FLOTSAM & JETSAM: Words and news

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Words and news

Sam Smith

One of the things I learned early in reporting was that words and actions were two different things. On average, actions made far better news than words.

I once designed a new paper called USA Tomorrow. Among its principles:

"News is defined as something that has happened, something that is happening or something that is going to happen. News is not what someone said about what is happening nor what someone perceived was going to happen nor what the editors thought the impact of something happening would be on its readership. . .

"All perceptions (including those excised from the front page and those typical of op-ed pages) will be published in a section called Perceptions. Space will be given based on a rigorous analysis of the perceptiveness of previous perceptions. This is unlike the current situation in which people are allowed to perceive based solely on their position or fame rather than actual prescience. Letters to the editors will thus compete on a equal basis with paid columnists. . .

"Somewhere towards the back of the paper will be several pages devoted to quotations, official and otherwise. This section will have something of the feel (and small type size) of the classified section."

These are principles that have been broadly ignored over the past week in the wake of the Tucson killings. Obviously, lots of people (including me) have had a lot to say, but there comes a point when the discussion veers markedly from what happened into a bottomless pile of opinions about it all and about what other people said about what happened. For example, the Review was one of the first to post Sarah Palin's bullseye map, but after a day we moved it into the Palin archives and went on to other stuff. For Chris Matthews it was a major obsession for much of the week.

Rachel Maddow spun her view of the spin the Republicans gave the healthcare repeal bill by calling it "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act" even though if the bill were actually repealed - which it won't be - then either side's spin on the name would be of minimal importance compared to what was really happening.

Then we have Barack Obama wanting to escalate the Af-Pak war and civility at the same time. And journalists in awe of his deep thoughts on the latter while totally ignoring the former. So forth into the late edition.

And these, remember, are the people who are meant to be on our side. Listen to the right and you'll be lucky to find one fact all day.

I believe in reporting idiocies, lies, and hypocritical hype wherever one finds them. But I also understand this can become like interviewing spectators high in the stadium at a game. You can easily miss the long pass behind and below you while all you're getting is some more truisms.

The media owes it to its readers and viewers not to let the noise in the stadium distract them too much. Report it, sure, but then get back to the game.

Consider the fact that though Mitt Romney beats Palin in just about every poll, a Google of news mentions over the past month finds Palin ten times ahead. Why? Not because of anything she's done. The last newsworthy thing she's accomplished was to desert her post as governor. Ever since then all she's done is talk. And that's what the media likes to cover: talk not action. It has taken the easy route big time.