An editor for a newspaper in San Francisco was asked to define "news." He thought about it for a moment, then replied that news was anything that made a person say, "Gee whiz!" The editor's name was Arthur Brisbane. He made the comment 100 years ago. It is just as applicable today.
But should it be? Should news be something that elicits such simple-minded, superficial responses? "Gee whiz" is what a person says when he drops his toast onto the kitchen floor and it lands jelly-side down, or when she starts the car and backs out of the driveway, then realizes she left her book-on-tape in the house.
Shouldn't the response to news, real news, be more than that? Shouldn't it be a change in attitude or behavior, a confirmation or refutation of already-held beliefs, a deeper understanding of an issue, a broadening of outlook?
If a news story can do nothing more than make a person say, "Gee whiz!", should it be a news story at all?
Earlier this week, first lady Laura Bush appeared on CNN's Inside Politics and, in response to questions from anchor Judy Woodruff, talked about press coverage of her daughters and their alleged — and underaged — thirst for alcoholic beverages.
"I think that our children ought to be totally left alone and allowed to have a totally private life," Mrs. Bush said. "They're not public citizens. They didn't run for office. And we asked the press early on to give them that opportunity. And to some extent I would say they have, but not like I'd — like I wish they would."
Later in the interview, Mrs. Bush said that if she and her husband "never saw [their daughters'] picture in the paper again, we'd be a lot happier."
When Woodruff asked why she thought the media were making news of her daughters, she said: "I think that it's selling magazines and newspaper articles and television at the expense of my children."
What Mrs. Bush did not say is that daughter Jenna is in Los Angeles this summer, interning at a TV production house, and that reporters seem to be watching her carefully. Thus Mrs. Bush was not only criticizing the media for previous coverage, but trying to dissuade them from future coverage in case Jenna's thirst should get the better of her.
I remember my reaction the first time I heard that the president's daughters might be guilty of alcohol consumption before they had reached the legal age. I said to myself, "Gee whiz." Note: that's "Gee whiz" without the exclamation point.
But the more I thought about it — and I did not think about it much — the more I thought that "Gee whiz," even without the point, was an overreaction. I had a drink or two when I was too young. So did most of the people who were my friends at the time. We never drank too much. We never got in trouble. None of us is an alcoholic or even an occasional over-imbiber now. It wasn't so much booze that we wanted when we were underage and foolish; it was the excitement of a societally-proscribed experience.
And so it seems to me that Mrs. Bush is right; the media ought to leave her daughters alone. Unless, that is, they go to a dangerous extreme in their drinking, or engage in some other kind of activity that is more harmful than experimental.
But as long as what they're doing is what millions and millions of other people their age have done, whether right or wrong, why cover it? Why waste the time and resources of a Washington Post or USA Today or Fox News Channel?
I do not think that news should be anything that makes a person say, "Gee whiz!" But neither should it be an event that makes a person say, "Ho-hum."