“The Dumbest Bell That Ever Rang:” Have We Just Witnessed the Death of American Journalism?

“For whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”

John Donne

“Ryan Lochte is the dumbest bell that ever rang”

Washington Post

I THINK THIS WEEK we all witnessed a rather significant event. It was a bell toll on the heart of American journalism. It happened on August 18th when the Washington Post published an editorial on the saga that currently is surrounding American swimmer Ryan Lochte. It was published under the title “Ryan Lochte: A champion swimmer caught in a riptide of self-absorption.”

More significantly, the first line of the article was “Ryan Lochte is the dumbest bell that ever rang.”

So have you heard that joke yet? No, you haven’t? It’s the one that goes something like: If you’ve ever partied so hard and lied so epically bad that you create an international incident, you might be Ryan Lochte!

Let’s get the disclaimer stuff out of the way early. There is absolutely no defending what Ryan Lochte did. There is no excuse for it.

Okay, now it’s time for all of us to gain back our composure. In reality, from what has been reported, the now famous incident in Rio is not really any different behavior that what takes place on most ordinary Saturday nights inside various American college towns located anywhere between Cambridge and Palo Alto. In reality nothing more was harmed than a gas station bathroom and, importantly (and where things get touchy), the reputation of a nation. The major differences between this incident and things many of us have done during our own days of higher education are Ryan Lochte is a world-famous athlete who once had his own reality show, he committed his acts in a country where crime is kind of a sensitive subject with the natives (especially when it concerns high-profile tourists who falsely claim they were robbed at gunpoint by men in uniform during what should be a shining moment for the country), weapons were involved, and Lochte lied with all of the skill and grace of Pinocchio.

Lochte is not running for the American Presidency. Nor is he tasked with things that are critical to the well-being of a nation, like guarding us or our precious children. Granted, he is a public figure who many offered their hearts to in the hopes he might bring us some golden American glory. None of us, however, have asked Lochte to guard the launch codes to nuclear weapons or to protect the innocent from harm. He’s not much more than a playboy swimmer who has a zeal for life. His zeal may involve excessive partying. I don’t know. That’s none of my business. That’s between Lochte and his god. If 32-year-old Ryan Lochte wants to act like 21-year-old Ryan Lochte, whose to judge? Certainly not me, considering I’m a self-professed 30-something man-child.

This is all being prefaced to say on Thursday night the Washington Post published, a column concerning this situation (which I’ve linked to above), and it was one of the shoddiest pieces of writing I’ve ever had the misfortune to read in my entire life. Reading this column made my head and my heart hurt. The writing made my head hurt. The masthead made my heart hurt. I couldn’t believe it was published by an establishment with the rich legacy of the Washington Post. Let’s examine some of the highlights from this glorious piece of journalism. These are words excerpted directly from the column:

There is a special category of obnoxious American “bro” that Lochte represents, in his T-shirt and jeans and expensive suede footwear, which he showed off on social media that night at the party along with the price tag.

Is there anything worse, in any country, than a bunch of entitled young drunks who break the furniture and pee on a wall? There is no translator needed for that one, no cultural norm that excuses it.

But to do so, he had to be so impervious to his own odious punk behavior — and his view of that gas station had to be so low — that he didn’t think the vandalizing was worth anything. He must have thought Ryan Lochte’s pee was gold dust.

And my favorite line…This one could initiate the eulogy to quality American journalism:

If I had been working at that Brazilian gas station, I might have pulled a gun on them, too.

BOOM! Let’s pause. Let that sentence sink in, and then remember it was published by none other than the Washington Post.

At the writing of this column, the above mentioned Washington Post column had 2.2K engagements (at least that’s the number the Washington Post is reporting). If I posted a legitimate photo on this website I discovered buried in my attic of Abraham Lincoln riding a unicorn through a double rainbow, I don’t think I could get 2.2K engagements. That just shows you the pull the Washington Post still has. It’s a reputation that was built by the historic efforts of legendary men and women in the field like Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Katharine Graham, and Ben Bradlee. These were men and women who understood the intrinsic value that journalism has on society, who understood that their profession meant something.

This reputation that was so exquisitely built is being eroded by columns like the one mentioned above. The column is filth. It’s clickbait. It has zero redeeming value. Its only purpose is to needlessly trash a man’s character, a man who has been drug through the mud so much this week that he ought to just stop there and build his own hut. It might belong in the New York Post, but it surely does not belong in the Washington Post. It does not deserve to reside under the masthead of a newspaper that was once a shining beacon of quality American journalism.

To be frank, it’s not even particularly well written. If you really want to shock people with your negative opinions of Ryan Lochte, you could probably be a lot more creative than to call him “the dumbest bell that ever rang.”  The column reminds me of an angry and depressed mother scolding her teenage son’s best friend for his bad manners. It’s vitriol, and it’s being spewed underneath the banner of an organization that we so desperately need to be producing quality journalism.

Let’s remember, Ryan Lochte and his merry band of aquatic revelers weren’t the only people making rather poor decisions in Rio this month. In the same city, and in roughly the same week, when Lochte apparently swam in both pools of chlorinated water and shot glasses of liquor, A Daily Beast writer, who identifies himself as straight (and is rightfully proud of his wife and child) decided it might be a newsworthy idea for him to poke (excuse the pun) around location-based dating apps inside Olympic Village and write about what he saw.

