The SF Chronicle Doesn’t Understand Why It’s the Problem

17 May

newspapers complaining about congress

News media whipped up a huge furore several weeks ago about the sequester causing flight delays because of Congress’ automatic spending cuts.  As a result of this uproar, Congress almost immediately passed legislation allowing the FAA to operate at prior spending levels.  Many legislators and members of the media then became upset about the quick fix when programs as important as Head Start, cancer research, and housing subsidies for the poor remained harshly cut.

But who’s really to blame?  Sometimes, a picture like the above tells a thousand words.  The San Francisco Chronicle last week told the heart-wrenching story of a 69-year old woman who now can’t afford her rent due to the sequester’s effect on federally subsidized housing.  She now “rarely goes out because she can barely spare money to see a movie” and is an example of the “the poorest Californians . . . whose political voices aren’t as powerful as a frequent flier’s.”

This was an important story.  Where did the Chronicle place the story in its print edition? In a tiny box on the bottom of the front page.  What was the more important story that went above the fold?  A British yachtsman who died on the Bay during an America’s Cup training race.

In other words, the Chronicle placed the story about the (albeit tragic) death of a guy voluntarily participating in a rich person’s sport above the suffering of millions of poorer Americans whose “political voices aren’t as powerful as a frequent flier’s” nor, presumably, yachtsman.

For those who believe the media is the fourth estate, and has any sort of social responsibility, this is frustrating to say the least.  The fact that the same media kicked up such a frenzy about “two-hour flight delays” in the first place reveals an incredible short-sightedness and lack of perspective.

Unconsciously and unintentionally, but very revealingly, this little anecdote tells much about how editors and publishers think, and who they think they are appealing to.  One effective form of strategic communications is to present information as a simple choice between two thing; to create a dichotomy and let people make a choice.  To me this demonstrates the relative importance the media has elected between separate segments of society.  Granted, viewers play a role in this, but for those who believe that the news media should be Fourth Estate, and that it has any sort of social responsibility, the question is how far have they strayed from that role.

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