Under-caffeinated readers of the Wall Street Journal might almost have been duped this morning by an interloper at newsstands nationwide. A parody of the monolothic paper, entitled My Wall Street Journal — a pun on NewsCorp’s other media property, MySpace — took aim at the Journal’s new ownership in an effort to undermine the paper’s credibility and mock its (presumed) partisanship under Rupert Murdoch. (250,000 of the papers have been distributed nationwide, and are the product of an independent group of comedy writers who’ve done this same prank before, in 1982. Here is a photo of the front page, courtesy of the Times.)
Most of the jokes aren’t much in the way of nuanced satire: the paper’s lede news-analysis is a ho-hum “Bush Abolishes Death, Taxes / Move to Benefit McCain.” But look closer, below the headline, and there are two small words that really turn NewsCorp on its ear: caveat emptor. Buyer beware.
But wait a second: the jokes are all goofy lay-ups, like the
Bush/McCain headline. Do we really need to be told caveat emptor?
Of course not. The maxim is more like a little punchline to the entire conceit, because it does something that seems anathema NewsCorp and the other media conglomerates: it demands your skepticism.
Everywhere we look, we see news sources referring themselves balanced and objective, with NewsCorp properties like Fox News leading the charge. I’m not insinuating that these networks and newspapers don’t try to be such — and perhaps that’s why we’re seeing a rise in sensationalism.
(After all, covering Britney’s latest breakdown lets one eschew the politlcal minefield of, say, deeper reporting on the latest goings-on in the powder-keg Middle East.) Whether it’s Fox, CNN, the WSJ or the Times, newspapers and networks are embarrisingly self-conscious of their
facade of objectivity, and they have almost an elephant-in-the-room denial of what everyone knows to be true: that any piece of reporting produced by a human being usually contains some kind of bias, intentional or not. You only have to read foreign newspapers to see that every reporter, no matter how ethical, just plain sees things differently.
In that light, caveat emptor is a punch line, sure, but it’s also a surprisingly refreshing bit of candor from a newspaper — even a jocular one. Somehow, our news sources have come to a point where their honesty and objectivity can be trumped by spoof newspaper that is simply, and valiantly, objective about itself. It knows it’s a rag, and it wants to make sure you know, too.
In 1922, an author named Walter Lippman wrote a treatise on journalism called “Public Opinion.” In it, he argued that traditional news sources were essentially useless tools for much of the country, who he deemed uneducated and uninterested in the nuance of world affairs. “As for example,” he wrote, “in the matter of the success of a policy, or the social conditions among a foreign people—that is to say, where the real answer is neither yes or no, but subtle, and a matter of balanced evidence,” traditional news reporting “causes no end of derangement,
misunderstanding, and even misrepresentation.” My Wall Street Journal may be chock full of stupid “gimme” jokes and obvious buffonery, but its real indictment of the news media, and Murdoch and NewsCorp especially, is its insinuation that they have a Lippman-esque contempt for their readers and for real objectivity, and that they opt for spin or sensationalism cloaked as reportage. (A good example of this kind of behabior might be CNN’s controversial April 7th airing, in which a polite question from an audience member at a McCain rally was reported as “heckling” by an on-air news personality.)
It’s worth noting, of course, that My Wall Street Journal is operating on the same principle as Fox News when it makes entertainment out of a serious issue (media bias) to rustle up the attention of an audience. Cable news has proven that this formula can draw the widespread public interest, but this group of humorists is hoping it can also peak widespread public inquiry. That’s a tricky bet, however, when the medium seems to skewer the readers of the Journal as much as its ownership — the MySpace pun that replaces “The” with “My” can be taken as an oblique criticism of a self-centered, anti-intellectual culture that is more concerned with opinions and gut feelings than actual facts and analysis. (That issue is discussed in this recent book released in February.) Whether the public is inflamed, and for the reasons the group of humorists intended, remains to be seen.