The Queen, Trust and the Incurious Press
A closer look at the press coverage of the last fortnight.
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Anyone who looks hard at press coverage should have been a bit taken aback, I think, by a number of things we have seen in the two weeks since the death of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth. I want to use this space to call out a few of them.
First, there was the inundation of coverage itself, culminating with the funeral and burial on Monday. I confess my deep respect for the Queen and her steadfast devotion, and my own substantial curiosity about her (I’ve seen the movies and play as well as all of “The Crown”), but I think we must acknowledge that this has been, for Americans, an event of no great importance. No policies will change, no markets moved, no jobs gained or lost, there will be no effect on our own politics. Yet much more attention has been paid, and more news resources devoted, than if all of those things were reversed.
Why? The Queen’s passing should remind us that news will always consist not only of things that are important, but also of things that are merely of interest. In this sense, the difference between the news pages and, for instance, the sports pages is less than we are often inclined to think.
Two narratives challenged
Next, and more substantively, we have seen at least a couple of things about trust and institutions that run counter to narratives we have widely adopted in recent years, and they should remain in our minds as a bit of a counterweight. First is that the news of the Queen’s death was transmitted very quickly and without any meaningful doubt. To be sure, the death of a 96 year-old known to be in frail health is hardly a shock, but the instant reactions—the acceptance of the news—is worth bearing in mind the next time someone insists that no one believes the press anymore.
Beyond that, the outpouring, not only in Britain (people queued up for miles and days!), but also in this country, is worth considering in the context of the common belief that established institutions are in wholesale retreat. Not all of them, apparently.
Then we come to another phenomenon, the one I have found the most surprising—the incuriosity of the press on matters of some significance, indeed what I think can be fairly termed the willing suspension of journalistic inquiry.
We can best illustrate this by noting that, two weeks after the Queen’s passing we still do not know the time or cause of her death. Nor, at least so far as I can see, have any American news organizations been pushing for answers to these basic questions. (I’ll let the Brits off the hook on this, as sensitivities are likely different, at least for the moment.)
Does it really matter when and precisely why the Queen died? Not in any earth-shattering sense, but these seem more significant historical facts than much of the trivia with which we’ve been bombarded in the last fortnight. Some things do matter a bit, like whether the statement from the Queen’s doctors that set off alarms two weeks ago was true when it indicated that she was still alive.
Perhaps it was, but everyone seemed to react as if it was not, from royal staffers with Charles “running up and down the halls”, to the notes hastily passed in Parliament, to the black clothes that appeared so quickly on the BBC, to various royals taking the time to dress formally and gather for a single airplane flight from London to Aberdeen, rather than hastening to the bedside of a dying mother or grandmother. If the statement was false, well, I don’t think there is such a thing as a “white lie” by a major institution like the British monarchy.
With respect to the cause of death, if the visible recent possible intravenous treatment during the Queen’s last public appearance was indicative, for instance, of some undisclosed disease, questions will ultimately ensue—if only about whether any illness should have been stigmatized by silence. Instead of answers to such questions, we got articles like this from the Wall Street Journal pondering whether “cause of death” is really a thing if you are 96. It is, and it’s both required by public health records and mentioned in almost every obituary of a well known person.
Elizabeth II deserves to rest in peace, and I hope this column won’t be taken to the contrary. But the job of journalists remains to be inquisitive. After taking some time off from this role during the last two weeks, I hope the press that has focused on this story gets back to work.
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