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Following the "real news"

Have journalists become a passive audience to this president's preoccupations?
 
 
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This past Sunday, CNN anchor Paula Zahn had a brief spat with radio show host Randi Rhodes regarding the Duke rape case. The exchange raises a critical question regarding the role of media: Are we leaders, directing the spotlight where it should be, or are we followers, covering the more sensational issues that everyone else is on top of?

Here's a snippet of the CNN transcript:

RHODES: Don't get mad at me, but my listeners don't care about this. I mean, rape is unfortunate, and everybody understands it happens, and it happens all over the place. It happens to our troops. It happens in -- walking down the street.

We don't -- we're not following gossip. We're doing real news. We're -- we are focused on the fact that, on June 2, they're going to explode 700 tons of a simulated nuclear bomb in the nuclear test site in Nevada. I mean, I do, you know, real talk radio. It's -- it's entertaining, but we don't do gossip. We don't -- we don't deal...

ZAHN: This isn't gossip.

RHODES: This is gossip, Paula. This isn't...

ZAHN: This is an explosive story that has divided a community. It's issues of race....

RHODES: This is not news. It's not news.

ZAHN: ... issues of gender.

RHODES: Rape happens all the time. It happens all the time.

I bet you one out of four women watching this show right this second have a story of rape in their past. It's not anything that needs to be discussed in this -- in this -- in this manner. This one person...got raped and it's a shame.

Rhodes' point is valid -- it's hard to make news out of an issue that plagues us day in and day out -- but at the same time, it seems highly unfair to contrast a rape case with "real news." Certainly we need to pay attention to the latest wonky crusade of the Bush administration -- and it seems there is a new one every day. But at the same time, the press may be neglecting those age old "not news" issues that have plagued our country (indeed, the world) for years: poverty, education, health care, basic human rights...

You could turn the rape case into "sensational gossip" -- but at the heart of it are, as Zahn notes, critical issues of race, gender, and violence that are too often ignored by the media. The fact that, as Rhodes points out, so many women have been raped makes it even more relevant to discuss.

In the media, especially with the frenzied pace ushered in by online news and the blogosphere, there is a bias towards the "what's going to get blown up next" news. The immediate nature of online journalism lends itself to this "latest breaking news" perspective. But what falls to the wayside are the issues that consistently face Americans in their daily lives.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of interviewing journalist Robert Scheer (who just came out with a fantastic retrospective on his interviews with the presidents and presidential candidates since Nixon). I had my "real news" questions all laid out. But in the course of an hour and a half long conversation, Scheer kept returning to the economy, welfare, health care, poverty, and poor education. After decades in the news business, these were the issues that plagued him -- just as they continue to plague our country.

If the story of what happened to one person -- exemplifying what is happening all the time -- isn't news, what's the point of journalists? If we're all focusing national attention on the latest fabricated distraction (Iran, for instance), when will we ever get around to the alleged "not news"?

Onnesha Roychoudhuri is an assistant editor at AlterNet.