Judging what's news

When the major networks cover stories like the Michael Jackson trial instead of the Downing Street memo, just click the remote.

Published June 23, 2005 8:00AM (EDT)

I was thinking a lot over the weekend about the news and about how the news becomes the news, and then I read Jay Rosen's brilliant take on the Downing Street memo coverage. Rosen elaborates on Josh Marshall's assertion that "news stories have a 24-hour audition on the news stage, and if they don't catch fire in that 24 hours, there's no second chance." Rosen's theory is that blogs have become the news cycle's appeals court, and that the Downing Street memo story is still alive because it won on appeal. And thank God.

But unlike a traditional court, the Blog Circuit Court of Appeals lacks an enforcement arm. The only way its decisions can be enforced is by constant reiteration of the decisions.

Which brings me back to this weekend. If you were to get your news only from television, you'd think the top issue facing our country right now was an 18-year-old girl named Natalee Holloway who went missing in Aruba. Every time one of these stories comes up -- like, say, the Michael Jackson trial -- when it's finally over I think, what a relief, now we can get back to real news. But we never do. When one of these big-league nonstories ends, they just call up a new one from the minors ... and off they go with another round of breathless reporting. Anything to not have to actually report actual news.

Here are the number of news segments that mention these stories (from a search of the main news networks' transcripts from May 1 to June 20):

-- ABC News: Downing Street memo: 0 segments; Natalee Holloway: 42 segments; Michael Jackson: 121 segments.

-- CBS News: Downing Street memo: 0 segments; Natalee Holloway: 70 segments; Michael Jackson: 235 segments.

-- NBC News: Downing Street memo: 6 segments; Natalee Holloway: 62 segments; Michael Jackson: 109 segments.

-- CNN: Downing Street memo: 30 segments; Natalee Holloway: 294 segments; Michael Jackson: 633 segments.

-- Fox News: Downing Street memo: 10 segments; Natalee Holloway: 148 segments; Michael Jackson: 286 segments.

-- MSNBC: Downing Street memo: 10 segments; Natalee Holloway: 30 segments; Michael Jackson: 106 segments.

When defending these choices, news execs inevitably fall back on the old "we're just giving the people what they want." But are they? Fox News averages around two and a quarter million viewers in prime time; CNN hovers just under a million; MSNBC pulls in a quarter million. We have 280 million people in the country. That means that tens of millions of people actually don't want what they're being given -- and that there are huge slices of audience a real news operation could go after.

The mainstream media regularly confuses interesting with important. What's more, it doesn't even do the former very well, and it largely ignores the latter.

One wonders what happens to all those enterprising young broadcast journalists being pumped out by J-schools across the country. I speak to them occasionally, and they all seem to be truly dedicated to reporting the news. So what happens to them between grad school and the moment they do their 50th windswept, beachfront update on Natalee Holloway? Surely no one actually aspires to spend his or her life describing the pre-verdict scene outside the Santa Maria, Calif., courthouse or filling up airtime with a feature on the party scene in Aruba. This can't be what they wanted to do with their lives, can it?

In any case, here's my suggestion: Go cold turkey. Just say no. Every time you see or hear the word "Aruba" or "Holloway" on the screen in the next few weeks, turn off the TV, or change the channel. I've been trying it, and it's not easy. (I've found the Cartoon Network is a pretty safe -- if nerve-rattling -- escape valve.)

This is not to minimize the tragic elements of Holloway's disappearance. Her disappearance is tragic -- but it's not news in the way the Downing Street memo is news, or multiple deaths in Iraq are news. The deaths of 19-year-old Lance Cpl. Adam Crumpler, 26-year-old Lance Cpl. Erik Heldt and 36-year-old Capt. John Maloney were confirmed by the Pentagon in the past few days, but you won't hear their names repeated on Fox or CNN.

But be warned: Even if you try really hard to go cold turkey, the Scandalous Non-News Story of the Day still has a way of seeping into your consciousness. It's some kind of tabloid osmosis. Despite my best efforts, and an incredibly quick remote-control technique, I still find myself starting to offer an opinion on one of them at a dinner party before pulling up short. "Wait a second," my brain starts to shout, "I don't even care about this story -- why do I know so much about it!?"

Still, it's worth a try. And until the blog high court gets a better enforcement mechanism, we, as viewers, will just have to practice jury nullification.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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