Let’s face it, congressional speeches rank pretty low on the media’s food chart of what New York based executives think American audiences care about.  While there is still beat coverage on Capitol Hill, few speeches seem to make it on network radio or TV, and except for CSPAN, there is precious little video coverage of what’s said in the well of the House and Senate. What little is said is reduced to snippets of sound and not substantive blocks or speeches.

That’s what makes Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D-NY) Thursday remarks about funding medical coverage for first responders to 9/11 all the more surprising.  His passionate speech, some will call it angry and emotional, was aired on both morning and evening newscasts Friday.  ABC’s World News Tonight treated it as a stand alone sound bite while NBC Nightly News incorporated it into a larger story.  But 48 hours after his remarks, by midday Saturday, the speech was watched almost 500,000 times on You Tube alone.

This poses the question – was it because he was emotional or did it merely tap the emotional third rail represented by 9/11?  Was that passion unusual for the House?  Online coverage Congressman Anthony Weiner gets loud, calls out GOP for 9/11 health bill made reference to Weiner as a modern day Mr. Smith, a modern day James Stewart, the incarnate member of the Congress, imbued with passion and commitment and oratory.

From my perspective I wonder whether there is a greater-than-imagined appetite for stirring oratory?  I wonder if the American media might steal a page from British coverage of Parliament, for instance Prime Minister’s Question Time,  where there has always been greater attention paid to the spoken word and disagreement.

No doubt the overwhelming amount of live coverage from Congress, as well as state houses and local elected offices and boards, is dismal – stiff, formal, impersonal and quite often less than articulate. But it it refreshing to see and hear compelling speeches. And judging from the response to Representative Weiner, networks ought to take note that the public does feel well-served when they can hear and see for themselves.

On the face of this it is a risk of producing “boring” TV. Or is it?

Is coverage of the gulf oil spill declining, especially from local TV? And if so, why?  And if so, is there a reason to follow the money which might logically  lead to the BP advertising juggernaut?

In the days and weeks immediately following the oil spill there was a gush of coverage on both network and local TV.  Regional and national reporters crisscrossed from Louisiana to Florida.  Today, 100 days since the disaster, the urgency except for  spill-impacted areas, has naturally diminished.  But is that due to an editorial decision or is it due to the huge buy of advertising time by BP?

This is my question… is there any relationship between BP’s advertising buy and the decision by stations to turn down the spotlight’s glare?  These are economic tough times in the ad world.  On local stations where the community’s automotive dealers were once counted on the purchase up to 30% of the local advertising space, and where nothing else has become a one-for-one replacement for the absence of such dealer ads, BP has obviously found a welcomed reception for its branded ad campaign about what it’s doing to repair the damage and sustain the environment.  Was there a quid pro quo?  Was there a condition, or a wink between the station and the media buyer that stipulated the news department scale back its oil spill coverage?  In exchange for a media buy was there a request, a demand for kinder editorial treatment?

I am not suggesting stations are choosing not to cover the spill but have they scaled back from two or three stories a night to a single story, often not even the lead story?  Is this coincident?  Or is the story fading on its own merit?  That is, except for efforts at sea to cap the well, there really isn’t much that seems substantively different from stories produced a week, two weeks or even three weeks ago.  Is this an editorial decision that with fewer new stories there is less to report, less reason to invest precious air time, or is there something more sinister at play?

We know that TV has limited commitment to many stories.  TV media hs been criticized for having the attention span of a small child.  And as a colleague has critically said about complicated stories, “TV does not handle complex carbohydrates well.”  And perhaps it is simply a case that audiences appear satiated on the spill story; perhaps minute by minute ratings provide evidence that many audiences have ‘tuned out’ from the story and therefore, with less interest comes decreased demand and fewer stories.

But is there something more?  I don’t know.  I haven’t access to such proprietary information on either side.  I am just wondering if any one has information to prove whether this is real, coincident, or unfounded.

The trial of Anna Nicole Smith’s boyfriend and her doctors in Los Angeles hasn’t yet begun and already it has raised interesting questions about the way courts try to manage high profile trials and the media.

