What It Was, Was News  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features :    FIRST PERSON    
From AJR,   March 1998

What It Was, Was News   

But when the Congressional Budget Office announced that the federal budget had been balanced at last, many newspapers didn't seem to think so.

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


Let me transport you to a pre-Monica moment. According to the Washington Post, here were the most important things that happened on Wednesday, January 7, 1998: A jury spared the life of bombing conspirator Terry Nichols; President Clinton proposed a major expansion of child care; theýJustice Department accused the tobacco industry of collusion; Unabomber suspect Theodore Kaczynski was told he couldn't fire his attorneys; Iran seemed to soften its hostility toward the United States; Canada apologized to its native peoples for a century of shabby treatment; and the mayor of Miami warned his hometown newspaper to "be nicer to me."

The New York Times concurred. Though it eschewed the Miami story for two others – one revealing how Paula Corbin Jones planned to attend her lawyers' deposition of Clinton, the other decrying the length of time criminal suspects in Russia sit in prison before they come to trial – the Times' front page otherwise was identical to the Post's. Indeed, on the morning of January 8 front pages across America appeared cut from the Times-Post template, as is often the case.

Only one major paper, USA Today, saw fit to showcase this little announcement from the Congressional Budget Office: The federal budget, for all intents and purposes, is in balance.

All of a sudden the deficit dragon, the beast that has set the political agenda for this entire decade, gave rise to Ross Perot and a third party vital enough to help deprive two Republican candidates of the White House, and scared the bejeezus out of a out of a generation of guilt-ridden mothers and fathers, is no more.

Call me a nut, but I suspect readers might have found that welcome news a tad more compelling than Iran's political temperature or even Paula's now-quaint reunion with Bill.

Before I press ahead, some disclaimers: 1) As we have seen in recent weeks, nothing is easier to second-guess than news judgment. 2) I have nothing against foreign news; if anything, there's too little of it in today's newspapers, not too much. 3) Likewise, I have nothing against Canadians or Inuits. 4) The Post did run a brief box on its front page keying to the deficit story on A15. Nevertheless, the episode reminded me that the gulf between editors and their readers can still be as wide, not to mention as arid, as the Sahara. Where's the perspective? Readers deserve more than stories that are good for them; can't they have stories they care about, too?

All too easily I can imagine how the conversation played out that night in news huddles across the land. Awww, we've advanced that story to death. (Yes, for weeks there had been reports about how the deficit was deflating ahead of schedule, but the CBO announcement still was a surprise.) The budget isn't really balanced. (OK, this year's deficit may actually be $5 billion, but the CBO itself says that's little more than a rounding error on a $1.7 trillion base.) It could all evaporate tomorrow. (True enough. In fact, in place of the CBO story, the killjoys at the Los Angeles Times put on their front page a story about how the budget deficit was only one good stock-market correction away from reversal.)

None of which mitigates the fact that for the first time in 30 years, the federal government is taking in virtually as much money as it spends. By any reckoning this is a watershed event, worthy of prominent mention. Not celebrating that fact on the front page, it seems to me, is like spending months debating whether the Chicago Bulls will win another NBA title, then not putting it on the sports front when they do because it was a foregone conclusion. What it was, was news.

Good news, admittedly. But is that so bad? Sometimes I swear editors play stories in inverse proportion to reader interest. I'm not suggesting that newspapers shift into the kind of touchy-feely mode that threatens to turn the network newscasts into Lifeýtyle Hell. What I am suggesting is that for all their talk of change, too many editors still believe "news" is basically bad-tasting stuff that should be dispensed medicinally – information as cod liver oil. They are the ones who, confronted by reader complaints about "negative" news, reply that nobody really wants to hear about all the planes that landed safely at the airport yesterday.

Indeed so. But many of these newsroom Scrooges are guilty of putting a cynical spin on any development out of Washington – the sex scandal only making matters worse – and generally underplaying any hopeful occurrence. In the case of the mysterious shrinking deficit, for instance, let us be clear: A wonderful thing is happening. The nation has begun to right a terrible wrong to its children and grandchildren. Editors who buried that story – and most did – deprived untold numbers of readers of a chance to feel a little better about themselves and, God forbid, their government.

This wouldn't be worth yammering about if it were an isolated case, but it's hardly that. Last December the press critic Martin Schram pointed out another major story the mainstream media blew off. Even as newspapers filled their front pages with the diplomatic squabbles fouling the air at the Kyoto environmental summit, they virtually ignored the fact that, also in Japan, Toyota had begun selling a super-clean full-sized car. This gasoline-and-battery-powered hybrid, the Prius, gets more than 60 miles per gallon and emits but a fraction of the pollutants of a conventional sedan. Initial demand is strong, and the consequences for a car-happy nation like ours are staggering. "This was an event that was big news for all who were following the controversial Kyoto accord that set steep limits on fuel emissions," Schram wrote. "Also it was big news for all who happen to enjoy breathing air."

Precisely. Just as the elimination of the budget deficit is big news for people who pay taxes. Bulletin: Readers care about money. They care about their cars and their environment. As it happens they also care about their kids, their parents, their neighborhoods, their schools, their quality of life, their jobs and their faith. Do they ask too much when they expect their papers and television stations to report more fully – and yes, sometimes more hopefully – on these matters? Or to make coverage reflect a more upbeat reality when it's warranted? For a year now we've been told so often that serious crime is dropping that many of us have started to believe it. So why do most local newscasts, and many metro section fronts, still come across like last night's episode of "Cops"?

What's behind this enduring editor-consumer disconnect? Sometimes I think the fundamental problem is newsroom attitude, that "we know best" thing that seems to come with the press card. Not long ago I attended a conference on online journalism whose participants included many representatives of papers with Web sites. The conference was useful enough, I suppose, but I was troubled by a recurrent theme from some of the newspaper people, which was along this line: We've figured out what readers want in our print editions, we just need to translate that online. Judging from what I see, especially in the local coverage of most dailies, the arrogance implicit in this suggestion is exceeded only by the cluelessness.

ýet other times I think the real problem with news judgment is fear: Editors' fear of screwing up, of taking chances, of departing from the way they've always done things – for further fear of being considered strange. Operating from fear breeds a complacency that is the enemy of any business, especially one facing as much competition as papers do today.

A few months ago the Times published a feature about the Post – cozy, this new media world order – in which outgoing Managing Editor Robert G. Kaiser talked about his tenure with Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. "My proudest accomplishment is that I helped Len get through seven years with no disasters, no explosions," he said. No doubt Mr. Kaiser said this with a wink, though the Times doesn't indicate as much. Ironical or not, I found it a telling statement. In sports that approach is called playing not to lose.

Editors would do well to remember how many fans hate that.

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