All the News That's Fit to Sell

In "Citizen Kane," when journalism tycoon Charles Foster Kane receives a telegram from his Latin American correspondent insisting that reporting on Cuba might produce some nice prose poems but that "There is no war," Kane responds with a smirk, "You provide the prose poems, and I'll provide the war."

Back in the heyday of "yellow journalism," the likes of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst (upon whom "Citizen Kane" was based) were not afraid to embellish or even invent news when things were slow. They learned that the truth often got in the way of the stuff that sells newspapers. People preferred to read about fabricated news rather than pedestrian real-life stories.

Today journalists may be more reliable than their predecessors in providing the truth, but new methods of increasing circulation (and ratings) have made them just as irresponsible. As Hearst's and Pulitzer's market mentality influenced journalism at the turn of the century, marketing strategies are influencing the way news is reported today.

Market segmentation, which has revolutionized the way companies market their products, is taking its toll on the media. Once upon a time, before the invention of focus groups, the goal of nearly any product was to be loved by all. In Hollywood, a studio tried to make movies that would appeal to all ages and backgrounds. Today, Hollywood is essentially split in half--the major studios make the blockbusters for boys and men aged 13-25, while "independents" make smaller, sophisticated films for targeted crowds.

The news media is being segmented in the same manner. Someone who wants, say, in-depth analysis of a piece of congressional legislation, knows to skip NBC News in favor of a more "high-brow" news source--a Web site devoted to his area of interest, PBS or "All Things Considered" on National Public Radio. Conversely, someone who wants to read salacious material about Elizabeth Taylor or Elvis can pick up a supermarket tabloid. These media outlets have been relegated to the margins, and hence have freed up the bulk of the media to what New Yorker editor David Remnick has called "infotainment...a fairly weak gruel." That is, all the news that's fit to sell.

When selling cars or movies, market segmentation doesn't bother anyone. In fact, people probably like their tastes so particularly catered to. But in the media, this personal attention is dangerous. News is a powerful weapon, as Hearst and Pulitzer proved when they "manufactured" the Spanish-American War in 1898. Today's large mushy media stew has little responsibility to cover comprehensively the day's or week's essential news events. With this responsibility lifted off its shoulders, it has found a fertile way to take the truth and stretch it so as to keep circulation and ratings high--let's call it the cash crop theory of journalism.

Journalists have learned that, far more than finding out about a smattering of the world's events, people love to have a story told to them, complete with characters and a thickening plot. Therefore, they survey the field of possible stories, pluck out one of enough importance and plant row after row after ream of it--their cash crop. O.J. Simpson warmed up the crowd a few years ago for today's main event, Bill and Monica. Mark and Sammy had their home run contest at intermission.

Maybe the media is not to blame. Maybe journalists don't really cultivate the crops so attentively, and the crops simply sprout like weeds in the nation's garden. Simpson killed his wife and went on a low-speed chase. Clinton fooled around and lied about it, and the independent counsel insisted on finding out about his transgressions. Such weeds are too noxious to ignore, even if journalists would rather nurture some other crop.

But I don't buy this argument. The journalism industry chooses and nurtures its crops deliberately. All the news channels, magazines and Web sites over-inform the marketplace and play up the importance of the cash crop to the point that journalism has the feel of the Super Bowl at halftime.

If at first the crop doesn't sell, journalists find the answer in volume: Keep giving more, and then more. These journalists do not lie; they simply overflow the media with truth about the chosen journalistic cash crop. They inform some more, recast the characters, take new polls and provide new interpretations to ponder. After a while, the news becomes newsworthy, and the media has raised enough content to match the form it has provided. Then it starts to report on its own successful raising of such a spectacle: Has the Media Gone Too Far? they ask themselves.

Soon, the characters the media created invent their own media. The independent counsel writes a "narrative" that is sold as a novel in airport book-stores, and is compared by literary scholars to Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. Congress releases a film in which the main character--the president--hems and haws and gets caught up in the definition of what "is" is.

Now the latest characters, members of Congress, have their turn to carry on the national drama. Let us hope that Congress avoids the temptation to rise to the challenge of the media and does not plant the most marketable journalistic cash crop in years--impeachment. In surreal horror the nation reads and watches the emotional display of the media's spawn. The news has taken on a life of its own and become larger than itself. In Hearst's and Pulitzer's day, journalists took less-than-newsworthy prose poems and from those made a war. Today, all the media has to do is write the prose poems themselves, and the less-than-newsworthy start battling.

Marshall I. Lewy '99-'00 is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

Tags