Media Matters: Press ailments

As swine flu swept across the world this week, it also afflicted the media.

world newspapers 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
world newspapers 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
When the first reports of swine flu in Mexico emerged last Saturday, two local colleagues each told me separately that there was no way he was going to lead with that item. One, in broadcast journalism, pooh-poohed it as "hype" that would dissipate before the week was over, due to its having been blown way out of proportion. "And if there's no Jewish angle," he quipped, "it's of even less interest." The other, a wire-service editor, pointed to it as a perfect example of the press's penchant for creating - or at least contributing to - panic. "I'm not going to be party to that," he asserted. Both also claimed there was a cynical motive behind the blitz: fear on the part of the media that they would be accused of burying an important story, in the event that the virus did, indeed, turn out to warrant genuine concern. In this profession, they said, covering one's derriere is no less important than covering the issues of the day. To this, I would add that covering one's derriere also means staying ahead of the competition curve. For, whatever the level of actual alert - in this case, as it relates to our health - there is always a figurative one lurking in the background: the threat of losing one's audience. This may not seem like much, certainly not when compared to a potentially deadly disease. But in the current "climate change" that is taking place in the world of print journalism - due to the accessibility of free information on the Internet - newspaper people whose livelihoods are in jeopardy consider it a critical condition indeed. WHETHER THE need to remind readers and advertisers why they should remain loyal to the industry, both in spirit and in spending, was at the root of a certain Haaretz stunt this week is unclear. But judging by one of its Independence Day supplements - it was either that, or a classic case of celebrity journalism, according to which the reporters become the focus of their stories. It might have been a bit of both, given the underline of the 14-page spread in Tuesday's paper - called "Rega ehad" ("One moment") - read: "We asked 41 Haaretz journalists to select one [choice] moment in their journalistic careers. From Ben-Gurion to the Second Lebanon War, they are all here." Ironically, one of those "here" was Shahar Ilan (whose own anecdote was about his holding off on publishing an article about the incitement campaign of the haredi press against prime minister Yitzhak Rabin) is no longer "there." Well, not at Haaretz, anyway - as he announced this week in a most interesting way. Conducting an interview with himself on his blog (how the great have fallen), Ilan reported that, in spite of his many years of dedicated service and different positions held, he was laid off because his salary was too high. Unfortunately for Ilan and the rest of us, it's one infectious ailment for which no antidote has been found. MY TWO peers in the profession are no doubt eating their hats right now with regard to swine flu. As the World Health Organization continues to issue severe warnings about it, virtually every news outlet has turned it into a top story. But at least neither's job security rests on the financial future, or lack thereof, of what used to be jokingly described as "black and white and read all over."