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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Journalism as Entertainment: Should News Inform or Just Entertain?

Journalism as Entertainment: Should News Inform or just Entertain?
Image © Austin Cline
Original Poster: Library of Congress
Click for full-sized Image

Recent events have helped underscore the extent to which our "establishment" journalism industry is failing to provide Americans with the information they need in order to make reasonable, informed decisions about the future of the nation. Even cursory observations have made this clear to critics in the past, but by now it should be blindingly obvious to everyone. Unfortunately, most people don't seem to care because their desire to be entertained is being carefully catered to.

Anna Nicole Smith is dead, and that is unfortunate, but the news media has devoted an undeservedly large amount of attention to her death and the legal wrangling over the fate of her body. Perhaps fittingly, the judge in the case has had aspirations to follow in the steps of Judge Judy as a television celebrity. I suppose it would be naive to hope that a judge might aspire to follow in the footsteps of Thurgood Marshall, William Brennan, or Earl Warren, but apparently even the lofty inspiration of Judge Wapner is too much to expect.

Britney Spears has shaved her head, and that is quite a bit less unfortunate, but it's getting at least as much media attention as Smith's death. Both events have been plastered across newspapers, news programs, and so forth. Everyone has been made abundantly aware of every detail of these situations which are utterly irrelevant to the national life.

Around the same time, it has been revealed that a major contributor to the Republican Party has been charged with material support of terrorists in Afghansitan — but little has been reported on this in the major media. GOP presidential hopeful John McCain has revealed his support for criminalizing abortion, but the media hasn't said much about the shift from this previous position supporting legal abortion. Federal prosecutors around the country have been fired under suspicious circumstances and Congress is trying to investigate, but we've heard nary a peep from the mainstream press.

Sen. Bernie Sanders has been trying to get someone — anyone — to run with the story about what's really in Bush's proposed budget. The Walton family alone will receive $32.7 billion dollars in tax breaks, while subsidies to bring heating oil to the poor, groceries to seniors, and the VA budget will all be cut. These are the financial and social priorities of the Bush administration: tax breaks for the wealthy coupled with cuts in funds that help keep the poor warm and fed (barely). Once again, though, this hasn't appeared in the mainstream media news.

In Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press, edited by Kristina Borjesson, Maurice Murad writes:

The corporations are now pretty much in control of the network news divisions, and keeping audiences awake is paramount. If the information is going to put you to sleep, it isn't going to be there. A news broadcast gets ratings, or it is gone.

Want an example? Nightline, the paragon of television journalism, devoted five nights to a wrap-up of the Clinton presidency. Virtually all of the first four nights were devoted to scandals (Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, and Monica lewinsky), a policy failure (universal health care), and a budget battle (the closing down of the government). A portion of the fifth night dealt with the bombing of Yugoslavia and subsequent capitulation by Slobodan Milosevic. All were hot topics, with personal anecdotes from White House insiders. ("When I heard the Flowers audio tape my heart sank," says George Stephanopolous.)

In all five nights there was nothing on Clinton's decision to reject a compromise thus destroying federal habeas corpus, nothing on the draconian immigration act he signed into law, nothing on his instant recognition that globalization was now the driving force behind foreign policy, nothing on his willingness to fight his own party on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), nothing on putting teeth in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) by backing the World Trade Organization, nothing on his bailout of the Mexican economy, nothing on his efforts to bring peace to Northern Ireland, nothing on his overtures to reduce tensions with North Korea, nothing on his gamble to back Boris Yeltsin — a move that may have thwarted a return of the Communists to power — and nothing on his fight against the evisceration of the Clean Water Act.

I could go on. Why? you may ask. After all, they had five nights, and Ted Koppel and his executive producer, Tom Bettag, are without question the two brightest minds in our business. The answer is Jay Leno and David Letterman. Even at Nightline information goes begging when ratings are at stake. There's a reason why they aired over forty broadcasts on Jim and Tammy Fay Baker, and it had nothing to do with the public's need to know.

The examples cited in this passage are a bit old now, but they track closely with the most recent examples I describe above. This isn't a new phenomenon, but it is perhaps getting worse as times goes by, and the consequences will certainly grow worse as well. Democracy cannot function well if the people are too poorly informed to make good decisions about what will happen. When people are accustomed to being informed, they are less likely to accept the excuses of leaders who try to use secrecy and disinformation to hide what they are doing and why.

Sometimes the major news media "gets it" and does well — the reports about the deplorable conditions which some wounded veterans must endure at Walter Reed Hospital is a good example of that, but part of what stands out about this example is just how unusual it really is: reporters took it upon themselves to investigate something unknown to most people, developed some dramatic and compelling stories relating to this and brought it all to the public. The story couldn't be ignored or swept under the rug and it is leading to at least a few changes. How often does this happen? How much more often should it happen?

At least when the Roman government provided bread and circuses to the people to keep them distracted, Romans were actually fed a little bit while being entertained.

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