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Posted by on Feb 25, 2007 in Arts & Entertainment, Media | 14 comments

Should News Entertain Or Inform — Or Both?


INDIO, California — It is the buzz up here at the Riverside County Fair, where I have been performing three shows a day in my other incarnation since Feb. 16. It’s the subject of conversation among entertainers, some of the people who have booths in the main vendors’ buildling and others.

What’s going to happen to Anna Nicole Smith’s baby? Who was the real father? And why is the news media doing an overkill on this story that doesn’t quite match the obsession with the O.J. Simpson trial, but is similarly raising eyebrows about (a) the news media’s perspective, (b) the American news media’s priorities, (c) the American news media’s ability to make measured news judgments which impact what goes into a shrinking “news hole” in print media or gobbles up finite minutes of airtime? Have we really reached a point where we see hours and hours of live coverage of a courtroom hearing on what’s essentially a celebrity, tabloid-type story?

Read Austin Cline’s MUST READ POST on Jesus’ General. It reads, in part:

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.

He notes some specific examples where stories didn’t get wide coverage due to the other news choices, and also offers a meaty quote underscoring how corporations are now in charge of news choices…and their goal is to garner huge audiences, no matter what. Then he writes:

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?

This should be a concern, because we’re not seeing a trend in national journalism towards more issue-oriented journalism or a more serious discussion of issues. This site has four people (including yours truly) who’ve worked in the news media. And there are some key things that have happened to the news media in the United States and its societal and political context while all of us have been on the face of this earth:

–The tabloidization of the American news media. The biggest 20th century shift came with the advent of the evening newscast, a bullet in the head to many afternoon newspapers which either shut down or merged with morning papers. But the BIGGEST shift in content came in the 1980s, after the Gart Hart/Donna Rice scandal that transformed Hart from a symbol of the future to a laugh-assured punchline. It was the National Enquirer, under aggressive, new leadership, that got the pix of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap on the boat Monkey Business. It looked like a photo that had been photoshopped — but it wasn’t. This was the Golden Age of the American Supermarket Tabloid. And the news media scrambled to compete with the supermarket tabs on that one and never looked back. Now you didn’t only have to beat the Times and Post, but you had to beat the Enquirer, the Star and the Globe.

–The rise of talk radio. Talk radio as it now exists is the tabloidization of politics and political discussion: high-concept catch phrases that spark immediate images and reponses in (partisan) listeners’ minds, controversy that gets the adrenaline going and a kind of tribal bonding that makes people tune in again and again. The days of staid PBS discussions are replaced by Rush Limbaugh doing two hours ridiculing and warning about Hillary Clinton, or a fill-in progressive talk show host suggesting George Bush’s surge may be to intentionally use American troops as bait to provoke a war with Iran. (At the risk of enraging fans of both, neither of these qualify as thoughtful, serious discussion)

–The 24 Hour News Cycle and Fox News’ impact: Network newscasts are now more quaint than ever. News, politics, partisans denouncing each other, and experts making predictions that often don’t come true are now available any hour of the day. Fox News took the talk radio model and morphed it onto cable news….so now CNN has done the same (note high-concept personalities Glenn Beck and Nancy Grace). The goal is to increase viewership. Academics discussion foreign policy or experts or politicos just outlining problems and detailing options aren’t enough. Audiences want pizzazz.

–The decline of truly high profile journalistic role models. A new generation sees more high profile television/cable talk show personalities than high profile print or broadcast news journalists.

–The dominance of personality over issues in politics and news. If you look at all of the above, the common denominator is the injection of personality into politics and news coverage. In the end, the personalities involved drive the narrative more than the ISSUES. Whether it’s news, talk radio, blog posts or blog comments, it now comes down to taking an issue and turning in into something linked to a person. (Note how in many comments on blogs if someone disagrees with a post they immediately turn it into a personal attack or a personal characterization — one that upon examination often proves to be wrong, oversimplified or simply just lashing out).

–News editors and corporations can’t just ignore the competition and do 100 percent their own thing. If they do, they could lose huge chunks of audience. Editors that don’t follow and cover popular stories could find they have a new job (Food News Editor). Corporate officers that see their outlets don’t compete on the big stories and aren’t getting readership or viewship could face consequences from stockholders. And no one WANTS to be beat on a big story and to have to follow another organization’s coverage.

The problem with all of the above is this: a story such as Anna Nicole Smith, the he said/she said political coverage, the 24 hour news cycle that grabs a story and won’t let go and milks it until the last microdrop is gone, the outraged (what else?) blog firestorms over small things…..all of these suck up the air and smother serious issues. And since this is the new political, media context, this is what young people see and what they will likely clone when they take over the news media (those that follow it, that is).

The worst part: do we see a trend that this will decrease? Or is this the new reality in the 21st century news and info media? And if this is the trend, where will we be 20 years from now (perish the thought)?

UPDATE: Also read Outside The Beltway’s differing perspective on this issue. NOTE: I will be off line all day and through much of the evening and won’t be able to update this with more links.