In October of 1995 I was working at a PBS affiliate in Pennsylvania. On the third of that month, we all gathered together in one office to watch O.J. Simpson be declared not guilty in the murders of his ex-wife Nicole and Ron Goldman.
The trial had occupied water cooler conversations, dinner table discussions, print media, late night talk shows and evening news, except in one news outlet—The MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour.
Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer never discussed the case.
Their lack of coverage prompted questions and criticism. They lost viewers because people were eager to hear that day’s trial be recounted in detail on competing networks.
In an interview where they were asked why they didn’t cover the case, they said something worth mentioning on the eve of this historical election.
I’m paraphrasing, but what they said was something like, “We report the news that is important. There are lots of stories that are interesting, and this case is interesting, but it is not important.”
Before MSNBC, CNN, Fox New and the myriad of other news outlets came into being, there was a half hour or an hour evening news broadcast on CBS, NBC, ABC and PBS. The producers for these shows had to gather all the countless news stories of the day and decide which ones merited ninety seconds to three minutes of coverage. It was an extensive culling process and the majority of the stories never made the air.
Then there was the explosion of cable TV news outlets with twenty-four hours of air time to fill. It was the perfect place to air all the news stories that had been previously been edited into extinction.
Imagine trying to fill 24 hours with information. It may not have seemed daunting, but then we watched as media mega star Oprah Winfrey launched a network which airs countless hours of reruns and refurbished crime stories.
It isn’t easy to fill twenty-four hours and maintain high standards. What was once deemed interesting but unimportant suddenly makes the cut. Sometimes it’s the lead.
So many of us are unhappy with the media. We feel they are biased-they are. We feel they don’t show the complete story—they don’t. We feel they are trying to influence the election. I didn’t think that was necessarily true until I heard Katie Couric respond to a comment that her interview with Sarah Palin had ruined McCain’s campaign, and she said, “thank you.”
Media outlets are giving us what we want, what we will tune in for, listen to, read and share. We go to the ones who share our views. There used to be the Fairness Doctrine which required broadcast licensees to present the news in a manner that was honest, equitable and balanced. The FCC eliminated this doctrine in 1987.
If you feel the country has gotten more partisan, it has. It began in earnest with the repeal of this doctrine. If you don’t like the media, know that they will change when we change what we want to see, hear and read—or when the Fairness Doctrine returns.
Until then, what’s interesting will win every time.