Smile When You’re Lying: On the Media

I just finished reading (and loving) two books by Chuck Thompson, “Smile When You’re Lying,” and “To Hellholes and Back.”

Thompson’s the Chuck Klosterman of travel writing; an acerbic, too-smart-for-his-own-good, social observer whose turns of phrase are highly quotable (only not in mixed company).  As Klosterman is to pop culture, Thompson is to travel writing.
In”Smile When You’re Lying,” Thompson eviscerates the travel writing industry.  With the conversational style of an outraged friend who’sc racked open his first beer of the night, Thompson spells out all the crimes that the travel magazine industry commits against honest journalism and meaningful writing.  Exposed in the book are the most egregious cliches (“a bewitching blend of the ancient and modern”), and the ethical breakdowns that prevent honest travel writing from ever occurring (resort junkets where writers are courted and practically guilted into writing nice reviews).
The ethical issues Thompson identifies within the travel writing business aren’t shocking, unusual, or unique to that industry.  That’s simply how the media operates.

21st century versions of Edward R. Murrow, journalists who parse through the b.s. and deliver information unencumbered by special interests, half-truths, and propaganda, are difficult to find in a business led by ad dollars, focus groups, and favor economy dealmaking.  Is it wrong?  Dyed-in-the-wool professors at Medill would likely say so, as would news purists who share a media view that would have us listening to NPR 24/7 and exclusively reading international newspapers for current event information.  

Fact is, information can be compromised, as can the passions and intents of those delivering it.  We all should know by now not to accept everything the media tells us as fact, and to take the initiative to learn more about subjects that interest or incense us.  As Chuck Thompson so expertly illustrated, when it comes to expecting high-minded ethics from the media, well…goodnight, and good luck with that. 
There’s an argument to be made that the Edward R. Murrows of today can be found in the blogosphere, a sector largely untouched by backscratching politics that drive traditional media.  Some of them may even be bouncing around this blogsite.  And no, I’m not one of them.  
I’ve made my peace with both the nightly news and the watered-down and politically safe album reviews that Rolling Stone publishes.  I treat radio “travel times” as educated guesses, rather than fact.  I’m an information consumer, circa 2010, who uses the media as a “gateway drug” to further learning.  
Beats listening to NPR 24/7.
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