Lawyers for The Washington Post are back on task after a federal judge in Kentucky reopened part of a defamation lawsuit against the paper. The suit stemmed from how The Post covered an event in the nation’s capital last winter that included a focus on Covington Catholic high school student Nicholas Sandmann.
Sandmann has sued The Post for $250 million, and also filed suits against CNN and NBC. None of this legal maneuvering would have happened if the media giants had used better gumption last January in defining what is news.
Demonstrators can be found in the nation’s capital pretty much every day of the year. It is also common to have jeers and taunts exchanged between demonstrators and parties who disagree. Such events pass through the hourglass with an inconsequential dog-bites-man ho-hum. These occurrences are not news. They have no larger significance to anybody not in earshot of the event.
The nation’s news media should have pondered this notion last January before sending the nation into convulsions with a week of emotive and saturation coverage of Covington Catholic High School students’ interactions with Native American demonstrators. The sensational, often inaccurate and opportunistic reporting of this situation by the media establishment filled airtime and web space, but ultimately failed to advance the nation’s dialogue on any meaningful level or issue. It only served to charge a nation’s fragile psyche and reduce the nation’s discourse to dueling hostile narratives based on the thinnest of contexts.
The nation’s big media outlets hold tremendous power in setting the news agenda. That agenda was disproportionately filled for days with raw video of the event, angry commentators, and interviews with participants who didn’t need or necessarily want the spotlight. Sandmann was unnecessarily dragged into the national “news” agenda. Every minute spent on this non-news event meant less attention and fewer journalistic resources for some other national matter of substance.
News outlets followed up coverage of the actual event in D.C. by digging up video of old Covington Catholic pep rallies and delving into the military record of the elderly Native American. There was no greater relevance to that enterprise either. So much journalistic nonsense, just to prove some point which was and remains ill-defined.
The agenda-setters in the national media showed no discipline in letting viral social media content steer them into a story of so little relevance. A criterion used in assessing news value is called “high impact,” the sense that a news development affects a broad range of the citizenry. News editors and producers surely forgot about that standard when they allowed a social media mob to decide what “news” deserved the nation’s attention. News consumers who want to see what’s viral on social media will go there. News consumers who want real news should be able to rely on professional journalists who can define news of substance over raw emotion.
The media swarm to this Covington Catholic/Sandmann story disallowed the necessary contextualization of what is now known was a complex setting. Sadly, the media cherry-picked a divisive moment circulating on the internet to push a narrative of sensationalism and conflict. In a sense, unsuspecting high school kids were exploited by news outlets to rhetorically frame a good versus evil sociocultural narrative about a divided nation. Also exploited was the Native American who was important to the media only for how he could be cast in the drama.
The news media, particularly television, has difficulty trying to explain complex issues in journalistic form. In this case, however, the story coverage was forced into the most simplistic of templates. No doubt news producers/editors thought they were demonstrating some principle about the clash of ideologies being experienced in America today. It’s a dangerous strategy, however, to try to demonstrate complex matters in simplistic terms.
British essayist Walter Bagehot wrote almost two hundred years ago, “To illustrate a principle, you must exaggerate much and you must omit much.” There surely is something in that axiom, and Americans see that kind of rhetorical excess in the utterings of politicians, entertainment elites and ideologues all the time. Exaggeration and omission isn’t so casually accepted by the citizenry when it comes from the journalism establishment.
The rhetorician Richard Weaver warned society about the dangers of fragmentation in the nation’s dialectic, which he said led to “obsession with isolated parts” and “fanaticism.” Today’s news organizations have, indeed, become obsessed with parts on many news topics, and the upset outside the Lincoln Memorial last January is clear evidence.
The nation’s news agenda setters would be wise to avoid the simplistic. They should not be getting led by the nose into the chaotic influence of social media. Instead, the nation needs independent judgements by professional journalists about what is news of substance.
Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a professor of communication at DePauw University.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.