On Crappy Journalism…

The most recent issue of Maclean’s magazine leads with the compelling feature “99 Really Stupid Things the Government Did with Your Money.” I say “compelling” with a faint air of sarcasm because, as will readily become clear, I’ve got some problems with Maclean’s journalism here.

On the other hand, from the standpoint of attracting readers, the title is indeed compelling – like for real. It does grab your attention. The whole “stupid” thing is provocative, hearkening back to Dr. Laura-style “calling you on your bullshit” book titles.[1] It’s lurid. There’s gonna be dirt. It promises an easy read. Maclean’s used this headline because as a strategy for selling magazines, it works. We eat this stuff up.

I’ve always been fascinated with the effectiveness of “the numbered list” as a rhetorical device. For example, Maclean’s could have simply used the title “Really Stupid Things the Government Did,” but they chose instead to structure the lead as “99 Really Stupid Things,” and dressed it up with emboldened red numbers to reinforce the idea that there are a fixed number of really stupid things to be discussed, and when we’re done with the list, we’re done with the issue.

The numbered list accomplishes — well, a number of things. It appeals to a desire for order and simplicity in a world that is troubling for its complexity. It promises a tidy itemized reading experience that requires little effort to digest. It is actually “pre-digested” in a sense – think momma and baby birds. From the perspective of the editor/author, numbered lists provide an easy way to organize and write up content without looking for or offering meaningful connections between items. Numbered lists and bullets are generally analysis-free “information dumps” that do not require the rendering of difficult editorial decisions.

In short, publisher and reader engage in a contract of sorts through such pieces. The numbered list is an agreement by both parties to take an easy way out. In doing so there is general buy-in to the illusion that the world is simple, and its troubles are easily defined and solved.

Now I expect this sort of wilful suspension of critical thinking in “lifestyle magazines.” Especially women’s magazines. I’m not going to get too bent out of shape when Oxygen offers up “5 Ab Exercises you Haven’t Done Before,” or Chatelaine features “One Skirt; Seven Great Looks.” The stakes here are pretty low and I expect to be “infotained.”

But Maclean’s tendencies to use these frankly cheap editorial practices on their lead stories taints what is otherwise, in my opinion, a pretty decent magazine. As news and current events go, I’m looking for well-researched stories that offer balanced perspectives and help me think through the issues. Much of Maclean’s content fits that bill quite nicely. The exceptions are sell-out leads that venture into plain old bad, irresponsible journalism.

So here they are: “3 Reasons Why Maclean’s Most Recent Lead Contributes to Political Ignorance:”[2]

  1. By going for 99 Timbit-sized anecdotes instead of a story, the piece ensures that no useful background, context, or explanation will be provided. For example, $65,000 for PEI local food promotion (#24) and $700,000 in seed money for two cheese factories (#22) represent government efforts to diversify economies and promote economic activities in “have not” regions. You can, if you’re inclined, disagree with the role of state in these economic activities, but that opens up what ought to be the real topic: how much should governments interfere with markets? It’s an important question. It’s a policy question. And it deserves better treatment than being written off as “stupid government spending.”
  2. Focusing on waste and ill-conceived projects by government implies that the same sort of nonsense does not occur in the private sector. It perpetuates the myth that governments are cumbersome, bureaucratic, wasteful and inefficient, but the private sector is somehow immune to the challenges of managing large, complex systems of oft-competing interests. This distinction is false. Corporations blow money on ad campaigns that are subsequently abandoned (#87) and do a lousy job on procurement (#49), too. The fact of the matter is, elitism, corruption and waste are everywhere and they are not inherent or exclusive features of government[3].
  3. The anecdotes provide fodder for pointless arguments about government spending. They are sound bites, easily taken up as “examples” to advance partisan interests, or reinforce beliefs that people already hold. If you’re a rural person, you can carry on about government waste related to big city sports teams (#6, #7). If you think universities are wasteful and out of touch, you can support this point with #45 (funding to study sturgeons at Vancouver Island University) or #93 (funding the Public Health Agency of Canada to “combat Montezuma’s revenge… in the Caribbean). Really, there’s something for everyone here: it’s Equal Opportunity Outrage.

I am frustrated by “journalism” of this ilk because it obscures rather than enlightens. If one looks beyond the silly and arbitrary nature of the “99 Really Stupid Things” presented in this feature, there is an important thread that deserves to be picked up and considered in ongoing thoughtful debate: what should governments spend money on? Economic stimuli? The arts? Sports? Public health campaigns? Public celebrations and events? Private events that (it is reasoned) promote long term public interests? None of the above? At heart: How do we choose between competing interests when it comes to government spending?

Alas, instead of taking up these questions in earnest, Maclean’s here takes the low road. The thing is, this isn’t a neutral Act of Journalism. It’s actually harmful. To quote a line from an Adam Sandler movie,[4] everyone is dumber for having been exposed to it.


[1]e.g. Schlessinger, Laura (1994). Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives and Schlessinger, Laura (1997). Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their Lives. For the record, I really hate Dr. Laura. I might have to change my name when I finish my PhD.

[2] Yes, I am being ironic.

[3] See Joseph Heath’s Filthy Lucre (2009), particularly his discussion of the economic conservatism’s excessive willingness to equate profit motives with efficiency.

[4] Clearly a first go-to for social/political analysis. From Billy Madison: “Mr. Madison, what you’ve just said … is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.”

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3 Comments

  1. Well, there’s no such thing as a neutral act of journalism, so “stupid” lists are ideological, as you have so eloquently demonstrated. Too bad your silly friends & relatives (anyone I know?) won’t read your articles in academic journals — good scholarly writing is eminently readable, and will increase the intellectual assets (to use the $10-a-word analogy) of any reader, including those who like “stupid” lists.

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