Slow News Day

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Oh my God! I agree with Tony Snow. Saying that out loud makes me want to wash my mouth out with soap. But when he quipped that the DC press whores must be having a "slow news day," for all their fascination with Laura Bush's skin cancer lesion, I have to agree. Isn't there anything else going on in the world? Here's a little of the exchange, as reported in the New York Times Blog:

Q: Tony, can you tell us about Mrs. Bush’s skin cancer? How is she doing? And how was the decision reached not to disclose this publicly until questions were asked?

Mr. Snow: Yes, I talked to her a couple of minutes ago. She’s doing fine. And she said, “It’s no big deal, and we knew it was no big deal at the time.” Frankly I don’t think anybody thought it was the sort of thing that occasioned a need for a public disclosure. Furthermore, she’s got the same right to medical privacy that you do. She’s a private citizen; she’s not an elected official. So for that reason she didn’t disclose it. But she’s doing fine, and thank you for your concern.

Pressed as to whether Mrs. Bush would begin advocating for screening for skin cancers, Mr. Snow said:

“She’s also had colds, she’s had the flu, she’s had stomach aches –”

Q: But she could still — it could be a platform.

Mr. Snow: You guys are really stretching it. I mean, it is now officially a really slow news day.

Laura Bush's health concerns, either serious, or, as in this case, un-serious, are not my business. I don't want to know. I'm simply not afflicted with such voyeuristic tendencies.

One of my old college roommates used to quip that, "Every time the cat farts in the White House, it's 'news'." This fascination with the daily comings and goings in the halls of power comes at the expense of coverage of things the public actually does need to know. There are two overlapping and interrelated problems that have led to the perception of the nation's capital as the navel of the world. One is the very structure of news gathering. Gaye Tuchman used the term "news net" in her book "Making News: The Construction of Reality." She explains that news gathering relies heavily on a system of beats and bureaus. You can only catch fish where you throw your net, and the nets are thrown at public institutions which are deemed newsworthy and credible. If a public figure says it, it's a "fact" by virtue of conferred status. If a public figure does it, it's news, even if it's painfully boring and irrelevant to the lives of ordinary Americans.

The second half of the problem is the disappearance of those very beats and bureaus from all over the country. Thanks to the consolidation of mass media, local newspapers from across the nation have slipped quietly down the memory hole. Many have been bought out by competing papers and shut down. Others have been replaced by conglomerates which package tasty, little McNews bites and publish them under the mastheads of small "local" papers. The "Media Monopoly" as Ben Bagdikian calls it, now consists of 5 corporations which own the vast majority of newspapers, television outlets, radio, book publishing, and film. Five corporations own the entire info-tainment business. And their focus on the bottom-line has meant, among other things, that the beats covered by reporters have dwindled to a few major focal points. The result is a well-fed beltway press corps and metaphorical tumbleweeds blowing across the rest of the newsworthy world.

There is still another problem, exemplified by this type of reportage that I'm at pains to explain. That of the DC press corps itself, which elevates the trivial and minimizes the deadly serious, even in its given purview. Where was this aggressive questioning during the build-up to the Iraq war? Anyone with an ounce of sense could have driven a truck the gaps in logic provided by DC officials, in their ever-shifting rationales for bombing the hell out of a crippled nation. Where was it when a male prostitute was sitting among them, gaining unprecedented access to the aforementioned halls of power? Where was it when it fell to David Corn at the ever-vigilant Nation to point out that Bob Novack had no business knowing that Valarie Plame Wilson was in the CIA? Why does the press corps have to be clubbed over the head by the blogosphere to notice crimes and misdemeanors in their midst, but positively obsess over an in-office procedure, performed under local anesthetic. It would be funny if the net result for the public at large weren't so serious.

Editors Note: Both Ben Bagdikian's "New Media Monopoly" and Gaye Tuchman's "Making News" are available in Curmudgette's Reading Room, although the latter is currently out of print and available only from resellers. Still, highly recommended.