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All the News That’s Print to Fit
[Note: This essay is one in a continuing series by ICCFA executive director Bob Fells focusing on various issues in our federal government. Although the subjects are political in nature, the approach is bipartisan in outlook, at least so far as that is humanly possible. The goal of each essay is not to persuade the reader to adopt a particular political viewpoint or party, but to illustrate why a knowledge of the system is important to protect our businesses, our homes, and our families.]
Managing the news has long been one of the most under-reported stories in the news industry. Have you ever wondered when watching the evening news on TV who decides what stories are going to be aired? And what about stories that don’t make the cut? The questions go on: who makes these decisions, what criteria do they use, are story selections influenced by ratings, are certain types of stories off the table? You will think up a number of additional questions on your own, which is perhaps why the news media doesn’t turn the spotlight on its operations very often.
I’m intrigued by the way one event can push everything else out of the way. We saw an example of this recently with the happy news of the royal birth by Harry and Kate. As I watched the endless (and mostly repetitive) coverage on the nightly news I said to my wife, “I guess nothing else newsworthy happened today.” Of course, I was being sarcastic but in the world of the news czars, the royal birth was just about the only thing they thought we needed to know that day. This is an example of managing the news.
Then there are slow news days when nothing much seems to have happened during the past 24-hour news cycle. But will your favorite anchor guy or gal say as much? No way – they come on as if today witnessed earth-shaking developments that will change the civilized world as we know it. This is also an example of managing the news. Just once I’d appreciate the honesty of an anchor saying, “Good evening folks. Well, it’s been a quiet day and not much has happened but here are a couple things you might find interesting.” However, I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for this to happen.
Newspapers have always had an advantage over broadcast news because readers can skip over or focus on articles that would not be reported by the electronic media due to time constraints. I find reading online newspapers a bit more difficult to navigate in that sense. At the risk of showing my age, I can remember when the national news broadcasts on weekday evenings were 15 minutes long. Then there would be another 15 minutes of local news. The move to the half hour national news program as the norm today was made only in recent years, relatively speaking (for me, anything after 1970 is relatively recent).
The odd thing is that back in the days of 15-minute news programs, about half a dozen stories were covered during that time frame. Today when a half hour is standard, about half a dozen stories are still covered during this time frame. On 24/7 all-news stations such as CNN and Fox News, if you follow things very closely you will discover a strange phenomenon – only about a half dozen stories are covered during the 24/7 time frame. Evidently, somebody has decided that the poor minds of the collective public cannot handle more than a half dozen stories during any time frame. Except of course when something big happens, then we are presumed capable of handling only one story. Welcome to News Management 101.
But managing the news really gets interesting when the news industry decides that itself is the subject of the news. For example, today’s Washington Post newspaper reported that it has been sold to the founder of Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos. That is genuinely newsworthy but the Post decided to cover the event with a banner headline emblazoned above the fold on its front page. It seems that the Wash Post is telling all of us that this is the most important event of the day. I guess it is if you are employed by the Post but for the other 99+% of the population this story doesn’t rate as Numero Uno.
At least newspapers have no time constraints – or page restraints either. Print journalism is technically more honest than electronic journalism because newspapers can claim to have reported on a story even though it was buried somewhere in the back pages. The challenge with managing electronic news is that everything is “front page” news on TV. You can’t bury a story when you’re reporting it on TV although I have detected an emerging method of reporting on TV, yet “burying” it too. You’ve already heard it: “For more information log on to our web site.” Now how many viewers do that?
Another endangered newspaper is the New York Times that famously boasts on the top of its front page that it reports, “All the news that’s fit to print.” This motto has always troubled me because it raises the question of who at the Times gets to decide what is “fit” or “unfit” news to be printed? It is more accurate to say that the paper manages to fit in its pages all the news that it wants to print. This raises a host of troubling questions but this is where we came in.
The point is that whatever your preferred news source, never read or watch uncritically and keep reminding yourself that somebody made a deliberate decision over what news would be reported and how it would be characterized, and what wouldn’t be reported. I think Walter Cronkite unwittingly admitted the manipulation when he famously boasted, “And that’s the way it is.” Oh really?