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News, But Worthy?

Taking Note

By Robert A. Katz

THE EXTENSIVE coverage by the Harvard student press of Meir Kahane's recent fulminations draws attention to one of the seedier sides of contemporary journalism: the manipulation of the press by media experts skilled in manufacturing "newsworthiness." This episode with Kahane has also raised an important question: How should journalists respond to attempts by demagogues to gain publicity?

Publicity is the life's-breath of a demagogue. Without it. his inflamatory shenanigans are extinguished like candles without oxygen. We should therefore be wary of the ease with which these provocateurs gain widespread exposure.

Kahane's success in garnering headlines is a case-study in pre-packaged controversy. Every hate-monger carries a briefcase full of stock accusations, violent rhetoric and incendiary tactics. His first task is to find new situations to unleash his verbal barrage. Creating a pretense, however, is necessary but not sufficient. He must also convince people in the media that the alleged provocation and his resulting fury are worthy of coverage.

MANY ANTI-SEMITES see themselves as the victims of a sinister and well-coordinated Jewish conspiracy. Kahane, who ironically bears the title of rabbi, also shares this delusion. He claims that "liberal Jewish McCarthyites" plot to supress his views, which are anti-democratic and, many believe, racist. For his visit to Cambridge, therefore, Kahane sought to manufacture local villains. And although he was unsuccessful in getting Harvard or Hillel, the Jewish student center, to oblige by suppressing his speech, Kahane used the material at hand to unleash his standard litany of accusations and threats. The Crimson found his claims newsworthy and gave them its most prominent coverage in its November 4th issue.

Good reporters, of course, jump at the first signs of a story--especially when it is proffered by a famous, or infamous, name. Editors, however, should be more reflective. Every day they are beseiged by individuals and groups competing for headlines. Their decision about whether and how to cover an issue have tremendous influence on setting the public agenda. This is especially true in a community served by only one daily paper.

RESPONSIBLE EDITORS, therefore, must suppress their Pavlovian impulses long enough to ask some serious questions: Is the issue they are presented inherently newsworthy? What is the credibility and good faith of the source? Do his or her charges deserve a front-page lead story, or will a blurb on the inside suffice? Does a controversy actually exist, or are they being manipulated into precipitating one?

Editors should be wary of allowing their newspapers to serve as the major vehicle for disseminating a demagogue's hate-filled fantasies and threats. In its coverage of Kahane, The Crimson may have played into this man's hands without sound journalistic reasons.

For publications with lower aspirations, this is often standard operating procedure. Many people in the media are almost solely interested in sensation, even when it has been carefully crafted by others for their consumption. Both sides operate for mutual benefit: newspapers gain attention for their product, and publicity hounds (who are themselves media creations) gain egomaniacal satisfaction. And the big loser is the reader.

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