Who Decides What’s News?

It was two years ago on August 7 that we learned of Peter Jenning’s death. For me, it was a major blow (but not as big as the one that would hit that coming December). This man, journalism public figure, model, was one of my news reporter ideals. His cutting edge work throughout the decades put the issues in front of us and made us think about what they meant. Then he allowed us to put the pieces together for ourselves. He covered the news in the remote areas of the world. He covered the schisms of our social fabric and the tragedies compounded by tragedies.

Jennings was the ABC World News Tonight anchor. But on his death, he was remembered by the media, on rivals CNN, CBS, in Newsweek, and on the BBC, to name a few.

Hearing of his death and short-lived illness on the night of August 7, that I was struck motionless. As the special announcement played out the milestones of the icon’s life, the reasons why it was such a blow became increasingly apparent. It was reporters like Jennings who served as the models of my inquisitiveness, stabs at journalistic integrity, and an insistence on looking at the world and the meaningful issues rather than the tried and trite.

The final blow was learning that Jennings was born on July 29. No wonder! I thought as the pieces fell together. No wonder there are so many similarities, so many common roads and endeavors, the same fire.

So in reviewing Jenning’s life, and the other hallmarks who are, or were, models for me, the question begs asking. In media, who is it who decides what the news is? Is it the Managing Editor, the publisher, the advertisers, or the public? Who decides what is newsworthy and how long is it newsworthy?

In asking these questions, the events surrounding the Paris Hilton detention become striking. The fallout of poor little rich girl having to stay in that horrid jail with all of those jail people. Not able to use nail polish remover. Having to endure a constantly buring overhead light and an unsheathed toilet. House arrest in her 4,000 square foot house would have been much more civilized. But where would the time for contrition and genuine remorse have emerged?

For two weeks, we endured the Paris Hilton comedy as she used the legal system to do whatever she wanted, all the way up to determining that the last court hearing should be done via teleconference. She even doctored up her release after serving a scant two and a half days in jail. And all of this was news — matters of importance to the general public for the sake of their betterment and social welfare.

But the pivotal question looms before us as the Paris falling action subsides. Delgadillo, his governance, and his family have suffered some interesing public revelation while sweet Paris (who he prosecuted to the fullest for serving her full time) sat quietly in her confines. Who determines what is news and how long is it newsworthy?

Perhaps the answer to the questions were answered on June 26 during the Los Angeles County Supervisors Hearing. The area behind (and also in front of) the plexiglass was filled to overflowing with all manner of media. One of the reasons for their presence was the Supervisors’ deliberations concerning closure of the King-Drew Hospital. Another had to do with Sheriff Baca’s handling of the Paris Hilton incarceration.

Cameras were poised. Microphones were wrapped and held to just the right position. Notepads and pens were held at the ready and hasty notes were made about the proceedings. Sheriff Baca entered the auditorium and cameras panned then returned to the focus on the Supervisors and their witnesses.

After a time of sitting in the auditorium, The Sheriff left the room. The media quietly filed out behind him as public testimony regarding the closure of King-Drew Hospital was being offered. A ripple of amazement was quieted in short order as Supervisor Yaroslavsky announced, “Now you see who ranks as far as news coverage. Paris Hilton is being released from jail and the media need to cover that.” The audience was assured that there would be a one or two minute break while the media filed out and the hearings could then resume.

NOTE: Baca’s stress and strain showed through his need to acknowledge each and every person he passed as he made his way to a seat in the auditorium. His condition became acutely obvious as I left the Hall. I doubt that he recognized or even remembered me from the past, yet he had gracious acknowledgements for me. His voice was strained. His eyes seemed to look at the person but they merely saw an image before him as the two attendants ushered him back into the auditorium. He seemed like a person going before a firing squad.

What is newsworthy? Who determines what captures the intellect and attention of the public? That moment in the Board of Supervisors auditorium seemed to answer the questions. The most important issue of the day was the poor little rich girl who gets whatever she wants. The general public’s consciousness and urging toward critical thinking about meaningful issues that affect local as well as global welfare gave sway to whether Paris Hilton lived in a jail cell or walked out of a detention facility.

I look forward to those who follow in Jennings’ footsteps. I crave the days of consuming the news for the value of the information it provides and its informativeness. I yearn for the questions the media will force me to ask and spur me to research. Meanwhile, we have a duty to ourselves and our information driven needs to demand that we receive true news that is full of the information. And we also need to demand that the answers not be spoon fed to us — as though media has the right opinion and is telling us what to think. We need to demand that the facts be laid out in a clear and unbiased manner and allow us to draw our own conclusions.

Who makes the decisions? Those who cause the news wires to survive with our consuming dollars because we who watch the news also drive what is considered “news.”

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