I hate to keep starting my columns with the phrase ‘when I was a kid’ but I don’t know how else to explain how news reportage has changed over time and simply keeps getting worse. Maybe it’s not worse. Maybe I just think it’s worse because it has changed.
But I’m not one of these old farts who thinks that things were better in the past. To the contrary, most of the way society has changed over the course of my 77 years are good changes. Too bad I can’t say that about the news.
When I was a kid (to start off with my hackneyed phrase) once again we got the news from two daily newspapers, several evening TV shows, and that was it. There was no FM radio and AM radio gave you the weather report and the traffic on your way to work.
As for newspapers, we got The New York Times in the morning and the liberal tabloid The New York Post in the afternoon. Far and away the most popular newspaper was the Daily Mirror tabloid, which came out around 3 P.M. The first edition carried the results of the first two horse races at Aqueduct or Belmont which together gave you ‘da numbah’ which everyone bet on the way to work.
Tiny was the guy who sat in his car parked next to the entrance to the train station. On the way to work in the morning you stopped off and gave Tiny a nickel or a dime. By the time you came up from the subway after work on your way home, Tiny already knew if anyone needed to be paid off.
Of course, Tiny weighed about five hundred pounds. At some point during the Depression, Grandpa hit the number and Tiny gave him sixty bucks. Sixty bucks during the Depression? A king’s ransom, that’s what it was.
Many years later I lived in Holyoke, MA where the daily number game was called the ‘nigger pool.’ Why was it called the ‘nigger pool?’ Because the guy who ran it was Black.
That’s how the neighborhood got its news, and the news that really counted was how the first two races ended up that day at the track. That news, the only real important news, was delivered by The Daily Mirror, read by Tiny, and then spread around the neighborhood by word of mouth.
Not that the neighborhood was so insulated that other events in the outside world were unknown. To the contrary, Grandpa always had something to say about the international political situation while Grandma was putting out the ‘scherkoye’ (read: potted meat) or ‘flanken’ (read; boiled meat) every night.
And whenever Grandpa had something to say about the Suez Crisis or some other political issue in some faraway place, to make sure that we understood the veracity of his remarks, the complete and total gravitas of his point of view, he would always give as his source not The New York Times, but what he had heard from Schatz the Butcher where he had stopped off to pick up the potted meat.
In our household, Schatz was the Oracle of Delphi. If it came out of his mouth it was to be believed without question because it came out of his mouth. I never was privy to the process which resulted in certain people whose comments about the news were considered the only comments that everyone believed. But there were such sachems in every neighborhood. You think the tribal elders only exist in places like Borneo, Tanna Tuva, or Mozambique?
And by the way, with all the technology and access to information which is what we now have in the digital age, I’m not so sure that our ability to judge whether what we read today is any more honest or trustworthy than what used to be considered the real deal news-wise, back in the nabes.
The very first statement to come out of the Trump Administration after the inauguration was that the attendance was the greatest inaugural crowd of all time. That was a blatant lie. According to The Washington Post, Trump made 30,573 ‘false or misleading’ statements over four years.
Now a ‘misleading’ statement may not be a lie because a lie is defined as someone who knows something to be true but consciously says something that is not true. And since people often make ‘misleading’ statements simply because they didn’t think through what they were saying, or maybe didn’t understand the question or maybe were involved with multiple things at the same time, you can’t really put ‘misleading statements’ and ‘lies’ in the same group.
But take a look at this morning’s digital edition of The New York Times. Half the front screen is an ad for a new Broadway musical followed by the daily recap of data about Covid-19. That’s fine. But scroll down any further and for every so-called news story there’s an op-ed from this one and that one about something which has no real informational value of all.
One of the contributors is a woman who claimed she was sexually harassed by Mario. Boy, that’s reliable news. Another is a piece about a vote coming up in the House on funding Israel’s new ‘Iron Dome’ defense system which is really just another shopworn attempt by The New York Times to keep the ‘progressive’ wing of the Democratic Party in its place.
None of this is news. It’s the digital version of what Schatz the Butcher used to tell Grandpa as he was wrapping up the flanken that Grandpa was bringing home for Grandma to cook and for us to eat. God knows how we all didn’t grow up totally and completely constipated from the daily ingestion of that meat.
Think that the internet now gives us all access to a much wider and diverse source of news? That’s only if you want to believe that the definition of ‘news’ has somehow changed since Grandpa’s day.