How well did the U.S. news media perform in 2008? Did they do a good job covering the major stories? What was under-reported? What were some big scoops? Media commentator Paul Janensch gives us an assessment.
For an overall grade, I give the news media a B. According to editors polled by the Associated Press, these were the Top 10 stories of the year: Barack Obama elected as the first African American president. World economy goes into a nose dive. Oil prices rise and fall sharply. Iraq war continues even though surge of U.S. troops reduces violence. China hosts successful Olympic Games. Earthquake kills 70,000 in China. Sarah Palin emerges as a force on the national political scene. Attackers terrorize the Indian city of Mumbai. Hillary Clinton comes closer than any other woman in our history to winning a major party’s presidential nomination. And Russia and Georgia wage a five-day war. I’d say the U.S. news media did a good job on all but Iraq and the conflict between Russia and Georgia. Iraq is still being buffeted by bombings, kidnappings and political strife and Americans are still dying over there, yet this ongoing story has mostly disappeared from TV and radio newscasts and front pages. The war between Russia and Georgia was portrayed as big, bad Russia invading little, innocent Georgia when, in fact, Georgia started it with an artillery barrage on the breakaway, pro-Russian region of South Ossetia. Here are some other look-backs at the news media’s performance this past year. On Time magazine’s list of the Top 10 Under-Reported Stories, No. 1 was “The Pentagon’s Nuclear Snafu.” In 2006, the Defense Department thought it was sending helicopter batteries to Taiwan. Last March it found out they were actually fuses for triggering nuclear warheads. The new web site Politico listed the Top 10 Political Scoops. One of them was the interview by CBS’s Katie Couric of Sarah Palin, in which the Republican vice presidential nominee was unable to answer such simple questions as what newspaper do you read?. Another scoop was Obama’s comment at a private San Francisco fund-raiser about small-town voters who “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion.” It was recorded and posted on the huffingtonpost web site, not by a big-foot news professional but by an amateur “citizen journalist.” I have a feeling that in 2009 more scoops will be scored by amateur “citizen journalists.”
Media commentator Paul Janensch is a former newspaper editor who teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.