What is Really News?

As seems so often the case, the news on the shooting accident in which Vice-President Cheney accidentally shot a friend while hunting has become a story about the story. We’re now spending our time talking about how the news was collected, and whether reporters should pursue information vigorously. On The Daily Nightly – MSNBC.com blog, David Gregory, NBC News chief White House correspondent, does a bit of explaining, and even apologizes for an exchange with Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary. But even that is not really news.

After all, most of us have occasionally heated moments in our relationships with people at work, at home, or wherever we go. People get annoyed, they lash out, they apologize, they go on. It’s not news.

But at the same time, I question whether reporters, especially when reporting for TV are actually asking the hard questions, or more importantly getting the hard answers. In this case, the focus of media attention has been on how long it took to get information to the media. It’s not a suggestion of a cover-up, though I’ve seen a few posts on the internet suggesting as much. It appears to be much more a case of inefficiency and uncertainty on the part of the presidential and vice-presidential staffs. It’s of interest, but I believe it’s a secondary story.

Further, I think it’s silly to suggest that the reason the press is upset about this is that they are left wing while the White House is right wing. It looks to me like some people must not have watched TV news during the Clinton administration. There were plenty of occasions when the press went after public officials vigorously. It certainly might have appeared to supporters of the Clinton administration that the press coverage was even unfair. (Nearly three years ago I wrote an essay entitled Media Bias, in which I claimed that the bias of the media was “stupid.” Not liberal, not conservative, just stupid. Unfortunately, I should probably have said simply that the media bias is simply in favor of popular–the stuff we’re most likely to watch.)

What I see as the problem here is that the news is primarily being sought from the people who have the motivation to spin it. Now don’t get me wrong. David Gregory’s job needs to be done. Somebody has to ask the questions, otherwise the politicians wouldn’t have the opportunity to spin and lie. My question is why we have to repeatedly play this type of information. The reason spin works is that whatever the politicians say gets air time. Sometimes, you have to just say, “That’s not news.” Go on and find some real news to report.

Just to be more specific, I think real news in this case asks whether the Vice-president was behaving responsibly, what are the reasons for missing game bird stamps (surely there are staffers to watch such issues), and yes, why does it take so long to report. But the last is really a fairly minor issue unless we find that there is, in fact, something to cover up.

But I want to say a few more words about spin. My question is not why reporters were so tough, but why they aren’t tougher more of the time. Why is it possible for a campaign to set a spin and a set of issues they want to talk about, and then execute that plan successfully? Repeatedly correspondents ask candidates a question, get a response that is really unrelated, and then go on to simply ask another question. I would suggest not airing the answer to a question if it is no, in fact, an answer to the question that was asked. I think it’s in the hands of the media to make spin work much less efficiently.

But it’s in our hands, as the consumers, to encourage the media to do so, by rewarding those who dig for the underlying information and hang on for the real answer. We do that by reading their papers or watching their shows.

Mr. Gregory is probably right in regretting that one remark. But I hope he’ll get even more aggressive in other areas where serious questions need to be asked, and where the public needs actual answers.

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