Wednesday, October 10, 2007

But Seriously

But Seriously
By William Powers, National Journal
© National Journal Group Inc.

As you may have noticed, a lot of serious news is breaking out these days, much of it international: Burma, Blackwater, Iran, Putin, North Korea, Darfur, and so on. Each week, the Project for Excellence in Journalism surveys the fare offered by a broad array of news organizations -- newspapers, network TV, cable, online, and radio -- and produces an index showing which stories were the most covered. Last week, the top story was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to New York, followed by 2) the 2008 campaign, 3) the Myanmar protests, 4) the General Motors labor deal, and 5) events in Iraq (4 and 5 were tied). Important subjects all, by any definition.

Of course, the mere fact that a story was covered doesn't guarantee it was covered well. Discussing the Iran story, PEJ's Mark Jurkowitz wrote: "Most of the coverage focused more on the controversy over the university visit and the outlandish things the Iranian president said than on anything else. There was considerably less coverage of the general situation between the U.S. and Iran."

And the weekly news mix isn't always so weighty. The previous week, the No. 1 story was the Las Vegas arrest of O.J. Simpson, which recalled the proto-feeding frenzy of more than a decade ago, over a story that many viewed as the beginning of the end for serious news. As Jurkowitz put it, "The sense of deja vu was eerie."

Still, overall what's amazing is how little effect the original O.J. story and its spawn -- Anna Nicole Smith being the latest -- have had on the serious business of serious news. Journalism was supposed to be in tatters after O.J., mainstream reporters doomed to spend the rest of their lives looking for the next white Bronco. Remember? Writing in the Los Angeles Times in 1995, under the headline "The Simpson Legacy," the late David Shaw rued what O.J. seemed to have done to the news business: "When the tabloids clasped the Simpson story to their heaving journalistic bosoms, the mainstream media suddenly found themselves panting alongside."

This fear of a vast media sellout lives on today, although the specifics of the nightmare have changed. Instead of O.J., the dreadful obsessions are named Britney and Paris. Newsrooms are cutting budgets, foreign bureaus have been shut down, and, well, everything journalistic appears to be going south. It's easy for journalists to fall into this way of thinking; I do it myself sometimes, right here. But, at bottom, I don't think it's true.

One day this week, the morning after Britney Spears had lost custody of her children in court, I went through the newspapers to see who was playing up that story at the expense of serious news. Not The New York Times (page A20). Not The Washington Post (Style section). USA Today had a Britney teaser and photo on the front page in the left column, pointing to inside coverage, but its biggest headline was "Report on Blackwater: U.S. Did Little to Restrict Guards."

In fact, if you were away from the Net -- where any number of celebrity news sites were all over the Spears story -- the place to go to see the tabloid news that day was, yup, the tabloids. Both the New York Post and the New York Daily News led with Britney, and since they're tabs, who could blame them? "UNFITNEY!" exulted the Daily News, handily defeating the Post's uninspired "BRIT LOSES KIDS."

On Google News later the same morning, heavy foreign news, including Blackwater and Burma, was so dominant that when an '08 campaign story broke, it felt like a lightweight intrusion, the kind of thing that might banner The Drudge Report. Indeed, I clicked over to Drudge and there it was: "QUEEN OF THE QUARTER: HILLARY CRUSHES OBAMA IN SURPRISE FUNDRAISING SURGE."

I asked Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, if it's true that serious news is alive and well. He said it's all about where you look: "The infotainment and tabloid culture still exists in 2007.... But the reality is, stories like Britney, Anna Nicole, and even to some extent O.J. are cable and morning news fascinations much more than the media overall."

The sky hasn't fallen -- yet.

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