Friday, April 27, 2007

Something to laugh about

It's been almost two weeks since the tragic events at Virginia Tech. When students returned to class on Monday, the news media covered it to signal the healing process had to begin. It also seemed to signal the end of nonstop coverage from Blacksburg. That left a tremendous news hole to fill.

One of the stories getting play this week was President Bush's dance routine with an African drum group. Across TV and the Internet, this "story" was all over. I saw it for the first time Wednesday on Letterman as part of his segment "Great Moments in Presidential Speeches" and I really laughed. I thought it was an old clip the Letterman writers had dug up. The next day, I began to see it everywhere and realized it was pretty fresh when Letterman picked it up.

It wasn't just the late night talk shows that re-played it over and over. It was getting actual coverage on news programs. What makes me wonder about this story was what made it newsworthy. I have three hypotheses.

1) It was captured on video and news outlets had the video, so they showed it.
2) The leader of the free world did something silly and it was noteworthy to show it.
3) We all needed something to laugh about after the long 10 days covering Virginia Tech and there was a huge news hole to fill.

Without cameras there, I doubt newspapers would have tried writing up this dance. This goes back to an earlier blog I wrote about the omni-presence of cameras (about another GOP dancer, "MC" Karl Rove) and the changing ways we can see our government leaders.

As for the second hypotheses, it was noteworthy - not necessarily "newsworthy" - to show the president having a little fun and being silly. How could you resist showing this video and talking about it when you saw him banging on that drum? Love him or hate him, the dance was fun and funny to watch. It was something to laugh about, not laugh at. The problem with this type of coverage is that the event was lost. Obviously Letterman won't say what the event was for, but I only heard one news outlet say why President Bush was jamming with that group - they were there as part of a malaria awareness day. (CNN Pipeline did a story about the clip's appeal - watch it here

The third hypothesis seems pretty likely. Consciously or not, the decision was made to show this and slap it all over the Internet by many news outlets and it may be related to giving the viewer something softer (much softer) after the intense Virginia Tech coverage. It probably still would've gotten play if it hadn't followed the week in Blacksburg, but maybe viewers gravitated to it more because of what we all collectively felt like we had gone through. There was also a tremendous amount of resources dedicated to Virginia Tech over the past 8-10 days and this story was an easy "get." The cameras were already there to cover whatever press conference had gone on, and then they were still rolling when this little nugget happened. If news directors could fill a minute or so with Bush's boogie, then why not?

My one contention to the reporting was the after-thought given to what the press conference was actually about (if any thought was given at all). At least for the sake of context, tell the viewer what led to this happening!

This was a funny clip but journalists need to vet funny stories just like they would a hard news story. Why are we running this or posting this to the Web and what can we do inform as well as entertain? Just because something is funny or soft doesn't mean it can stand on its own without journalistic decision making. Now if only the cameras could catch Cheney dancing.


At Friday, April 27, 2007, Blogger MW said...

Dance routines make nice distractions, especially when your administration is buried in scandals.

At Saturday, April 28, 2007, Blogger AJS said...

Great point about not giving the dance any context. I had to think about it for a minute before I remembered, and I'm not even sure I have it right (I think it's fighting malaria).

If so, that's a pretty significant issue in Africa, where so many people die unnecessarily just because they can't afford $5 mosquito nets. The TV coverage definitely could have paid more attention to that than a silly dance.

Also, this is why a surprisingly large number of people still support Bush. The guy, for better or worse, has charisma and a folksy, down-home charm. The Democrats would do well to learn from that.


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