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Rain Stick

“Nattering Nabobs of Negativity”.

I was a kid when Spiro Agnew spoke those words as he resigned from the Office of the Vice President in 1973.  Mr. Agnew had been accused of corruption and allowing his office to be influnced by outside monied interests. Specifically, according to Wikipedia, Agnew was investigated by the United States Attorney’s office for the District of Maryland, and charged with having accepted bribes totaling more than $100,000 while holding office as Baltimore County Executive, Governor of Maryland, and Vice President.

But instead of speaking to that responsibly, he did in his press conference what a surprising number of the high profile accused (and convicted) for mostly any crime tend to do.  He talked about what he felt had been done to him by the media.  Agnew implied that the news media had used their role to turn public opinion against him.

The news media is a lot like a rain stick.  Kids who’ve been to camp know its a hollow tube, taped at both ends and filled with rice or gravel.  When you shake it, its supposed to sound like rain.  Two things about a rain stick.  First, it doesn’t shake itself.  And second, no matter how much noise it makes, the noisemakers stays inside the tube.

People accuse the news media of causing problems by amplifying the small into the ginormous.  But that’s not how news works.  The public have to believe there is something there to wonder about in the first place. They have to care.  And although  the news is very, very good at finding those little things to be examined, if people aren’t really interested, reporters don’t follow up and the story eventually fizzles.  In other words, people have to want the stick shaken.

Don’t believe me?  Look back at all of the times reporters have been kidnapped.  If there is ever a instance when the media would push a story to drive a story, it’s then.  And even then, it was hard to keep the public interested in media’s efforts to get one of it’s own released.  By contrast, when a journalist is accused of unethical behavior, that captures everyone’s attention because people are thinking, “That journalist has been in my house making suggestions to me and my family about what we should do or how we should live.  They’re always supposed to be right, ethical, above board”.

That can feel like a betrayal which is much more personal.  And curiously, even some of those journalists, if they find themselves muttering Agnew’s defense, know its public interest, not necessarily their colleagues, driving the story.  Yes, the media does eat, chew and spit out a lot, but its a diet largely dictated by the public.  If that wasn’t true, newsrooms everywhere wouldn’t be filled with image consultants, social media accounts and rapidly spinning revolving doors.

So when Governor Kitzhaber said in his statement of resignation yesterday that “it is deeply troubling to me to realize that we have come to a place in the history of this great state of ours where a person can be charged, tried, convicted and sentenced by the media with no due process and no independent verification of the allegations involved”, he is, in some ways, repeating the sentiments of those who don’t see that although the news media isn’t necessary the light of day, it can be the magnifying glass.

But it isn’t holding itself.

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