Sunday, August 05, 2007

Thumb on the scales

Latest in a series of comments on the strange combination of big picture and little picture that goes into life on the copydesk. Here's the lede hed from a major Southeastern daily* this morning.

Big picture: One of the known ongoing failings of the U.S. press is its excessive focus on the executive side in general and the president in particular. Coverage of Congress is spotty at best, coverage of statehouses is more or less an endangered species, but the president's every action is recorded in detail. And, conversely, stuff that's important on its own -- particularly international news -- faces an additional hurdle in that it has to be commented on by the president (or the Mouth of Sauron) before it gets into circulation. In the case at right, a low-bore development that has almost no relevance to the ongoing story of the bridge collapse is elevated into Story of the Day prominence. Given that everything else above the fold is either FOOTBALL or NEWS2USE, that means real news moves even farther to the back of the bus.

Little picture: "Get this bridge rebuilt" is imperative, and that's a grammatical and factual distortion of what the president said. Here are two quotes in which the phrase appears:

Our message to the Twin Cities is, we want to get this bridge rebuilt as quick as possible, that we understand this is a main artery of life here -- that people count on this bridge and this highway system to get to work.

One of our jobs is to work with the governor and the mayor and the senators and the members of the Congress to cut through that paperwork, and to see if we can't get this bridge rebuilt in a way that not only expedites the flow of traffic, but in a way that can stand the test of time.

The hed sounds like a stern leader giving an order that Must Be Obeyed. At a guess, it's an artifact of news routines (did somebody give Mark a Herbert Gans anthology for his birthday or something?) rather than deliberate news slant. It is, after all, literally "true" in that Bush said those words in that order. It fits. It's timely and perky (not necessarily "active," though that misnomer does accurately represent the news value of sounding loud and busy). But if your hypothetical media critic from Mars were to suggest that journalism structure and news routines tend to result in pro-administration bias even in the allegedly "liberal" "media," he/she/it wouldn't get much argument here.

* OK, here's the deal. I'll stop saying "major Southeastern daily" if all the academic journals will stop saying "large Midwestern university."


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