April 22, 2014

Who decides what news is?

I tweeted recently about a Lexington TV station’s airing of a story about a UK fan who tattooed Willie Cauley-Stein’s face on his leg (fulfilling a promise that he would do that if Cauley-Stein committed to play at UK next year, which he did). I said the story had “No news value, promotes primitive behavior.”

On reflection, that a major news outlet would devote substantial airtime – not a snippet – to such triviality and promote the permanent disfigurement of young people is a good segue to larger question: Who decides what’s news? 

A few years ago, I had the honor as then-publisher of The Kentucky Gazette to serve on a three-member panel with the editorial page editors of The Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader to discuss the role of the media in making public policy.

The panel was part of a two-day retreat for governmental affairs managers and lobbyists at Lake Cumberland State Park near Jamestown, sponsored by Kentucky Forward, then an affiliate of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

The panel discussed whether the media is the Fourth Branch of government? Should members of the media be required to register as lobbyists? And should the media interfere with the news or simply reflect it?

I expressed my view that the most noble purpose of a newspaper is to report the news, not create it; as it is the most noble purpose of government to advance the standard of living of its citizens, not redistribute their earnings.

Well, that was not the way The Courier-Journal’s liberal editor, David Hawpe, saw the world. He told the audience that his paper was proudly a player in the political process, bent on shaping the direction of the state. Not just reflecting the news, creating it. Hawpe said he believed “the purpose of government is to redistribute the wealth.”

Hawpe is an honorable person, whom I have always respected, because he is sincere and consistent in his principles. As editor, he was not content with telling the news, he wanted to tell it and fix it all at once. His vision was as crooked as a pig’s tail.

He told the audience something even more astonishing, an extension of the media wanting to shape the news. He said (I paraphrase), “Nothing is news until his newspaper (or others in the media) decide it’s news!”

And that takes us back to the UK fan given his “15 minutes of fame” by the TV station for disfiguring himself with a large tattoo of a basketball player on his leg: Someone at the station made a decision on what news is.

Woe, the power of the press! — Lowell Reese