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American Journalism Review
The Conventional Wisdom Trap  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   July/August 2001

The Conventional Wisdom Trap   

Things are rarely quite as clear-cut as they might seem.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder ( is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

IT WAS AN IRRESISTIBLE matchup. I couldn't wait for the game to begin.
LaSalle vs. Villanova, 1971. Two Philly college basketball powers, both ranked in the top seven or eight in the nation. The showdown between Kenny Durrett and Howard Porter, two of the country's best players.
But it wasn't to be. Durrett got hurt and watched from the bench, his leg in a cast.
I made the pilgrimage from Washington, D.C., to the Palestra, Philly's Temple of Hoops, probably my favorite building in the entire world. But my heart wasn't in it. Without Durrett, the Explorers had no chance, all the pundits agreed.
But guess what? Bobby Fields came up huge and played the game of his life. In as electric and delirious an evening of college hoops as I've ever experienced, the LaSalle Explorers prevailed.
As my daughter and idol Amanda said to me when she was 2, "Never know, right, Dad?"
It's a good attitude for journalists to keep in mind. For few things are as seductive as the conventional wisdom, the knowing inside take, the storyline du jour. But buying into them without qualification, jettisoning skepticism and open-mindedness, can lead to less-than-stellar reporting.
Take the Clinton White House vandalism saga. You remember those breathless tales from the transition era of a trashed Air Force jet and filing cabinets glued shut and overturned desks. There was precious little evidence of bad behavior, just lots of winking and nudging from those Washington favorites, anonymous sources, and a have-it-both-ways briefing by the White House's Ari Fleischer. But that didn't stop too many news organizations from merrily running with the story, often without crucial caveats and context.
How could they not? It fit so perfectly with a couple of the period's narrative themes.
First, it was part of the ugly endgame of the Clinton era, when it seemed as if the Comeback Kid had at last run out of comebacks. The sleazy pardons, backing the van up to the White House to scoop up the 11th-hour "gifts," the ludicrously expensive New York offices--it was all of a piece.
Second, it blended seamlessly into the notion of those self-indulgent, irresponsible Baby Boomers giving way to the seasoned "grownups" of Bush II. (Never mind that those Groundhog Day golden oldies from Republican regimes of yore quickly managed to blunder away control of the Senate and alienate the entire military establishment.)
Or take the coverage of the Los Angeles Lakers. After the Lakers' juggernaut unceremoniously flattened Sacramento, Portland and San Antonio, they became transformed from soap opera to Wonder of the World. They were, perhaps, the Best Team Ever. One thing was abundantly clear: There was no way those banged-up, overachieving Philadelphia 76ers were going to be able to stay close, let alone win a game.
But win they did, upending the Lakers on their home court, right in front of Jack Nicholson, in the series' opener.
(Completely self-indulgent, Tony Kornheiser-style aside: You've got to love the Raja Bell story. One day the guy's playing for Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in the CBA, the next he's scoring 10 points in a single quarter in an NBA playoff game.)
Turning a deaf ear to the siren song of the CW has never been easy. It's a lot harder in this media-saturated age.
These days, you don't even have to wait for the next day's paper to find out what you're supposed to think about the latest news development. Within minutes, there's commentary on the Internet. By the time you've gone to bed, you've heard the issue sliced and diced by any number of cable philosophers.
One of the bulwarks of conventional wisdom for quite some time was the utter triumph of the New Media. In these days of online triage, it's almost impossible to believe. But widely trumpeted was the notion that the future is now, print is then and online journalism is all that matters.
Of course, there were skeptics, who wondered aloud how Web sites were going to dominate if all they did was lose money. But they were voices in the wilderness. Who could argue with those sky-high stock prices and 12-year-old dotcom millionaires?
It's another reminder of the need to avoid getting locked into conclusions prematurely. While we journalists like clear-cut scenarios with good guys and bad guys, winners and losers, black and white--let's face it, they make for better copy and footage--the world is a land of nuance and degree, of shades of gray, of stunning and surprising Raja Bell-like twists and turns.
As someone said after Villanova's unimaginable upset of Georgetown for the NCAA championship in 1985: That's why they play the games.



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