Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Our Front Page Tomorrow

Big 48-point headline in the lede story position (upper righthand corner): "Kerry Attacks Bush on Iraq." The New York Times version of the story. It celebrates Kerry's "stinging critique" of Bush's "colossal failures of judgment." The fact that Kerry said (this time) he wouldn't have overthrown Saddam is blurred into the text and not explicit anywhere in the top of the story. Bush's reaction -- even the fact that Bush had a reaction -- is buried deeper than CBS's reputation. It doesn't appear until well into the jump -- well after most people will have stopped reading.

Down below the fold, at about 30 point, is the CBS apology story. New York Times version, again. Highly sympathetic to CBS, compared to what might have been written.

Oh, and way down in the lower lefthand corner, in a headline about 18 points high, "American hostage beheaded in Iraq." It's not even a story. Just a little teaser to a story inside, stacked up on top of the weather icon (going to be foggy here tomorrow) and a blurb about interest rates.

That's the world my co-workers inhabit. That's their image of what matters, and how much it matters. I'm sure many of you will say, "what's wrong with that?" That's because it's your view, too, of the relative weight of things, the proper spin.

But for a big swath of America, that's not the world we live in. We've never thought of ourselves as a people of consensus. But the last four years have fractured the illusion of a coherent worldview of the American people. There at least used to be a "center" here, among the fringes. And the mass media both inhabited and buttressed that.

Now the erosion of newspaper readers and viewers who only see network TV news has worn away the center. Everytime we run an obituary, we lose a reader. There are no young newspaper subscribers. The network news for years has subsisted on ads for senior citizen projects. Poli-Grip, Depends, insurance. They know who's watching. America's consensus is a bundle of broken mirrors.

The news media in America sees its purpose as a check against the power of the administration in the White House. Being generally liberal in outlook, reporters and editors will find themselves in a more contrarian position to a GOP administration than to a Democratic one. This will happen even when there is no deliberate attempt to politicize the media.

Local yokel newspaper editorial writers are harder on the county commissioners than they are on street gang criminals. That makes sense, to a point. But only to a point. Just so, in the U.S. media world-view, Muslim fundamentalists are a secondary issue; they don't read newspaper editorials. They don't wither from bad press. As one of my fellow editors said after another Iraq beheading, "terrorism-schmerrorism; it's all Bush's fault."

But to a lot of Americans, the Islamist who slit the throats of "Christian dogs," not George W. Bush, are their enemy, their focus, their fear. And our page 1 that people unfold at their breakfast tables tomorrow will look, to a lot of them, upside down.