Some years ago, The New York Times published an anthology of its front pages on the days of important historical events. Though the book’s ‘best-of’ style of selection made for good reading, the real fun was to be had with the accompanying CD-ROM which included every front page of the newspaper’s (then) 150 year history. We could see how the Times reacted to the Titanic sinking or how it notably did not react to the Holocaust or the AIDS epidemic. It is an interesting, if not strictly academic study of how we process the news. The idea of newspapers is a relatively modern invention, based around what I think are fundamental human traits: the search for empathy and the love of a good story.
The news cycle rolls relentlessly on. And if a good story doesn’t come along, instead of falling from the canopy some minor item would be elevated to national importance, becoming a peculiar curiosity of the zeitgeist until something more worthy takes its place. For example, The Times this week: Colorado shooting, Romney in London, Mary Poppins? But that’s how the news works. It’s a market driven business, as unpredictable as its customers: Us.
Who knows what perfect storm of newsworthy traits propelled the Colorado shooting into the national consciousness ahead of the plethora of tragedies that occur daily in this country and around the world. The sheer scale of the shooting was certainly a factor, but there were other elements of this story that endeared it to editors and readers alike: The everyman reliability of suburban Denver, the historical significance of the Columbine shootings or the marketable, synergetic novelty of a movie-tie-in villain who has excited pundits as diverse as Bill O’Reilly and Harvey Weinstein. However, the wheels of this modern life keep on turning, and as Mr. Weinstein well knows, humanity’s insatiable appetite for stories can only be sated for so long. And so the news crews packed up and flew out for London where our quadrennial salute to international cooperation through sport was getting under way.
But all wasn’t well in the Land of the Rings (Olympic rings that is). As Friday’s front page told us, the Republican candidate-presumptive made the unfortunate mistake of telling the people of London on the eve of the Olympics that after seven years and $15 billion of preparation, they were not ready to host the games. The British press responded with the pithy headlines for which they credit their survival, “Mitt the Twit” and “Who Invited Him” were ones of note. Boris Johnson, the mop-haired, toff-bred mayor of London replied by telling a crowd of 60,000 that London was, “one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world. Of course, it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.” Mitt Romney had better luck with the British Foreign Secretary William Hague. The candidate’s office said the two dwelt on their “mutual love of Kit-Kat bars.” Right. That, I believe is an example of the press having nothing better to talk about.
Sadly, few papers picked up on the great irony of the mini-scandal. The G4S episode, to which Romney was no doubt referring, involved a private security contractor’s revelation they had under recruited security staff for the Olympics, while charging the government a fortune. The solution was hiring extra civil servants (most of them military) to clean up the private sector’s mess. Sound vaguely familiar? One might think Republicans would rush gun control legislation through congress if only to prevent Mitt Romney from further shooting himself in the foot.
It could hardly get worse for the candidate than if the ceremony was a huge success involving a troop of singing, dancing members of the socialized National Health Service. Unfortunately for said candidate, Romney, that’s exactly what happened. One of the ceremony’s defining moments was a host of NHS volunteers marching into the Olympic Stadium to perform synchronised movements. Luckily for our dear Romney, the Times decided to run an image of the multitude of Mary Poppinses floating around the stadium instead.
The front page is the zeitgeist’s reset button. It dictates the day’s conversation and becomes a record of what a particular society values. Historians still pour through editorials in The Spectator or the Times for insight into the nation’s thinking on the eve of a great event. As if somehow the thoughts of an entire country can be distilled onto the page of a couple of newspapers. If a single week of front pages, ranging from a tragic mass shooting to an irreverent stage spectacle can teach us anything about ourselves or the media, it is a market-driven, commercial enterprise that exists in spite of individual journalists’ morals and ambitions. It sells a product where it can see a demand. That demand is for story.
The script doctor Robert McKee said that though he always wanted to be a screenwriter, he told his mother he would be a dentist because he saw a good career in it. She told him that one day someone might invent a pill that would make all our dental problems go away, but even then we would still all need good stories. It is the restless desire for a fresh story that draws us to back to the library or to the cinema. In it’s the small, real stories that collectively form “the news” that keep us entertained and enlightened and whet our restless appetites for the to the oldest of human traditions, storytelling.
Comments should remain on topic, concerning the article or blog post to which they are connected. Brevity is encouraged. Posting under a pseudonym is discouraged, but permitted. The Daily Cal encourages readers to voice their opinions respectfully in regard to the readers, writers and contributors of The Daily Californian. Comments are not pre-moderated, but may be removed if deemed to be in violation of this policy. Click here to read the full comment policy.