Once there was and there was not …
Last Sunday I stood a foot from my TV flipping channels to find local news coverage of the protest rally at Pelanconi Park in Glendale. Instead of a story about ten thousand Armenians gathering there were stories about Roman Polanski’s arrest and Yom Kippur services.
Why had I even bothered, I thought, remembering what a pale-faced, petite news executive said to me five years ago.
“The only thing the Armenian Genocide means is a traffic tie up on Times Square every April 24th,” she stated bluntly.
She wasn’t trying to be funny. She thought her position as my boss and as a supervising producer at a TV network earned her the right to arbitrate the 21st century value of an unpunished and unspeakable 20th century genocidal crime.
“You’re not getting it,” she said, “it’s not newsworthy.”
That exchange in the early hours of April 24, 2004, was like the Ottoman sword that split my head open. The smarter-than-thou news-woman was putting me and my history in our collective place.
I had toiled years in news to get to my position in New York. I’d ripped and read reams of news coming out of teletypes, fetched people burgers on Sunday nights, worked as a radio reporter overnight, and covered drive-by shootings and state fairs.
I had watched the installation of computers in newsrooms, studied ethics and media law, earned degrees, and worked as the arbiter of what facts and stories were newsworthy or not for more than a decade in different newsrooms.
Until I was hired to work in the Big Apple, I had thought all newsrooms functioned with a fair yet unspoken sense of news value – a collective philosophy or news culture of what would be relevant and interesting to American viewers.
That ‘news sense’ included a system of checks and balances of newsworthiness based on how any given story would affect a viewer’s safety and pocketbook. A third check of worthiness was whether the story had entertainment or emotional value to the masses.
Old Hat in Fresno
April 24th in the Central Valley was old hat to news folks. The date meant a sprinkling of Armenian Genocide stories on television, on news radio, and in the Fresno Bee.
My employers over the years, KMJ, KMPH, KSEE, and KJEO, all did their share of commemoration coverage, acknowledging the importance of the day to the large local Armenian community.
The Fresno Bee used to write ‘alleged Genocide’ until the Armenian National Committee set the record straight. In the 90s, the Fresno Bee’s man on Capitol Hill stopped doubting what happened to my people was nothing less than the orchestrated attempt to erase the Armenian people and culture off the face of the Earth.
Only once during my decade-long work in media in Fresno did I receive flack for suggesting an Armenian Genocide story during our morning news meeting.
The year was 1994, and a retired baseball player, turned-cop, turned-news-anchor said to me that I had an “Armenian Agenda.”
I didn’t know what that was. I honestly had never thought about any agenda, but he said it to demean me in front of my colleagues. I argued that I had suggested as many Native American, Chicano, Hmong, and Serbian stories as I had Armenian ones.
Yet, an Armenian suggesting an April 24 story was taboo for this generic American with no ethnicity. It showed him bias.
New York City
Fast-forward a decade to the Upper West Side of New York City, where I realized there was more to “news value” than I had experienced on the West Coast.
In the Big Apple, one of the ten thousand things I would have to write every day was a 20-second news-watch script that would be read by my anchorman around 4:20 AM. The story was a tease, a look ahead of stories that would be making headlines in the day ahead.
One morning in mid-March of 2004, an instant message from my executive producer alerted me to replace one of the four stories I had teased in my news-watch with a sentence acknowledging the celebration of Passover.
I responded and asked why. Didn’t that holiday only pertain to only one or two percent of the total US population, I said. The executive wrote back, “That’s the way it’s done around here.”
A month later on April 24, 2004, I took the liberty of noting in my news-watch that Armenians around the world would be commemorating the 89th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
A few hours before air, my boss called from her office to tell me to delete the two-second Genocide reference.
She explained to me that the crime that had defined the lives of millions around the world – the crime that paved the way for the attempted genocide of her people meant nothing more than a traffic snarl that caused people to be late to work.
Think about this the next time you’re watching your local and network newscasts.
Think about who is deciding what you and the American public need to know as the news of the day. Then ask yourself why shouldn’t your own community media – this newspaper and website – be your primary source for news and information?
And to the arbiters of news around the world, read a bit more. Feel a bit more. Be more human. Expand your mind. Rethink your sense of news, for my people and our story are more than a traffic tie-up in the world.
The “Armenian Agenda” is a humanitarian agenda for justice and peace.
And three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for him who made him tell it, and one for you the reader.