No longer trusted to tell them what’s ‘news’

For centuries, a few hundred wealthy individuals, families and corporations have had de facto control over what we consume as “news” — simply because they could afford to buy big printing presses, and ink by the barrel.

Despite early fears in the newspaper industry, neither radio nor television ever broke this monopoly. You’d quickly realize why, if you ever held in your hands the script for a half-hour news broadcast. It’s a handful of pages, double-spaced.

Yes, TV news can “break the story,” requiring sports editors in the next day’s daily to craft “second-day ledes” for readers who heard the score last night. But since most TV newscasts amount to “rip and read” of either the local newspaper or the AP wire (which is nothing but a compilation of stories from major Metro dailies, condensed), TV news in an unexpected way became a PROMOTION for your local daily newspaper. The neatly coiffed newsreaders said, in effect, “If you want more details, analysis, or commentary, check your morning paper.”

TV rarely challenged any established assumptions about “what was news.”

But the Internet does.

The collapse of the business model for your granddad’s newspaper has been well-reported as an ECONOMIC story, in part because it’s so hard to miss. Around the country in the past decade, daily papers have down-sized, merged, or folded.

Many car lots, once a huge source of newspaper ad dollars, now look like sets for post-Apocalypse zombie movies. Thousands of products and services can be more efficiently bought from Internet sources that have better selection than even the local department store. The panoply of full-page department store ads which were the lifeblood of grandpa’s daily paper thus begin to fade away — and the old-fashioned newspaper, like the Cheshire Cat, fades with them.

This is not to say there will no longer be jobs for news gatherers or packagers. But the defeat of the old dead-tree newspaper model is so complete that newspaper companies, rather than COMPETING with the Internet, now rush to join it, to place their product Online, even when by doing so they “scoop” their own, next-day print product.

The remaining question is what business model will allow the remaining news packagers to make enough from Online ads and as-yet-undeveloped forms of “pay-per-click” to stay profitable. The person with the answer will likely get very rich. Beware, however: The new market may have a very different definition of what they expect when they say “News.”

Breathing space? Almost gone. Newspapers have big buildings full of janitors and security guards and press crews accustomed to electricity and air conditioning. Huge staffs of “We’ve always done it that way” folks may prove a bit less agile than some Internet start-up working out of someone’s garage.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune, circulation 134,000 daily (155,000 on Sundays), announced this spring it will trim its staff and drop from daily to three-days-a-week publication come autumn, making it the largest paper in the U.S. to shift to non-daily publication, and rendering New Orleans (a port town on life-support alongside a river that wants to go somewhere else, anyway) the largest U.S. city without a daily.

Others will follow suit.

But that’s the economic story. More interesting, to me, is the way the daily newspaper has lost the CONTENT war with the infinitely flexible Internet — lost it by default, in many cases.

So many generations of newspaper publishers and their hired agents — “editors” — have grown comfortable with the idea that we alone shall determine what’s worth covering as “news,” that the members of this guild have come to believe they/we truly have some special talent, ability, or right to make these decisions, which are largely passed down from generation to generation and thus take on the patina of tradition and inevitability. If “We’ve never covered that other kind of stuff,” why start now?

The prejudices of the journalistic class — which overwhelmingly adopt the left-wing, statist politics of their college professors — become ingrained. Professional awards are handed out to fellow newsmen whose investigative exposes lead to “the enactment of new, socially progressive legislation” … without waiting to see if such legislation really accomplishes anything but to grow the bureaucracy. (See “child welfare,” or “The War On Drugs.”)

What “doesn’t get covered”? some are protesting, by now. Despite their shrinking staffs, newspapers still struggle to cover City Hall, Congress, sports, business, entertainment, the schools …

Anyone who’s pounded out copy in a newsroom has watched a fellow worker handle a phone call from some reader, demanding to know why the newspaper doesn’t cover one of the topics I’m talking about. Some condescension often creeps into these conversations. There’s a great scene in an old episode of “NYPD Blue” in which Dennis Franz handles such a call at his desk in the station house, finally advising the caller that “We find if you place a layer of aluminum foil inside your hat, it will block those radio signals from the aliens who are trying to control you.”

Traditionally, when your co-workers get off the phone, they’ll roll their eyes and comment that “There must be a full moon out tonight.”

