The Sky is Falling!

Tell me something I don't know

You’ve got to pity the reporter writing the morning paper’s straight news account of an event that happened the night before. In today’s news environment—choose your own clich├ęs to describe the myriad ways we now have to get news, the speed with which news ceases to be new (the Internets, the blogosphere, and don’t forget the YouTube effect!)—that story isn’t exactly a must-read (even for media critics).

And you might muster some pity, even, for the newspaper reporter assigned the “news analysis” of the same night-before event. Yes, this type of piece exists to take a step back, go beyond just-the-facts to What The Facts Mean, but anyone who watches cable news or reads blogs has likely absorbed ample analysis before we even get to the newspaper’s take—assuming we get to it at all. We may even have already seen the same newspaper reporter give a rougher, shorter version of his print analysis on one of the cable shows.

So how can a newspaper reporter tell his reader something the reader doesn’t already know (particularly if that same reporter the day prior participated, say, in the “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know” portion of The Chris Matthews Show)?

As Daniel Schorr, the ninety-one-year-old NPR commentator, said in a recent interview: “Boy, I’m glad that’s for other people.”

Schorr continued:

In my day, as a newspaper man, radio man and television man, I had the feeling I was telling people something they wouldn’t otherwise know. That’s no longer true. I’m glad I’m not 20 years younger, because I’d be very discouraged.

Reading Adam Nagourney’s A1 New York Times “News Analysis” piece today analyzing What Mitt Romney’s Michigan Primary Win Means, I was reminded of Schorr’s words and the challenge the Nagourneys of the world face in trying to grab news- and news- analysis-saturated readers and offer them something new.

Here is Nagourney’s breathless lead today:

“Can anyone bring the Republicans together again?”

(No! Not even all the king’s horses and all the king’s men!)

Can’t you just hear some cable news pundit barking out those same Chicken Little-like words (wait, maybe we did)? If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Nagourney goes on—beneath the dramatic headline, “No G.O.P. Anchor in Sight”—to describe the Republican party as “adrift, deeply divided and uninspired” and in “trouble” because three different states have selected three different Republicans as their preferred presidential candidate; soon enough, one will win for a second time, and then a third, prompting the campaign press to move on from the Republicans Are the Humpty Dumpty Party (Nagourney’s exaggerated twist on the conventional wisdom that the Republicans are “scrambl[ing],” or having an “identity crisis”) to the next narrative. Wasn’t it, Can Anyone Bring the Democrats Together Again? until last night’s conciliatory Democratic debate forced the press to put the race card to rest for now (despite moderator Tim Russert’s best efforts)?

That’s not to say that what is happening in the Republican race isn’t fascinating. It is. But is The Sky Falling for the GOP? Why the need to make some sensational declaration about what happened last night?

Trapped in the oxygen-deprived bubble that is the campaign bus and faced with the demands of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately editors, reporters already tend to read heightened meaning into each turn of events on the campaign trail. That tendency is exacerbated for someone writing for the morning paper, staring at his own increasingly-stale-sounding copy and competing with the insta-analysis from blogger- and cable-know-it-alls (and in same cases, even himself).

Boy, I’m glad that’s for other people.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.