In an interview with The Hotline last week, New York Times reporter and ace stylist Mark Leibovich was asked how he'd like to be remembered. His answer: "As a political reporter who never quoted Larry Sabato or Norm Ornstein."
The quip reflected a widely held view of the media's more ubiquitous sources. It's a noble sentiment—let's not be herd animals—but I don't think all the frequent fliers of the news columns deserve the mockery they get. I've quoted Sabato now and then, and I know why others do it: He's unusually pithy and generally has something new to say.
The point is not how often certain names appear in the media but how much value they bring to the piece in question. This is true in choosing sources and in the arguably more important work of deciding which people to cover as subjects, and how much coverage to give them. It seems to me that many media outlets, large and small, could be a lot more discriminating about the space and time they devote to certain fixtures of the headlines.
For the last few weeks, for instance, we've seen a whole new wave of coverage about food and diet in America—Americans eat badly, families don't eat together, the implications for longevity, and so on. It's a worthy story, even if the "your health" category is getting a wee bit overtrafficked these days.
Quite a number of the stories have either focused on or prominently featured one Marion Nestle, a New York University professor whom Time magazine calls a "noted scholar of American nutrition." I first heard Nestle on National Public Radio. It was a good interview, and since it was the first time I'd encountered her, the value was high. Then I saw her in Time's big package "Eating Smart," which included a photo of Nestle, a Q&A, and a big foldout graphic of a supermarket interior, annotated with her shopping tips. Not much there that I hadn't picked up from the radio piece, but I was still riding the Nestle train. Then I went online and found a lot more recent Nestlecentric content, admittedly not by accident but by doing a Google News search.
"Supermarket Sleuth," said the headline at Salon.com. "Nutrition Expert Marion Nestle Tells Vermonters How to Eat," said The Burlington Free Press. "Critical Eye for the Supermarket Aisle," offered NorthJersey.com. "Conscience-Raising Foodbookery," headlined a blog on The Washington Post's site. There were dozens of hits.
Why? As The Post headline hints, Nestle has a new book out, What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating. Nothing slays us journalists more easily than a book—a nice fat blob of content that's readily molded into a story. To help things along, book publicists send out handy summaries and sample questions, and authors show up in town all primed to give good quote. In short, it's easy.
Best-sellers are especially attractive because the sales numbers validate the story's appeal. When pitching one's editor, the word "best-seller" is like money. The only problem with just-published authors is that they tend to have a spiel, and after a few media hits, the spiel gets kind of old. Say what you will about the Ornstein/Sabatos of the world, they try to say something different every time. Nestle's core advice is so simple—eat more fruits and vegetables, avoid junk—it literally doesn't bear repeating.
At any given moment, every newsbeat has its Marion Nestles. In architecture, the name of the moment is Zaha Hadid. In business, it's Goldman Sachs. And in political commentary, it's Ann Coulter, whose new book is designedly offensive and, therefore, huge. Is there a media outlet in which Coulter has not taken her obligatory bow in the last week? The woman has gotten endless coverage, despite the fact that this is exactly the same show we've seen before, an ideological circus act indistinguishable from Michael Moore's and with exactly the same goal: cash.
Where is the national media outlet that sees the name Ann Coulter and discriminatingly says: "Way overdone; not our kind of thing. Let's just ignore her." I'm ready to subscribe!