A New Feature: Was This Necessary?

Every day, we come across stories that make us wonder: “Why are we reading this?” You know what we’re talking about — you probably run across one or more of them every day, too (though not here, hopefully). In honor of those pieces, we thought we’d inaugurate a new (and, we hope, frequent) feature here at CJR Daily: A Most Unnecessary Story of the Day award.

Now, unnecessary can mean many things:

The hackneyed story that states the utterly obvious (“Most Homeless Don’t Like Being Homeless”); the breathless story that treats something utterly insignificant as a major expose (“Politician Sometimes Exceeds Speed Limit, But Is Rarely Ticketed”); or the warm and fuzzy story so light that it’s a wonder it doesn’t float right off the page (“Spelling Bee Champion Says Spelling is F-U-N!”).

Of course, sometimes an unnecessary story grows from a worthy topic. That’s the case with our first winner, which comes from the New York Times, and is headlined “‘Today’ Seeks Yesterday’s Glory.” The story, which ran yesterday, is a takedown of the “Today” show by Alessandra Stanley, something that, theoretically, we’re in favor of. It’s true enough that, increasingly, “Today,” like many of the morning shows, refuses to challenge or engage its viewers, opting instead for lowest-common-denominator fare — puffy features on makeup trends and mind-numbingly obvious lifestyle tips (don’t eat too much) that those with even the slightest capacity for critical thought have already deduced on their own. The show is slipping in the ratings, and the executive producer and a longtime contributor were just fired. Not a difficult target to hit.

And yet. Stanley opens with a glancing shot not at “Today” but at a competitor — “Something has to be very wrong with NBC’s ‘Today’ if viewers are turning to ABC’s Diane Sawyer as a refreshingly wholesome, down-to-earth alternative” — and from there launches an attack on Katie Couric: “… lately her image has grown downright scary: America’s girl next door has morphed into the mercurial diva down the hall. At the first sound of her peremptory voice and clickety stiletto heels, people dart behind doors and douse the lights.”

Really? Wow! Who? Um, no one. The next line is “Or, at least, change the channel.” In other words, Stanley has no examples of people darting behind doors or dousing lights — no specifics at all, in fact. (Steve Brill made a similar point on the Romenesko letters page.) Maybe Stanley spoke to people off the record? Or maybe not. She gives no evidence suggesting as much. Instead, she takes an unnecessary, unattributed and unconvincing shot at Couric, at a time when there are real shots to be taken — Couric’s persona has become less appealing over the years. If Stanley’s going to portray Couric as the wicked witch stalking the halls of NBC News, she ought to have more evidence than just her own choice of adjectives like scary, mercurial and peremptory. (At least Stanley didn’t have Couric yelling “No … Wire … Hangers!”)

This is barely even reporting; it’s substituting innuendo for the specifics that Stanley needs to make her case. The Times, Stanley, and Couric all would have been better off without this one. Doesn’t get much more unnecessary than that.

Now, it’s your turn. Our readers read more papers and watch more TV than we ever could, so count yourself recruited to help unearth the next Most Unnecessary Story of the Day. And the next after that. Send ‘em here.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.