aNewDomain — Legacy news organizations are failing for a lot of reasons, mostly brought upon by themselves, but there’s one that rarely if ever gets remarked upon: the fact that they have forgotten the definition of “news.”
As you and I know, news is stuff that happened that a significant number of people would like to know about. By definition, news is surprising.
All too often in recent decades, however, corporate media conglomerates have conflated news with press releases – in other words, informing us not about what we need or want to know, but about what they would like us to know.
A major driver of this trend is the misguided belief by press and broadcast organizations that the powers that be – politicians, government agencies and businesses – create news and thus must be coddled, and have all their official pronouncements disseminated in the form of news, lest they be denied access, which would of course put an end to their ability to do their jobs.
One symptom of this too close for comfort relationship between the fourth estate and those it is supposed to cover is the willingness of outlets like the New York Times to suppress or delay stories at the request of intelligence agencies due to so-called “national security concerns.”
The idea that reporters need access to PR flacks is nonsense. The opposite is true: publicists need journalists. A press conference is a news-free zone, a place where spin and propaganda rules. Unfortunately for them and for us — since the vast majority of reporting still originates in corporate-owned newspapers — the trend is accelerating.
Check out, for example, this excuse for a news story: “Obama condemns ‘brutal and outrageous murders.'”
According to Google, this story – about the president’s reaction to the murder of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina – was reproduced over 78,000 times in American and foreign media outlets.
There is nothing wrong with what Obama said. To the contrary: I agree with him 100%. Most likely, so do you. So do 100% of sane Americans, which means perhaps 90% of all Americans. His reaction was the exact reaction that you would expect from anyone and, to my point, specifically from him.
In other words, a news “story” about President Obama saying that mass murder is bad (outside the context of, say, wars of choice and drone assassinations) is no story at all. It is “dog bites man.” And not a particularly interesting dog or a particularly interesting man.
You really have to question the judgment of those thousands of editors and producers who put that story out yesterday. Who, exactly, did they think that story served? Certainly not the readers or viewers or listeners. Not one of them was surprised; not one of them cared.
Every newsroom receives hundreds if not thousands of emails a day from people who want their story or product or person covered. Publishers want their books reviewed. Manufacturers want a free plug for their products. Agents want their pet musician profiled. The vast majority of them are, of course, ignored. Pertinent story: a friend who works at a major American newspaper tells me about the fax machine that no one ever checks, that runs 24 hours a day, endless press releases dumping straight into the recycled paper bin, totally pointless for all concerned. Yet I know for a fact that that same paper ran the story about Obama taking the bold risk of coming out against random mass murder. Why that story and not the others?
I’m not arguing that traditional media outlets ought to descend to Huffington Post’s SEO-optimized clickbait or BuzzFeed’s “18 ridiculously cute photos of insipid pets” listicles. But the Internet is certainly a lot better at knowing what people might actually want to read or see. Stories like the one above make that painfully obvious.
As an editor at the New York Times told me once, “the President of the United States controls the world’s largest armies and presides over the world’s largest economy. By definition, anything he says and does is news.”
They live by that attitude. They are also dying by it.
Photo of transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson reading a newspaper: by unidentified photographer. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons