In journalism school, there are some lessons that are easily absorbed, and others that require a period of time to marinate. Among the ones I grasped almost immediately included bringing a notebook with me on interviews instead of scribbling on a cocktail napkin or a menu, using the word “alleged” to describe a suspect until the guilty-as-sin lowlife was convicted, and ending all stories with the now-archaic “30” as opposed to affixing the more conventional “The End” so confused readers will know it’s journalism and not a fairy tale.
But when it came to news judgment, I quickly realized that I was on my own, as evidenced by the way my journalism professors would shrug whenever I posed an example. I recall being perturbed, unsure if my instructors were being coy or clueless. Here I was spending thousands on a college education and I couldn’t get a straight answer when it came to what was news and what wasn’t. All I received were blank stares and mutterings of “What do you think?” to which I would reply with an under-my-breath “If I knew, why the &%$!! would I ask you?”
This age-old dilemma arose anew this week when the Associated Press announced that it was issuing a ban on all stories about Paris Hilton. To use a sports analogy, AP people are the offensive linemen of journalism. They toil in relative obscurity, yet their work is essential. They get almost no credit, and yet so many others are dependent upon their efforts. They also often spend time in a semi-crouch position with one hand on the ground, but whereas linemen do so by design, AP reporters and editors end up that way as the result of too many Paris Hilton stories.
As it turns out, the AP ban lasted only a week or so. It was more of an experiment than an etched-in-stone policy. The AP wanted to see if it could exist without the ubiquitous no-talent birdbrain gracing its wire copy. And this prohibition was done with a sense of humor, although when I think of the AP editors I’ve known over the years I’m assuming the news service had to contract out to find somebody who had one.
But just like the Petri dishes that were my journalism classes, this presents a larger issue: What is news?
Here we go again.
For the purposes of this discussion, I would like to think of the Associated Press as a person. Specifically, the AP is a somewhat tall, overweight, middle-aged man with glasses and an ill-fitting suit that he bought off the rack. He likes to go around to the corner bar at lunchtime for a couple of martinis, which he expenses. He’s got a photo on his desk of a wife and two kids, even if they aren’t his. And he loves journalism with all his heart, even though he hasn’t written a story since his sophomore year.
Frankly, I prefer that AP be a rich, attractive, uninhibited young woman, but I was afraid that might color my judgment on this topic.
Also, thinking of AP as a man serves a useful purpose. Because if AP were, say, a 45-year-old woman, intelligent, highly ambitious, a little frumpy but not to the point where it works against her in job interviews, with a traditional view of what constitutes news, Paris Hilton would only move on the wire if it was determined that she had killed Anna Nicole Smith. Other than that, the subject of Paris Hilton would be left to the hedonistic devices of the many gossip Web sites and the network television entertainment shows that specialize in presenting the exploits of the truly unimportant to the insanely bored.
In this situation, AP the guy got himself into trouble because he was easily led astray. Other news organizations were paying close attention to Paris Hilton, so AP decided he too would gush. The trouble is, of course, that Paris Hilton the news item isn’t some babe at a swanky nightclub attracting the drooling attention of a gaggle of libidinous men, even though Paris Hilton the human is. She’s a creation of the modern media, a vapid exercise in journalistic excess. Compared to her, Britney Spears is Henry Kissinger.
The AP’s ban was a cry for help. He needed somebody to save himself from himself. He needed Paris Hilton rehab.
He was part of the problem in creating this monster, and now he desperately wanted to escape its clutches. But like Ray Milland’s character in “The Lost Weekend,” looking pathetically up at the ceiling to discover a bottle of cheap hooch he stashed away inside a light fixture, AP realized he couldn’t live without. His blood-Paris content is almost three times the legal limit. Any attempt at going cold turkey is fruitless. So the ban was rescinded.
Perhaps like myself, AP was let down early on by his journalism professors. He needed a more precise definition of what news is, but he apparently received the same inscrutable expression and cryptic explanation in response. So he set out to discover the answer for himself, and as a result here he is, groveling at the feet of a hotel heiress as she skips past the velvet ropes and onto the red carpet.
If only AP’s friends could pull him aside, stage an intervention and tell him how silly he looks. Yet sadly, AP only has two friends, and they’re both bartenders, working different shifts.
The sudden abandoning of the Paris Hilton moratorium means Paris in the springtime, Paris in the fall, Paris throughout the hot, steamy summer, and Paris in the winter, all bundled up in fur. If she breaks a heel, AP will move a bulletin. If another randy video emerges, AP will cull from world reaction and bring us a second lead write-through, with quotes.
AP’s reporters and editors are the offensive linemen of journalism. And right now, they can’t get up.
Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.