Los Angeles County Superior Judge Robert Perry has announced he will root out stealth jurors who seek personal gain from jury service on this celebrity trial; he will cross check jurors for any criminal behavior they omit during voir dire, and he will allow attorneys questioning of prospective juror’s personal drug history, legal and illicit, even asking what prescription medicines they take.  That seems to be a trifecta for a very ambitious inquiry into juror’s behaviors, their present and past and poses the question, who is protecting the juror’s rights?

This is a trial which has already attracted considerable media interest.  But long after the trial has concluded, what happens to the information acquired by the court about both the legal use of medications or of drug abuse that’s put on the public record in terms of juror’s rights, their long-term ability to buy health insurance among other privacy concerns. To his credit Judge Perry has said he will release jurors who don’t want to be questioned about their personal histories before the court, but even that raises questions of doubt, to wit: Why not? What are they hiding?  This is a slippery slope where what is said, or not said, could become grounds for future decisions, some perhaps even individually harmful?

And there are the media concerns.

Associated Press Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch filed this about jury qualification on Thursday, “Perry plans to keep the names of jurors secret from lawyers, who complained that would make it impossible to track whether they were blogging or reporting on the trial via social networking websites.  The judge agreed to ask prospects if they have blogs or social media accounts. He also intends to ask his staff to check periodically to make sure jurors are not blogging about the case.”

It is evidence of a growing sophistication of courts about what jurors are doing both live and at home, sending tweets, doing extra research, and communicating in forums.  It also sends a certain chill in that judges traditionally admonish jurors not to discuss the case, but this could be a first where the court has announced  if it will take an aggressive, even proactive approach scanning for what it would define as inappropriate or extra curricular comment.

Perhaps most amusing was the judge’s awareness of the celebrity gossip site TMZ.com.  In an exchange with Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Renee Rose Judge Perry refused to grant a gag order while admonishing her that he was unsealing many of her motions. In an exchange reported by Deutsch, the Judge suggests he has already reached some conclusions, dare I say judgments about the caliber of media reportage and coverage, “I don’t think you should file under seal just because you don’t want the media to see it,” Perry said.
The prosecutor protested, “Everything I file ends up on TMZ,” Rose said.
“Who cares?” said the judge.
“Our jury pool is out there,” said the prosecutor.
“Do we even want people who watch TMZ on the jury?” asked the judge.
“We’re going to get them,” Rose said.
“I hope not,” said the judge.”

His judicious assessment of the quality and effect of tabloid television and its often salacious approach to celebrity coverage is justifiably troubling to courts.  The judge has decided to exclude cameras in court because, according to the Deutsch report, “he believes they are a negative influence and help create a “carnival atmosphere. “The problem with celebrity trials is it has a tendency to bring out kooks, frankly,” the judge said.” As if the presence of TMZ and the scores of global media encamped at his court-house door are not already sufficient to bring on the entertainment.

It doesn’t set a precedent; too many trials from Scott Peterson to Michael Jackson have been closed to cameras when, after the fact, attorneys in both cases revealed they would have preferred cameras  to assure better and more accurate reporting rather than what transpired when cameras were excluded.

While the temptation to request a bag of popcorn and watch the passing parade is almost irresistable, the questions raised both by limiting the media and unlimited questioning of the jury is troubling with long-lasting implications.

Except for Deutsch, as usual, we’re not hearing much about these issues in the media.  That raises the question, what has happened to the in-depth view, the coverage of the process of a case and not just its headlines and the scurrilous descriptions of the scoundrels in the case?

Ms. Smith died of a drug overdose in 2007; The defendants Dr. Khristine Eroshevich, Dr. Sanjeep Kapoor, and Smith’s former lawyer-boyfriend Howard K. Stern are charged only with conspiracy to provide drugs and not charged with causing her death.

Disclaimer – I was the pool producer for both the People of the State of California against Scott Peterson and against Michael Jackson.  I am also a friend of Ms. Deutsch.

Make comments and engage in a dialogue.  Silence is ominous and yields nothing toward improving the media.

In Bell, California, population just 40,000, a bedroom suburb of Los Angeles there is no media watchdog.
Perhaps that’s why the city’s Chief Administrative Office who began in 1993 at a salary of $72,000 a year was given successive raises to bloat his 2010 salary to $787,637 dollars a year! By contrast President Obama’s salary is just $400,000.

No one noticed. No one reported it. The public was screwed.

