Media: The Template Theory
I know most folks here have a theory about major media. Most folks on the left do, too. I've got my own, and I share it with you today because I've just been living through empirical evidence of it.
The story starts with my own experience as a callow youth working for Newsweek in Los Angeles. I was below the low man on the totem pole, but occasionally I got to cover big stuff--when it happened on weekends. One day a "twx" came in from the Life and Leisure section editor in New York, asking reporters around the country for evidence of "rooftop living". He'd apparently been near-snoozing post-lunch, and, as he stared out his skyscraper window he must have noticed some stuff going on on nearby roofs. Hence, a trend story.
I duly called the obvious source: Capt Max Schumacher, LA's pioneering helicopter traffic pilot. He told me the obvious: LA has plenty of land, nobody needs to put anything on their roof, but...And he pointed me to three property owners who had, one being Mr. John B. Zurlo, who had a swimming pool surrounded by Greek columns on the roof of his Sunset Strip tower. I filed an interview with Zurlo, topped with the advisory that he was an anomaly in spacious SoCal.
When I returned from covering a space shot a few days later, the draft of the magazine story was waiting for me. The paragraph containing the Zurlo quotes began, "Typical of LaLa Land, the area burgeons with rooftop living." I called the researcher in NY and said, "read my file, you can't say that." She aurally nodded. When the magazine came out, nothing had changed. LaLa Land still burgeoned.
An editor sat in NYC and got a template of a story in his mind. Reporters were needed to mine quotes to fill out the template. Reporting that challenged the template was...irrelevant.
Flash forward. I've made a documentary film, "The Big Uneasy", the theme of which is (based on the conclusions of two independent forensic engineering investigations) that the flooding of New Orleans was caused, not by Hurricane Katrina, but by almost five decades of engineering design and construction errors in the "hurricane protection system" built by the Army Corps of Engineers. It's a theme radically at odds with the dominant media template of the New Orleans flood: big storm, city below sea level, nuff said. NB: the movie deals not at all with the response, the aftermath, all of which has been covered and argued about endlessly. My focus was simply to let the people who'd actually investigated the disaster and who knew what they were talking about tell their story.
Some media outlets actually did choose to cover the story of this film. CBS, NBC, and ABC did not. CBS, which we had been told might mention the thesis of the film on Friday's Evening News, instead ran an impossibly credulous piece on what great work the Corps was doing to rebuild the system. Anderson Cooper's show thought footage of Chilean miners was more significant; that's fair. NPR refused to cover the story on either flagship news program, and, when I took the obvious next step--bought "underwritiing announcements", i.e., ads--the real magic began.
NPR legal issued an edict that the following words could not be spoken in the announcement: "...documentary about why New Orleans flooded." Approved language: "...documentary about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina". Even though the first sentence in the film says that, had the system not failed catastrophically, Katrina would have given New Orleans only "wet ankles".
Since the Corps' work stretched through administrations of both parties, it's hard for me to see a left/right thing here. What I see is a media in love with its own template of the story, loathe to let facts upset it.