No News Is Good News

By Saltzman, Joe | USA TODAY, November 2004 | Go to article overview

No News Is Good News


Saltzman, Joe, USA TODAY


IN CHINA AROUND 1160 AD, there was an enormous public appetite for inside news about the government. Private reporters who were connected with these sensation-seeking newspapers--which, at the time, were handwritten--often were accused of leaking official news. Chou Linchi, a prominent individual with special access to government officials, wrote a memorandum petitioning for the suppression of what can be translated as "tabloid news" reported by "minor-mongers who took the opportunity to spread sensational news misleading the public."

Linchi went on to say that, whenever "there is news in the air and the public is held in suspense," these reporters "would snatch the chance to write the news down on little scripts and circulate them abroad. For instance, they often say 'So-and-so was summoned to an imperial audience today' or 'So-and-so was dismissed,' or 'So-and-so got an appointment.' This news is often inaccurate or even a groundless fabrication."

He wrote that sometimes the news "turned out to be true and some times it turned out to be false. If it was true, the news should not have been permitted to leak out, and if it was false, it was misleading ... the spreading of news through such channels is injurious to the administration and demands our attention. I humbly petition that Your Majesty should issue an edict prohibiting their circulation with definite forms of punishment attached to it. In this way, people will learn about the government orders without conjecturing about them, and whatever is issued will be correct and reliable. In this way, the dignity of the government is upheld and the source of publicity will be unified."

Nothing much has changed since that memorandum was written. Big Government and Big Business think the same way. They believe that any sensitive information released is not a good thing. If the information is false, it is misleading. If it is true, it should not have been leaked. Either way, no news is good news. Only information that is carefully controlled by the source is permissible. Then, as the ancient media watcher put it, "the source of publicity will be unified."

Journalists who have reported on government and business in the last few decades constantly complain that it is getting more and more difficult to get accurate news to the public. If" a reporter, for example, writes a story that includes unfavorable information about the president, he or she likely will be ostracized and given no further access to the Oval Office. The same is true with many other government officials, from senators to governors to mayors and city council members. Private business, on the other hand, simply closes its doors to any journalist right off the bat--no access. If any employee talks to a journalist, his or her job is in jeopardy.

This has been the case with the coverage of celebrities for decades--public relations representatives will not give interviews with any of their clients if an unfavorable story appears. Editors have to decide whether an unflattering piece on one of the rep's lesser clients is worth losing a story with an A-list one. …

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