Race to the bottom
Are you in the news because you are important, or are you important because you are in the news? Two recent headline grabbing stories — one on Anna Nicole Smith and the other Virginia Tech killer Cho Seung-Hui — reveal the answer: these days, it doesn’t matter. Lacking the time, ability or interest in completing the steps necessary to become rich or famous, those who want to make the news — publicity seekers, the disenfranchised, and businesses or governments who want to covertly disseminate their point of view — take a shortcut to their destination, and news organizations are only too happy to oblige. For example, Smith’s only apparent talent was to sustain her national presence, and, when Seung-Hui mailed NBC a videotape rationalizing the slaughter to come, he made it clear that his goal was to make blockbuster news.
Rather than discussing the issues that may have contributed to an event like the Virginia Tech murders, reporters obsessively focus on the event itself, with endless stories of victims and perpetrators. Even after exhausting the minutia and capturing the nation’s attention, the media fails us by not broadening the discussion to the larger issues that are far more devastating to our communities than any one event.
In addition to being a human tragedy, Virginia Tech’s story qualifies as news because of its national implications to security and the related issues of crime, gun control and recognizing and treating the mentally ill. But have you seen or read any coverage related to those subjects? New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his coalition against illegal guns would welcome more national press coverage of their campaign to squash a measure that has been attached to spending bills for the past four years that stops the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from releasing gun-trace data, except to the police and prosecutors working on an individual case. In addition, the provision does not allow the information to be used in lawsuits against gun dealers or their manufacturers. When announcing that he was postponing a meeting of his mayors coalition because of the recent tragedy, Bloomberg noted that more than 30 Americans die each day as a result of gun violence, a fact lost in the non-stop flogging of the Virginia Tech story.
I am not sure when journalism became a spinoff of American Idol. Maybe it began 40 years ago, when ABC, looking for a ratings boost, named Wide World of Sports creator Roone Arledge as president of its news division. Over time, news organizations began to recognize the “value” of journalism to the bottom line, which may have accelerated the struggle between journalism’s twin goals — making money and providing a critical public service.
Primarily designed for entertainment, television news became an oxymoron many years ago. However, you can see the evidence of a similar decline in newspaper and magazine quality, many of which are shifting their missions to win their version of the ratings race.
Journalists have always been competitive, striving to be the first to scoop their rivals. Today, however, capturing the audience isn’t so much about the story, but in its telling.
The joy of victory and the agony of defeat perfectly describes journalism’s current story, an exchange of a journey to contribute to the public discussion of important issues for a lesser destination: a better market share.