Wednesday, May 25, 2016

There Has to Be a Headline

Every morning my wife and I wake up, turn on the TV and watch the news.  News in the morning is relatively interesting -- or it might be dramatic.  Since it may be 18 hours since that we saw anything other than a recorded show on TV, we'll usually learn that something of interest has happened, somewhere.

But there's a spectrum here in terms of the newsworthiness of what is actually presented, a spectrum that makes me glad that I have never been part of the news section of a medium in my life.  It goes from one really newsworthy event -- a coup, an election, a natural disaster, a crash, a terror attack -- all the way down to virtually nothing happening more than the release of a poll, or a cat being rescued from a tree.

And yet, the news programs and the newspapers as well, don't have the luxury of just saying "Oops, nothing to report on here.  Try a magazine, or watch the Kardashians or something."

Nope, they actually have to fill defined hours of content, and put something on the front page that looks like a headline, in time for the paper-boy to do his 5:00 AM thing.  In fact, by virtue of its presence on the front page and looking like a headline, it is defined by that paper (or if it's a lead story, defined by the news program on TV) as the most important thing that has happened in the last 24 hours.

Sometimes, of course, it is not just the, I don't know, "least unimportant news story."  No; it is usually actually "important."  But there are days when, by any standard of newsworthiness, nothing happened.  That doesn't stop the presses, though; there are subscriptions to be filled for the print medium, and there are hours of presence on TV to fill.

Now, TV news programs can just plug in puff pieces and features and all that, and you can watch and be entertained as the networks hope you won't be thinking, "Dang, must have been a slow news day."  I don't think the same applies to newspapers, though.  Here's the thing -- on Sunday, the paper as likely as not will not have a serious front-page headline story, and might only have a feature that some reporter has been assigned to cover.  They really don't want, say, the Tuesday paper, to look like Sunday, if you know what I mean.

So that's kind of the point.  The media need for you to think that their lead story, or front-page headline, is not only the most important thing that happened in the last day, but that it is actually newsworthy.  And since something has to be that lead story, whatever it is then achieves a status of imputed interest or newsworthiness that may not be connected to its reality.

I want us all to be aware of that.  I want that awareness not just because we should have a built-in wall that protects us from thinking something is a bigger deal than it really is, but because the news media's ability to make something far more important than it really is, is a power.  It means the media hold the power to lie to us about events (in this case, their importance) and, in fact, are forced to do so every time there is a slow news day.

I respect the Constitutional protection of a free press. One has only to look at the media in dictatorships to realize that a free press is best appreciated when it doesn't exist.  Of course, our press has been free for over 220 years, and has a pretty checkered history of playing fast and loose with the facts on occasion.

So the point, as I finally get to it, is this.  While the press may be the last defense of a nation against dictatorial government, the last defense of a free nation against a Constitutionally unfettered press is our own understanding of its limits and a clear appreciation for what it can get away with.  If we don't believe a story, we are free to call out the medium on it, because we understand that it may indeed be false.

And if we believe that a story on the front page is far less important than its positioning would lead us to feel, we're free to diminish its importance in our mind.  Because we, as free Americans, know that the press can manipulate with the best of them.

We are free to know that there are actually slow news days.

Copyright 2016 by Robert Sutton
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