EditorialsCommitted to the First Amendment 3/23/2003 07:00:00 PM Eastern
Homefront: Covering Protesters
TV stations have been warned that news stories about lines of war protestors may not be great for the bottom line. According to a Magid survey of 6,000-plus viewers (see story, front page), protestors came in last on a list of war-related topics they were interested in seeing on their local newscasts. And a Magid consultant suggests that "how much time you devote to [protest] and where you place it in the newscast" must be considered with viewer distaste for protest in mind. Given the study findings, the advice is not surprising. But our advice, with all due respect to Magid, is to ignore it.
The job of journalism is not to report what people want most to see and hear. And it is certainly not to please news consultants or accountants. When such considerations take precedence over the judgment of journalists as to what information is important to relay, you might as well stick a has-been host on it, put it in prime time and call it reality TV. TV news must choose the risk of alienating viewers over the safety of providing them with a world view that makes them happy. No news medium that takes itself seriously—print or electronic—should allow focus groups or surveys drive their coverage of any significant issue, especially war and peace.
The fact that dissent may be marginalized for economic reasons, not political, would be cold comfort to those whose voices are not heard. It also disserves those who would prefer not to hear them, their professions of disinterest notwithstanding. Viewers may want to turn a deaf ear to protest, but broadcasters should not abet the process. If gauging protest by its news value rather than its CPM value costs a few tenths of a rating point, consider it a necessary capital expenditure in covering the great issue of war, all sides of it.
Irony is usually more subtle. Last week, it flashed in big neon letters over the City Club of Cleveland. That's where Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia received the Citadel of Free Speech Award for his defense of the First Amendment. We can just imagine him speaking up for free expression in his acceptance speech, but that's all we can do since Scalia prevented C-SPAN cameras from recording his enshrinement.
The irony "begs disbelief," said C-SPAN Programming VP Terry Murphy. Scalia's defense of speech obviously does not extend to freeing electronic journalists to do their jobs, since he has opposed cameras in numerous venues, including the High Court. Adding to the irony was that Scalia did allow reporters, excluding only the tools (tape recorders and cameras) that are the best insurance against mistakes or misinterpretations.
P.S. Our write-in Citadel of Fee Speech candidate is Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. When she spoke to the club back in 1987, it was recorded without protest and carried on broadcast TV, radio and on cable.