I'm working on a story right now about conservative books, so my research journey has taken me to Fox News Channel and many conservative blogs - see Captain's Quarters, AnnCoulter.com, RichardPoe.com and NewsMax.com. If you are on this site, you have likely read some of my other posts, and you have figured out that I'm not a big fan of the U.S. conservative movement. As Andrew Sullivan points out, it's really more of a move toward fundamentalism and away from libertarianism, which is ironic in light of the fact that the 9/11 attacks, one of the major catalysts for this shift in the party, were perpetuated by fundamentalists, albeit Muslims not Christians.
Anyway, what I'm confronted with in all these right-wing places is Terri Schiavo. No big surprise, but it's opened my eyes a little. Even though I'm a member of the media, I have never understood how some of these micro stories become mammoth monster stories that take over the news agenda of the entire country. Why Terri Schiavo, Elian Gonzalez and Lacy Peterson? Why not the many, many other brain-dead, hospitalized victims; Cuban refugees; or murdered wives?
I still don't know the answer to that question, but what I did learn (or what I was reminded of), is the copycat nature of news in the U.S. Watching Fox News, which last Thursday was airing Terri Schiavo almost to the exclusion of anything else (except a brief dip into the Michael Jackson lawsuit), I remembered exactly why discussion of the case has taken over -- fear. If Fox chooses to cover Terri Schiavo night and day, and Fox is the cable news leader, then everyone else has to cover it night and day because of the fear that viewers will leave in droves, ratings will plummet and everyone at the network will lose their jobs.
It's that point I believe the cable news directors lose their judgement. I do think the Terri Schiavo case is an interesting and important debate on morality and the right to life or lack thereof, and I do think this country should engage that debate. I do not think it should black out the news agenda to the exclusion of most of the rest of the news. What's more, with so many 24/7 news channels available, plus the Internet, and so on and so on, couldn't someone get brave enough to drop coverage of the Schiavo case unless something actually happens? And when it does, couldn't they just report that, maybe analyze it a little, and move on?
To some extent, I think copycat journalism is just easier. Why go break new and interesting stories when you can follow what everyone else is following? Why analyze trends or provide real, useful information when you can just chase your competitor? Why waste time examining what is happening on the international front that none of us really know about?
I also know from experience that most news organizations are limited in their funding. News outfits aren't run as non-profits, unfortunately, and thus are obligated by their corporate parents and their stock holders to show a profit margin. As a result, even if CNN makes lots of money, the channel still is forced to adhere to a strict budget so as to deliver profits to the corporate bottom line.
Within that budget, reporters, editors, and producers all feel obligated to cover the day's news agenda, even if it is repetitive and boring. They don't want to look like they got beat by their competitor. And at the end of the day, all of those news teams have nothing left - energy, resources, inspiration -- with which to bring original stories. They've given what they have to the issue of the day, and so have the reporters from every other news service.
If the news channels could somehow get brave enough to architect their own agendas and stop worrying about what the other guy is doing, that would much better serve the public interest and educate the democracy. The cable news channels could leave the nitty-gritty reporting of these ongoing stories to the wires and the major papers, report them as obligated, and spend their resources on the cutting-edge, the new, the unknown.
It's up to us, the consumers, to let the news organizations know we are fed up with copycat reporting by turning it off and demanding something better. As members of a democracy, we are obligated to educate ourselves on the issues of the day and the decisions--both pending and completed--of our government. To cite my hero, Oprah: what I know for sure is that there's more going on out there than Terri Schiavo.