In Bell where 1 in 6 residents lives below the poverty line the Los Angeles Times discovered Is a city manager worth $800,000 a year? the Assistant City Manager made $376,288 a year, the mayor and three of four part-time officials made $90,000 and $100,000 a year, and the city police chief earned $457,000. The city police force has 50 officers, by comparison, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck is paid $307,000 to manage a force of 1,300.

No local paper or radio reports on Bell. There is no daily newspaper. TV rarely covers Bell except for a traffic accident or helicopter chase on the freeways, episodic events that have little impact and only passing interest.

Few people obviously paid sufficient attention. I suppose they trusted their officials would behave responsibly and do the right thing, not rape the city treasury and the public’s faith. They were too busy working, living, being with their families – there was no one from the media to keep the officials honest – covering routine hearings, meetings, budget drafts… the pick and shovel work, what used to be called shoe leather of local reporters.

An Associated Press story on the city’s situation captured this quote, “This is America and everything should be transparent,” plumber and longtime Bell resident Ralph Macias said.”

The AP’s story continued, “By law, the council would have had to approve the contracts in an open session, but several residents complained that officials are loathe to explain what they are doing and quick to race through matters at public meetings with little discussion.”

But no one was there to notice.

And that’s what happens when you cut the media, cut reporters, look to savings the can be accrued by off-shoring local reporting to writers in other countries, even as far away as India who watch local meetings online and seek to synthesize what really occurred?

Some will call this the “new media.” I do not think it is much to crow about.

In this clip Bill O’Reilly on ‘A Growing Split’ in News Coverage by Kevin Allocca on TVNewser is a piece and 2 video clips featuring Bill O’Reilly and FNC commentator Bernie Goldberg discussing mainstream media bias. 

Bill O’Reilly started his program last evening (Monday 7.19.10) with his take on Howard Kurtz, CBS’ Bob Schieffer, and Sunday’s edition of “Reliable Sources,” using their conversation as a jumping off point to criticize the “mainstream media.”

“Apparently there’s a growing split about how the news is covered in this country,” O’Reilly said. “The old-guard mainstream media makes decisions based on ideology, race, and elitism. The new media, of which Fox News is a part, covers what Americans believe is important to them. That’s why we are a dominant #1, and I submit that we have far more influence than the network news does.”

This too is a subject I have been writing about, see When Did Mainstream Media Get to Be a Dirty Phrase from June 17th.
How mainstream news is defined and denigrated is as interesting as any argument facing the media today. Fox – positioning itself as David to the mainstream media’s Goliath – is aligning itself with a distinct view of America, Americanism and Americana. It seeks to build alliances and seeks allegiance on the basis of political belief as that shapes its approach and tone, especially on the prime time evening newscasts as distinct from the daypart news programs. It asks viewers to rally around the institution (Fox) rather than the substance of the story, and at times intertwines the two. Either way it blurs the line of media independence and pure reportage.
Fox asserts that it is in fact the “new media” and defines the lines of that coverage and declares network dominance. That may not be the case in terms of sheer numbers but it is a growing trend.
Are there consequences and if so, what?

Calbuzz.com has a very insightful piece The Death of Truth: eMeg and the Politics of Lying about the media holding candidates to their word, exposing contradictions, and pointing out inconsistencies.  It merits thoughtful consideration and discussion.

More from me after this clip.

“Perhaps it’s just a case of wishful nostalgia, but it seems to us that before the rise of Fox News, Rovian manipulation and the abnegation by certain people of fact-based reality, there was some sort of agreed-upon truth that was adjudicated daily by the mainstream media.

A candidate couldn’t say one thing one day — like, for example, that they were opposed to a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants — and another thing another day — like they basically agree with an opponent who favors a path to citizenship. They’d be afraid of being called a liar in the papers, and that would actually matter.

