It’s nearly impossible — nor would it be desirable — to create some sort of rigid metric by which one could measure the newsworthiness of the hundreds of stories that get reported every day. That said, we can pretty easily recognize the importance of one story over another. For example, anyone this side of Larry King is likely to be able to differentiate between the wall-to-wall coverage of the “runaway bride” and the miles-long line of pundits opining over the filibuster debate this past year. In the end, it’s obvious which one was a story with real importance and which was just ratings-generating fluff.
Beyond this, there are some stories that fall into that grey area between news and hype. Jon Friedman, who writes a media column for MarketWatch.com, thinks he’s found one today, and as a result he unloads a double barrel of sneering critical buckshot on his fellow scribes.
For Friedman’s money, the media spent far too much time and energy covering the funeral of writer Hunter Thompson last weekend. “Did they report on this story about Thompson, who killed himself last February at the age of 67, because it (even remotely) had ANY news value?” he asks. “As if. Well, then, did they cover it because it enriched our day to day life? Yeah, right. As a public service? Dream on.
“A-ha — was it a stupid, gossip-drenched, publicity-seeking whim of some rich and silly celebrities? Bingo.”
Friedman is overstating his case by half here. The fact is, it’s pretty easy to see why journalists thought the story newsworthy. Here’s the short version: One of the most influential and unstable American non-fiction writers of the twentieth century recently committed suicide, had his ashes mixed with fireworks and was then shot out of a 15-story cannon shaped like a clenched fist for a group of politicians (including two former presidential candidates), movie stars, musicians, writers and friends at an all-night party.
Is that enough of a hook?
Is it as earth-shaking as the genocide in Darfur or the ongoing war in Iraq? Of course not. But is it more interesting than the latest report of a two-headed cat or gossip about Courtney Love’s drug habit? You bet.
But Friedman isn’t done. In an Andy Rooney-esque tirade, he tries to equate the coverage of Thompson’s last joy ride with the “ups and downs of Brad Pitt-Jennifer Aniston-Angelina Jolie, Tom Cruise … and other Hollywood types with well-paid publicists.” That’s a bit of a stretch. While all of the above are surely narcissistic twits, one can argue none of them have given the world anything that might rival the quiet but steady influence of a book like Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72, which chronicled the 1972 presidential election and influenced a generation (or two) of reporters and non-fiction writers.
We’re not saying Thompson was a good guy (in fact, evidence seems to show the opposite, as Jay Ambrose did a good job in pointing out). We’re not even saying he was one of the greats. But he did manage to cast a large shadow over the American literary landscape throughout the second half of the twentieth century.
Was the tragic and ultimately selfish story of his suicide glossed over in the mostly-fawning, celebrity-driven coverage of his funeral? No question. But the story of his suicide was written in February. If the absurdity of the ashes of a highly influential writer being shot into the night sky doesn’t qualify as news on some level, then we’re not sure what does.