I fully agree that the royal funeral had virtually no news value, while the damage done to Puerto Rico by Hurricane Fiona is a huge unfolding story. (“Hey @MSNBC – Maybe cut ANOTHER COUNTRY’s endless monarch funeral and let us know what’s happening in #PuertoRico where REAL AMERICANS are in crisis?” read a typical Twitter post.) Still, I can’t really blame CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, or any of the other news channels or websites that provided live coverage.
News programs are produced and broadcast by private companies, which care about readers and viewers. And like it or not, it has never been the case that media coverage alone is enough to sustain a business. Back when Americans bought newspapers, I bet they got more for sports scores, stock market reports, classifieds, TV shows, and comics than for sober analyzes of Washington law. Sure, a lot of people paid attention to the news, and maybe some people paid a lot of attention – but even then, the news still had its share of fame and spectacle.
To survive as a commercial enterprise, the news media must meet the demand for many unimportant things. Yes, news outlets have a vested interest in being perceived as sources of serious information about the world, and therefore in building a reputation for strong journalism. When they fail significantly, like when CNN went out of its way to boost Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential nomination process, they deserve criticism. But no realistic media critic should expect them to care only about that, or miss out on very interesting, basically innocuous spectacles like a royal funeral.
And I’m not going to blame the public either. I myself have a much below average interest in the Royal Family and have watched almost no coverage. And everyone has something that fascinates them that isn’t exactly consequential. Put in hours covering the purely ceremonial aspects of the opening day of a new convention, and I’ll be there. (Thanks, C-Span!) Staring at celebrities in general doesn’t bother me – no worse, and probably much better, than being fascinated by the various forms of violence that also produce reliable, reliable ratings.
Nor is there anything wrong with proudly free Americans staring at the fanciful trappings of foreign aristocrats — even those who once considered the United States their personal property. After all, it’s been almost 250 years, and the United States and the United Kingdom have been good friends for about half that time. Many of us live in places where there were never any British colonies, and most of our families entered the United States long after independence. Enjoying the pageantry of the royal family isn’t really that much different than listening to The Beatles or Amy Winehouse or, for that matter, watching Shakespeare.
Either way: the news media were willing to provide this coverage, and maybe even made a little extra money doing it. They eventually have to manage to cover up serious problems in the United States. But I’m not going to blame them for the time they spend paying homage to the Queen – and the public who wanted it.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and politics. A former political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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