But in the California governor’s race it now appears that we are witnessing the Death of Truth. From a cosmic perspective, this has come about because:

  • The attention span of the average citizen, never very long, has been hyper-accelerated by the rise of new media, including the Internets, where something is old before it barely new — and certainly not fully digested — and everyone is off on the next new thing. Beyond that, the rise of ideologically-sated outlets like FOX and MSNBC ensures that partisans will never again have to watch something with which they disagree.
  • The lugubrious mainstream media is often strangled by self-imposed, on-the-one-hand-on-the-the-hand, false-equivalency “balance,” in part intimidated by loud, if unfounded accusations of “bias” most frequently lobbed by the right-wing. Thus the MSM at times seems unable and/or unwilling to cut through the miasma and call a lie a lie or a liar a liar. (Even Jerry Brown won’t call a spade a spade, referring instead to Meg Whitman’s “intentional, terminological inexactitude.”)
  • It’s now clear that a candidate with unlimited resources can and will blow off complaints, critiques and factual analyses of those who dare to speak up and will instead declare that the truth is whatever he or she says it is — in their paid advertising and the assertions of their mercenary prevaricators.

All of this feeds the corrosive cynicism that infects our politics, demonstrated most visibly in low voter turnout. Even among those who vote, healthy skepticism is often supplanted with a smart-ass, know-it-all facile sophistication that assumes all politicians are liars (they’re not) and that everyone in public life only wants to do well (we still believe there are some who want to do good).

Cynicism, of course, breeds further alienation and disgust, causing a downward spiral of disengagement from the process, leaving voting (and caring) to the true-believing wing-nuts who are certain they know the truth because they read or watch it at one of the ideologically-determined web sites or stations that conclusively confirms their prior held beliefs.”

Political news should not become the equivalent of a sports report of who is merely ahead in the polls, who is neck-and-neck with one another, or who staged a knockout blow; instead it is an ongoing obligation to report on every speech and nuance of the campaign trail.  It is more than reading polls to then proclaim which way the wind is blowing.  It surely demands an investment in better field reporting than to rely instead on the diatribes of pundits who spend the preponderance of their time reading about the campaign from afar, whether in Washington, Sacramento or some glass office in lieu of spending time in the crowds, at the rallies, on the charter, and in the auditoriums.

It requires a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of the campaign and editorial commitment by both the reporter in the field and editor back at headquarters lest five second soundbites from either the candidate or  supporter vs. opponent become satisfying or sufficient for knowledge.

And it does cost money, lots.  It is expensive to stay with the candidates, to ride along on the campaign, to pay for technology whether satellite trucks, transmission facilities or simply a reporter’s per diem. There is no excuse for not making this investment; there are few news events worth more than this investment that will yield comprehensive and sustained coverage of significant races. These are the game changers of our lives.

But the fact is too often even networks, the most prominent national papers, even wires shun White House charters where the cost, first class fare plus fifty percent, is deemed too expensive.  Instead reporters leap-frog ahead of the President or the candidate but miss key moments due to this financially mandated absence.  On a local level there is even less of a an investment and campaigns are covered as episodic events – here a speech there a speech, here a reaction soundbite there a counter point reaction soundbite.  Covering political events as if collecting box top coupons on the way to election day is not the same as doing a good job, of offering insight, perspective and shining the harsh editorial light to measure what is being said and not just to what is being spoken from the candidate’s lips or media machine.

Campaigns now go to greater and greater lengths to limit media access to the candidates.  Some candidates believe they can speak only to affinity-related news outlets and scorn any who are not believed to be boosters for their cause.  Campaigns spend extravagant amounts of time attacking the messengers by specific organizations and individual reporter who they believe are their enemies.

Perhaps this is all the logical outcome or expected result of the Michael Deaver inspired style to control the message, the campaign spin, the mouthpiece also known as the candidate.  Perhaps this is what happens when a need for outrageous sums of money to run a campaign become the dominant force in politics.  If the media is not present to protect their role – to fight for access – to not merely go along for the ride but instead challenge the campaign and make that ride to victory or defeat as bumpy as possible, for who else is in such a position to be as independent and challenging, then in the end the readers, the viewers, and the voters are at risk of being short-changed.

Calbuzz raises some questions about the quality of reporting to date.  The media has not always done a good job for a host of reasons, from the fact that many, experienced old hands have lost their jobs to a lack of commitment of editorial space and dollars to do the job.  And here’s the last part – readers, viewers, voters are not demanding better.  Too often they seem to settle for a diet of political pabulum, brevity and volume, all the while decrying bias whether real or perceived, and no longer recognize that us-versus-them reporting, punditry, and sheer volume is not a viable substitute for insight and knowledge.

