What’s Not News? Unflattering Trivialities, Opinions on Planet’s Shape, and Fake Press Conferences

    by Benjamin Melançon
    October 30, 2007

    We can make some easy progress defining news by instead listing what’s not news.

    Paul Krugman interviewed by Rory O’Connor:

    several major parts of the news media that are for all practical purposes part of “movement conservatism” — Fox News, the New York Post, the Washington Times — and […] other news organizations are intimidated, at least to some extent. I sometimes talk about what I call “asymmetrical intimidation.” If you say a true but unflattering thing about Bush or in fact about any other prominent conservative, oh, boy! People are going to go after you. I mean, I’ve got people working full-time going after me, right? But if you say a false, unflattering thing about a Democrat or a progressive, no risk … And that shapes coverage, no question about it. It’s better now, but it’s still very asymmetric. The other thing we should mention about the media is their addiction to the trivial. We’ve got the most substantive election coming up, I think, ever. We’ve got clear differences on policies between parties. And what are we seeing news stories about? John Edwards’ hair and Hillary Clinton’s laugh … this is horrifying! And again — it’s asymmetric. I can think of lots of unflattering things to say about any of the Republican candidates — Mitt Romney’s saying his sons are serving the country by helping him get elected! — but it doesn’t get nearly as much play in the media.

    The fetish of evenhandedness, meanwhile, combined with a failure to do actual reporting and fact-checking, privileges what Krugman refers to as the Big Lie. His hypothetical example from critiquing George W. Bush’s claims on taxes and social security in the 2000 campaign: “if Bush said the earth was flat, the headline would read: ‘Opinions Differ on Shape of the Planet.’”


    An actual example comes from the still lingering misconception that a credible connection existed between the Iraqi government and the 2001 September 11 attacks. In 2003 September I wrote:

    In this week’s Newsweek a short news item has a throwaway opening line that helps explain the famously misinformed United States citizenry. As Christopher Lydon wrote in his blog, if 60% of New Yorkers thought Martha Stewart was the Mets shortstop, the New York Times would run articles on this, questioning how this mass delusion could happen and perhaps even examining if the Times had a role in allowing an obvious fallacy to become so widespread. Well, a poll suggests 70% of people in the U.S. think Saddam Huissein was involved in the 2001 September 11 attacks, and Newsweek’s responsibility is there in that opening: ‘While debate rages over whether Saddam Hussein had links to Al Qaeda…’

    Of course, nothing says “not news” like a fake press conference:

    FEMA announced the news conference at its Southwest Washington headquarters about 15 minutes before it was to begin Tuesday afternoon, making it unlikely that reporters could attend. Instead, FEMA set up a telephone conference line so reporters could listen.

    In the briefing, parts of which were televised live by cable news channels, Johnson stood behind a lectern, called on questioners who did not disclose that they were FEMA employees, and gave replies emphasizing that his agency’s response to this week’s California wildfires was far better than its response to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

    There’s examples of what’s not news all over the place. And there’s much more in O’Connor’s interview with Krugman, including some thoughts on the economics that biases media against… news.


    Could the reasons we’re blogging give the answer to what should be in the news? Right there in the left-hand corner, “reinventing community news”…

    All news is local. If you can’t explain to people how something affects their lives, maybe it belongs in the comics. Oops, sorry- the comics have much of what little talk makes it into the news media about, for instance, stopping an unwanted war that shatters many lives.

    The idea, playing off former House Speaker Tip O’Neil’s famous statement about politics, that all news is local has been expressed surprisingly little around the Internet. (It’s not a new or original thought: I feel I absorbed the concept at the UMass-Amherst Journalism program, but don’t remember anything specific.) A column by Peter Osnos of the Century Foundation has a somewhat lonely reign near the top of (what else?) online search engine results. He cut to the heart of our challenge:

    it is undeniable that many of the bigger newspapers famed for their local coverage are relying more on syndicated services and standard lifestyle features to fill their pages than on the grittier news product generated by bureaus and other forms of ground-level coverage.

    And that is the irony: in the age of the internet, from millions of special-interest sites to Google and Yahoo, what is trending down is something newspapers have done best. They covered the day-to-day developments that matter to the local community in a way that looked and felt important to the readers. There are surely local Web sites everywhere providing data and classified advertising, but the value of, say, the North Providence bureau, was that it was supervised by editors of experience and the news came packaged in a way that made readers proud (or furious, which was also useful).

    As Tip framed the notion, politicians and newspapers had best remember that their constituents care above all about what is happening in their lives; the big issues writ small. The challenge for journalism as it evolves in so many different ways is to make readers care about what it is being presented to them as news.

    Tagged: news Paul Krugman politics

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