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Di Leo: JFK, C.S. Lewis, and the Power of the Press

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By John F. Di Leo - 

On November 22, 1963, after a two-year illness, the great author C.S. Lewis died at his home in England.  He was a lifetime scholar, a professor at Oxford for over thirty years, and author of many of the greatest books of the 20th century in several different genres: theology, fantasy fiction, science fiction, as well as the scholarship of English literature.  As the author of the popular bestsellers The Screwtape Letters and the Chronicles of Narnia, he was certainly among the most famous writers on earth at the time.

Less than an hour after his death, however, half a world away, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Kennedy was a war hero, writer or coauthor of a couple of popular books, and a charismatic young senator when he was elected president in 1960. Just 2.5 years into his first term, Kennedy remained a beloved figure despite a few major policy failures. Between the fact of his personal popularity and the fact that he would be succeeded by the notoriously corrupt leftist Lyndon Johnson, the nation was horrified by his murder. It is no exaggeration to say that much of the world was plunged into mourning.  

President Kennedy’s death and funeral, along with coverage of the presidential transition and the drama of the identification and capture of his killer, dominated the headlines for weeks. 

C.S. Lewis – an important figure in the popular culture with a global following – should have received a great deal of coverage when he died, but naturally, Kennedy’s death kept the death of C.S. Lewis (and almost all other news, for that matter) off the headlines.  Nobody would argue that such coverage was misplaced; the murder of a US president is indeed about as big as news gets, so it ought to get coverage.

This particular moment in time has been commented on for years… people have written about Lewis in an attempt to ensure that his legacy gets the attention it deserves, despite having been largely missed at the time.

But the incident merits consideration for another reason too, separate from the individuals at hand.  The news coverage of the final six weeks of 1963 is also a lasting example of the power and effect of the press.

Other things didn’t cease to occur in the world, just because JFK died and LBJ moved into the White House, but that’s what dominated the headlines.  Laws were passed, there were mergers and acquisitions, new product launches, probably big weather events too… all of which were relegated to back pages, below the fold, in those weeks of turmoil. New movies opened and television series debuted (including Doctor Who), all of which got marginally (sometimes substantially) less coverage than would normally have been expected.

America is in a similar situation today.  Throughout the Trump administration, various investigations have received massive coverage that objective viewers would call disproportionate.  From the Mueller Report to the impeachment hearings, the news media have relegated all other news to secondary status. 

When we talk about media bias, we usually think about the way they cover a story – whether the reporters have infused a news story with opinion, whether they’ve taken sides to steer the audience toward their way of thinking.

The other aspect of media bias that media watchers think of is the actual choice in stories, in terms of what they cover and what they spike.  If you have five stories to consider, and only room for two, which ones do you select?  Sometimes it’s blatant, as when the media consciously decides not to even mention a story that one side of the aisle would consider huge… and sometimes it’s more subtle, as when a certain type of story is always on page five, but another type of story is always on the front page. 

Sometimes the press can make a case for journalistic integrity – “The evidence wasn’t ready yet; we were waiting until we could really do the story justice with information we were confident in.”   Sometimes they can make a case for a genuine difference of opinion – “We’re sorry you thought this was big; we just didn’t think it was.  We have other important content to cover; what other important stories should we have spiked to make room for yours?”

But one aspect of press bias that’s rarely considered is the tendency, growing greater in recent years, surprisingly enough, to devote so much coverage to a single issue that it crowds out virtually everything else.  How many of us know, for example, that the Trump administration negotiated a US-Japan Trade Agreement this fall? How many of us remember that the administration negotiated a replacement to NAFTA, to be called the USMCA, over a year ago (and the House still hasn’t taken it up!)?

We all see the US House’s ongoing investigations of the Trump administration, because they dominate the headlines every day.  But how many outside the most attentive members of the conservative movement are aware that there are also ongoing investigations of the Obama administration, largely by the Department of Justice?  Current and former employees of numerous federal agencies are embroiled in criminal investigations for financial shakedowns, abuse of power, and the literal selling of US policy during the Obama administration, but this has barely registered in the mainstream media.

Is this lack of coverage by design?  Is it a legitimate application of the proper discretion that any mode of journalism rightly has to apply, or is it an abuse of power for political purposes?

A free, constitutional republic doesn’t just benefit from a surfeit of information; such a republic requires it.   When voters can walk into a polling place having never heard of a news story that may dominate the thoughts of everyone walking into a different polling place, how can we expect the electorate to come together?  We don’t just have different ways of looking at the same stories; we don’t even see the same stories anymore.

This may be one of those issues that has no clear solution; the government has tried to force standardized approaches to news coverage in the past, and it’s worked toward the negative. (cf. The Fairness Doctrine).  Our First Amendment guarantees a free press; we correctly fear meddling with that freedom.

But we can recognize a problem, when we see one, and today is as good a day as any to highlight it.  As important as the news of John Kennedy’s death was, the world lost something in not joining together in shared mourning for the great C.S. Lewis.  In all likelihood, every other massive news story, from hurricane to impeachment, buries other important stories whose coverage would have improved the world.

Here’s to greater openness, to broader knowledge of the world around us and the news of the day, and to somehow finding a solution to one of the true challenges of our times.

Copyright 2019 John F. Di Leo

John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based trade compliance trainer, transportation manager, writer and actor.  His columns have regularly been found in Illinois Review for over ten years now.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Don’t expect “openness” from papers like THE DAILY HERALD, who are too lazy (or CHEAP) to do their own reporting.
    The DH prefers to smear it’s pages with the garbage dumped on them by THE WASHINGTON POST, without evaluating it.
    The DH’s editors claim they do not print “fake news,” but fail to confess they RE-print the “fake news” sent from the WASHINGTON POST.