes, faux outrage and wishful thinking. Editorials almost always include the imperatives “must,” “should” and “have to,” words signaling that nothing in regard to the subject under discussion is ever going to change. Ditto, Letters to the Editor.

Years ago comedian and Tonight Show host Johnny Carson would take on the persona of one Floyd R. Turbo. In a tightly buttoned, undersized lumberjack’s coat, ear-flapped cap askew and face twisted in manic levity, Carson would read aloud to hilarious effect, selected angry “Letters to the Editor” from one of the low-end New York tabloids. Kind of said it all.

It’s the “Op” part of Op-Ed that can occasionally make the time wasted on a local paper seem worthwhile. Four decades ago during the awful years of our war in Vietnam, after having been hornswaggled repeatedly by the machinations of the major newsweeklies, I learned a critical lesson about the nature of print news media – That the only news sources to be trusted were those of journalists whose by-lined reporting had demonstrated over some period of time that they were telling the truth as they experienced it. Forget about wire service or news bureau dispatches.

Years of wading, waist and often neck deep, through the swamps of cant, lies and the ideological madness of our public discourse, have confirmed for me that the singular voices of integrity and professionalism shine and gleam, as a basic training Sergeant from the Deep South succinctly put it, “like diamonds in a goat’s ass.”

Early in this country’s tragic involvement in Southeast Asia, lonely exceptionalists, people like David Halberstram, another New York Times staffer Charles Mohr, and Sidney Schamberg from The New Yorker and a very few others, consistently and contrarily told the truth, swimming against a storm surge of bullshit.

From my years of sifting through the garbage dumps of American journalism, I now approach Op-Ed pages with an eye to identifying trustworthy bylines. But to keep myself in shape, to know the wiles of the enemy, I do on occasion visit the columns of those I’ve identified as charlatans, ideologues, and worst of all, the shills and running dogs of the power elite.

Despite a long acquaintance with giants, the likes of Finley Peter Dunne and H. L. Mencken, and my having lived through the times of columnists like Eric Sevareid and Russell Baker, I stop short of indulging in any illusions about some past Golden Age of literate opinion. I know better. If most of the stuff that appears in the columns today is crap, in truth it has always been so. I just have a feeling that in these times, the chaff to wheat ratio has undergone a multiplier effect.

But if you’ve already decided to waste large, priceless increments of your life sitting around, sipping coffee and lazily going through a newspaper, which assuredly most of you will not, since newspaper reading I’ve been told is in dramatic decline, then the closest thing I can offer to advice about opinion columns is this. If a by-lined writer begins to make sense to you, keep the name in mind. Continue your reading and build yourself a stable of reliable sources. Over time, events will allow you to test the integrity and independence-of-thought of the writers you’ve chosen. But be prepared to measure the truth of your professed desire for journalistic integrity against the anger and disappointment you will feel when your trusted sources unexpectedly but certainly will make against opinions you’ve come to hold dearly.

From the OP-Ed pages, I move in reverse order through the pages of the front section, scanning the columns of news, all the while ignoring, blocking out the advertising that dominates news by a factor of six or seven to one. Marshall McLuhan defined the fundamental difference between print and electronic news media as one of control. When you scan or read a newspaper, he said, you in effect create your own world through your choices of what you read, and just as importantly, what you choose not to read. With electronic news, radio and TV, you become of necessity, a passive recipient of someone else’s definition of the news environment. If the news is on, and if you are in the room or the car, you can’t not hear it. Turn off. Tune out. Drop out.

Emotional content, poignancy, an authentic reality can be found occasionally in the local or metro section. It’s here that you will encounter in all their foolishness, sadness, glory and heartbreak the people closest to your world. Metro news is about lottery winners, abused children, the desperate acts of desperate people, lives in wreckage, obituaries, legal entanglements, and the endless variations on the corrupting effects of power and greed. The local weather forecast, already twelve hours out of date, also appears in the metro section.

The sports section comes next. If the local NFL or National League baseball team is in contention, I will give the sports pages reasonable attention. If not, it’s directly to the hockey news and the NHL standings. Any headline, subhead or photo caption addressing the aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual attributes of ice hockey, particularly at the professional level, will arrest my attention with a speed and a power surpassing that of any starlet’s bazoom-pics. Normally, from the end of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in June until the first game of the new hockey season in October, the sports section gets at best, my cursory notice.

The business section bores me. But the ongoing, unfolding revelations of Corporate America as a system corrupt to its core allow me a self-indulgent smugness, my suspicions of a lifetime, confirmed and vindicated.

The Features section or the Magazine section was a section I had come to save for last, a journalistic dessert course. But what once seemed to offer delights in the order of a Crème Brulee of a Peach Melba is now more like the rubbery Jello, canned-fruit and artificial topping found at a failing diner. Newspaper comic strips, things I once cherished and read avidly, though still taking up two full pages, have become a dead-end form; unfunny, uninteresting, poorly rendered and just embarrassingly bad. I go right to Doonesbury. From there it’s Dilbert, then Zits, and that’s it, three out of forty. Pop music reviews, the occasional book review and I’m done. Celebrity news, unless outrageous to the point of bestiality is left unread.

Now that’s the local paper. I don’t suppose there’s any interest at all in how I deal with The New York Times.

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