‘When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.” This aphorism has been attributed to several barely remembered titans of the newspaper industry (partisans of Charles Dana, Alfred Harmsworth, and John Bogart can duke it out in the letters-to-the-editor round file).
This saying used to annoy my late father to no end. A longtime news-syndicate editor, he simply knew that it wasn’t true. Here’s an excerpt from an e-mail he sent me on the subject over a decade ago (my father sent me scads of e-mails on everything from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Talmud to the innate superiority of basset hounds):
I have seen front-page stories over the years about dogs biting men — whether because of a case of rabies, the Post Office complaining about this continuing hazard to their deliverers, or attacks on people by pit bulls, Rottweilers, etc. I have NEVER seen a front-page story on a man biting a dog. And yet, going back to my years at NANA [the North American Newspaper Alliance, a once-prestigious news syndicate -- Hemingway covered the Spanish Civil War for NANA -- where my dad’s career began], we had distributed at least five or six stories about men biting dogs (either out of revenge, pure kookiness, or whatever). Invariably, these were consigned to the inside pages as “filler,” usually run in the early editions and dropped in the final editions when “real news” filled up the pages (like dogs biting men, perhaps?). The New York Times was a customer of ours then and they used a lot of NANA material, including two concerning men who bit dogs, as filler material in early editions, both of course dropped when the big stories started coming in on land reform in Peru (which everybody, of course, was waiting for). We even distributed several stories (spread out over a year, which was the time period he gave himself) about an Australian who ate his car (yes, including the engine, headlights, and all)!!!! Did the Times give this proper attention? Of course not. They didn’t run any of them. And yet they used many stories on cars that destroyed people. So, when you hear the “man bites dog” cliché, you’ll know that it is just another big lie!
I don’t bring this up simply out of filial nostalgia. I was reading a column in USA Today by my friend Glenn Reynolds (a.k.a. Instapundit) on the news that California state senator and candidate for California secretary of state Leland Yee has been charged with some truly stupendous crimes. Yee, a famous champion of gun control, allegedly tried to smuggle into the country some machine guns and shoulder-fired missiles from his contacts in the international Muslim-terrorist community. It’s a pretty interesting story. But — well, here’s Reynolds:
Outside of local media like San Francisco magazine, the coverage was surprisingly muted. The New York Times buried the story as a one-paragraph Associated Press report on page A21, with the bland dog-bites-man headline, “California: State Senator Accused of Corruption.” This even though Yee was suspended, along with two others, from the California state senate in light of the indictment.
CNN, Reynolds went on to note, refused to cover the story at all. When pressed on it by viewers, the network responded via Twitter that state senators don’t rate attention from the network that gave us wall-to-wall coverage of the infamous “poop cruise,” complete with hourly updates on toilet blockages. (By the way, CNN is still covering that historic news event. It recently ran a one-year-later piece on its website: “‘Poop Cruise’ Witness: ‘I Got Mentally Injured.’”)
CNN’s actual explanation was that they cover state senators “just about never.” Which is just about a lie. They covered then–state senator Wendy Davis’s pro-abortion filibuster as if the fate of the republic depended on it. They covered Sandra Fluke’s ill-fated state-senate run. The website Weasel Zippers reports that CNN had even favorably reported on Leland Yee numerous times, particularly when he was eager to ban violent video games. In other words, the geniuses at CNN are not only lying about their standards, but they actually think Yee became less newsworthy when he was charged with bribery, attempted gun-running, and collusion with the Chinese gangster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow.
The real point of the phrase “man bites dog” is to suggest that journalists have a bias toward surprising news, even if it’s merely anecdotal. But these days, that’s often at best a half-truth, which is often the most effective kind of whole lie. When it comes to politics, what ignites the press isn’t surprise but confirmation. The great herd stampedes when it hears what it expects to hear. Surprises get squashed or squelched, which is why it has become a parlor game to see how long it takes wire stories about corrupt politicians to mention their party affiliation. If they are Republicans, it’s in the lede. If they’re Democrats, it’s usually about ten paragraphs down, if anywhere at all.
That’s why actual dog-bites-man stories make it to the front pages, while man-bites-dog stories are negligible filler. When a Republican candidate does or says something awful, it’s a newsworthy dog-bites-man story because the press believes it is their duty to report on the true, feral nature of conservatives: “Rabid Republicans Claim Another Victim.” When a Democrat does or says something awful, it’s a curiosity, an anecdote, at best suitable for a squib in the back pages: “Local Puppy Learns to Play the Piano.” In this sense, Reynolds had it backwards. The Yee gun-running spectacle is a man-bites-dog story, and, like my dad said, the Times never puts those on the front page.