Tuesday, November 07, 2006

What if it isn't news?

Romenesko points to an interesting tale this morning: "Star-News executive editor Tim Griggs admits his NYT Co.-owned paper 'dropped the ball' when it failed to publish a story last Wednesday about John Kerry's controversial comments." Let's give that a moment's thought, not just as a copydesk tale but as a chance to think about why "news" so often has that robotic feel to it.

Here's the top of the column in question:

In Wednesday's edition of the Star-News, we inadvertently omitted an important story.

But don't blame The New York Times.

He's one for three. New York had nothing to do with the decision. Pretty simple reason: There are eight million stories in the Naked City, and every one of them has something better to do than call up every NYTRNG paper and discuss which lede of which AP tale is going on which page at what length. Conspiracy theorists always give you credit for resources you don't have.

What did Tim miss? (We haven't met, but as an erstwhile news editor of the said fishwrap, I get to call him "Tim" anyway.) One, very little that goes on at a copydesk is inadvertent. It's highly routinized, but that doesn't mean the decisions aren't deliberate. Two, and bigger: Who says the Kerry speech was an important news story?

Yeah, I know how Kerry got played and where in the national media (I was at the S-N for the Miss North Carolina fumble, and I know from incessant phone calls, too). Evidently, a lot of people thought it was a big deal. But what if we started with the presumption that the desk's snap decision was right? That on closer examination, there's even less to the story than met the eye in the first place? It's meaningless and irrelevant, it has no bearing on the Iraq war or Republican foreign policy or the broader campaign; how 'bout we judge it on its merits and spike the damn thing?

That's sort of like opening a bag of Chocolate Snarkies. You can't stop with just one! You can ignore the natterings of renowned historical linguist Howard Kurtz! ("KURTZ: Macaca in some translations can mean a type of monkey.") You can put your feet up and relax when the dialect snobs find Deep Meaning in the president's particular forms of cluster reduction! You can yawn when candidates dig up the naughty bits in other candidates' works of fiction! Think of the fun you can have with independent news judgment!

I appreciate Tim's comments about his copydesk, and anybody who tries to tamp down the embers of conspiracy theory in SENCland has my sympathy. But I'd like the column a lot better if it began: "We deliberately left a meaningless story out of Wednesday's paper. The New York Times didn't tell us to. We did it on our own, and we might just do it with the next meaningless campaign story we see. So there."

There's starting to be a pretty good body of evidence that audiences don't mind a little attitude and judgment along with their raw data. Perhaps we could humbly suggest that there's more to "attitude" than letting your Angry Young Writers say "suck" in news copy. Perhaps "that ain't news on this planet" might pass.



Blogger Andy Bechtel said...

The Kerry comments are worth a story inside, but for the reasons you point out, they don't merit the front page.

This is an entry in the "stupid things people say" genre of stories, one I have grown particularly wary of. In my last days on the N&O wire desk, a similar flap took place regarding Dick Durbin and Gitmo. We ran a short story on 9A about his comments. The managing editor forwarded several e-mails to the wire desk from outraged readers about why Durbin's remarks ("he said our troops are Nazis!") weren't on the front page. I will start with the fact that Durbin didn't actually say that, and I will add that not only was he not a senator from North Carolina, but also most readers probably had never heard of him.

The managing editor, however, said he agreed with the readers that the story was a bigger deal than we had made it out to be. I responded that I didn't think our news judgment should be swayed by the topic of the day on cable TV or talk radio.

Soon afterward, the Chicago Tribune moved a story about how the Durbin remarks percolated up from blogs to talk radio and into the national conversation. We ran that story inside too.

1:42 PM, November 08, 2006  
Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Bravo. Well-spoken.

2:33 PM, November 08, 2006  
Anonymous Holly Kerfoot said...

Amen, brother!

9:31 PM, November 09, 2006  

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