"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 13 May 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Faking the News



You tell the man standing on the

tracks that the train is coming.

He cocks his head to the side,

gives you a sly look of

appraisal, nods knowingly. "I

see what you're trying to say,"

he says.


"Uh," you say. "You're standing

on the tracks."


He leans closer, still standing

on the tracks. He lowers his

voice conspiratorially. "Say no

more," he oozes. He's figured

you out 110 percent, seen right

through your words to the very

thing you really mean. You

haven't fooled him at all. He's

no sucker, no sap, baby, he's

one savvy motherfu....


And then the train hits him. The

world loses another journalist.



Federal Reserve Board big shot

Laurence Meyer went to lunch on

24 April, and hundreds of

suspender-clad 32-year-old

millionaires got the hiccups

back at their claustrophobic

workstations before Meyer had

even had a chance to polish off

his chocolate mousse. Not that

Meyer had actually done



The media dis du jour is that

reporters and editors have taken

to viewing the world as a series

of scandals and metaphoric horse

races. ("Speculation in

Washington tonight centers

around whether the autofellatio

revelations will cost Senator

Punch-drunk his 9-point lead in

the polls.") That's certainly

fair enough, but even that

criticism falls a bit short. The

deeper problem is that all those

poorly dressed white guys have

come to believe that they know

what the horses are thinking;

consuming news these days is

getting to be a lot like dialing

up your psychic friends.


[Wall Street]

Meyer hadn't meant to make Wall

Street's collective gut churn,

as the Street's newspaper of

record would report the

following day. The Fed

governor's luncheon speech had

been carefully written to be

interpretation-proof, entirely

sidestepping the generally

Delphic nature of Pronouncements

from the High Priests of Money.

He would explain, not predict or

announce; he would talk only

about what the Fed had done, and

not about what it would do -

thus proving that a belly

button really is sometimes just

a belly button.



Then the press showed up. Lacking

a willing priest, a few of the

reporters built their own

oracle. Just an hour and a half

after high noon, wire services

began reporting what Meyer's

speech had really meant, despite

his actual words: The Fed was

getting ready to raise interest



The market reacted; the economist

blanched. "They're not reporting

what I said," Meyer told the

Journal, "but over-interpreting





Bottle-fed on cynicism,

journalists have become so

anxious to divine the subtext,

the coded messages in every

official pronouncement, that

they've long since stopped

noticing the plain old text. And

reporters who habitually

anticipate the presence of

subtext usually seem to find it.


For an omniscient media golden

oldie, take a long look at a

panel discussion among three

"senior political reporters"

back in August 1996. The topic:

Dick Morris. The take: Not so

much political advisor as

personal guru, delivered with

the kind of analysis that

belongs on a couch. "They've

been together since 1977, really

the first time they met, and

after Clinton lost his

reelection bid when he was just

the boy governor in Arkansas,

Morris swept in, brushed him

off, gave him confidence, and

helped him come back," said

Time's Eric Pooley, "And that

was a searing experience for

Clinton, and it changed him

forever." Insight like that

should get Pooley an NSF grant,

if not his own 900 number.


All pretty silly. But here's one

curious idea. (Maybe not one.

Curious ideas abound.) If the

dominant complaint of

newswatchers like James Fallows

is that journalists are so mired

in the horse race metaphor they

forget to report on what

progress gets made in the

paddock, then how should honest

reporters cover the maneuverings

of politicians who actually do

treat public service like a

horse race? Yearn for

substantive reporting as often,

and as loudly, as you want: The

day you get thoughtful analysis

of Dick Morris' role in

government policymaking is the

day you stick your head in the




Horse race coverage in this place

and at this moment may just

represent the reporter's ideal

of a mirror held up to reality.

Cynical government - of, by, and

for cynical people -

just might be getting the

cynical depiction it deserves.

And in the middle of that kind

of sewer, omniscience might be

attained simply by always

doubting everyone else's



The frightening possibility,

then, is that those know-it-all

reporters, the dealers in

subtext and secret knowledge,

speak for all of us: Hey, pal,

you think people say what they



Of course they don't.


And what's all this yammering

about a train?

courtesy of Ambrose Beers

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