More to the story

I wasn’t going to mention this, but after hearing so much about it on the radio today, I have to register a complaint.

Paul Harvey died yesterday at the age of 90, after a long, popular, and successful career in radio. He had a very distinctive speaking style and a fantastic understanding of how to use inflection, dramatic pauses, and other verbal cues to give his stories and statements the greatest possible impact. Whether he was holding back the punchline to a humorous piece or the touching twist ending to an inspirational essay, he could pack more emotional gravitas into a closing line than most hosts could achieve over an hour-long broadcast.

I won’t dispute any of that. The man was easily one of the most recognizable figures on the radio, and perhaps in all of media. When I was younger, I was exposed (against my will) to all manner of bad talk radio, from Dr. Laura to Rush Limbaugh to the local blowhards, and Paul Harvey was the welcome interruption I ended up always looking forward to.

But in the wake of his passing, I hear all manner of glorifying hyperbole, talking about what a great broadcaster and stand-up guy and exemplary journalist the man was, and at that I have to stand up and object. No, Harvey was a distinctive voice and a fine oral storyteller, but he was no exemplar of anything journalism- or news-related. For that, one must possess ethics.

Paul Harvey never met a touching story that he didn’t like and repeat. He also apparently never met a touching story that he researched. The Glurge section at Snopes is filled to brimming with false stories of courage and perseverance that Harvey decided to report as true. From myths about the signers of the Declaration of Independence to the Batman lovemaking mishap, if there was an urban legend with a nice socially conservative moral message making the rounds in chain letters and spam e-mail, then chances are it passed through Harvey’s lips at some point in its lifetime. A broadcaster deserving of the superlatives heaped upon Paul Harvey in the last couple of days could have checked the facts of these stories and exercised proper journalistic discretion in propagating them thereafter; Harvey apparently lacked such discretion. For Harvey, the truth was apparently not as important as a good (rest of the) story.

I’d say something about Harvey’s seamless transitions from “news” into advertisements, and the way he would apparently lend his air of respectability for any product willing to cut a check for the right amount, but I’ve noticed more recently–with some twinge of sadness–that this is simply the norm for radio hosts. Perhaps I’m wrong to see this as a mark against objectivity–especially since few talk radio hosts give any pretense to objectivity. And if Paul Harvey presented his show the way that Rush Limbaugh or Al Franken would–as a politically-slanted show promoting the host’s particular opinions–perhaps I’d be less bothered by it. But Harvey’s show is presented as news–folksy, slice-of-life news, but news nonetheless.

Which brings us to the other key problem with Harvey’s reporting–on those occasions when his stories were actually about true events, they were often spun to the point of near-fictionality to promote a conservative social and political agenda. FAIR lists some such transgressions. I’d not bat an eye at this claim if levied against Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity or the host of any other opinion show, but Harvey’s program is promoted as “news,” breaks into the normal flow of programming like a news report, is structured like a news report, and lasts about as long as the news reporting. If Harvey were going to put so much spin into his home-spun “news,” then he needed to drop the term “news” from the “News and Comment” title of the show, and his eulogizers today need to stop going along with it.

To respond to one claim in particular, I heard Ed Schultz today claiming that Harvey’s human interest stories are something that we don’t have enough of in today’s media. I’d ask Ed what media he’s part of, because it must not be anything like the media I’m familiar with. Human interest stories rule the media’s presentation of news, to the degree that nearly every story reported must have some conventional human angle attached. We begin every story on the economy with some person to act as the face of the problem; uninformed people on the street are consulted for their opinions, pitting them against experts and analysts, as though each point is equally worthwhile; and nearly every newscast concludes with some quirky story about a man who survived being struck by lightning or the area’s largest baked good or some other human interest fluff piece. The “human interest” angle is why Jenny McCarthy’s views on autism have more traction in the public arena than the views of the majority of doctors and scientists. The “human interest” angle is why people know who Sam Wurzelbacher is. “Human interest” is one of the things that’s profoundly wrong about news reporting today. It’s one thing to conclude a newscast with a fun fluff piece, it’s quite another to devote whole time blocks to such programming–as the 24-hour news networks so regularly do, particularly when the interesting human happens to be a celebrity. Reporting in these stories seems to be a matter of finding which person the most compelling conventional narrative can be built around and running with it, regardless of the facts–this is the case with the “lone underdog” style of most anti-vaccination reports, it’s the case with most “pulled up by their own bootstraps” stories, and the other common tropes of our culture. The larger effect of this misplaced focus is that we often lose sight of the bigger picture, and we forget that the real-world facts rarely fit well into a comfortingly familiar and simplistic narrative. If Paul Harvey’s contribution to media and reporting was promoting the “human interest” story, then I have an even harder time finding his contributions praiseworthy.

I’m of the (apparent minority) opinion that death shouldn’t automatically insulate people from deserved criticism, nor should it result in days of glowing, incredibly superlative eulogies. Such whitewashing of the past is dishonest and destructive. Let’s remember people for who they are, not who they are made out to be through the rose-tinted glasses of recent loss. And so let’s remember Paul Harvey as an eminently successful broadcaster, an excellent speaker, and a fantastic storyteller who told fantastic stories and labeled them “news.”


I can’t believe I left this out before. Despite my problems with the man, he’ll always have a special place in my memory because of this: