Debase: To lower in value; to corrupt or make impure by replacing valuable ingredients with inferior ones.

 

The Debasement of TV News

 Possibly the following criticism could be attributed to someone who was stuck in "the good old days" of TV news where I happened to have worked for many years. If so, I have a lot of company, especially among some of today's most respected names in TV news.

At the same time, I know that in many respects "the good old days" weren't all that good.  For one thing, if it weren't for some modern day advances in medicine, many of my friends, myself included, wouldn't be around any more.

We have more news, but we have less news that matters -- or should matter.

What am I getting at?

"...[We have seen] a 20-year trend in which the media...have steadily replaced journalistic standards with those of show business."

New York Times columnist Frank Rich

Let's take the week of June 4, 2007. In a week when there were major developments on the world and national scenes, the content of TV news in the U.S. was dominated for days by coverage of the drunken driving sentence of a blond heiress who first came to most of the public's attention after X-rated videos of her appeared on the Internet.

Even the New York Times, which at first tried to largely ignore this "story," eventually caved and featured it on their front page. Although CNN had wall-to-wall coverage of this non event, to their credit CNN's Reliable Sources program lambasted the media and its own network for their distorted news values.

>>What has been behind changing the definition of "news?"  Simple.  Today, the content of TV news is not based on any traditional sense of what's important in the overall scheme of things, but on the quest for quick ratings and profits.

At the same time, I can't blame those who must decide on what is and what is not "news." Although news directors didn't write these new corporate profit-centered "rules," their jobs depend on how well they play "this game." Like a football coach, their jobs depend on "winning."

>>I functioned as a TV news director for a while, deciding what would and would not be included in TV newscasts. Like other news directors of the time -- a time when ratings did not dictate content -- genuine "newsworthiness" came first.

The preceding blond heiress story would not have made it to "air," and because it wouldn't, it wouldn't have turned into the story of the week. (Don't thousands of people who are not as pretty or provocative -- many of whom otherwise lead much more exemplary lives -- regularly face jail time for drunk driving?)

And lest we forget, before that we had weeks of coverage on Anna Nicole Smith, a Playboy model who married a millionaire several times her age; and more recently, Ashley Alexandra Dupre, the alleged prostitute, linked to Elliot Spitzer, former governor of New York.

>>Not unrelated to all this are today's "who's sneaking around with who" stories.

When I was in print and TV news some of the notable people I covered were having extramarital affairs. (One high-ranking and very married Senator who now has a Washington building named after him, traveled openly with his mistress.)

However, there was an unwritten rule that such things were part of these people's personal lives, and unless it interfered with their "day job," we didn't mention them.

This has changed. The tabloids, which now seem to be setting the pace for TV news, even regularly feature photos of "the other person."

Is this ever justified?

Sometimes. People have a right to know when a person they or their children look up doesn't practice what they preach. Today, many of these extramarital stories involve sports figures that many young people try to emulate.

At the same time I know that U.S. views on these things aren't typical of many other industrialized countries. The article, U.S. Breast "Freak-Out" -- An International Perspective, makes this clear. Extramarital affairs among elected officials are hardly news in counties like France.

>>So where does that leave us?

Given the control of the media corporations over news we will undoubtedly see the continued -- maybe even the accelerated -- move to pandering to the salacious interests of audiences. Even CNN now seems to be following the example of Fox News, the ratings leader, by starting to emphasize tabloid stores.

>>But conglomeration and the emphasis on profits goes beyond pandering. It affects our democratic process. People who rely on popular broadcast pundits for their information are often badly mislead.

A study conducted by USC's Annenberg School for Communication and the University of Wisconsin-Madison analyzed newscasts of 122 local TV stations in the nation's largest media markets during the 2002 mid-term elections. They found that the majority of the newscasts at these stations did not contain a single campaign story.

Of those that did, the average story was 89 seconds long. Most stories that were broadcast just focused on who was ahead in the election. A clear relationship was found between stations owned by media chains and the absence of local election information.

 

-Ron Whittaker


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