It turns out I have no idea what is and isn’t news.
The path to this revelation began at 7 this morning. Instead of turning on the Today show as usual, on a whim I put on CBS This Morning, which has the reputation of being a more serious news program. September 11 isn’t like other days and I wanted to hear what serious journalists had to say.
I was disappointed to see that a remembrance of the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history was relegated to the third spot on the rundown. The top story of the day, according to CBS News, was Joe Biden’s appearance on CBS’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert the previous night.
Any other day of the year this would have been just fine with me. I understand the importance of cross-promoting your network’s shows, especially one so highly anticipated that has just launched to big ratings and critical acclaim. (Sidebar: The Late Show with Stephen Colbert really is excellent television. Kudos to Executive Producer Meredith Bennett!) But let’s put things in perspective here: that’s television, 9/11 is life. I am also in no way minimizing the personal sacrifices made by the Vice President. I just felt that the honchos at CBS made a self-serving decision to promote their own show over one of the most important events in modern American history.
In fairness, because I didn’t watchToday today I didn’t know what story they led with. So I took a look at the websites of the three broadcast network morning news programs. Not surprisingly CBS News featured Biden and Colbert at the top of the page. But I was stunned to see that ABC News also led with the Biden story (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert was credited at the top of the page, but Colbert’s image was conspicuously absent from the photo.)
At least ABC did have a banner above the Biden story promoting a live stream of the 9/11 commemoration ceremony and the video itself was playing in a small box below Biden’s big head. The top stories on the Today home page were an interview with the seamstress who helped two inmates escape from a New York prison, a dog story, and Justin Bieber.
So it wasn’t just that CBS was putting its own business interests above editorial credibility. Across the board, the broadcast network news directors had decided that 14 years later, 9/11 just wasn’t news anymore. Maybe, I thought, it’s because TV targets the lowest common denominator and people really do care more about Justin Bieber than 9/11. Surely the venerable New York Times would give the anniversary of the terrorist attacks the prominence it deserved, right? There was no mention on the front page; 9/11 didn’t appear until page 17, after stories including “Largest U.S. Electric Utility to Pay Fine Over Power Plan Rules Violations” and “Liberal Becomes First Female Mayor of Nashville in Runoff.”
Had people really forgotten the horror of that day? The suffering of all of those who lost loved ones? The loss of innocence we all experienced? A quick look at my Facebook feed showed me that this was not the case. There were dozens of beautifully worded tributes, images of the Twin Towers, and proclamations to Never Forget. I don’t think my friends are unique in their need to come together and publicly acknowledge the significance of this day. People want to share their sorrow and support each other.
While the news outlets may continue to focus on what’s considered news at J-school, social media reveals what’s really important to people. The national conversation is on Facebook, and Twitter, and Instagram. TheToday show has its kitschy Orange Room devoted to monitoring social media. Perhaps the news directors should listen to what their viewers and readers are talking about amongst themselves. Isn’t that what news is?