Disclaimer – Calbuzz co-founder Jerry Roberts is a friend, and I am currently teaching a directed study program  producing content for the site.
Finally, whether you agree or not I ask that you do two things — send this link to others and leave a comment; create a dialogue or add to the thread so that others will appreciate what you have to offer.

Preventing access as a form of censorship is a dangerous point on the slippery slope toward despotism and government gone wrong. The latest slip and slide in this direction was written last week at the Regents of the University of California meeting in San Francisco when a journalist with a camera was barred from their public event.  The Regent’s defensive argument was he didn’t have a press credential; the weakness to their argument is the press credential per se wasn’t required.  Credentialed or not  any one is entitled to make pictures at a public meeting under Bagley-Keene, a California law since 1967.
To make matters worse UC police instructed that no one was allowed to make pictures of them doing their job, in this case acting as gatekeepers to enforce a decision which was against the law. This is a chilling thought, one I wrote about on June 9th “Use a Camera, Go to Jail” as it seems many jurisdictions are increasingly less interested in public scrutiny of their work than ever before.

From Saturday’s San Francisco Chronicle, UC Regents baring of filmmaker draws protest “State law is clear – any member of the public has a right to film and record public meetings of state bodies,” Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, wrote to UC President Mark Yudof.

Yee, who chairs the Senate’s committee on Public Records and Open Meeting Laws, asked Yudof to explain not only why filmmaker Ric Chavez was barred from taking his video camera into the meeting, but why UC policy – which makes no provision for the public’s right to film public meetings – “is in complete contradiction to state law.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of the UC system being difficult toward news coverage. A Santa Barbara based cameraman has written to me about the UC campus there requiring fees for news coverage and offering limited access. This is a public school open to the world which needs to be reminded that coverage of news stories doesn’t come at the point of a pen writing a check.

What happens when something really serious happens… will institutions first ask who’s there to cover it, what their intentions are, their motives?  Perhaps they’d like to see examples of prior work?  How much will be required and how far back would they like to review? Should a network include coverage of the student massacre at Kent State? How about carnage at Virginia Tech?  Neither of those stories is likely to sway an administration’s decision toward openness?  UC Regents would be hard pressed to review the free speech movement at Sproul Hall at UCBerkeley – ah the halcyon days of tear gas in the plaza and riot-helmeted cops in the hallways when the sound of clicking handcuffs rivaled that of chalk on blackboards.

Organizations – public institutions – nor their officials should not be allowed to use access as a guarantee against positive or negative coverage, scrutiny or assessment by the citizenry of the quality of their work and the decisions they make.  It just isn’t a model which protects our right to know, the right to cover, and the rights of all of us to measure and monitor the government we pay for.

Who should decide – at an institutional level – what deserves coverage and what could be potentially embarrassing or liable? Maybe in spite of the open meeting law Regents and others can impound cameras, take away note books and recorders. Hey, why not just go into hiding entirely, star chambers and executive session.

But this is happening… more and more often.  This is distressing. This is dangerous

Public places – San Francisco’s Ferry Terminal, the passenger piers at San Francisco International airport – both operated with public funds – use both real and rental-cops to move crews off property demanding that they have prior knowledge and approval from management.  This is the same management which uses public funds to operate these public facilities… places where any one public with or without cameras is invited… so why not news coverage?

This decision to close ranks and circle the wagons is mirrored too at the corporate level.  As an example, BP is reportedly making it most difficult to video or film their work in the gulf. Reportedly many local operations, paid for with BP funds, are off-limits to media. It seems curious that BP – already a premium member of the pillory club for the crime itself as well as the initial cover up is now making strides to become more secretive, closed, and manipulative of the media, as far as it can be based on the money it is investing to that end.
More and more often corporations are risk-adverse to speaking on camera or allowing crews in to make pictures of their operations.

We’re seeing the first draft of censorship and limits on freedom of the press.  Sadly the mainstream press has become so emaciated by cuts that there is no one left standing it seems to fight the good fight.  As a public we may not realize what we’re losing until we have lost it.

I once thought the worst one might say about mainstream media is that it was professional, predictable, at times boring, but usually responsible, generally trustworthy and fact-checked.

Today it is under attack, principally by Fox and talk radio as something disreputable and surely not to be trusted. In fact, listening to the right-wing media it seems they are on a campaign to set themselves up as the only viable alternative to mainstream.

