Jewish World Review Feb. 17, 2004 / 25 Shevat, 5764
All the news that's fit
We have become a nation obsessed with gossip and entertainment disguised as news. Otherwise intelligent, thoughtful adults can, without hesitation, tell you the color of Janet Jackson's tear-away bustier, cite the carat weight of the penitential diamond ring Kobe Bryant gave his wife, and describe the legal history of the Michael Jackson accuser's family. Janet Jackson's breast exposure received three times as many Internet searches as the 2000 election and 25 times as many as the Mars rover, according to the search engine Lycos. It was also the most replayed moment ever on TiVo.
"It's when something unusual happens that we start wanting to talk about it among ourselves," says Mitchell Stephens, professor of journalism at New York University and author of A History of News. "There were a lot of people who performed at the Super Bowl halftime show who more or less kept their clothes on. One person didn't. That was unusual. That was bizarre. [So] it became news."
According to L. Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, "News media is becoming more and more indistinguishable from tabloid outlets like the National Enquirer." Circulation of the National Enquirer, in fact, far outpaces that of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post. Is it any wonder that many major news programs and organizations have blurred the lines between entertainment and important news events?
We Americans not only crave the unusual, we crave gossip. And we have long preferred the sensational to the substantive. But I can think of few times in recent history in which important subjects have received so little attention.
While many news organizations continue to focus on gossiptainment, they are all but ignoring such serious issues as our out-of-control national deficit, the depths of our government's unfunded and underfunded liabilities, which add up to tens of trillions of dollars, and the exporting of hundreds of thousands of American jobs to cheap overseas labor markets. Not to mention what is no less than an immigration crisis.
Just last week the Washington Times reported that al Qaeda is training hundreds of Islamic extremists in Kashmir and Pakistan and sending them to "sleeper cells" in the United States and that dozens of Islamic radicals have already been funneled through Europe to Muslim communities in America.
Pop culture. Our society has reached a point at which none of us would be surprised if the average individual is more likely to know the name of Michael Jackson's defense attorney than that of President Bush's defense secretary. Even the war on terrorism has lately met with flagging interest on the part of the media. On the day that Jackson surrendered in California, there were two terrorist bombings in Turkey, protests in Miami over the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and a coalition-building trip to London by President Bush. Yet the event that dominated the news that day was the pop star's legal battle. Michael Jackson's legal fate has little to no bearing on most Americans' safety, their pocketbooks, or their children's future.
Stephens contends that if journalists did a better of job of covering the more serious issues, there would be more interest in them. "I think there are ways of making those stories more interesting," Stephens says. "Some of our best journalists are doing that now."
In a ratings- and circulation-driven industry, the news media are all too tempted to pursue the "sexy" stories at the expense of the profound and even critical news. As Bozell says, "The more you pander to the lowest common denominator, the more you drop that lowest common denominator. And the more that that descent continues, at a certain point, it's incumbent upon society to ask itself if this is how serious it really wants to be." And, Bozell contends, "it begins with news-gathering organizations getting back into news."
The news media, as an industry, can't afford to be dull. Nor can we afford to be irresponsible. It's time to balance the budget.
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in Washington and in the media consider "must reading." Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
02/04/04: American jobs must be protected