Opinion » Ted Rall

Vacuum-Packed News

A growing gap between raw and packaged news destroys credibility


NEW YORK--Hurricane Katrina survivors' shocking testimony to Congress about their abuse at the hands of federal troops and local police ought to have been one of the biggest news stories ever. What happened instead--and what didn't happen--is a perfect illustration of the widening gap between raw and packaged news, and why 66 percent of Americans don't believe what they read in the paper.

There it was, right there on CNN the afternoon of December 6. Ishmael Mohammed, an attorney for the People's Hurricane Relief Fund, quoted a young woman named Denise, talking about her experience in the New Orleans Superdome: "The National Guard did not serve or protect. They were constantly threatening us and herding us by machine guns like cows. I saw a teenage boy beaten up by a National Guard officer in front of a crowd of thousands of people." Denise confirmed accounts of "white and Asian tourists ... rushed quietly out one side of the barricade that held thousands of exhausted, financially underprivileged black families with babies." Tammy, a thirtysomething African-American woman who was attempting to escape the city by car, said police stopped, arrested and jailed her and her two daughters for weeks. "Lie down on the ground, you black monkey bitch," she claims one of them yelled. Patricia Thompson, a 53-year-old New Orleans evacuee, testified that soldiers aimed their machine gun target lasers at her granddaughter's forehead, and that New Orleans cops routinely spat racist insults at storm victims. Others spoke of looting and gratuitous murder by police gone berserk.

Congressman Chris Shays (R-CT), who was apparently not in New Orleans during Katrina, nevertheless called these Americans liars. "I just don't frankly believe it," he said. When a witness referred to brutality at the "Causeway concentration camp," Jeff Miller (R-FL) tried to shut her up. "Would you be offended if I respectfully asked you not to call the Causeway area a concentration camp?"

"I am going to call it what it is," she retorted.

"Not a single person was marched into a gas chamber and killed," Miller clarified.

Amazing stuff. But if you weren't watching cable news that afternoon, you probably missed it. Network news buried the Congressional hearings on Katrina; so did the next day's papers. The New York Times never covered it. Only three groups of people know that New Orleanians drowned because they were too terrified to leave their homes, after watching their neighbors shot by rampaging police officers and national guardsmen: New Orleanians, people who have talked to them, and those who watch CNN while everyone else is at work. As far as the rest of America is concerned, these atrocities never occurred.

News in its purest form is what you see or experience firsthand, and it cannot be spun. No one, for example, will ever be able to convince me that the homeless fare evader I saw beaten half to death in the 103rd Street subway station was resisting arrest. But pure news is rare. For most media consumers, raw news is what the media packages relatively lightly: wire service stories, live Congressional hearings, C-SPAN.

Packaged news, on the other hand, is heavily filtered through legions of editors, producers and reporters themselves. Your local newspaper's chief editors meet each morning in order to decide what's worth covering. Dozens of wire service stories, on sports and business and politics and culture, fail to make the cut. Editors assign reporters to follow up some, but not most, press releases. Reviewers take on this restaurant and that book while ignoring numerous CDs that you might enjoy if you heard of their existence. Certain editors are brazenly partisan, politically and otherwise, making choices that reflect their publisher's or their own personal tastes. The New York Times, for instance, doesn't practice "advocacy journalism." That policy prompted Times editors, worried about affecting the outcome of the election, to kill a story revealing that the mysterious lump in George W. Bush's jacket was indeed a transmitter that he had used to cheat during the 2004 presidential debate. And the choice of the particular reporter assigned to write a story determines whether it withers on the vine or lives to see a follow-up.

Corporate consolidation of the media, such as the $6.5 billion acquisition of Knight-Ridder by the California-based McClatchy group, has led to shrinking news budgets and the duplication of news and features between co-owned outlets, which reduces costs. Syndication and the shrinking number of news publications contribute to a blandification effect. Print and broadcast media packagers face an ever-shrinking "news hole." Meanwhile, international expansion of foreign wire services and the spread of the Web are increasing the available quantity of raw news. There is more news with fewer places to go. And the more that the raw news gets cut, the less the packaged news looks like reality.

The growing gap between raw and packaged news causes citizens to feel increasingly alienated from their media, government and one another.

At a talk at a high school in New Jersey, I mentioned the Katrina hearings as an example of news that I had chosen not to discuss in my cartoons because too few readers would know what I was talking about. One girl, who had stayed home sick that day, had watched the Katrina hearings. Two others, both African-American, had heard about them. As the four of us talked about what had happened in New Orleans, in plain sight at the time and later related under oath on cable television, the other students stared blankly, left out, bewildered. They wondered why they had never heard that cops had murdered civilians just for fun, and so did we.