February 25, 2007

Funny Business

 Journalism’s a funny business. Always has been, really. I don’t know that I can justifiably call myself a “journalist” anymore, but during my years as part of one newspaper staff or another, I learned perhaps more than I should have about how the business works.

     Nothing about journalism fascinates me more than watching which stories stick around much longer than they should, which stories vanish much too early, and the blunt and obvious efforts on the part of editorial boards to determine which is which.

     (This is old news, too—look at Citizen Kane, or Five Star Final, or even All The President’s Men for some entertaining examples).

     Take for instance the death of Anna Nicole Smith. A woman who was famous for . . . well, something—a woman who, 30 years ago would’ve been bucking for a spot on Match Game or Hollywood Squares—dies of an apparent drug overdose. Big deal. Yet weeks later, it still dominates the news. Who gets the kid? Who’s in the will? Where’s she gonna be buried? And on and on. Why? Simple enough, it allows papers, news programs and websites to trot out pictures of a buxom blonde under the guise of it being “real news.”

     A junior high teacher from a tough school in the Bronx once asked me why, when one of his thirteen year-old students was murdered on the street, it only earned two lines in the Post’s crime blotter, and wasn’t even mentioned anywhere else. I didn’t want to just come out and tell him that if his student had been a twenty-one year-old blonde “would-be actress,” it would’ve been a different story. Hell, if that had been the case and she’d only been grazed on the shoulder by a gun that discharged accidentally, she would’ve been front page fodder for six months. But sadly, that’s the truth of it.

     Then there are those obviously big stories that vanish mysteriously much earlier than they should.

     A few weeks ago, two undercover cops parked near a reputed crack house a few blocks away from my apartment were shot by two men in a passing vehicle. Now, I remember thinking the morning the story broke that if this had taken place in Washington Heights, it would’ve earned a passing mention but little else. Since it was in Park Slope, however, well, out came the helicopters and the tactical unit and about 300 cops, with updates on the radio every ten minutes.

     The story changed dramatically over the first few hours. The alleged shooters were nabbed in the alleged crack house. The car was found a few blocks away with a woman behind the wheel. Neighbors who were interviewed told stories about the men and the woman selling drugs openly from the front porch.

     Then it came out that the woman behind the wheel was a cop, who lived with her ex-con, cop-shooting husband in the alleged crack house. Then it came out that she was pregnant to boot. This, I thought, was a real story.

     Then things started to change. Suddenly it wasn’t a crack house anymore. And the neighbors were, all of a sudden, claiming that the accused were a nice, pleasant, perfectly normal middle class couple.

     Then, just three or four days after the story broke, it vanished. Morgan tells me she saw a follow up about a week later on NY1, and that the story had changed again (the cop had nothing to do with the shooting and had no idea what had happened—her husband had come home at 4 a.m. and asked her to go hide the car someplace, which she was trying to do when she was nabbed)—but that wasn’t being reported anyplace else.

     Given the rush to be the first to break a story these days, confused and misinformed early reports are par for the course. That’s why I try to wait a few hours, if not a few days, before taking any stories too seriously. But in this case, even if it wasn’t a crack house and they weren’t selling drugs from the front porch, it’s still a big story. And it was gone.

     Why the Anna Nicole story sticks around is one thing—but why does a story like this vanish? Any number of reasons, actually. Could be a bigger story comes along and bumps it—but that didn’t happen in this case. Only thing that happened in New York was a fairly mild snowstorm. Hardly worth mentioning, let alone bumping something like this.

     An editor might decide that a certain story didn’t deserve the kind of coverage it was getting—but I can’t see that happening here, either, what with a cop getting shot and all. Of the remaining reasons, the usual culprit is outside pressure. This day and age, advertisers determine the content of papers and news programs more than editors do. If an advertiser has a problem with a story—and I’ve seen this happen more times than I care to remember—all they need to do is make a phone call to a publisher, threaten to pull their advertising, and boom, like magic, the story vanishes. When a corporation owns a newspaper as well as several other companies, well, then, you just save yourself a step.

     But I can’t imagine that happened here, either, unless there are certain elements of the story I’m unaware of (which is entirely possible).

     Who else might apply a little pressure? Again, it’s an old story. NYPD, City Hall, someone with power who decided the story would reflect badly on someone somewhere down the line. Lord knows. I can’t say what happened here, but I’d sure be curious.

     Few things tickle me more when it comes to all this, though, than when a newspaper tries really hard to make something a much bigger story than it is, and fails miserably.

     A few years ago, the Post (not to pick on the Post mind you—I love the Post) ran a huge cover story one Sunday about the snakehead menace.

     Remember them? The snakehead is a voracious, carnivorous fish that not only eats everything, but also has the ability to walk on land. And they were for sale in Chinatown! Why, if even one of these monsters got loose, it would unleash pandemonium on the entire city!

     Yes, well. They pushed the story for a couple weeks—follow ups, possible sightings in Queens, an account of a pond in Arkansas that was devastated by a single snakehead.

     But nobody really cared, it seems, and the story quickly faded. Funny (or miserably sad) thing is, I really liked the snakehead story. I admired it. I wanted it to unleash panic in the streets. I wanted the snakehead to become New York’s Monkey Man. It was just the kind of obvious fear-mongering monster story that I always dreamed of writing. But alas, it just wasn’t to be. Maybe I’m just stupid. And maybe it’s simple stupidity that can easily explain everything I’m talking about here, without having to resort to conspiracies.


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