Wednesday, April 30, 2008

News Judgment

Over at the website of, it's not difficult to determine the single most important news story of the day. The lead headline reads, "Incest Family Holds 'Astonishing' Reunion." Above, a blood red banner alerts us that "[p]olice are investigating possible links between man suspected of imprisoning his daughter and unsolved murder of a young woman." These are, as you probably know by now, references to the same story.

It's a horrible story, obviously, something about a guy holding his daughter captive while fathering several children by her. For this, his relatives have, in the insensitive shorthand of the mass media, earned the title of the "Incest Family". But really, there are some truly twisted people in the world who do unspeakably awful things to one another. This is news when it happens on your block, or perhaps even in your home town.

In this case, however, the "Incest Family" hails from Austria. What happens in Central Europe rarely qualifies as news in the United States unless casualties number in the dozens or some celebrity gets buried in an Alpine avalanche. To my knowledge, CNN has never before featured local crime news from Vancouver, let alone Vienna (or, in this case, some place called Amstetten).

The interest in this sordid tale, then, must be seen as almost entirely prurient. In the battle for ratings, the Cable News Network has decided to travel the globe to update us on a local matter involving kidnapping and incestuous rape. In Austria.

It is tempting to make an immediate appeal to nostalgia, to the days before 24 hour cable broadcasting, when the Big Three networks had only thirty minutes to bring us the news and simply did not have the time to regale us with tales of Austrian incest or guys named Peterson who kill (or may have killed) their wives. But as early as the late 1980s, ABC began regularly squandering part of their precious half hour with some fluff about naming the "Person of the Week". And CNN, around that same time, remained fairly true to its middle name, bringing the public a relatively steady diet of hard news.

It's easy to blame the Fox News Channel for the degradation of cable journalism. By mixing confrontational right wing politics with interchangeable hot blonde newsreaders and spiffy graphics, Fox quickly made CNN look as anachronistic as a black and white Movietone Newsreel. But the sad truth today is that Fox seems far more likely than CNN to concentrate on hard news and leave the blood and gore stories to their elders. The reactionary bias on Fox is unmistakable, of course, but on an average day, you're more likely to see political coverage on FNC than wall to wall coverage of the latest missing white woman.

But if the fault does not rest with Fox, neither does it entirely lie with CNN. People vote with their channel changers. Networks follow their ratings closely and they do so on more or less a daily basis. The reason that the murder of Lacy Peterson was turned into a national soap opera was presumably because the folks in Atlanta noticed that the story produced higher viewership than some dreary discussion of health care or the economy. Same thing with Natalee Holloway. If the old CNN Headline News had generated decent numbers, Nancy Grace would still be toiling on the lower rungs of cable TV hell and Glenn Beck would be nothing more than another forgettable right-wing jerk with a radio show.

The tragedy here is that there are real stories to cover. Few Americans truly understand the forces that have driven housing prices down and gasoline prices sky high. Surely, someone could find a way to make these fairly complicated stories interesting. They are, after all, matters that concern Americans a great deal more than the fate of the Austrian "Incest Family".

One of the "traditional" networks, ABC, recently scooped the full-time news outlets by reporting on direct White House involvement in the decision to torture terrorism suspects. President Bush actually confessed on camera (though he likely didn't view it as a confession) that he was fully engaged in the decision to use "enhanced interrogation techniques" on captive prisoners of war. This represents an extraordinary moment in American history, made no less so by the fact that some attractive young schoolteacher may have been caught seducing one of her students.

Or how about the Supreme Court decision that just came down reaffirming a law in Indiana requiring photo identification in order to exercise democracy's most fundamental right, the right to vote. The justices were unmoved by the knowledge that this law would almost certainly disadvantage poor and minority voters. Nor did they show any concern over the fact that this is a solution without a problem; evidence of rampant voter fraud is rare to nonexistent. Everyone recognizes that laws such as Indiana's are bald faced attempts by Republicans to discourage traditionally Democratic constituencies from casting their ballots. While it's true that the cable networks gave this issue a little attention yesterday, they characteristically did so in the usual, useless point-counterpoint fashion where opposing spokespersons exchange talking points and the public emerges no wiser for watching. A real news organization would investigate the issue of fraud itself as well as the political history of attempts to limit turnout.

But who has the time for that? Apparently, the American people would prefer to watch the 5,000th story about that polygamist cult in West Texas while their economy tanks, gas prices rise to $4 a gallon, more people lose their jobs, and another family is evicted from their home. And "the most trusted name in news" is more than happy to deliver.

Maybe Barack Obama is wrong. Maybe the rot in politics today doesn't begin on the banks of the Potomac. Maybe it originates in the average American living room, where the new flat screen TV hangs on the wall bringing the latest news from Austria's "Incest Family".

At least ancient Rome managed to provide bread along with its circuses.

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