“If it bleeds, it leads” is one of those axioms of news coverage–whoever said it first is lost in the mists of history. But what it means is that the sensational story will take precedence over less attention-grabbing fare.
The coverage of this election has only proved the staying power of this principle. I’ve seen all sorts of hand-wringing over the role of the press in vaulting the candidacy of Donald Trump from curiosity to presumptive nominee. There is one line of thought, that the press failed to take him seriously enough at the start, and by the time it realized what it had wrought, it was too late. Alternatively, it has been argued that the press treated him too seriously, giving him way more air time than his more sober, and less entertaining, opponents. Because entertainment sells. And what is more entertaining, an orange-haired reality show host ranting about building an impossible wall, insulting his opponents and making racist and misogynist comments, or a sober discussion of policy, with concrete and reasoned proposals? Yeah, I know.
And I also know that (most) news outlets are businesses, and have numerous incentives to maximize readership/viewership. I have been to too many panels with journalists complaining (with good reason) that it is hard to make money in their line of work not to understand that. But I wish there were more places that supported independent and thoughtful news.
Despite all of the supposed self-reflection by the media, the coverage of the Orlando shooting is just more of the same. We all know what Trump thinks of the shooting. It is all over the place. And we know what President Obama thinks, even though it was a considered and measured approach, mostly because he attacked Trump. And what did Clinton think? Honestly, before I wrote this, I had no idea. Why? Because, as CBS News stated:
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have conveyed vastly different reactions to the shooting in Orlando with one offering a detailed plan to try to prevent future terrorist attacks and cut off their access to guns and the other focusing on the terrorist threat and closing the borders to Muslims.
I give CBS credit for doing an evenhanded story about the two candidates’ positions, but again, it is the sensational Trump, not the reasonable Clinton that has gotten most of the press.
This is not a new phenomenon. Our featured song, “Sunday Papers” from Joe Jackson’s great 1979 debut album Look Sharp!, decries the sensationalism and celebrity worship in the press. And it has only gotten worse in the world of cable TV and the Internet. Frank Zappa addressed press sensationalism and lack of substance, and other issues, in “Trouble Every Day,” from his 1966 album, Freak Out! (two albums with exclamation points in their title today!!), which you can, and should, check out here:
I fear that it is only going to get worse over the next few months, leading into the election.