A month or two ago, some good friends advised me that I should go a bit easier on the Irish Times – or at least spread my mid-winter ire around better so other media outlets were more equitably subjected to my fits of bad temper.
It has been surprisingly easy to follow this advice, because I do most of my reading of the Irish Times online: the newspaper's recent web-redesign has transformed its site from bad to virtually unusable, making it a pleasure to ignore.
The newspaper's webby pre-eminence among Irish publications – symbolised by that great early grab of the ireland.com URL – has not actually vanished (the phrase is, I think, “best of an absolutely godawful lot”). However, if the paper's idea of a hot new internet product is typified by the latest grey look – with its scant interactivity, lack of tags or cross-references, lousy images, bloglessness and some of the web's worst banner adverts (the Johann Strauss gala is blinking vaguely as I write) – then it can only be a matter of time before, say, Village.ie supplants it.
Ah, but never mind the quality, feel the tens of millions of euro the Times has splashed on property website myhome.ie – in one giant transaction creating the irresistible impression that an online strategy lurks deep within the company's shiny new corporate headquarters.
Another way of showing you're hip to the online scene is to continuously treat panicky non-stories about the mortal dangers of Bebo and other social-networking websites as though they were vitally important. The front page of the Irish Times, which last Friday was host to the astonishing “news” that Enda Kenny would ask the Greens to join a coalition government if they were needed to form a majority, on Saturday featured a poorly described proposal for schoolchildren to get “a government-supplied email address”.
Leaving aside the dubiousness of saying “government-supplied” rather than “state-supplied”, the long story never explained how or through whose eternal vigilance this email thingy would “cure” the “grooming” problem – a problem whose substantial existence is unproven in the first place. The still-longer story on the subject inside the paper – no, there was nothing whatsoever to link the two articles on the website versions – was of no further assistance.
Instead, the deathless prose gave every indication that the Irish Times intends us all to hibernate through January: “...the industry has adopted a proactive approach amid increasing efforts to raise awareness of the dangers associated with placing personal material on such websites.” This phrase was not a direct quotation – more a pithy paraphrase I guess – and appeared in the fourth paragraph of a page-one news story in our “paper of record”. Read it and weep.
Beating around Bush?
In the unlikely event that I, as a heavy web-consumer, would read the Irish Times for news from the US – the New York Times, despite its warmongering, is considerably more user-friendly and obviously more detailed – I would likely consider Denis Staunton an informative correspondent. He is certainly a productive one.
However, like many a foreign correspondent, his thinking seems constrained by the conventions of the journalistic culture in which he finds himself. The most misleading myth in US political journalism is the idea that the Democrats form some sort of “opposition” when it comes to Bush foreign policy in general and the Iraq war in particular.
The problem is not that this leads to inappropriate “rooting” for the Democrats, though that does happen. It's worse: missing the story. Thus Staunton leads: “US president George Bush faces a serious confrontation with Congress over Iraq after Democratic congressional leaders warned they would oppose sending more US troops.”
But it just ain't so. These folks won't seriously confront Bush. You needn't hunt far for genuinely serious confrontations in today's political world, but these diversionary ones keep throwing journalists off the scent.