What Asimov couldn't have imagined

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on May 11, 2012

When I was in high school many eons ago, I went on a kick reading a bunch of books written by science-fiction great Isaac Asimov. Over a period of a few months, I probably read close to two dozen of Asimov's books. About a month ago, I decided to give some of them a re-read (notably the Lije Bailey detective novels and the Foundation series). As I was reading Foundation and Empire, originally published in 1952, I was struck by this section:

Barr paid a requisite number of iridium coins and appropriated the uppermost member of a pile of newspapers. It was the Trantor Imperial News, official organ of the government. In the back of the newsroom, there was a soft clicking noise of additional editions being printed in long-distance sympathy with the busy machines at the Imperial News offices ten thousand miles away by corridor—six thousand by air-machine—just as ten million sets of copies were being likewise printed at that moment in ten million other newsrooms all over the planet.

Certainly one can easily be forgiven for failing to foresee smartphones, tablet computers, social networking and that have sprung up over the past two decades. But how unimaginable is the death of the printed newspaper? In this day and age, I can see the end from here. As the baby boomer generation reaches its natural end (but likely not before bankrupting Social Security and Medicare), consumers of printed newspapers will dwindle. Asimov, like far too many in the newspaper industry even into the first part of the 21st century, didn't recognize that the thing that people would continue to need would be the "news" and not the "paper."

I also suspect Asimov couldn't have imagined the death of the newspaper, the network news, the mainstream media, as a trusted, unbiased source of information. I too can see that end from here.

In 2008, The New York Times published a hit piece full of innuendo and short on facts accusing GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of an affair with a lobbyist. The article had far less impact on the outcome of the election than it did on the Times' credibility.

In 2006, The Washington Post had a little better luck when GOP Sen. George Allen, seeking re-election, stupidly referred to a Democratic Party operative who was filming him at a campaign rally as a "macaca." It's still unclear to me six years later what the heck a macaca actually is. It's probably not a compliment, but there's a lot of dispute over whether it is a racist term.

Regardless, the Post hammered Allen on the statement on both the news and editorial pages for weeks, likely contributing to Allen's narrow defeat.

Yesterday, the Post did it again. Seemingly released to coincide with President Barack Obama's flip-flop-flip on gay marriage, the Post article details presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's prep school days as a prankster who was occasionally cruel.

Mitt Romney returned from a three-week spring break in 1965 to resume his studies as a high school senior at the prestigious Cranbrook School. Back on the handsome campus, studded with Tudor brick buildings and manicured fields, he spotted something he thought did not belong at a school where the boys wore ties and carried briefcases. John Lauber, a soft-spoken new student one year behind Romney, was perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality. Now he was walking around the all-boys school with bleached-blond hair that draped over one eye, and Romney wasn’t having it.

“He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” an incensed Romney told Matthew Friedemann, his close friend in the Stevens Hall dorm, according to Friedemann’s recollection. Mitt, the teenage son of Michigan Gov. George Romney, kept complaining about Lauber’s look, Friedemann recalled.

A few days later, Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school’s collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a prep school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber’s hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors.

The incident was recalled similarly by five students, who gave their accounts independently of one another. Four of them — Friedemann, now a dentist; Phillip Maxwell, a lawyer; Thomas Buford, a retired prosecutor; and David Seed, a retired principal — spoke on the record. Another former student who witnessed the incident asked not to be identified. The men have differing political affiliations, although they mostly lean Democratic. Buford volunteered for Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008. Seed, a registered independent, has served as a Republican county chairman in Michigan. All of them said that politics in no way colored their recollections.

Breaking news from the Post: teenagers are cruel and do stupid things. If you missed the Post's hard-hitting, 5,000-word look at teenager Barack Obama's drug use in 2008, you're forgiven—it never happened.

And in the hours after the Post published the story, it began to fray at the edges.

However, Matt Lewis of The Daily Caller noted that White told ABC News a different version of the story:

White was not present for the prank, in which Romney is said to have forcefully cut a student’s long hair and was not aware of it until this year when he was contacted by the Washington Post.

After ABC News's report, the Post had changed its story. It now reads:

“I always enjoyed his pranks,” said Stu White, a popular friend of Romney’s who went on to a career as a public school teacher and said he has been “disturbed” by the Lauber incident since hearing about it several weeks ago, before being contacted by The Washington Post. “But I was not the brunt of any of his pranks.”

Emphasis added. That is a pretty substantive change to the story, yet nowhere does the Post note that a correction/clarification has been made.

That last bit is just the cap to a list of journalistic sins committed by the Post.

And while the Post article seemed to suggest the high school attack on Lauber scarred him for life, his family disputes that and Lauber himself is unavailable to comment because he died in 2004 from liver cancer, but by any measure appeared to live a fulfilling life.

Lauber got a seaman’s license at the University of the Seven Seas, graduated from Vanderbilt University in English, and rode horses with the famous Royal Lipizzaner Stallion riders, and worked as a chef in various places, including cooking for American troops in Iraq. His life choices were his own, and no one can prove that Mitt Romney’s forced haircut had anything to do with his successes or his failures.

It's highly unlikely that this will sway a single vote and has already exhausted its 5 minutes of being news in this year's presidential campaign.

What the article has done, however, is further heightened the distrust of the mainstream media by a substantial plurality of the American electorate. Irresponsible journalists doing irresponsible journalism continue to push us in a direction that one of our most impressive futurists could never have imagined.

Journalism. Wound. Self-inflicted.

One comment on “What Asimov couldn't have imagined”

  1. I wonder if the Post is going to dig around and see if Obama ever witnessed the stoning of homosexuals when he lived with his father.


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