‘No Job Too Big Or Too Small,” the sign reads. The sign belongs to a handyman company, and its employees will do anything from pulling up tree stumps to tearing down small buildings. If it requires labor but does not require a special license, they are your men. The motto is slightly redolent of the New Testament — “not a sparrow falls,” etc. — nothing being beneath our notice.
I spend a fair amount of time talking about the news on television and radio. In the last week, I’ve been asked about: background checks for firearms purchasers, Jay-Z’s trip to Cuba, the president’s budget proposal, that god-awful Brad Paisley–LL Cool J song, the chances of an immigration amnesty’s being passed, D.C.’s decision that smoking is to be considered a “preexisting condition” under Obamacare, and a few other things.
Some of the lighter fare there is heavier than it seems. The comings and goings of Jay-Z and Beyoncé may be something very close to the definition of trivia, but when an important American celebrity couple allow themselves to be used as political props to advertise a regime under which it is mortally dangerous to be a librarian, that is serious business. The Carters may in the end be persons of no importance, but the same cannot be said of the Castros. Brad Paisley’s musings upon the cultural significance of the Confederate flag are three or four flights of cultural stairs down from banal, but the underlying issue is not entirely unimportant. In fact, the least important thing I’ve been asked about in the last week may in fact be the president’s budget proposal — nobody takes an Obama budget proposal seriously.
The question of whether something is big news or small news, page one or page B22, is largely contextual. When I was editing small-town newspapers, a serious problem such as the school-district budget might have merited a six-column banner headline — the same treatment that a murder might be given on another day. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer gave 9/11 a six-column, two-deck headline, the same play it gave to the much less significant events of May 18, 1980. (Quick, can you remember? It was the eruption of Mount St. Helens.) Different newspapers respond differently to the news, of course, depending on the audience they serve: A big downturn in the markets is bigger news at the Wall Street Journal than it is at the Los Angeles Times. (It is a great mystery among newspaper readers what exactly constitutes big news at the Los Angeles Times.) Editors are of course capable of misreading the significance of events: When I was editing the school newspaper at the University of Texas, our policy was to emphasize the local and the particular rather than the national and general-interest; in line with that directive, I made the very poor decision to play the death of Thurgood Marshall at the top of the world-and-nation page rather than on the front page — it was not until the morning that somebody pointed out to me that Justice Marshall had made his name with a desegregation case called Sweatt v. Painter, and that the plaintiff in that case was the University of Texas law school.
Which is a long way of saying that I am sympathetic to context and sympathetic to mistakes.
The week gone by was not a very busy news week. The lead item at the New York Times web site as I write is the death of Jonathan Winters. Mr. Winters was a national treasure, to be sure, but nobody is ever going to say, “I’ll never forget where I was when I heard the news about Jonathan Winters.”
There is no context in which the grisly serial murders of a still-uncalculated number of newborns is not news. The horrific case of Kermit Gosnell of Philadelphia has been the subject of something very closely resembling an intentional media blackout by a great deal of the major media. When Washington Post writer Sarah Kliff was pressed on her refusal to acknowledge the story, she sniffed that she covers “policy, not local crime.” To which National Review’s Robert VerBruggen replied: “Similarly, national gun-policy people do not cover local crime in places like Aurora or Newtown.” Strange that we all know about such local-yokel crime stories as the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, in which the relatively modest number of seven mobsters lost their lives.
Our country is trying very hard not to think about abortion — about the physical reality of abortion. Earlier this year, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld a ban on the use of what critics insist on calling “graphic images” — but what is in fact simple photography — in abortion protests. Similar attempts to suppress free speech on the subject of abortion crop up regularly. Abortion is a strange issue in that it is the allegedly secular and materialist side of the debate that finds itself taking refuge in metaphysics, in this case the fiction of “personhood” that suddenly descends upon a human being at some point. The other side, thought to be populated mostly by religious cranks, is content to address the physical reality of abortion, the facts that cannot be denied but may be ignored.
The Gosnell case is shocking, but only because it makes visible and explicit what had been hidden and implicit. Every abortion is a shocking act of grisly violence — against the baby, who is murdered, and against the mother, whose body is converted into a crime scene. Taking some account of the moral reckoning of what our country has been up to for the past 40 years is a task of great scope and complexity. It is a job that is too big for the mass media. But willfully ignoring the story is a job that is not too big for them, even though doing so reveals our mighty newspapers and television networks to be smaller than we had thought. If this is what American newspapers have to offer, then they do not deserve to survive, and they will not. But the culpability is not theirs alone: There is a reason that there are many newspapers called The Mirror.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review. His newest book,The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome, will be published in May.