TOPICS > Nation

Tabloid Backlash?

November 14, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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TERENCE SMITH: As basketball star Kobe Bryant’s appearance yesterday in a Colorado courtroom once again set off the predictable media frenzy…

FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT: …Fox News alert, and there he is, Kobe Bryant…

TERENCE SMITH: …News organizations across the country are grappling with the question: How much coverage is justified, and how much is too much?

GROUP: Kobe, Kobe!

TERENCE SMITH: According to an exhaustive content analysis of two decades of American media by the Project for Excellence in Journalism…

REPORTER: OJ, anything you can tell us?

TERENCE SMITH: …Mainstream coverage of lifestyle, celebrities, and scandal expanded dramatically throughout the ’80s and ’90s.

REPORTER: How ya doing, Monica?

TERENCE SMITH: But with the tragedies of September 11, 2001, a new, more sober media emerged, at least temporarily.

CBS NEWS CORRESPONDENT: …Targets in Afghanistan.

TOM ROSENSTIEL: September 11 sort of scared the media straight again. And we saw for the first time in 25 years a return to a kind of 1970s news agenda, briefly.

TERENCE SMITH: Tom Rosenstiel, a longtime media critic, is the project’s director.

TOM ROSENSTIEL: The news was suddenly so important, and the news from outside the United States was suddenly so important that we saw levels of international coverage and national coverage and national security coverage that we hadn’t seen in a couple of decades, but it didn’t last.

TERENCE SMITH: Despite continuing turmoil overseas, tabloid coverage has come back strongly, he says. The key reason: Money.

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Those kinds of stories cost less to cover. They don’t require you having foreign bureaus and running around the world. They are the kinds of things you can plan.

FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Is sex on the road fair game for NBA husbands?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: They are also, interestingly, the kinds of stories that you can tease and promote on television.

LARRY KING LIVE, CNN: Race, sex, money, celebrity, all on the table…

TERENCE SMITH: But in at least one community in the shadow of the Kobe commotion, a public backlash to the wall-to-wall coverage may be emerging slowly.

MAN, ASPEN: I’m sick and damned tired of it.

WOMAN, ASPEN: As far as seeing it every day in my newspaper, not interested.

TERENCE SMITH: Here in the ski town of Aspen, Colorado, just 75 miles from the courthouse, a local newspaper has taken a different tack.

The Aspen Daily News, after publishing dozens of articles about the Kobe Bryant case, decided that the paper and its readers had had enough.

BEN GAGNON: It just occurred to me all of the sudden that we don’t have to do this. There is no reason to keep running these stories. There’s not a lot of value in them; there’s not a lot of information; there’s not a lot of news. Maybe we should fill that hole with something else that is, you know, more newsworthy.

TERENCE SMITH: Copy editor Ben Gagnon and editor Rick Carroll wrote a front-page editorial on October 9, a day when hundreds of media converged nearby for another Kobe Bryant appearance, saying there would be no more stories on the scandal in the Daily News:

“To observe a media pack of this size doesn’t suggest purpose, it feels more like a herd, perhaps even a mob. When a verdict or settlement is reached in the case, we’ll print that.”

Their stand was a departure for the small but scrappy newspaper, which has a reputation for muckraking.

RICK CARROLL: Our motto is, “if you don’t want it printed, don’t let it happen.” It’s on the front page of the paper.

TERENCE SMITH: But the editors see it as a kind of protest against some of the larger trends in American journalism that reach well beyond Aspen.

RICK CARROLL: This was a display of independence in a media world that is becoming very corporate and homogenized and operating under the same umbrella.

It was a way to show, hey, we are an independent newspaper, and you know what? We can do what we want. And here we go.

TERENCE SMITH: The editors’ decision stunned the founding owner of the paper, Dave Danforth, who argued that the 15,000-circulation Aspen Daily News should not be suppressing stories — any stories. But he let his editors make the final call.

The public’s reaction, on the other hand, was overwhelmingly positive.

MAN, Aspen: I think it’s wise for them not to get involved.

MAN, Aspen: I just think there’s more important news in the world.

TERENCE SMITH: The paper received nationwide publicity and hundreds of letters of support.

BEN GAGNON: Quite a few of them told us to hang in there, to not give in, as if we were going to have to fight this in order to not cover this trial.

TERENCE SMITH: Other people who disagree with you, journalists, argue this is about a major American celebrity, that it involves important issues of race and celebrity and justice, and of course there is a serious crime alleged. Isn’t that a story?

RICK CARROLL: I am not seeing a lot of these stories that they are talking about — the race issues, the victims’ rights issues. What are we seeing on a daily basis? We are seeing every left and right turn that is being made in this case, whether it is rumor, innuendo, and sometimes fact.

TERENCE SMITH: But other editors say it is the media’s responsibility to cover the story, to get beyond the frenzy.

DON WYCLIFF: No way we could avoid this story.

TERENCE SMITH: Don Wycliff is The Chicago Tribune’s public editor. He says the newspaper cannot create “refuges from reality.”

DON WYCLIFF: Kobe Bryant is big news. He’s big news when he is on the basketball court, and when a guy who has been promoted in the way he has been is accused of a crime like this, it’s big news, and we’ve got to cover it. We’ve got to cover it extensively.

TERENCE SMITH: Crime and scandal have always been part of news coverage, says Wycliff, and the Kobe Bryant story is getting no more and no less.

DON WYCLIFF: I rather doubt that the Kobe Bryant story gets proportionately any more coverage in The Chicago Tribune than it would have 20 years ago, 30, 40, 50 years ago.

Our celebrity miscreants came from different places in those days; I don’t think they claimed any less space and time.

TERENCE SMITH: While The Chicago Tribune carries stories from bureaus around the world, Wycliff contends that allegations concerning an American icon have a special resonance.

DON WYCLIFF: If the question is, should we cease covering a Kobe Bryant story because there is something else in some other part of the world that we conceivably could cover, I would have to disagree with you.

Kobe Bryant has a real effect on the way my kids are growing up — what they see on TV, what they hear. They look up to him in a certain way, and I want to know the facts. I want to know what the real truth is in that case so I can talk to them about that.

TERENCE SMITH: Meanwhile, in Aspen, The Daily News continues as a Kobe-free zone.

But for most of the national media, a story that combines sports, scandal, and celebrity is too hard to resist.