Monday, September 28, 2009

A Glimpse of the Future of News

The coverage of the slaying of an abortion protester in Owosso, Michigan, on 9-11 (the date alone should have grabbed editors' attention) proves, once again, that the first casualty of war is truth - especially in a cultural war. The story provides a glimpse in to the future of the gathering and distribution of news. What I see isn't pretty.
Unless you are involved in the abortion debate, you might have missed the shooting death of James Pouillon, who, in life, gained local, limited notoriety by picketing at schools with bloody photos of aborted fetuses. The story may not have been in your area's papers, but it's all over the 'net, giving Pouiloon much more than his allotted 15 minutes of fame.
The story wasn't in my papers. I've asked the San Francisco Chronicle's John Diaz to explain. So far, no answer. Editors at two free Peninsula dailies I read were far more honest. Both said they didn't know about it.
I wrung my hands when I heard about the killing. Not because I was happy. {I'm not that hardened). It was a newsroom habit developed over the years, one that signaled that we were going to have a big story. "Boy," I said to myself,"this one REALLY has a local angle."
The local angle is named Ross Foti, who has drawn the wrath of many for carrying similar signs at Peninsula schools - even a Catholic school - and clinics. Like Pouillon, Foti has become the center of debates over free speech as well as abortion. Yet I saw nothing in our locals about the Michigan killing. Seemed a natural to me.
Why didn't the local editors know about this story? My guess is that we are paying the price for letting UPI become moribund. News hinges on what AP does with it. I wouldn't have known about the killing if I hadn't seen the first, slim AP story that moved automatically on sfgate, the Chronicle's online edition. The giant news agency usually does an outstanding job in the early, developing stages of major "breaking" news. Does it, however, try to promote similar stories equally on its news budget, which becomes the stories we will talk about? I've asked for comment, but, you guessed it, still no answer to my email.
This has happened before. About three months ago, the killing of a late-term abortion doctor in Kansas was all over the news, followed later by a killing at the Holocaust Museum in the nation's capital. Around this time I spotted on sfgate an AP story reporting that a military recruiter had been shot to death. While the first two garnered strong Bay area coverage, the recruiter's death was virtually ignored, even though there was a good local angle - the Code Pink picketing of recruiting offices in Berkeley.
There's plenty on the Internet about all these killings. All seem to be written by lawyers or PR people who want you to know certain facts but leave out others. The stories by backers of legal abortion try to beat down those by anti-abortion forces that see media bias in the extensive coverage of the Kansas killing and the comparative slim amount given the Michigan killing.
"The truth is the sum of the facts" was something I was taught years ago by a former AP political writer turned journalism teacher. "If you want to tell one side of a story you're in the wrong business."
Now the news business is the "wrong business" to be in if you like eating. I can't help think that one of the reasons newspapers are so emaciated is that too many journalists forget some early lessons.

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