And yet. In the larger context of crisis, the piece’s tone—indeed, the entirety of its content—seems slightly off-base at best, hopelessly out of touch at worst. Words, words, words…is that really what journalists should be focusing on while the economy’s in a meltdown? On the one hand, sure: Words are what they do. But on the other, the focus on semantics Perez-Pena describes paints a picture of a press corps that, like the government did, misses the point. The piece depicts journalists as, above all, cool and calm and collected—so detached from the magnitude of the economy’s difficulties that they can calculate with minute precision the words they should be using to tell their tales of woe. (Deck chairs and the Titanic come to mind.) Compare that sense of semantic separation to, again, Anderson Cooper, whose anger was, among other things, a tacit admission—and even, in some ways, a celebration—of the fact that words, when in it comes to crisis reporting, aren’t always enough.
But for Perez-Pena’s journalists, it’s not merely a matter of words overcoming outrage; in his framework, those journalists don’t feel outrage in the first place.
Which is not to say that those journalists—Perez-Pena’s or their professional analogues—should lose their tempers as they tell their tales, or that audiences want their journalists to burst into tears—rhetorical or otherwise—when relating new developments of the financial meltdown. Of course not. Nor should the media be engaging in finger-pointing and blame-gaming at this point. The press is right to be looking forward rather than backward, and to be focusing, along with the government, on finding solutions…and, as they do so, to be choosing their words carefully.
It is to say, though, that a little empathy would go a long way in this case. Journalists, after all, like most Americans, must be feeling some sense of anger that the government has, in so many ways, and for so long, put corporate interests ahead of average poeple’s. They must be at least a little bit miffed that a portion of their taxes, assuming Hank Paulson gets his way, will go not toward updating the country’s infrastructure or improving its public education system, but toward bailing out mortgage companies. They must be feeling some sense of resentment at the fact that Richard Fuld, who helmed Lehman Brothers into its bankruptcy, is walking away with an estimated $65 million in severance pay. They must be just a little bit pissed off about all this. Everyone else is. So why not let that show? Why not bring a little dose of accountability journalism into their reporting? And why not bring a human element into their narratives?
It’s not often we get to say this, but mainstream reporters could take a cue, in this case, from Bill O’Reilly. On The Factor last week, the self-styled populist declared, “Every American should be furious about the economic meltdown. It’s not your fault, ladies and gentleman. Not my fault. OK? It’s the federal government’s fault.”
This is classic O’Reillian hyperbole, yes, but there’s something refreshing in its authenticity. Something, indeed, reminiscent of Cooper’s Katrina coverage: something urgent and candid and real. When the public trust has been violated, we want our news reporters to be angry about it. Just like we are.