Are there topics so wacky that they deserve this treatment? Of course. I used to enjoy watching “The X Files,” but I decline to spend my time investigating autopsies of space creatures at Area 51, the purported plot by the CIA to invent the AIDS virus as a means to wipe out the black race, and any number of other topics that consume plenty of band-width Online.

The problem is how easy it becomes to toss into this “reject” pile any number of other topics, which may very well merit more public scrutiny. As readers find this material Online, they increasingly perceive that their daily papers have become lazy at best — arrogant, in many cases — reporting government denials and disclaimers or simply working the “government line” into their offhand background boilerplate while exhibiting minimal curiosity or investigative instinct about topics where “No one takes the opposition seriously.”

Because they approve of the government initiatives that are justified by such shibboleths — increasing government size and power to restrict the “greedy capitalist exploiters” — the Mainstream Media seem curiously unwilling to investigate the frauds that have been concocted to support the theory of “man-made global warming” ( or the notion that we must cripple industrial development here on this continent (alone) to “protect endangered species” including weeds and bugs few have ever heard of.

Newspapers cover government. In a country with way too much government, that’s where the “news” increasingly seems to come from. That’s why the weak sister Saturday and Monday papers have long depended on a fire or plane crash, filling in with pictures of baby animals at the zoo.

Reporters assigned to cover government agencies will naturally develop a level of trust with the flacks — the “Public Information Officers” — specifically hired to handle press inquiries and make sure developments are presented with the most favorable possible spin.

Last fall, a worker with the Clark County Health District raided a “farm-to-fork” dinner at Quail Hollow Farm in Overton, an hour’s drive northeast of Las Vegas. The worker went a bit over-the-top on alleged violations of laws which require all meat to be slaughtered at a USDA facility (hundreds of miles away in Utah), for all vegetables to be “labeled,” etc. She insisted the food — prepared by a professional chef for customers anxious to eat locally grown produce and ready to be served — be polluted with bleach, so even the farm’s pigs couldn’t eat it.

The video of this October raid went viral on the Internet, nationwide. Yet until I wrote a column about it, four months later, I don’t believe any substantive report of these events ever appeared anywhere in the “mainstream” Las Vegas media. Why not?

Since this event was (and should have been) somewhat embarrassing to the health district, the district presumably did not immediately issue any “official” summary of the event to the press. Inquiries were fielded with offhand comments to the effect that “That’s all exaggerated and out of context. They got it wrong and blew it up out of all proportion. There’s no story there.”

Since it took weeks for the coverage to go viral on the Internet, add the fact that this was “old news” by the time any inquiries were made, and the result was “no story” — and one more thread added for already suspicious readers to conclude their non-Internet media stands on the side of the government bureaucrats, as opposed to standing up for the everyday Joes and Janes who suffer at their hands.

Quick: Interested in the latest speculation about whether Aurora, Colo. “Batman” shooter James Holmes was on the same drugs as the late “Joker” actor Heath Ledger? Whether his father was once involved in mind control experiments funded by the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency? Rank the most likely sources to which you can turn right now — the ones nimble enough to be “all over” such questions: Those would be 1) The Internet and 2) Talk Radio. And your daily newspaper ranks … where?

Next week: Diana West weighs in from Washington on more news that gets ignored.

3 Comments to “No longer trusted to tell them what’s ‘news’”

  1. theCL Report: Essentially Bankrupt Says:

    […] No longer trusted to tell them what's 'news' […]

  2. Roy Says:

    It’s worse than that, Vin.

    The old-style media lies outright, and they have been getting caught at it more and more.

    I give you the TNG memos, the editing of the Zimmerman 911 call, and the recent example of Brian Ross accusing an innocent member of the tea party of the horrific slaughter in Colorado.

    Need I say more?

  3. R. G. Miller Says:

    I enjoyed and appreciated your article in the Review Jurnal on Sunday August 5.
    I hope you print more of the same, it tends to reinforce some of the email I have been getting.

    My question: why doesn’t the Review Journal and other news papers print more information about presidential questions that should be answered and about The Muslim fundamentalist jihad.

    I was under the impression the job of a newspaper was to print the news and not bow to political pressure. That is what freedom of the press is all about.

    Thank you