The Buck Stops Here Who does a newspaper speak for?

The Buck Stops Here

Robert Buckeye

When The News of the World was first shown in French movie theaters in 1940, it was placed between the first and second reels of the feature film. Audiences had not seen it before and assumed it was, merely, another reel of the feature. They would see Japanese soldiers in China, a drought in Africa, and German tanks and see them as part of Inspector Poirot's investigation of a crime - Poirot must have gone to China following a clue.

If they had not seen a newsreel before, they had seen movies and had been trained by years of watching film to understand how to watch them. A moviegoer sees a gun in a hand, followed by a shot of horror on a face, then by a body on the floor and makes a connection - a story -- between the three images. This is what, in effect, the French audience did with The News of the World, putting together a story out of unrelated events.

Newspapers are not unlike newsreels that used to screen in theaters. Articles, stories, columns and photographs are placed alongside one another in a newspaper with no apparent relation to one another. However, the reader of the paper does not connect one story to another, as French audiences did with the first newsreels. Does he assume that there is no connection between the stories and articles he reads? What if he put what he read together as a story?

Certainly, this is what Melanie Griffith does in the film, Working Girl. While reading newspapers, she makes connections between a wedding announcement, a comment in the entertainment section, and a notice in the business news that permit her to put together an offer for the company she works for to acquire another company that is interested in merger.

It is not how we read the newspaper, and, according to Walter Benjamin, how papers can be read. The format of the paper, Benjamin argues, provides information but prevents understanding. "Its intention," Benjamin writes, " isolate what happens from the realm in which it could affect the experience of the reader. The principles of journalistic information (freshness of the news, brevity, comprehensibility, and, above all, lack of connection between the individual news items) contribute as much to this as does the make-up of the pages and the paper's style."

For the most part, we do not - or cannot - make connections between the city council report, a business notice about company development, and an article about an historic house that threatened with demolition. Occasionally, we see the relationship between stock market reports and an act by legislature or between a cartoon, particularly if its Doonesbury, and politics. Newspapers often recognize the connection between the Trudeau cartoon and politics by placing it on their editorial pages.

Can a paper overcome its limitations as a multi-channel box which the reader reads, as if his attention were a remote control? I would argue that every paper tells a story. For a brief period, I reviewed books for The Plain Dealer. I began a comment about a book of black history in America by citing a number of facts about blacks in America. My editor told me to keep my opinions out of the review. I said those were facts, not opinion, but the facts I included were not the story The Plain Dealer wanted to tell and were deleted.

If history is, for the most part, a history of winners -- those who write history justify their own time - what history do newspapers tell? Who does a newspaper speak for? In 1839, a Parisian workers paper insisted that all articles in the paper be written by workers. In the offices of the paper, a register of misery was placed so that anyone who needed to could write his name. These names were included in the paper as witness, plea, signal.

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Volume 2, Issue 10, Posted 11:11 AM, 05.12.06