The other day, the fashion police's scream about Michelle Obama's turquoise boots was heard around the world. This on the heels of their shriek that her sleeveless dresses are "inappropriate" in the White House. When I think of all the urgent news bulletins that had to make room for sartorial slips by the First Lady, it makes me want to weep. Fashionista nitpicking has its place in American life, for sure. But not at the top of the news.
Back in the day when newspapers mattered, there were protocols about the relative importance of any given piece of news. The book format of a newspaper dictated where you put what.
The front page, and the first few pages generally, was reserved for important stuff, like war news, strikes, Presidential speeches, summit meetings, major political scandal, death of an important figure, etc. etc. There were sections for local news, editorials, sports, fashion and society, entertainment, real estate, classifieds....and of course the comics. They all had their assigned higher or lesser priorities in an orderly news world. Maybe, just maybe, the World Series or an nasty Hollywood divorce might get on page one, but never above the fold!
Even in the Sixties, when the media first started going gaga over First Lady fashion (i.e. Jackie Kennedy's Paris gowns), most editors had sense enough to put red-carpet stories in the society and fashion sections towards the back of the paper, where they belonged.
Today, with the media so diverse and so consumed with competition over ratings and viewer attention, and with tabloid fever overflowing into the traditionally non-tabloid media, and paparazzi swarming Washington D.C. for the first time, it is clear that these useful old protocols have dissolved -- along with the priorities that they helped to establish.
Also in the category of nitpicking is the way that even the important stories are nitpicked to death. Yesterday's press conference by the President, for example. First came the endless pre-event predicting and second-guessing. This is now being followed by the endless post-event regurgitating, re-analyzing and micro-viewing through ever more magnified political microscopes. That's the way the whole Presidential election was covered, to the point where many people got sick of hearing about it. Now it's the MO for covering Obama's first Hundred Days. It's the Nancy Grace approach -- the way she fills a whole hour of coverage by rehashing the tiniest details of a single crime. While all the networks have their different viewpoints, they all use that same MO now. MSNBC may focus on commentary, rather than pure news, but even they often have a tendency to bore endlessly into a limited number of stories.
There are only 24 hours of air time in a day. When the media fill a certain number of those hours with needless nitpicking on important stories, or with nitpicking on silly stories that aren't very important at all, they have to leave out stories that Americans should be hearing about.
Like more coverage on the possible collapse of the Mexican government because of drug terrorism -- a problem that is sure to irrupt across our southern borders and put a whole new meaning on the definition of a "terrorist." Or the developments in Darfur around prosecution of war crimes there, that are sure to impact on Obama's need to deal with war crimes committed by individuals in the Bush administration. Or the Americans whose homes aren't going to be saved by the Obama administration because their mortgage is above an arbitrary $800,000 limit set by the government. In my humble opinion, the squawk about Michelle's boots pales by comparison with this company.
Right now, for example, I wish we were hearing about the March 24 White House meeting between Obama's faith-based office and the religious-right organizations that have an agenda of outlawing abortion in the U.S. It's clear that the bible beaters are going to squeeze the President every way they can. If they can squeeze him on abortion, it creates a toehold to squeeze him on other issues. That's important stuff. The religious-right web pages have reported on the meeting, of course, and so has Right Wing Watch. One would think that Fox News would list this meeting story for sure. Or CNN or MSNBC. They didn't, although Rachel Maddow did mention it a few days ago. But generally the top news-story website rosters yesterday did have lots of room for the Octo-mom's latest antics, and whether klutzy Steve Wozniak would get voted off "Dancing With the Stars," and David Letterman's sneak marriage in Montana, plus a few other things that belong in the back end of the newspaper.
To put it another way -- putting tabloid news side by side with the bailout and budget news, and the Iraq war news, trivializes the serious stories in a way that could be dangerous for the country. No wonder a lot of Americans act as if they're living in a bubble.
To sum up: what the First Lady does with education, or even a model vegetable garden in back of the White House, is top news. What color her boots are, and whether the vogue vampires like her sleeveless dresses, is not top news.
I know we can't turn back to the clock to those orderly days when everybody read newspapers, and TV and the Internet and cell-phone twitter didn't have the power they do today. But a clear sense of what's really important -- compared to what isn't -- is definitely missing in our national media consciousness.
If our media can't figure out what the real top news is, if they can't give it all the time it needs, how can Americans ever solve the problems that the top news is supposed to be about?