Seattle P-I Editor: 'We Get to Decide What Is News and What Isn't'

Seattle Post-Intelligencer Managing Editor David McCumber has posted a blog item defending his decision to not run the photos of the two ferry passengers the FBI is seeking in order to question them about their suspicious activities on several Seattle-area ferries in recent weeks.

McCumber says the paper didn't consider the photos news-worthy.

I certainly have plenty of feedback to consider from the ferry photo issue as we go forward.

I understand that people have a hard time with the concept that we get to decide what is news and what isn't, and what is fair and what isn't.

Several people have basically told me I didn't have the right to withhold the photos of the individuals the FBI want to identify. One person even said, "You have a responsibility to obey all FBI directives."

That's not the way a free press works.

If everything any government authority handed us was automatically unquestioned "news," we would be a state-run newspaper. Strangely, some of the same people who have made arguments that we should unquestioningly follow the FBI's directives are also very critical of "big government."

This afternoon I got a call from a Washington State Ferries captain who thanked me sincerely for the decision not to run the photos. He said he feared we were moving to some sort of brown-shirt state where hysteria replaced reason.

He ended our short conversation by quoting Benjamin Franklin:

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporaray safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

I think there are very good arguments on both sides of this issue. The captain -- and old Ben -- expressed what I consider to be the controlling point here more eloquently than I was able to myself.

Thanks for considering all sides of this. We certainly have.

McCumber's tale of a conveniently unnamed ferry captain calling him and quoting Ben Franklin sounds a little to convenient for me to accept that it really happened, but even if it did, it's irrelevant. There was no liberty issue at stake involving the photos - which were, after all, just photos of two men in a public place. The P-I runs pictures of unidentified people in public places all the time.

I guarantee you that the P-I has, at some point during McCumber's time as the paper's managing editor, run a photo of random unidentified people on a ferry, either in conjunction with a story about the ferry system, or as stand-alone art.

McCumber, then, believes pictures of unidentified people on a ferry are newsworthy only as long as the pictures are not connected to an FBI effort to ensure the safety of the thousands of people who ride the ferries every day.

But of course the photos of the mystery men were newsworthy - otherwise, McCumber 's paper would not have published two stories about them and the FBI's search for the two men. If the story was newsworthy - and the P-I clearly thought it was - then the photos were newsworthy, too.

And yet the paper chose not to publish them.

Because, as McCumber asserts, "We get to decide what is news and what isn't."

Um. No. Not anymore.

True, Mr. McCumber, you get to decide what gets published in your newspaper and posted on your website. You can choose, for example, to reject the photos but run a haiku-writing contest about them.

But you do not get to "decide what is news" anymore.

"We get to decide what is news and what isn't" is the old gatekeeper mentality of news, a death-wish mentality in the current media landscape in which the people can get information from any number of media outlets - print, broadcast, and Internet. The P-I's refusal to run the photos didn't stop anyone in Seattle from seeing the photos, which were broadcast by local TV and the cable networks, published by the Seattle Times, and carried on countless blogs.

The Seattle P-I is not the arbiter of what is news anymore. No media is anymore. The public is. And the blowback the P-I got from readers - judging from the comments left on various P-I blogs and its story-related haiku contest - suggests that the paper's readers thought the photos were newsworthy.

The P-I decided otherwise - chosing to serve political correctness rather than the public it claims to serve.

Update: McCumber's view of what is and isn't photo-newsworthy is a little less hazy now:

Photos of unidentified people sought by law enforcement trying to prevent criminal activity: not newsworthy.

Photos of people (some unidentified) celebrating and sometimes engaging in criminal activity: newsworthy.

War on Terrorism Seattle Post-Intelligencer Government & Press Journalistic Issues David McCumber

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