Reading the front page of the New York Times Thursday morning, I wondered what the response would have been if, instead of publishing the headline, “Faces of a Town’s Overwhelming Loss,” they had printed “Enough is Enough” with those same childrens’ faces over the entire front page.
The NYT’s “neutral” coverage of this tragedy is especially appalling because just two weeks ago, on May 15, they printed one of the most devastating – and effective – front pages in the newspaper’s history: An entire front page – and the whole back page – with a map noting the dark milestone of “One Million” deaths from COVID-19. I posted it to Facebook for my friends who don’t get the paper version and got dozens of comments.
I wrote, in passing, “It’s too bad the newspaper doesn’t cover mass shootings this way.”
A day later, on May 16, my rueful statement was sadly proved true. A large part of the front page – but not all – covered the tragedy of 10 killed in a Buffalo supermarket because of the color of their skin. “Grief and Rage Rock Buffalo After Racism Fuels Massacre” was a strong headline, but a bit jarring juxtaposed on the same page as “Why Australia’s Covid Death Rates is Only One-Tenth of U.S. Level.”
You would have thought that the slaughter of at least 18 schoolchildren a mere 10 days later would have merited the same coverage that COVID-19 got, but no. It was obscene to see, at the bottom of the page, articles about the latest Trump legal farce, or the incremental movement of Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Why am I picking on the news media (and a newspaper I value so much that I have had for decades subscribed to the paper version), when it’s Congress who is failing to enact the laws that could turn the tide of gun violence?
Because Congress, as ever, is ruled by the people who pay them and, to some lesser extent, by the people who elect them. Both constituencies are influenced by public opinion and public opinion is influenced by how the media covers the news.
Maybe if all newspapers just hammered on this topic on the front page day after day the way they have the pandemic, lawmakers would have the backbone to act.
Why don’t they? We think of such journalism as “tabloid” or “advocacy” journalism, but there must be some middle ground between tabloid journalism and “neutrality,” which, as we all know, isn’t really neutral. Editorial decisions are made all the time. Despite the declaration on the New York Times’ masthead, if they truly printed “All the news that’s fit to print,” the daily edition would be the size of a dictionary.
Even more important, in this day and age of inattention and the pull of the visual, is the decision about how much space to give to a news item and what the headline signals. The New York Times is signaling to us that a virus that killed so many is more worthy of our attention than an epidemic of gun violence and political inertia that is tearing this country apart. Rather, the effort to make editorial decisions seem neutral signals a pulling back from civic engagement, as if they didn’t have a dog in this fight.
Of course they do; we all do. This country will survive COVID-19. I’m not so sure we’ll survive this political subservience to gun culture. We need American media to get back in the game if we have any hope of turning this around.
Enough is enough.