Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

(Credit: Timothy R. Butler/Stable Diffusion)

Just Assume It's Wrong

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 8:22 PM

As I write this, there is no news about the missing miniature submarine that was launched Sunday in hope of visiting the wreckage of HMS Titanic without itself adding to the rubble.

This lack of news is being covered from every possible angle. No speculation is too crazy to gain print space or air time. Nature abhors a vacuum, but news marketers abhor a vacuum even more.

If you are willing to do an elaborate internet search (as I, frankly, am not, but I’ve seen these things in passing) you’ll find stories about how the missing submarine is an important research vessel or a wealth-and-clout symbol to bilk the rich out of their money. It is a brilliantly designed and invulnerable craft or it a piece of junk slapped together from parts bought online. The wealthy passengers are modern examples of noblesse oblige or privileged and therefore undeserving of life.

This system might bring the passengers back alive. No, that one. No, it doesn’t matter, nothing can.

The thread that passes through all of this ought to be obvious, and would be, too, if we hadn’t become so practiced in ignoring the obvious: It is all based on nothing, because there is nothing to report.

(I think this trend got its current popular start in the early 1980s, the time of the AIDS emergence. Everyone knew that AIDS was and is 100 percent preventable. Certain behaviors are required for the transmission of AIDS. Don’t do them, don’t get AIDS. Simple. This got muddied when persons who insisted on doing those things sometimes financed their mischief by selling their own tainted blood, which was then passed along to the blameless via blood transfusions and the like. No one was reporting this. It wasn’t discussed in polite company, what Tom Wolfe referred to as “the Victorian gentlemen” of the press. But the Cockney scumbags of the lesser media learned from it, too.)

When your audience has been softened up by weaning it off the necessity of a story having some factual basis, life becomes much easier for those who sell us what they label as news. We would run out of incredulity before we got to the bottom of the list of matters of public faith which are also demonstrably and unquestionably wrong: No, men cannot become women by declaring themselves women. No, banning spray deodorant won’t save the planet. No, the world is not so overpopulated that people will be extinct by [pick your date: all the previous predictions have come and gone]. No, climate change, previously known as global warming, and before that global cooling, will not destroy our cities by [pick your date: all the previous predictions have come and gone]. No, the Covid vaccine will not prevent your getting Covid. No, it won’t prevent you from transmitting Covid, either. No, mRNA vaccines are neither safe nor effective (at least in doing what it says on the tin they do). No, Donald Trump is not sane. No, Joe Biden does not retain his wits to the extent he ever had any.

Yet these are all things we’re served as facts and are encouraged to believe are true.

I’m using the sad story of the unhappy Titanic submarine as an example, but it applies to just about any story that “news” marketers believe will attract public attention. As you read the “coverage,” you’ll find stories that contradict each other — sometimes in the same publication. They can’t all be true. I submit that none of them is true, or if turns out that one is, it’s a coincidence. People whose job it is to guess what will appeal to the public — and there is statistical science to it, and a lot of money behind it — are the ones who decide the “facts.” The facts themselves frequently play no part in it.

Here’s an example: In 1987 the newswriters and editors at CBS, of whom I was one, went on strike. Fortunately, I had friends in the various New York media and within a couple of hours I had a job for the duration, as a reporter for one of the supermarket tabloids. I will not name it here because it doesn’t matter, because they were kind enough to take me in, and because they never claimed to be Victorian gentlemen.

Early in my first week there, one of the editors brought over a slip of paper with a sentence on it. It was something some source had told to one of the people we paid for tips, having to do with a celebrity who was, it said, cheating on his wife. I was to do a story on it. My fellow reporters told me that I should go back to our extensive and heavily staffed clipping library, get the folder of clips about the celebrity, and write up a story using the tip as the lead and filling it in with appropriately derogatory things about the celebrity from among the earlier clips. Direct quotes — we didn’t make them up, there were people who had actually said the things — were always from “insiders,” “close observers,” and “worried friends.”

I had the story almost done when the editor came over, a worried look on his face. “There’s been a change,” he said, sighing. One of the people we paid to spy on the competition had reported that the competition was going to put the story on its cover. They had apparently purchased the same “tip.” So now I would have to write a “spoiler.” This was a story that would appear at the same time as the competition’s story, only my story would now say that no, it’s all a lie, the celebrity isn’t having an affair. After a few minutes, another slip of paper, another quote, this time saying the opposite of the first quote. Using exactly the same clippings I had used to write the story about the affair, I now extracted evidence which I employed as absolute proof that the celebrity was innocent of these scurrilous charges. Quoted “friends” went from “worried” to “angry.”

This was how the game was played in that part of the industry. (After a few weeks I was qualified to be a prosecutor or defense lawyer; if I’d sunk a little lower I could have been qualified to be a Congressman.)

At just about this time, there was a wave of programs collectively called “tabloid television,” led by Fox’s “A Current Affair.” These were denounced by the Victorian gents, but television news coverage began its quick and inexorable drift toward tabloidization.

No one was exempt, though the higher-class broadcasters and publications increasingly made tabloid heroes out of those they deemed to be oppressed and villains of those they had decided were oppressors. This practice once begun has no end and was the path to the impossible stridency we see today. A daily tabloid paper will declare guilt or innocence in 144-point type on the first day, while the higher class newspapers “of record” will take their time and be a little smarmier about it. But the effect is the same: neither can be trusted, because truth where it exists at all is a side effect, an artifact, an afterthought. A tabloid might boldly declare that we’re no worse off if some layabout billionaire and his son suffocate on a dinky submarine, while the Victorian gentlemen report instead on the white privilege that allows one to spend a quarter-million dollars on a lark and how it would be better if the government took that money and spent it on programs “serving” inner-city gangbangers, which story would run next to the airy feature on the society couple’s planned trip to a base in Antarctica and how they themselves see it as important work to protect the penguins, apparently by posing for pictures with them.

None of it, of course, is true, and none of it is offered in service of simply reporting the events of the day. It is always in service of something else, either the acquisition of money or the more sinister acquisition of power.

Occasionally a story includes a fact, if it is not inconvenient to the theme of the piece. If you read all the stories skeptically, with an eye toward finding the nugget in the compost, you can assemble for yourself a rough approximation of what might be true.

But take what’s presented at face value, in the sad tale of the missing mini-submarine or any other story, at your peril.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at

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