Friday, January 22, 2010

Tabloids, budgets and infidelity — Oh my!

I know there are plenty of important things going on in the world today. This morning, I watched a video about the orphans in Haiti and the difficulties of treating their injuries. There are dozens of stories on the proposed changes to the banking industry. And, what about that Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance? Boy, who saw that one coming.

After reading all of that, I'm still thinking about one story that doesn't mean that much in the grand scheme of my life. It's former Sen. John Edwards' admission that he fathered a daughter with his mistress.

I've read Elizabeth Edwards memoir Resilience. I understand from her and from my own head — her marriage is none of my business — but I still read the stories. Edwards' announcement was expected a long time ago.

The National Enquirer initially broke the story. The tabloid is reportedly submitting its coverage of the Edwards affair for a Pulitzer Prize. It's an award that brings to mind war, financial meltdowns and tragedies such as the Haiti earthquake coverage — not a politician's inability to commit to his marriage vows.

I can't say whether the tabloid deserves the prize or not — that's up to the committee. The tabloid does deserves a pat on the back, because it broke a story that no one else touched. No major news organization print or broadcast reported this story until it seemed Edwards was willing to confess it.

I wonder whether the mainstream media outlets had the resources to check out the story. I've experienced this at a community newspaper level. Someone calls with a juicy tidbit that is the seed of a valid news story that impacts your community. The problem: you have four city council meetings to cover and only two writers. Do you drop the bread and butter or go for the tip?

Major news outlets said they checked out the reports of infidelity, but never confirmed it. The 2008 campaign had plenty of important stories that didn't involve Edwards' sex life. Tabloids had an advantage, because they often practice checkbook journalism where they pay sources for information. People are often willing to share a story when they get a six-figure check. With no confirmation, the whispers of the infidelity slipped through major news outlets' radar as the tabloid kept pursuing it.

The Tiger Woods sex scandal is similar. The same tabloid broke a story about infidelity, but major news outlets didn't report it for days after his car crash. I wondered at the time if he was getting a pass like Edwards. But, a real news organization needs to track a story down. Eventually, the whole big ball o' mess was aired on mainstream news outlets.

The two stories are similar because 1) a tabloid broke the story — not mainstream media outlets and 2) each man portrayed an image that didn't match their personal behavior.

These guys are not alone. There are plenty of men and women who do this all the time — act one way in public and another way in private. Regular Joes just don't rise to the level of a tabloid story.

Stories of the private lives of politicians and celebrities are very trivial when you look at bigger stories such as wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Haiti earthquake, the economy, health care reform and all the political craziness in Washington. But, these stories make me wonder: How many stories aren't being covered by the mainstream media? How many reporters (or Congressmen) have had time to read the full health care reform bills? How many reporter positions have been cut at newspapers and broadcast outlets all across the country?

How has our readership/viewership demands shaped how media organizations allot their budgets? If we click first on the Heidi Montag plastic surgery story or the latest on the Conan-Leno battle for late night, what incentive do we give the accountants at media outlets to increase the newsroom budget? I'm guessing very little.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for shining a spotlight on this issue, Stacy. As our media experience fragments from a strong centralized system of newspapers and a handful of televsion network into a storm of competing Internet sites, information suffers.

    Sometimes it makes me a bit depressed. =(


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