Another feeding frenzy

Vice President Dick Cheney shot a companion while on a hunting trip last week. It was a fairly simple and straightforward news story, but our business found plenty of ways to tell it, and retell and retell it. On Tuesday last week, the Google news page logged 1,050 stories on the accident. By Thursday evening, it had hit 4,704. Then the tide started to recede. By Friday morning, it had dropped down to 4,365.

It was an extraordinary concentration of resources on one mildly newsworthy event. And it leads us to ask some questions:

Where was all this journalistic enterprise when the president of the United States was taking the nation into war?

Where were the 4,000 stories when Enron was riding high on other people’s money?

When will journalism turn this kind of fevered attention to Congress’ destruction of the middle class?

Why isn’t journalism this concerned about the concentration of media power, or incessant wrongful capital convictions that college classes and private groups keep turning up, or the behavior of predatory corporations, or the revival of usurious lending, or the plundering of pensions, or the increasing desperation of the working poor?

We are, of course, blessed with heavy coverage of a fraudulent finger in a cup of Wendy’s chili. Whenever a child is found to have a weapon in school, the live trucks arrive. The latest blip in gas prices will be covered like a blanket. And we will be kept fully informed about Tom and Katie.

If you wonder why some of these stories get reported and others do not, part of the reason is the greed of media employers. Media companies now tend to have profit margins of 20 percent and up. They don’t want their employees doing what journalists do—working beats, developing sources, certainly not digging through records. A story about a pit bill attack can be done without any of that, just with interviews, hit and run. The White House press corps hardly had to leave the seats in the briefing room to do the Cheney story. Finding out the truth about weapons of mass destruction before the war would have required them to fan out all over Washington, work the intelligence agencies, find the whistleblowers, dig out the truth.

Mike Wallace was once asked by Mother Jones magazine why he didn’t look into the deep-seated, structural problems in the country, like the unfairness of the tax system. He replied that, as a member of the establishment, it’s not likely he’d take on that role. Well, no one is taking on that role anymore. U.S. journalism once made history. To some degree, U.S. journalism risks becoming history.