Recently, I encountered the term "WPN" (for "what passes for news"). I'd like to propose a related term, "Nuzak." It's a functional description of how WPN fits into the life of the average Joe, who never reads a newspaper except for the sports section.
Nuzak is like Muzak. It runs in the background. It's a New York Times headline on the way out of the house. It's CNN at the airport. It's Fox News at home whileJoe is really doing something else. The purpose of Nuzak is to be mildly interesting and possibly entertaining without telling Joe anything that would disturb him personally. Real news has immediacy. It is "actionable intelligence," the last thing Joe is interested in. The average person basically wants to be left alone and to be told, town-crier fashion, that "All is well." Elevator news.
This does not mean that Nuzak can't be unpleasant, or that certain stories are off-limits because they are horrific, or gruesome, or disgusting. Nuzak can report all such things, but the important thing to Joe is that the events are someplace else, happening to someone else, thathe personally is okay, and that there's nothing for him to be disturbed about.
Lest you think I am talking exclusively about the "conservative" media or the "liberal" media, I'm not. The discomfiting thing about Nuzak is that it comes in both varieties and in between. Nuzak really has to do with the way the stories are told and heard.
WPN is most commonly the product of zero-sum journalism. A partisan is interviewed and quoted. A partisan of the opposite persuasion is likewise interviewed and quoted. The reporter, having thus presented both sides, considers himself dispensed from fact-checking and analysis. The reader is left to decide the truth for herself as though it were merely a matter of opinion. But as the late Senator Patrick Moynihan said, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, not to their own facts."
We saw an example of this kind of journalism during the last presidential campaign. Swift Boat-loads of lies were told about John Kerry and dutifully reported, "balanced" with denials from the Kerry campaign but often with very little fact-checking or analysis by the reporters. WPN became Nuzak when the accusations turned into headlines and 30-second commercials and the facts and denials were delayed or muffled. After a few days of steady drumbeat on cable news, polls revealed most people viewed the lies as accepted truth.
Nuzak in itself is nothing if not innocuous. Not so, the use to which it is being put by the White House, with the willing cooperation of its friends in the mainstream press. Together they convinced staggering numbers of Americans that Saddam had WMD, that he was in league with al-Qaeda, and that preemptive invasion of Iraq was necessary to prevent Saddam from delivering a mushroom cloud or bubonic plague to our shores. None of these things were true.
The White House has also exploited Nuzak since the invasion to convince the public that the situation in Iraq is steadily improving, when it is clear that the opposite is happening. The White House spin grabs the headlines and soundbites; the corrections and the full facts must wait until the next news cycle, where they are buried by more new spin. The steady drumbeat goes on. Mark Twain had it right: "A lie can travel half-way around the world while the truth is still putting his boots on."
If we don't want the White House and the mainstream media to use Nuzak to sell us another war, we are going to have to demand real news and be willing to be bothered by it. •
John W. Baker is a teacher who lives in Houston.