A new exploitative media low was reached this week when the New York Post featured a front page story on Tiger Woods for something like the 19th straight day. This breaks the old record for a story worthy of cover placement previously held by the worst terrorist attack on US soil in the nation's history.
So while America wages war on multiple fronts, one of which is a political war in Washington for the future of health care while the others are actual wars where people are dying, the editors at Rupert Murdoch's Big Apple tabloid have decided that a philandering golfer trumps those stories and all others.
One of the most important details in the news business is the fundamental decision made in news rooms across the world daily: What is news? How something is covered is the secondary consideration after we decide what to cover. What's important to the biggest group of people combined with that which the guardians of the people's interests decide the public needs to know about are two considerations from a journalistic perspective that should matter. Unfortunately, the dominant factor in the calculation on what is deemed worthy of front page placement too often revolves around what will sell instead of what is truly important. Those largely commercial, and not journalistic, decisions have implications for how reporting resources are assigned. Ultimately what is presented to us as "news" also goes a long way toward shaping our perceptions of reality and the nature of our public discourse.
The bottom line here is that deciding what is news matters. Without a serious and responsible approach to this process, the democracy and freedom we profess to cherish is in jeopardy. As the late great Neil Postman observed in his book of the same name, we are in danger of "amusing ourselves to death."
Let's play news editor. I'll provide some story options and you prioritize them:
A - Copenhagen summit
B - War in Iraq
C - War in Afghanistan
D - Record unemployment
E - Soaring debt
F - Senate health care debate
G - Celebrity golfer who can't control his putter
If you picked any of A through F as your top choice you get the job. If you chose G, you are either Rupert Murdoch (thanks for reading, Mr. Murdoch), work for him at the NY Post (I do like your sports coverage), or are simply part of the problem.
We deserve better.
And while I've singled out the Post because of the record setting nature of their recent cover story editorial judgments, the sorry truth is that they are hardly alone. Based on previous polls during countless other times that our watchdogs have ignored important stories while pursuing prurient trivia, you can guess that most American's now know more about the details of Tiger's private life than they do about the countries in which their nation has been at war for most of a decade.
When will it end? How low will we go?