Let’s ignore the fact that this is a writer who felt the dating profiles of Olympic athletes was a subject worth posting on the internet, and not a boneheaded and egregious invasion of privacy (even considering the subjects were world class athletes), and jump right to the fact that a straight journalist thought it was a wise idea for him to create a profile on the gay dating app Grindr and then write about it. Common sense, much? The story was so toxic that the Daily Beast had to pull it from its website.

There are certain lines, as a journalist, you do not cross. At what point in time do you say to yourself: “I’m a straight journalist who created a profile on a gay dating app, where discreetness is probably appreciated, and then I’m going to write about some of the profiles I saw and publish it on to a major publication that can pretty much be accessed by anyone in the world; this might not be the best idea – you know if I do this, people might start sharpening their pitchforks and lighting their torches. I ought to rethink this?”

In the endless quest to grab the golden ticket of virality, common decency (and basic rationality) is often completely ignored. It’s sort of like when you’re so anxious for your latest column to go viral that you refer to an actual living, breathing human being as “the dumbest bell that ever rang.”

I love journalism. I’ve devoted a chunk of my life to practicing it; whether I ever did so effectively is definitely a debatable subject. There have been times in my life when my paycheck has come from a member of the mainstream press. One reason I chose that field was because I fell in love with the Washington Post newsroom that was depicted in the movie All the President’s Men. I could feel the excitement of chasing the big story. I wanted that, although I never possessed the courage that it takes to actually accomplish even a microcosm of a feat such as the one Woodward and Bernstein achieved.

I still have friends who are thriving members of the journalism community. I could name drop; I won’t, because I think all of them would shutter at the idea of being publicly associated with me on the internet. But I’m so incredibly proud of my former colleagues, peers, and rivals who are still sticking it out in what is a very difficult industry. They are doing amazing things, and I’m so grateful that tools such as Facebook give me an opportunity to continue to see them growing even when I’m hundreds of miles away from where they ply their trade.

Journalism is a phenomenally difficult profession, and it’s gotten even harder to practice in the last decade. You have to have an unbelievable amount of passion for what you’re doing. You sacrifice so much. When you’re jealous of the salary and schedule of a high school English teacher, you know you’re not living an easy life.

The slow erosion of quality journalism is the result of a few different factors. Economics and technology have definitely played a role. It’s far cheaper and easier to let your reporters, anchors, and columnists just spout off their opinions, no matter how outlandish, then to force them to actually go cover stories. The more absurd the opinions, the better. Absurdity leads to more clicks and shares and higher ad rates. Our current political climate is certainly testimony to this fact.

I’m doing essentially the level of reporting that was produced in the questionable Washington Post column right now on the website you’ve currently navigated to. I’m just spouting off my opinion. It’s easy. I don’t have to do things like interview subjects, collect quotes, cultivate sources, you know those pesky nuances of good journalism. Yet, unlike the writer of the column in question, no one pays me to do any of this, and I certainly don’t do it under the masthead of one of the country’s most vaunted newspapers.

The recession, late last decade, hit the media particularly hard. When you’re a business, and you need to trim your budget, the first thing to go is advertising. Media companies need those advertising dollars to survive. Newsrooms were gutted like a Thanksgiving turkey, and already overworked journalists were asked to do more with less. At almost the same time, a meteoric rise began occurring: the popularity of social technology.

Technology has given every person a voice. All you need is a computer or a smartphone and you’re now a journalist. You can report using Twitter, Facebook, or, like the author, create a blog. We are now provided these tools to create content that everyone in the entire world has access to. It’s amazing. And it’s a terrifying thing for traditional media companies. They no longer control the content. They don’t have that power anymore.

The one chip these organizations do still possess is that they employ people who have the skills to go out and sniff a story, cultivate those needed sources, collect the right quotes or sound bites, and then write, edit, or record the story eloquently. These are really rare skills that most ordinary people do not have, even if they have access to a smartphone or computer. I’ve never possessed these skills. I wish I did. It would have made me a helluva lot better journalist.

The grandfathers of traditional journalism are losing these people because a) they treat them like s—t and b) these rare individuals can find better work elsewhere. So the Washington Post is becoming as important as the Huffington Post. Why? Because these traditional media companies pay the people who allow things like the aforementioned inexplicable ramblings uploaded to the Washington Post website an inordinate amount of money while basically ignoring the people who create content that is meaningful to the world and might make a difference. These people possess skills that are scarce as well as vital (to not be overdramatic) to the survival of our democracy. This is why these traditional media companies are failing so badly. Because good journalism is in fact essential to our democracy, this is all something we as a society should probably take notice of.

On Thursday of this week, one of the most legendary platforms in American journalism offered a bully pulpit to a columnist. This pulpit was aimed straight toward not a presidential candidate with outlandish views, not a brutal tyrant, not a major societal ill, but unnecessarily at an American athlete who happens to have a pretty major profile and made some unquestionably poor choices at a very inopportune time. Thursday was a dark day for a very critical component of American democracy: journalism.

For whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

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