David Foster Wallace on "good" journalism's big problem

David Foster Wallace is one of my all-time favourite writers. Though sometimes he can be a gruelling read as this recent clickhole post featuring an incredibly bleak quote from him nicely illustrates.

His thoughts about modern journalism are a little depressing too…

Anyway. I’ve finally got round to The Pale King, his unfinished last book about the IRS, the American tax service. I knew this would have interesting insights about data overload, boredom and attention. It really does. Here’s one. I think it sums up one of journalism’s big problems in this modern era - being boring.

“Consider from the Service’s perspective, the advantages of the dull, the arcane, the mind-numbingly complex.

“The IRS was one of the first government agencies to learn that such qualities help insulate themselves against public protest and political opposition, and that abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than secrecy.

“For the great disadvantage of secrecy is that it’s interesting. People are drawn to secrets; they can’t help it.”

[p.85 in the Penguin paperback edition]

You get the gist. There are two problems:

  1. Finding the story in the first place in a tsunami of excruciating detail.

  2. And if you do find a story, telling it in a way that doesn’t drown the reader in facts and jargon and make them click off your story and onto a witty story about Tinder or a bear. Good luck.

The rest of the quote, since it’s all so good:

“Had the Service tried to cover up or hide its conflicts and convulsions, some enterprising journalist(s) could have done an expose that drew a lot of attention and interest and scandalous fuss. But this is not at all what > happened. What happened was that much of the high-level policy debate played out for two years in full public view […]

“Even in the financial press, there was hardly any coverage; can you guess why? If not, consider the fact that just about every last transcript, record, study, white paper, code amendment, revenue ruling, and procedural memo has been available for public perusal since date of issue. No FOIA filing even required. But not one journalist seems to have ever checked them out, and with good reason: This is stuff is solid rock. The eyes roll up white by the third or fourth. You just have no idea.”

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