Topic: For policy wonks...
News Notes: Non-Stories
Those of us who are kind of news hounds are well aware that the new media does not exactly multi-task. There's usually one big story. The rest is secondary.
Because reporting the news is, almost entirely, a commercial venture, anyone who mans an assignment desk is constantly making decisions on what should be covered. Is any given story what people really want to know about? Yes? Then you cover it is all its juicy details, and cover it in such a way that, if television, viewers don't change channels to see Tiger Woods triumphant, or what's up with Lance Armstrong or the Mets, or which of the luscious "Desperate Housewives" this week inadvertently finds herself stark naked in the front year in the middle of the afternoon. (Something one hardly ever sees out here, oddly enough.) If radio, one covers things scattershot in short bursts, because folks in their cars seldom want more than a headline and a few follow-on sentences ("Give Us Twenty-Two Minutes and We'll Give You the World") - and the same principle applies. If it's not what they want to hear - terse nuggets of what's happing here and there - then there's always Janis Joplin on the oldies station. (Those who listen to NPR seem to be the exception, willing to hang on through "backgrounders" and extended essays.)
In any event, you must hold your audience, on the presumption that your ratings will then be healthy enough that you can charge good money for open advertising slots in prime time. You can guarantee that so many millions will be tuned in when you break for something about the virtues of their particular product or service. Of course, now and then you gamble and report something odd you think is going to be news, or so you hope, and you get a scoop on your competition.
But, for the most part, you know what your audience wants, and it is your job, as a public service, to give them that, and make a few bucks doing so. Thus endless coverage of Michael Jackson's trial, and this missing attractive white woman or that - and of the next hurricane, as folks want to see all the details of that, even if they live in Ames, Iowa. Monday, July 18, Larry King on CNN did a full hour on the late Princess Diana's sons - how they're doing now in their twenties and all they're facing and so on. His ratings for this show were, of course, wonderful, or so one assumes. Of deep importance in the grand scheme of things? No. But millions tuned in.
What may seem to you to be news - matters that are of historic or social importance - does not matter as much as what your audience wants to know about. The news folks don't choose the news. The market does.
Maybe you can create a new market by reporting something people don't yet know they want to know - just as creative marketing can create a new need people didn't know they had, like the need in the seventies for the water in the toilets to be blue (some folks felt obliged to have their toilet water blue because otherwise their visitors would think less of them). The Washington Post back in the seventies "created a need" for folks to know about Nixon and the Watergate cover-up. There was no market for that, but they created one. Very clever.
As Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, says, it's always a balance - between what should be reported in a democracy (people really need to know this), and what people want to hear about (people really want to know that).
Thus these days it's Karl Rove all the time - folks seem to get off on the leader in trouble and embarrassed (or at least defensive), or they get off on being angry at those who doubt him. That will do until the president nominates someone to the Supreme Court - and then we get a lots of different fussing and fighting. (Remember Anita Hill and the Coke can and the pubic hair?) We had a new hurricane, but unless it hits Texas there's no ratings bump there. The young, pretty red-state white woman is still missing is Aruba - all those odd folks speaking Dutch, even the scary young black guys! - but nothing is happening! The suicide bombings in Iraq get worse and worse - now a hundred dead at a clip - but reporting that in any depth doesn't sell advertising slots any longer. It's not "news" - as that's just what happens (the new normal).
Much of this was covered last weekend here in One Man's News Is Another Man's Tedium - which was in some ways a laundry list of possibly important things happening that were NOT news. Possibly important things. News. Often two different things.
There you would find mention of a July 7 item from the BBC reporting our new puppet government in Iraq entered into an agreement with Iran for troop training.
Yes, indeed, Iran is one of the members of the Axis of Evil, and we're almost ready to do something like bombing the hell out of them if the continue trying to finish up a nuclear bomb or two. So we liberate Iraq to bring them western-style free-market capitalism and some form of democracy, and they start off with a military pact with the worst of the bad guys?
As I asked then, we fought this war for what? Wasn't for the WMD (oops), and the flypaper-will-keep-us-safe thing is looking shakier by the day (but is was London, after all, and not Chicago, or even Peoria, that was bombed), and it seems spreading democracy will have to wait until the constant suicide and remote-controlled bombings stop. (Think about that - we created a battlefield over there so we wouldn't have one here, but at the same time we saying we're bringing the folks there peace and security so the place will no longer be a battlefield - so you can do both at the same time?)
The question raised with the BBC item? Did we fight this war to install a government there that will join up with Iran in all sorts of military agreements? We created, possibly, a new client state of the worst-of-the worst, Iran?
Well, this is not news, as in this is not covered in the news here much. We've got Rove and Bush, and the Aruba girl, and some other matters, including the British princes' growing pains, so this one will be hard to sell. There's only so much you can cover.
But it is curious, as Bill Montgomery points out over at Whiskey Bar in an item he titles Ayatollah You So.
He opens with two items from papers in the Middle East. From the Gulf Times he finds this from July 18:
You read that right. Flowers at the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini. Who? Ayatollah Khomeini - hostages in Iran - Carter couldn't get them out - freed the day Reagan took office - Ayatollah Khomeini our biggest enemy at the time.
Then this in the Tehran Times of July 19:
Well, one assumes the comment that Rove has a pimply ass is just an angry insult, but were some news organization have actual footage of same, now THAT would be a news story. The fact that the government we brought into existence - to replace that of the former guy now in jail and awaiting trial - is aligning itself who Iran, who we have been told since the days just after 9/11 is just as bad (same axis) is not news?
But it is news on the BBC and in the Middle-East media. Why is that? Different news market? Perhaps it's just knowing your customer.
Can anyone create a "need" for this story, at least for those of us who have friends and relatives fighting there now for some reason - whatever it is? There could be a market there. You could create one.
Probably not. It will turn to news when the two countries, Iran and Iraq, join forces and tell us to get out, they have a nuclear bomb or two, and they take hostages again. Now it's not news, just the starting point of possible news. We'll get to it later.