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Poor Judgment

The news business took a beating last week, and many of the wounds were self-inflicted.

Jon Stewart took dead aim at that egregious cable news bulletin-style cutaway: from the story of Peter Pace's exit as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to one of Paris Hilton being escorted back to jail.

Stewart excels at mocking the fixation on tabloid stories that sometimes defies credulity.

Then again, that cutaway may not be surprising. A weekly Project for Excellence in Journalism content analysis of stories getting the most play on cable news found that, for the week ended June 8, the jailhouse meltdown of a mentally unbalanced “entertainer” charted as the third most important story in terms of time devoted to it. This feature of national import topped both the potential rekindling of the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia and events in Iraq.

Meanwhile, over at CBS News, there was umbrage all over the place after Dan Rather had the impolitic audacity to suggest the evening newscast he once headed had been “tarted up” under his eventual successor, Katie Couric. His actual complaint was that the line between entertainment and news was being blurred.

Hardly a stop-the-presses observation, but it's one that gains credence with every cutaway to a Paris Hilton special report or coverage of the paternity-test winner in the Anna Nicole Smith saga. These stories argue for news organizations' taking a hard look at their news priorities.

Last week, John Conyers (D-Mich.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, slammed what he suggested is a monopolized and manipulative media. Even as he championed a federal shield law—as do we—to protect journalists from the long arm of the government, he implied that they also need protection from their own bosses. Conyers said press freedom is under siege from an increasingly consolidated and corporate media.

We don't buy the blame-the-media strategy, but given some of the news judgment, or lack of it, being exercised, the industry is presenting an ever fatter target for its critics. Who can argue that this is a much more important story than Paris Hilton?