My father was a wire editor of our local paper. Even though the paper was “local” and covered a few counties, there was much more news than who married, who died, and whose house was on fire. There was a smattering of national and international news, and in the distant dim days of the 1970s, a regular reader of the local paper could be reasonably well informed about not only about what was going on at city hall, but also at the state capitol, in Washington, D.C., and around the world. Incidentally, my father strove to be an independent soul, and only on a remarkable news day would he tune into Walter Kronkite. My father wanted his take on the news to be unaffected by the opinions and sensibilities of others.
As such, I’ve always had newspapers and maintain many subscriptions. When I’m home, I like to keep the radio on, and I check the headlines on the internet twenty times a day. I know it’s been a hard day at work if I can’t recall taking time to see what’s going on in the wide-wide world. I love the headlines just as much as I love breathless reports of unusual appearances of double-yolked eggs.
Not too long ago was the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Perhaps notable, and worthy of a “Well, well, how about that?” over breakfast, but this was radio headline news twice an hour for hours. It bothered me that the moderator took pains to note how the act did not actually free slaves. I certainly hope that the average listener would not be surprised or horrified by hearing that information had they had US History in high school. It isn’t “news” in the sense that it deserves the lion’s share of radio time. (It does, perhaps, merit some space in the paper or online.)
Last night (Wednesday, January 9) the radio news wasn’t news at all. A great deal of time was taken to describe the hearing of the man who shot up the theater in Colorado last summer. That isn’t necessarily news. We know what happened, and we know it was horrible. (There was no time to talk about his psychiatric condition or medications that may or may not have been taking.)
Another chunk of time was spent on speculating what Biden or Obama may say today (Thursday, January 10) about guns. Biden or Obama hadn’t said anything to report on at that moment. The story was that they might say something, and the news was about reporters fruitlessly pressing Jay Carney to speculate about what they might say. Once the president or vice-president speaks, well, then, let’s call that news. Relating some vague demural by a press secretary isn’t news.
And the last story of the news-break was about an unveiling of an iPhone statue in Russia to honor Steve Jobs. I do not have a transcript, but I swear that the newsreader said, “Apple products are popular in Russia even though most people cannot afford them.” Interesting, a little, but with the myriad of little crises burgeoning stateside, I am a little curious as to why the “news” last night wasn’t more relevant.
Try a little experiment yourself. Next time you hear, read, or see what purports to be news, ask yourself if it is. Would you firmly put the story in the category of news? Celebrity tittle-tattle? Outright propaganda? The results, I assure you, will be depressing.
Where are the newspapermen? Where are the men and women who sniff out and chase a story? Where is this generation’s Woodward and Bernstein? They were heroes of their day, and inspired a record number of hopeful students to apply to journalism schools. Where are these once-idealistic men and women who desire to seek the truth? Where are those who want to elevate the human experience? Where are those who said earnestly and without irony that they wanted to “change the world”?
There is a school of thought that maintains that today’s media is changing the world. By not critically reporting the actions and policies of the current administration, by not insisting on transparency, and by not demanding accountability from office holders, the media may believe that they are heralding a new era. The media may honestly believe that passivity is a virtue, and their collective action—or rather non-action—will usher in deeply needed “change.” The media aren’t doing the changing. They aren’t driving change. They are just along for the ride, sitting in the backseat. It’s a little windy back there. Maybe someone should put the top down.