Give us news that's fit.
This preoccupation with trivia may have originated with the tabloid publications on sale at supermarket checkout counters. At one time they were harmless enough, featuring banner headlines like "Statue of Elvis seen on Mars" or "Baby born with father's tattoo." But then the tabloids got serious. Waving their overstuffed checkbooks at any amateur spy, they scoured the hustings for any dirt that would seem to stick to a celebrity or even a reasonably well-known person. These unconscionable peddlers have little concern about whether what they are publishing is indeed true and little reason to worry about whether the victim of their slander will sue.
Eventually the cash rewards paid out by the tabloids broadened the scope of the "Revelation Industry" to include retired football players, television sitcom principals, and even political officeholders. When a rising young film actor was arrested for soliciting a prostitute for unconventional sex, at least one tabloid told his story gleefully.
And it wasn't long before our so-called legitimate media, jealous of the attention the tabloids were attracting, declared themselves in. At the beginning they simply quoted the sleazy stories as originating in the National Enquirer or the Star and symbolically washed their hands of responsibility for the story. But soon they ceased to bother with this subterfuge and ran the stories as original.
Much of this trash talk is simply silly and hardly worthy of attention. A recent story about a television celebrity charged by an acquaintance of forcibly engaging her in several varieties of kinky sex was straight-facedly reported in print and on radio with mainstream reporters standing outside the courthouse where the accused (he had denied any guilt) was simply being arraigned -- not tried. The reporter concluded his breathless account by telling listeners that the celebrity was about to be photographed with and without his hairpiece!
Not all crappy reporting can be dismissed as silly. Some can have implications that are serious. A recent story concerning the president of the United States is a prime example of so-called news gathering with misplaced emphasis.
Last May the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that one of two lower courts had correctly ruled that there was no bar to a civil, not criminal, suit being filed against a U.S. president while he (or she) is in office. Any decision of the Supreme Court is a major news story (although many are not treated as such), and any judicial decision concerning the president is surely a major news story, as well. But any editor who claimed that these two considerations were the sole reasons for the prominence they gave to the story is a liar.
What tickled the fancy of the editors, and what they assumed would tickle the fancy of the public, is that the case involved Paula Jones, who alleges that her virtue was impaired by an encounter with then-government Bill Clinton in 1991, an impairment that presumably would be remedied if she were paid $700,000.
The merits of Jones' accusation apart, please keep in mind that no judgment concerning these merits has been made by any court of law, and surely no civil court case is even scheduled. Nevertheless this technical Supreme Court decision led Tom Brokaw's "NBC Nightly News" when it was announced. To his credit, Dan Rather gave the story less prominence on CBS.
Ironically on the same day a truly major news story played second fiddle to the sexy Paula Jones item. On that day in Paris, President Clinton had met with our NATO allies and Boris Yeltsin. All involved, and especially Yeltsin, had agreed to include several onetime Iron Curtain nations in a new NATO. Can there be any doubt that this event was of paramount importance for the United States and the world? Did it deserve to be downgraded to make room for trash talk?
The crowding out of genuine news by sensational slop was probably accelerated by the double-murder trial of O.J. Simpson. The murders themselves and Simpson's arrest and charge were news. But with the help of a wishy-washy judge and grandstanding lawyers, the overdrawn case became a media circus with gavel-to-gavel radio coverage and every-evening wrap-ups by legal pundits on television.
Media moguls defend themselves by arguing that they're giving the public only what it wants, and there's some merit to what they say. How loudly would the public complain, however, if it were not inundated with this garbage? Some might revert to the supermarket tabloids, but it's likely that most of us would be none the worse if we were left with only all the news that's fit to print or broadcast.
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|Title Annotation:||mass media reporting|
|Author:||Burns, Robert E.|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1997|
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