Isn’t there a contradiction in that, or am I missing something? How can the fringe become mainstream in its own right? And why would it? Once it became mainstream wouldn’t that defeat the purpose of being radical in its own right?

Sean Hannity attacks the media weekly (daily) with such vile that it he has become a caricature of a little boy ranting while trying very hard to appear like a sober, elder newsman.  The more he bobs and bops, the more his girlish strop becomes increasingly inane.

Here’s a headline Mr. Hannity – you are every bit as much mainstream media as the next network anchor.  You cant enjoy the kind of publicity, prominence, power and viewership without being part of the mainstream.  Try as hard as you want to deny it, but you have met the enemy – Mr. Mainstream, and you are him.

What’s curious too is the unstated contradiction raised by this.  Michael Savage boasts he is America’s most popular radio talk show (clearly something he wants and needs in order to maintain ratings and advertising revenue) and then attacks everyone else as mainstream.  He wants in as part of the club yet wants no part of its membership?  Fox TV does the same.  They want to be treated as mainstream – part of White House pools and other media seen as responsible, national journalists, and they compete for the purpose of divvying up the advertising pie, but yet at the first chance they get – their personalities say, oh no – not us; we’re not mainstream but we’re different, special, counter-culture.  Isn’t it interesting that conservative voices are today seen as counter-culture?  Back in the old days… that just seems very different.

Look – mainstream or not – the question is what’s wrong with being seen as mainstream – tell the facts, provide insight, do the tough pick and shovel work of stationing reporters all over the globe and the country and provide news coverage of important events, regardless of how they may attract ratings.  Tell the news that responsible editors believe need to be told and understood.  Provide analysis and not rants.  Provide context instead of opinions delivered with increasing angst and volume.  Limit assertions in favor of sound bites and quotes from individuals engaged in the stories, and do so for more than :50 to :10 seconds each.  What value is so short a sound bite?

Mainstream used to be a good thing.  Why now is that the enemy?  Why should it be the enemy?  And why should we – any and all of us – have to decide what news we like on this basis.  News isn’t supposed to be a popularity contest – it was never intended to be a profit center -  but we now spend more time killing the messenger than we do in listening to the message.  It is both wrong headed and dangerous to the Republic.

The message is this – tell me what you have to tell me, don’t boast over how good a job you’re doing at telling me, and stop decrying everyone else for the job they’re doing.  Just do your job – fair and balanced, and I’ll decide.

From the Washington Post

Gene Weingarten column mentions Lady Gaga.

By Gene Weingarten

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Not very long ago, the typical American newsroom had three types of jobs: reporter, editor and photographer. But lately, as newspapers have been frantically converting themselves into high-tech, 24-hour online operations, things are more complicated. Every few days at The Washington Post, staffers get a notice like this: “Please welcome Dylan Feldman-Suarez, who will be joining the fact-integration team as a multiplatform idea triage specialist, reporting to the deputy director of word-flow management and video branding strategy. Dylan comes to us from the social media utilization division of Sikorsky Helicopters.”

Call me a grumpy old codger, but I liked the old way better. For one thing, I used to have at least a rudimentary idea of how a newspaper got produced: On deadline, drunks with cigars wrote stories that were edited by constipated but knowledgeable people, then printed on paper by enormous machines operated by people with stupid hats and dirty faces.

Everything is different today, and it’s much more confusing. For one thing, there are no real deadlines anymore, because stories are constantly being updated for the Web. All stories are due now, and most of the constipated people are gone, replaced by multiplatform idea triage specialists. In this hectic environment, mistakes are more likely to be made, meaning that a story might identify Uzbekistan as “a subspecies of goat.”

Fortunately, this new system enjoys the services of tens of thousands of fact-checking “citizen journalists” who write “comments.” They will read the Uzbekistan story and instantly alert everyone that BARACK OBAMA IS A LIEING PIECE OF CRAP.

I basically like “comments,” though they can seem a little jarring: spit-flecked rants that are appended to a product that at least tries for a measure of objectivity and dignity. It’s as though when you order a sirloin steak, it comes with a side of maggots.

My biggest beef with the New Newsroom, though, is what has happened to headlines. In old newsrooms, headline writing was considered an art. This might seem like a stretch to you, but not to copy editors, who graduated from college with a degree in English literature, did their master’s thesis on intimations of mortality in the early works of Molière, and then spent the next 20 years making sure to change commas to semicolons in the absence of a conjunction.

