mánudagur, mars 23, 2009

michael lewis

...recently wrote a fairly "incendiary" piece on Iceland for Vanity Fair magazine, in which he said, among other poorly researched misstatements, that Icelanders were routinely blowing up Range Rovers on the downtown streets. Apparently they were doing this to their own cars to collect insurance money, a scenario that doesn't really make all that much sense after a few moments of reflection. Maybe he deduced this when a kid set off a firecracker (fairly common) outside the downtown bar he was drinking at and someone next to him wryly joked that it was a high-end car getting the torch. He took the man seriously, and built the first section of his article around a falsehood.

The Range Rover story that started out as a cynical Icelandic joke has however taken on a life of its own in the American media. Now Fox News is warning that Iceland is a dangerous place to travel, and even staid old NPR is in on the action, apparently repeating the meme without any further reporting of their own. My dad quoted the NR story to me as though it were fact. Meanwhile, there have not been any cars, overpriced/ugly British SUVs or otherwise, set alight on the quiet streets of the village that is downtown Reykjavík.

Why would a guy like Michael Lewis, an author who I respected for Moneyball - and who does indeed have some good insights in this piece as well, start off his article by painting such a distorted picture of the country he came to report about? Is it perhaps that he came to the place expecting to see a certain level of panic, destruction, and despair, and in fact found nothing of the kind? Did he or his editor feel the urge to invent violence where there was none to be found, perhaps to draw the American audience in to what might otherwise have been a fairly boring piece? Or was it just hard for an American to visit a country that is facing exponentially bigger economic woe than his native land, and yet in which people are managing to live their daily lives with a level of calmness and grace that American society doesn't possess in the best of times?

And if this much out-and-out untruth is being spun out in the world about Iceland, a Western country that is easy to access from both the U.S. and Europe, how can I really believe much of what the news media reports on more far-flung corners of the world?


Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

In my humble forty years I have accumulated knowledge. Much of my education has been either military or informal or both. However, there are still just a few subjects of which I have what I would honestly describe as intimate knowledge: British military aviation, anti-submarine warfare, computer science, British culture, the English language and bicycle maintenance. Oh, and possibly paragliding. Oh, and that list is actually much longer than I expected.

Almost without exception, whenever I've read something in the 'meeja' about one of these subjects it is ill-informed, biased or simply incorrect. This makes me, too, wonder how much of the content that lies outside my knowledge is equally dubious.

What is perhaps more interesting is the relationship between the consumer of such pap and the producers: there must be so many issues that are simply not understandable by 'normal' people. Or are there? Or is it simply that people lack the skills or will to present complex issues in a digestible way? Is it just journalistic sloth? How do we know?

Blogger Lyle said...

Excellent posts of late.
I read the first 5 pages of Lewis' article. Some lumps of fact amid a sickening gelatin of self-aggrandizing codswallop. I think the crux of the matter is an editor's demands. I can see it now: Can't you sex this thing up? We want the sordid details! Solid reporting does not sell magazines, I'm afraid.

My acquaintances ask frequently about how you're doing there, with true concern, but they also expect to hear gruesome details of a failed country. It's like, it's not a reality show, you jackass.

Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

I wholeheartedly concur.

Let us not forget the main purpose of existence for these publications: they do not exist to disseminate accurate information. They do not exist to educate or inform. They do not try to help.

They exist, purely and simply, to make profit.

This is how they can justify never letting the truth get in the way of a good story.

In fact, when we think carefully about it, there is only the most tenuous link between their content and truth; there is very little functional link with the truth. This I find deeply unsettling and dishonest: if I want fiction in a magazine format, I'll go and buy a comic book. If I were to be radical, I could easily raise the issue in the moral framework of lying or distorting the truth to make profit.

This issue really does leave me with a bad taste in my mouth...

Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

This post reminded me of a few things that I saw 11 years ago when I was in Israel. While I was studying at Hebrew U. in Jerusalem for about 6 months, there was an awful triple-suicide bombing. A friend of mine was walking around near where it occurred and saw an acquaintance giving an interview on CNN. This guy (who was being interviewed) was telling what he saw describing a horrific scene with all the gory, bloody details when the bombs went off. After the interview was over, my friend walked over to him and asked if he was okay and all that jazz and said something like "it is a miracle you weren't hurt." The interviewee responded, "nah, I wasn't here. I just wanted to be on t.v."

Another time there, I got a call from my parents. They were saying how CNN was reporting a massive Palestinian protest that was turning violent in the center of Jerusalem. They had seen the video and were calling to make sure I was okay. The interesting thing was that I had literally just returned from the center of the city when they had called. Absolutely nothing going on. I did some digging into it and found out that typically what happens is that the Palestinians organize protests and have a bunch of "stage managers" on hand. When news cameras are fired up, the stage managers get everyone to yell and scream to create the impression that the protest is frenzied. After the cameras stop, the stage managers then basically say "cut" and all the people that are assembled go back to sitting around, smoking cigarettes, and relaxing. Then, all these folks get paid by whoever organized the protest, and they go on their merry way. Maybe this is not how it happens there any more, but it was just a show.

So, do I have trust in the media? Well, as long as I watch it with the realization that nearly all television media is focused on entertainment first while factual reporting is a distant second, I guess it's okay...


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