"Speculation as news

Not long ago, I was driving to work, listening to the news on National Public Radio, when I heard something so unexpected it almost made me run off the road. The story dealt with the financial troubles in the mortgage and debt markets. Stock prices had fallen dramatically the day before; a reporter was being questioned by the host of this particular program about what happened. Their Q&A went on for a minute or so. Then the host asked the reporter what he thought would happen next.

“I don’t know,” the reporter said.

There was a nanosecond of dead air. The host rephrased her question.

“No one knows,” the reporter said.

I wanted to give a cheer. Score 10 points for good journalism.

Speculation has become a stock-in-trade for journalists, part of the regular routine. In this case, it was tucked into the host’s follow-up question like the pop-up clown in a jack-in-the-box. By asking the reporter what he thought would happen next in the volatile financial markets, the host was turning the story’s crank as far as it would go. But instead of popping out with a supposedly expert insight into what the future held in store, the reporter defied the usual journalistic shtick. He told the truth.

News coverage, especially on radio and television, has been blurring the lines between speculation and information for such a long time that catching a reporter in the act of refusing to conflate the two had a whiff of righteous rebellion about it. A real Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moment.

Perhaps, I thought, this reveals something about what we consider really important. A journalist speculating about the ebb and flow of financial markets could prompt people to move their money in ways that might affect banks and brokerage houses in ruinous ways. No correspondent would want to have that on his conscience.

But war — that’s another matter. Take, for example, our ever-deteriorating relations with Iran. Turn on the news and you’ll find more and more speculation about the extent to which our government is planning to attack Iran, whether or not Iran is developing a nuclear weapon and the lengths to which Iran has been involved in supporting terrorism in the Middle East.

These speculations, of course, are based on various bits of evidence, including leaks from closed-door meetings, eyewitness reports and anecdotes.

It is important we have this evidence before us.

The problem is that news organizations don’t stop there. They add their own “expert analysis” in which talking heads speculate about what will happen next.

In the case of the U.S. and Iran, this analysis has seemed like a replay of coverage prior to the war in Iraq. In those days, speculation about Saddam Hussein’s ties to terrorists and weapons programs helped build a sense of inevitability about our preemptive war-making. That fuel for these speculations was often provided by our government didn’t seem to phase most correspondents. Many of them speculated that a war in Iraq would be a cakewalk. On the other hand, the likelihood of a drawn-out, bloody occupation was something few people in our mainstream media cared to speculate about, let alone that our government might not be telling them — or us — the truth about its motives.

Speculation’s best friend is fear. Our urge to predict must be based on the desire to prevent bad things from happening. And so our media has adopted a business model aimed at keeping the rest of us in a state of barely suppressed anxiety. Think things are OK now? Stay tuned and you’ll find out just how bad they can get. A dirty desert war can be made to seem like a palatable option if speculation leads us to believe the alternative is a nuclear attack at home.

Mainstream media’s need to speculate about the future also reflects insecurity about its shrinking role in society. With so many of us gathering information from more sources than ever before, the big news organizations have lost the ritualistic claim on our attention they enjoyed when virtually everyone tuned in to one of three major networks and Walter Cronkite intoned, “That’s the way it is.”

Speculation is a way to grab us with little or no accountability required. The experts who predicted that war in Iraq would be a great success continue to pontificate. In fact, many of them are busy getting us ready for Iran — just tune in to Fox or CNN. It’s like a family reunion where everyone is doing their damndest to seem self-assured and in control. And where hardly a soul has the courage to say the most unnerving thing of all: “I don’t know.” 



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