What You Pay For, or Maybe Not: Journalism

Clock from Times Square VBIEDWhenever someone comes around to solicit a newspaper subscription, I always politely decline. There are at least a couple reasons for this. First, I remember the stacks of old newspaper the last time I had a subscription to The Seattle Times, which is now the only major daily left in town. And, because of that memory, I generally read news online or in other people’s magazines.

But there is another reason that I generally don’t lay on whoever knocks on my door; they don’t need that kind of friction in their day. But why would I pay for a newspaper subscription, given the state of the news these days?

It might as well be The New York Times, which is struggling to adapt to online business models. And in this case, the latter criticism would apply, as evidenced by Al Baker‘s article slated for today’s front page:

Among the enduring images left by car bombings, overseas or in the United States, is investigators on their hands and knees, crawling through the wreckage searching for clues: a blasting cap or a timing device, a piece of the explosive’s casing or a trace of the chemicals used.

Car bombs, by design, do their best to devour any evidence of their existence, or send it flying.

On Saturday in Times Square, a homemade bomb built inside a Nissan Pathfinder did not explode — and as a result, a trove of evidence was left behind for investigators to pore over, not only for physical evidence or forensic clues, but also as a reflection of an assailant’s methods, mind-set and possible motives.

This pabulum setup goes on to discuss the implications the failure last weekend of a car bomb to detonate. “There is a lot there to read into the case that really helps them,” said James Cavanaugh, an explosives expert, about the remains of any given bomb. And Kevin Barry, a former NYPD bomb squad detective, explained, “He was trying to cover his tracks, but he left more clues than a guy walking into a bank to rob it without a mask. This guy left everything here but his wallet.”

This almost sounds like the CBS crime-drama summary. One can almost imagine Gary Sinise, or David Caruso, cracking so wisely wise: “He left everything here but his wallet.”

Cavanaugh even invoked the popular Bruckheimer television enterprise:

Moreover, a car is an ideal receptacle for microscopic or invisible traces of who might have been inside. The authorities have been dusting the outside of the Pathfinder for fingerprints. Inside, they can search for traces of hair or skin cells that might have sloughed off on a steering wheel or a seat cover. They may find literature tucked into a glove box, or some food under a seat.

Each clue will be its own mini-investigation, in an inquiry that is involving “hundreds” of officers and agents, said Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman.

Mr. Cavanaugh, who retired last month from the federal agency, said: “You could have hair, fingerprints, the skin cells, DNA, blood. This is a great way to start. Of course, the world is not all ‘CSI.’ But once you get someone to look at, you can go back to see if they match what you’ve got, and that is a beautiful thing.”

This kind of simple reading reminds me of the Scholastic News pamphlets my first-grade daughter reads for occasional homework. Over and over, Baker’s article reminds us of what any starstruck, soap-loving couch potato already knows. “The fact that it was not destroyed was an opportunity to develop evidence from it,” Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne told the press. “It led us to the registered owner, which was an important development.” And it even offers study notes for those still confused by the complexity of the issues involved:

“I call this a Rube Goldberg contraption,” Mr. Cavanaugh said.

“It’s the ‘swing-the-arm-with-the-shoe-that-hits-the-ball-and-knocks-over-a-stick-that-knocks-something-off-a-shelf,'” he said, “and it is all supposed to work.”

Baker even includes some nifty vocab words and trivia to keep readers interested. Car bombs are now called “vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices”. And, in truth, I’ll probably keep referring to them as car bombs. The Khobar Towers truck bombing in Saudi Arabia, 1996, could have been worse if the vehicle was parked differently. A car bomb in the 1970s landed the vehicle’s hood on the roof of a twenty-one story building. “Sometimes, streets and sewers must be searched for blocks,” writes Baker. “Having the Nissan intact in this case, the former military analyst said, was a good thing.”

And that’s what the whole article leads to: an expert telling us that the bomb not going off was a good thing.

What, seriously? We need this explained to us? I’m uncertain what bugs me more about the idea: that the Times thinks we need such simple explanations, or the possibilty that they’re right.

It is a frightening thought that this article should in some way represent the mean reading comprehension of the paper’s projected audience. One wonders if, maybe, they’re writing down to accommodate a market segment that doesn’t read newspapers, anyway. Either way, this is journalism in the twenty-first century. It’s also a lesson in the downsides of egalitarianism. Maybe such simplicity is reflective of the audience. But struggling to accommodate such stupidity only plays to the lowest common standards, and could be a reason why many people just don’t feel like paying for a newspaper description—at some point, journalistic balbutive insults the intelligence.

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