Monday, May 23, 2011

This is how we cover it? Part two.

Well, the world didn't come to an end Saturday, as we all knew it wouldn't.
And while a flabbergasted Harold Camping presumably gets out his calculator and tries to figure out where the missing decimal point is, the media gets a few more days of non-news.
Because, come on, we all knew the world wasn't going to end. Truly "Dog Bites Man" in its silliest form.
The glee at which the media is reporting this non-story -- and yes, sometimes I see the media as one giant, gangling barely focused 13-year-old -- once again shows what's wrong with our all news, all the time 24 hour news cycle.
There are a lot of nuts out there. Thousand of them. Millions, maybe. Even nuttier and with wilderbeliefs than Harold Camping. And they never make the news.
Now some in the media, or maybe most, would say he brought all this on himself with his worldwide publicity effort to let us all know the world would end May 21.
But did we have to listen?
Another group of religious zealots, the Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas, is another perfect example of this. They are a group of about a dozen nuts who take inordinate pleasure in ridiculing and taunting people at the most painful time in their lives.
And the media love them.
Several months ago, this group sent the newspaper I was working for at the time a press release saying they were coming to town to picket a high school production of "The Laramie Project," a play that promotes tolerance. The newspaper did a story and sent a reporter to cover the picket.
But Elizabeth Edwards died, and so the picketers didn't show up. Remember, there's only about a dozen of them. They had to go to North Carolina to picket her funeral.
So the newspaper did a story on that.
That night, a story moved on the AP wire out of Fresno, Calif. -- about three thousand miles from the newspaper I was working for -- that they were going to picket there but didn't because of Elizabeth Edwards' death. That would have been the same night as the New Hampshire picket.
So where were they going to be?
The Westboro folks may be sick, intolerant people, but they've figured out one thing -- in this era of instant gratification media, you don't even need to show up. Their repugnant message got media play coast to coast and all they did was fax a couple of (very poorly done) press releases.

Kind of like the way the world didn't end, but Harold Camping probably got a lot of hits on his website anyway.
This is not to say that people like the Westboro Baptist Church, or even Harold Camping, shouldn't be covered at all -- shining a light on them reveals a part of our society people should know about.
But very little journalism goes into any of this coverage. 
You'd think with all the avenues available for information these days -- and those of us who work for newspapers are painfully aware of it -- that journalists would be energized into covering the news in a substantial way.
But it's much easier to cover the dog biting the man.
And, let's face it, the public is no more inclined to fire up its brain. We live in a society where more people can name the contestants on American Idol than the members of the Supreme Court. Or president's cabinet. Or their own U.S. Senators.

Stay tuned for Harold Camping's next press release.

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