As opinion editor of the Vanguard and a youngish aspiring journalist, I follow with great interest how the leaders of the press react to the panoply of news stories that emerge in any given week. I consider the practice a matter of educating myself on professional conduct. So, I was quite engaged this week as we learned that the vice president had shot a friend in a hunting accident and the press, having not had such a story in the last 202 years, proceeded to work itself into a self-aggrandizing frenzy.
Over the course of the week we have been able to learn the story by heart. The curmudgeonly VP and his entourage had been having a nice relaxing day gallivanting around a Texas ranch. They had a BBQ, they went for a drive and they hunted. During the hunt, our man Dick flushed a quail, followed it with the barrel of his shotgun and accidentally showered his companion Harry Whittington with buckshot, sending him to the hospital with possibly life threatening injuries.
The news of the shooting was slow getting out, as the revelation of the accident was left to the owner of the ranch who, apparently deciding that the story of the vice president shooting a hunting companion was not of national concern, contacted a local newspaper that broke the story almost a full day after the incident. The press corps was up in arms; after all, they get paid to break stories that concern the idiocy of the administration. What followed was a week of continuous coverage in almost every news outlet.
Let’s face it; the story is funny, in so far as a near-fatal hunting accident can be. It is also interesting that Whittington became only the second person in U.S. history to be shot by a sitting VP since Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton. Considering politics these days, one would think it would happen more often. It is also educational in that it illustrates the need for good hunting practices and regular eye exams. Beyond that, however, there seems to be very little to this story to warrant anything other than one of the funniest bits on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and a few good Monday morning news articles.
What confuses me is why this story has dominated national coverage for the entire week. We are learning nothing new. We already know about the secretive nature of the administration, especially where the shadowy VP is concerned. We also know that the administration is fairly incompetent, widely derided and has a tendency to engage in dangerous activities that may put the lives of their friends and companions at risk. We have had over two years of news stories to prove these points to us, some of which were far more important than hunting accidents.
For instance, where was the Washington press corps when the Downing Street Memo was leaked? There was little mention or exploration of the incriminating document that pointed to the overwhelming pressure of the White House to go to war with Iraq despite shoddy intelligence. What about the Valerie Plain affair? There’s a story that has gone quiet even though new allegations against the VP have surfaced.
I have a pretty simple method for figuring out if a story is worth a week of continuous coverage. If the television gossip programs like “Inside Edition” are providing coverage of the news story with the same vigor and tone as NPR and The New York Times, then it’s probably not worth cluttering up the already hard to navigate info-sphere.
Now, I’m not saying that Dick shouldn’t be held accountable for his poor hunting habits. Nor am I saying that such stories should be ignored. In fact, I think Fox News should be relegated as the national repository for hunting accident news. They seem to enjoy that sort of thing, avid hunters that they are (or is that muck-rakers?).
My point is that the press – the so called fifth estate�� – was called the fifth estate because it had the power to hold government accountable for their actions, not because it jumped on ultimately meaningless and sensational stories that have no affect on public policy. Isn’t there some sort of journalistic triage that takes place in our nation’s newsrooms?
I understand that some people of a certain political bent are all for using this story to rip the VP to pieces. They would hope that the coverage continues just so it can further bludgeon the reputation of the administration. What these people do not seem to understand is that there are far more nuanced and complicated stories, which truly affect their lives, being neglected at this very moment.
All of this makes me think of another important news event of the week – the Westminster Dog Show. It seems to me the press is much like a dog. Like a family dog it can be loyal to its readers or it can rest contentedly on the administration’s lap. Like a hunting dog it can gallop happily after any story that falls from the sky or it can sneak up silently on its prey and point. But I’d rather have a press with the qualities of a good bull terrier – strong, independent, intensely curious, prone to digging and highly intelligent with a strong drive to seek prey.