How to Improve on the Feats of Network News
One of the great paradoxes of modern journalism is that unusual and extraordinary events seem to be the most newsworthy -- but in the long run, key realities of our lives are shaped by what's usual and ordinary.
The news coverage filling our screens is routinely the product of haste, with little exploration beyond the surface. Generally, the sizzle of the moment prevails -- which is understandable, since novelties tend to be more captivating than chronic situations. But over time, barraged with accounts of the atypical, our society can easily lose sight of what matters most.
"When a dog bites a man, that's not news, because it happens so often," journalist John Bogart commented many decades ago. "But if a man bites a dog, that is news." This assumption is apt to sound like common sense. It's certainly common -- but is it really sensible? After all, we have much more reason to be concerned about dogs biting people than the other way around.
If something happens all the time, it's unlikely to be "news" -- but it ultimately may be far more significant than the latest sensation.
In recent weeks, American television has shown what it can do when the stakes are obviously high and the story is complex. For more than a month now, the intensity of post-election coverage has been remarkable -- especially on the nation's cable news channels. From West Palm Beach, Miami and Tallahassee to Austin and Washington, the biggest TV outlets have used state-of-the-art technologies to bring us vivid accounts of dramatic history in the making.
Now, let's imagine what could happen if the great powers of the networks concentrated on cumulatively momentous day-to-day events that usually get scant media attention. Next year, the reportage might sound something like this:
* "Welcome to our continuing coverage of 'Malnutrition 2001.' As widespread hunger in America wears on, news analysts wonder if the country is beginning to run out of patience. How long can the public accept delays in resolving this crisis while millions of children keep going to bed hungry? With the latest developments..."
* "Joining us now on another special broadcast of 'National Health Crisis' are investigators who've been examining why upwards of 42 million Americans -- 15 percent of the population -- still don't have health insurance. We'll also hear some harrowing examples of what this has meant during the last few hours, in human terms, at clinics and hospitals across the country..."
* "Welcome to 'Poverty 2001: America's Children Held Hostage.' Tonight, a series of reports from the frontlines where kids are the first casualties. Among those most affected by grievous inequities are black youngsters. Nearly 50 percent of them are living below the official poverty line..."
* "Cruel and usual punishment continued today in the nation's jails and prisons, where some 2 million people remain behind bars. Meanwhile, experts say the evidence of institutionalized racism is clear. As one defense attorney put it, 'African Americans constitute 14 percent of drug users nationally but represent 35 percent of drug arrests, 55 percent of drug convictions and 75 percent of prison admissions.' One out of every 35 black people in the United States is now incarcerated. For the latest on this phenomenal story, we go to our team of correspondents, starting with..."
* "Clinics and emergency rooms are filled again tonight as a perennial epidemic of domestic violence continues to afflict American households. All kinds of people are suffering as a result, but the overwhelming preponderance of the victims are women and children. Stay tuned for this special report, 'The War At Home: Counting the Casualties'..."
* "Thousands of Americans were injured on the job again today, and some of the mishaps turned out to be deadly. We have on-the-spot reports from correspondents at hospitals across the nation..."
And so it could go, with networks defining big news to include what affects large numbers of people on a daily basis. But we're accustomed to a very different approach: Stories about singular events keep preoccupying media outlets and commanding our attention.
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."