In an 1898 history of Pennsylvania, A.K. McClure reviewed the development of journalism in the state - and concluded his survey with the claim that newspapers were fundamentally educational enterprises, as important to the Commonwealth's common life as schools and churches.
The smartest person I knew about as I was growing up was the son of a Trenton newsstand owner. He worked the stand with his father after school and on weekends. His education came from what he read. And he read everything that he stocked.
At my house, two local papers were delivered daily, and the Sunday editions of Philadelphia and New York papers were acquired from the newsstand on Saturday nights; Life and Look were on the reading table. But as important as those were, my own education owed even more to television news. (The joke we used to tell was that the TV was first plugged in, in 1953, and was never after turned off.) Huntley, Brinkley, Morrow, Cronkite, and Severeid were among my first teachers of current events and history.
For Son of the Newstand, and for me, what news we found came as printed and as aired, without any published warning about, nor with any exercise of, parental discretion. Papers and magazines in, television on, let's see what's going on. Whatever editorial censorship occurred would have had to be done on the delivery side of the news.
We now know how seriously that responsibility was taken, and just how much got left out. Would it have helped or hindered our assessment of Jack Kennedy to know from his friend and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee just how dangerous his private liaisons had become? How would it have affected our assessment of Lyndon Johnson to know the language that he actually used to describe his colleagues? And would NBC, CBS, and ABC have really run tape of the Oswald murder in Dallas had they not unwittingly carried it live?
We live daily with that conundrum: how much of a story is really a story, and how much is appropriate to show and tell? The conundrum hasn't changed, but the circumstances by which we want to make the judgments have, and drastically. The advent of the 24-hour news cycle, a consequence of our very ability to deliver news with almost unbelievable immediacy, itself appears to color our understanding of the demand for news. The public's apparent appetite for thorough detail (at least about some stories) also colors the question.
A fair example of the problem - and of just how far we can get our knickers in a knot over the problem - is one that hit the news services this last week. The issue was this: the Vice President of the United States said something he certainly shouldn't have said, in a manner in which he shouldn't have said it, to someone he shouldn't have said it to, in a place where it shouldn't have been said at all. Was it a story, and, if so, how should it be reported?
The event was not reported in print here (although the especially curious could have used the AP news link to find it online). There are just much more important things to do with local ink. Elsewhere, it wound up looking like a journalistic train wreck.
The Big Boys thought it was news: CNN first broke the story; Richard Stevenson reported it for the New York Times, Dana Milbank and Helen Dewar wrote it for the Washington Post. The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Reuters, CNN, Fox News and the broadcast channels all reported it. The Associated Press's Jesse Holland followed, rather late to the game - but it was clear that the extra time had been spent doing what journalists should, double-checking his own, independent sources. And the result was that he implicitly and properly called into question the accuracy of the Post's report. The AP also ran a sidebar story on the history of Congressional bad temper - including the story of an 1856 caning of a Massachusetts senator by a South Carolina congressman.
But the Washington Post had gone a step further and published That Word He Used in full, without the dashes of standard journalistic decorum. Whoa. A big barrier got broken on the Senate floor by the story's subject, and now a big barrier got broken again by the Post. The Post's editor, Len Downie, defended the decision by saying that "We don't play games at the Post." But in taking that step, the Post had effectively made the story into one about That Word, and not about what happened on the Senate floor.
By the time the Sunday news summaries and editorials appeared, the reigning storyline seemed to be settling into one about political civility. But, strangely, we still do not know with precision exactly what got said by either the Vice President or the target of his ire before the offending word got slung - no, sorry, before the "exchange of views" got really "frank."
In the midst of all of this, the Post got a raft of e-mail responses to its coverage, two of which made telling points. One, from Springfield, Ill., objected to its apparently new editorial policy on the grounds that it was not appropriate for a "family newspaper read by children." A second e-mail effectively answered the first. This one was from Arlington, VA: "Anyone who is old enough to have an interest in reading the newspaper has presumably heard the word and is aware of its meaning." Not to mention the fact that, before said child got to the offending word, she would have had to get past "theft," "fraud," "murder," and "rape" on the front pages.
Those two e-mails help define the scope of the task in locating the important story and telling it in ways important to the public's education, the issue with which we began. Our judgments about what children need to know, and how, remains a good, though not entirely self-defining, principle of judgment - about which we will have more to say.