The only really creative opportunity copy editors had was writing headlines, and they took it seriously. This gave the American press some brilliant and memorable moments, including this one, when the Senate failed to convict President Clinton: CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR; and this one, when a meteor missed Earth: KISS YOUR ASTEROID GOODBYE. There were also memorably wonderful flops, like the famous one on a food story about home canning: YOU CAN PUT PICKLES UP YOURSELF.

Newspapers still have headlines, of course, but they don’t seem to strive for greatness or to risk flopping anymore, because editors know that when the stories arrive on the Web, even the best headlines will be changed to something dull but utilitarian. That’s because, on the Web, headlines aren’t designed to catch readers’ eyes. They are designed for “search engine optimization,” meaning that readers who are looking for information about something will find the story, giving the newspaper a coveted “eyeball.” Putting well-known names in headlines is considered shrewd, even if creativity suffers.

Early this year, the print edition of The Post had this great headline on a story about Conan O’Brien’s decision to quit rather than accept a later time slot: “Better never than late.” Online, it was changed to “Conan O’Brien won’t give up ‘Tonight Show’ time slot to make room for Jay Leno.”

I spent an hour coming up with the perfect, clever, punny headline for this column. If you read this on paper, you’d see it: “A digital salute to online journalism.” I guarantee you that when it runs online, editors will have changed it to something dull, to maximize the possibility that someone, searching for something she cares about, will click on it.

I bet it’ll read “Gene Weingarten Column Mentions Lady Gaga.”

Lady Gaga.

If you were a member of the media and you anticipated potential civil disobedience, which is more news worthy… or more responsible?  A) To cover law enforcement’s preparations of an event which may or may not occur, or B) invest in a more contextual story about the economic plight and social unhappiness that may or may not be responsible for the raw nerves, frayed community relations and tensions?

If you’re watching or reading San Francisco media their choice largely appears to be A.  It remains easier to point and shoot a camera or grab the easy quote from officialdom rather than source out responsible individuals in a community which is not just under-served but largely ignored much of the time.

All of this stems from what might best be called Rodney King redux, 3 days of riots in Los Angeles after an all-white jury in Simi Valley, California acquitted four Los Angeles policemen accused of beating Mr. King following a traffic-stop.

Eighteen years later another trial, also involving a white police man and a black victim, is poised to provoke rage.  The trial of former Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Meserhle is soon to be deliberated, and in the event that the jury finds him not guilty or not guilty of a serious enough offense, there are fears of new riots in Oakland’s streets.

The media question is what’s the best way to cover this story?  If there are riots will they simply be about justice, or the belief that the jury’s verdict was not the right result?  Or is it possible that disobedience and tumult occur because of a systematic failure to provide for a community – including well-paying jobs, better schools, economic development, and sustained community services?  To read or listen to much of the pre-coverage it would seem as if the community itself has gone mute on these issues — that if there are disturbances it will be because of justice, and not a pattern of injustice, racial profiling, harassment and other abuses, real or perceived, believed or merely assumed as truths.

And so the coverage has featured police drills.  Law enforcement is ready.  Mutual aid for emergency services has been requested and responses tallied.  All this remains the easy story.

But what about the community?  Who is demonstrating leadership?  Who is articulating what is needed or wanted within the black community, and equally important: are they being heard?  Are they even being approached?  Are they being included in the story or edited out from the earliest point, the story’s inception?  For those of us who covered the Rodney King riots we quickly learned it was not just rage at the system that acquitted the police officers.  Unhappiness had simmered for some time – over services or a lack thereof – over treatment by local Korean merchants and alleged abuses or snubs, some of which were deemed to be based on cultural perceptions.

In Oakland I have grown tired of forecasts of civil unrest.  I am particularly tired because I have yet to see anything more than a prediction of trouble,  what some one in a position of office, whether that is municipal or media, believes could happen based on history.  Wouldn’t it be interesting if the media could report and foster a dialogue because it does have the platform, knowledge and experience; because too,  once upon a time, dialogue mattered.

And what if there were no demonstrations or that they were brief and peaceful?  Then off to the next crisis du jour, a tumult of the moment, a toxic time bomb waiting to explode showering some one else with woe of the moment.

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