November 11, 2015

A journalistic admission

From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 2010 - The week leading up to Labor Day reminded me of something journalists never admit: we don't just report the news, we help to create it.

The eerie disappearance of news during certain predictable times such as Labor Day, the Christmas & New Year holidays, and even come mid-June (when news releases mysteriously dry up), is not an accident. It's just that we and our sources have better things to do.

There are, of course, exceptions such as acts of God and human stupidity. I still recall coming home from college, turning on the TV and being surprised by the glut of fires, accidents, and criminal activities that seemed to absorb the Christmas holidays. It took me awhile to realize the correlation between my vacations and what I was viewing. A five car crash simply becomes more important around Christmas or Labor Day.

This year we've had not only Hurricane Earl to fill the gap but another oil disaster in the Gulf. Yet still there was a huge void in political crises, pronouncements, upcoming decisions and recent actions passing noisily into the death chambers of history.

It brought back my early days as a radio reporter, being stuck in a newsroom on Thanksgiving or Christmas, comforted only by the realization that there were far fewer listeners as well as far fewer events.

Does this mean that humanity could get along with less news than it muddles through normally? What if we made Thanksgiving a year long experience? Would that end wars, shut up Sarah Palin, and cause Charles Krauthammer to reflect permanently in silence?

Perhaps not, but it is worth recalling that during the 19th century when Congress only met part of the year, the capital's crime rate regularly fell when it was out of session.

There is no question but that a high percentage of what passes for news - especially political news - is not really news at all, but a bunch of sock puppets imitating news. Of course, the media doesn't tell you this.

For example, years ago, I learned that one way to find time for real reporting was to hardly ever attend a news conference. It was one of the great gifts of freedom in my work life. News conferences are devices designed to make reporters the indentured servants of their sources.

Gene McCarthy once said that Washington journalists were like blackbirds on a telephone wire. One flies off and they all fly off. One secret of good journalism is to stay away from that telephone wire in the first place.

So if the only disasters on such occasions as Labor Day are of the natural variety, if trivia seems to have suddenly soared in importance, and if all commentators appear obsessed with what will happen next because they can't find anything happening right now, enjoy it. It won't last long. Besides, a five car crash can be pretty interesting.

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