We lose with ‘News You Can Use’

November 7, 2007

By Allan R. Andrews
American Reporter Correspondent

WASHINGTON – In a world enamored with McNews and Infotainment, there has emerged among many of the nation’s editors a subtle conviction that readers must be given “news they can use” if the newspaper is to survive as an alternative to headline scanning news on television.

This seemingly harmless and pragmatic argument and slogan is a danger to freedom of the press and an unwitting ally of forces that would control our lives.

Of what “use” to readers is news that Serbs and Kosovars are mercilessly killing each other?

Of what use to readers is news that a world leader in Africa has died or that an angry man with a gun went on a rampage in Atlanta or that three promising people perished in a private plane crash?

The cold truth is that news is not something we use except as we recognize, as John Donne reminded humankind a few centuries ago, “No man (or woman) is an island.”

We don’t use the news that 45 people died when a cross-country train ran off a track or that more than 20,000 residents of a distant country died in a killer earthquake.

What these words do is challenge our comfort zones and remind us of the frailty of human existence.

Such stories should arouse compassion in us and move us to acts of charity for the unfortunate victims of disaster and crime.

Much news is in this category. We report the horrors of war in a faint hope that future wars can be averted.

News of railroad accidents and airplane crashes alerts us to human error that can cost lives and motivates us to urge regulations that will guard against such errors.

There’s an old journalistic claim that news is anything that threatens one’s life or one’s pocketbook.

Those advocating news-you-can-use buy this argument and reduce journalism to two motives: to increase one’s lifespan or to increase one’s income. Read the news and live! Read the news and get rich!

But threats to life and wallet don’t exhaust the definition of news. Much news threatens the heart. Much news stretches the narrow mind.

Much news lifts our level of anxiety for those we love. Much news alerts me to those who threaten my freedom of inquiry, my freedom of movement, or my freedom to pursue a life of joy and peace.

When I read of neo-Nazism or rampant ethnic cleansing, I’m reminded how important it is for me to defend the open airing of ideas and opinions and to provide a voice for the oppressed and disestablished.

The genius of democracy is that the majority is compelled morally to defend the rights of the minority.

When I read of elected officials caught with their hands in the till, I’m reminded that my being free in a democracy means more than chanting “We’re number one” at a basketball game or doing everything I can to grab a deduction on my income taxes.

Democracy means the citizenry is responsible for its leaders; much that threatens democracy seeks to turn this responsibility on its head.

You don’t owe your president, senator, representative, mayor, or county commissioner anything; they owe you, and the press is your eyes and ears – your lifeline – to their behavior and policy making, seeking to make sure they pay what they owe.

Sure you can use news to make money, but quite frankly if you’re reading the newspaper to keep track of your investments, you’re about two days behind the market and have probably already lost your chance to get in or out as you wish.

Most of what you read in the news is out of the ordinary – hardly “useable.” It just isn’t news to say that 5000 airplanes crossed the country last week without incident or that 8 million New Yorkers went to work yesterday and came home without being shot at.

I regard editors who advocate a news-you-can-use approach to journalism as unwitting bedfellows to those who abhor and attack a free press. Their view smacks of commercialism influenced more by MBAs and PR gurus than by the First Amendment. Their view equates news with a consumer product that can be collected, dressed up with color and pictures, packaged, promoted and profiteered: When it stops selling, it can be upgraded.

If I write like an idealist, I’ve been understood, because American journalism is rooted in an ideal.

News-you-can-use is based on pragmatism, which is exactly the logic and motive behind arguments that favor ethnic cleansing, suppression of the news for national security or government intervention in the media.

News-you-can-useism sees news not as ideas and actions demanding reflection and thought but as a breakfast cereal of the mind that can be sweetened, packaged, delivered, and consumed.

News-you-can-use is a notion developed in business schools, not in newsrooms. It owes its genius to heartless accountants and bottom-line barkers not to courageous and crusading editors.

If they had newspapers in ancient Rome, they would have advocated news-you-can-use to go along with the bread and circuses that kept the population happy and ignorant.

Allan Roy Andrews is the former editor and weekly columnist of Pacific Stars and Stripes in Tokyo, Japan. He most recently served as Publicity and Web site Coordinator for the Annapolis Area Christian School in Maryland.

This column is a slightly altered and updated version of a column that appeared originally on April 3, 1994, in Pacific Sunday Magazine, published in Tokyo, Japan, by Pacific Stars and Stripes.

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