Guessing the news

Posted: Oct 28, 2005 12:05 AM


That about sums up my response to the past several weeks' guessing game regarding the tsunami in a thimble popularly known as Plamegate. Or Rove-a-Rama. Or Miller Time.

The hysteria about who leaked what to whom, when or where has all the elements of a non-story. That is, factually, there is no news. We don't know anything. It ain't news until "it" - whatever "it" is - happens. Or so it once was.

These days nothing - not even "Nothing" - thwarts the ravenous media beast. By the time this gets read, we may know everything. Or not. Some in the Bush administration may be indicted for leaking the name of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame/Wilson. Or not.

In the meantime, the media have been left to ruminate. To surmise, to wonder, to speculate. In Wednesday's "Hardball Briefing" e-mail, for instance, the evening's program was promoted this way:

"Another anxious day inside the Beltway as the chattering class, punditocracy and assorted political prognosticators attempt to divine the outcome of Patrick Fitzgerald's nearly two-year-old investigation into who outed CIA operative Valerie Plame/Wilson ."

Note the operative verb: to divine.

The headline on Drudge that same day summed up the spirit of this so-called/alleged/possible scandal: "D.C. Guessing Game Reaches Fever Pitch"

And so it has been from Day One - a D.C. guessing game. Ask most "ordinary Americans," as the media call people leading normal lives beyond the Beltway, whether Karl Rove or Vice President Dick Cheney leaked the name of Valerie Plame/Wilson to New York Times reporter Judith Miller - and they're likely to say, "Yeah, a beer sounds good."

If pressed, they might remember something vaguely familiar about "that spy business" and say something like, "Well, dang, I have no idea. Reckon we'll have to wait and see, now, won't we?"

Not the 24/7 media, which make nature look bashful around a vacuum.

While true that the media are not, in fact, a monolithic entity about which one can comfortably summarize, the industry's disparate parts function as an information ecosystem, nourishing and feeding upon one another along the food chain. It's hard to know where a story starts or stops - or who is accountable to whom - as a nugget of news travels with instaneity along television's circuitry or through the ethers of Blog.

The media don't cover the news. They hunt it down, beat it to death, resuscitate it, and beat it to death again. Television news programs aren't information outlets so much as guess-the-news game shows where "experts" analyze the unknown and pundits predict the unknowable. When there's nothing left to say, they enter the realm of fiction.

"What if?" is the question that drives all fiction. The writer sits down before a blank page and asks herself, "What if this happened, what if that happened?" And the Muse begins spinning yarns with the threads of imagination.

Journalism, which traditionally seeks answers to who, what, when and where, serves a different Muse. Or it used to. With the explosion of alternate media, including "citizen journalism," the lines between fiction and journalism have become perhaps irrevocably blurred.

Speculation is the new journalism. In the absence of facts, speculation may nourish curiosity, but it also distorts both perception and reality. The media can't be seen as separate from the events they cover, especially when coverage is itself a creation.

These fictionalized versions of non-events, first cousins to gossip, are not innocuous. After so much chatter, ideas are imprinted on the human psyche, opinions are formed. Guilt becomes presumptive.

And all the while, we opine about everything on the basis of nothing. As of Wednesday when the grand jury temporarily adjourned, no one knew whether indictments were forthcoming in the Plame matter, yet the television was buzzing with cheap talk, as it had been for days and weeks before.

We've never had greater access to information nor more difficulty discerning truth. Trying to glean what matters amidst the media cacophony is like panning for a nugget of gold in the Pacific.

All bodes ill for a free society in which democracy depends on a well-informed public. When journalists act like fiction writers, and media watchdogs bark at shadows - when truth and fiction are cut from the same cloth - we are in trouble.

The danger is that Americans exhausted by too much information will simply turn it off and leave the business of government to those who shout loudest.