Like Generalísimo Francisco Franco, Anna Nicole Smith is still dead. Let's be honest, when you heard Smith died, you did say, "Wow, really? What happened?" Answering that question is what reporters do and the question and its answer are news. Likewise, the fact that that question remains unanswered is also newsworthy. It's just not extremely important. But it is news.
The problem is that we're not seeing a lot of prioritizing among news organizations. When celebrity news is the top story, it should mean it's a slow news day. But the truth is that celebrity news is often the top story because there's celebrity news. Mel Gibson spews a drunken, bigoted tirade and that's the big story. Michael Richards spews a sober, bigoted tirade and it's page one. Anna Nicole Smith dies and it's a long, national nightmare.
God help us if Paris Hilton either dies or gets married. We won't hear anything else for weeks.
Think Progress has a nice comparison of coverage of Anna Nicole Smith and the Walter Reed Medical scandal. It represents one day, last friday. According to them, MSNBC covered Anna Nicole 96 times and Walter Reed 84. CNN did better on balance -- 40 Anna Nicole to 53 Walter Reed. FOX News (surprise, surprise) did a lousy job with 121 Anna Nicole stories to just 10 Walter Reed. While other networks could be said to be offering candy with their coverage, FOX's coverage looks a lot like using Anna Nicole to fill the gaps left by a Walter Reed news blackout.
The other two networks covered the two stories more or less evenly -- which, IMO, is bad -- but FOX's coverage of the two stories was slanted toward Anna Nicole Smith by a ratio of nearly 12:1. That's freakin' awful. It's nothing new for FOX. The network has a bad habit of poorly serving viewers. A 2003 report by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) found that FOX viewers were the least informed on average and the most likely to believe crap that wasn't true. In fact, the more often you watched FOX, the less informed you likely to be.
The reason for this is simple. No cable news network has 100% news. There's a lot of editorializing from talk show hosts. There are also a lot of interviews by 'experts' (i.e., pundits). When opinion is mixed with actual news content, people predictably confuse fact and opinion. FOX, with its rightward leanings, interviews one hell of a lot of right wing BS artists. This means that a lot of viewers confuse right wing BS for fact. Take having the Swift Boat Vets practically living in the FOX News studio's green room in 2003, for example.
And, as we see from the comparison of coverage between Anna Nicole Smith and Walter Reed, FOX significantly underreports stories that are embarrassing for the right. In the end, FOX isn't serving viewers, it's serving the right wing pundits and politicians it interviews -- FOX is a propaganda outlet.
There are also FOX's hosts -- Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, John Gibson, etc. None of these shows inform viewers, all they do is expose them to opinion. If Bill O'Reilly has a leftie on his show, his only purpose is to show viewers why they should disagree with the left. And check out this bit of fun from John Gibson:
FOX's John Gibson on CNN's Anderson Cooper and criticism that Gibson spends too much time on crap like Anna Nicole Smith: "Oh, 'There's a war on! There's a war on!' Maybe, just maybe, people are a little weary, Mr. Cooper, of your war coverage, and they'd like a little something else."
Golly, you'd think some people thought the war was important or something. Anna Nicole Smith is dead, you heartless bastards! Again, the inconvenient hard news is secondary to the distraction.
To go back to the PIPA study, where FOX did the worst job of informing viewers, the media source generally considered the most liberal, National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System, did the best. It seems that reality has a leftward bias.
This is why people are able to believe absolutely crazy stuff, like creationism or global warming denial -- they've been trained to practice cognitive dissonance. Truth is a matter of what you choose to believe. Kids growing up in the Soviet Union experienced a similar idea of truth -- history was malleable and what was true one week was untrue the next. People were added and subtracted from history books and they learned that history -- and reality -- can be 'corrected.' Truth is what authority tells you is true.
A FOX viewer can watch some flat-earther deny evolution, then watch a story about the bird flu evolving to become resistant to vaccines and believe both. Having conflicting ideas in the same head isn't a problem if you're properly conditioned. It's a zen-like state, only without all the peace and enlightenment. A 'go with the flow' mindset better suited to an oppressed populace than a free people.
Like I say, Anna Nicole Smith is news, like it or not. So is the fact that some lunatic thinks your kid should be taught that people were made by a god out of dust (assuming said lunatic is influential enough). But using one kind of news to cover for the fact that you're not reporting another kind of news is lousy journalism. And giving opinion the same weight as fact is also lousy journalism.
But then, FOX News isn't journalism. It's a PR firm.