Monday, September 8, 1997

Week of 09/08/1997

Tabloid Media: Not On My Conscience!
Is this the case of the tail wagging the public dog?
- by David Matthews 2

Let’s talk about the tabloids for a minute. You know, no matter what kind of crisis that goes on in the world, the tabloids seem to have an ever-ready list of headlines designed to get the attention of the public. If OJ Simpson doesn’t get headlines, then Demi Moore, or Liz Taylor, or Michael Jackson will appear in 72-point print with some latest rumor from a supposed friend of the family. The latest poster child of the tabloids happens to involve a young girl by the name of JonBenet Ramsey, who was reported missing, then found dead in their home just after Christmas. The police still haven’t come up with an arrest yet, so the rumor mills are rampant about who could have killed this young star of the child beauty pageants.

Let me ask you this question - who really cares about this case anymore? The only people pointing fingers at anyone are the rumor mills in the media. There is no news on the case, no arrests made, and plenty of questions asked. Just about everything concerning the murder of this girl have been made available to the public except the crime scene photos. But the media can’t seem to get enough of this case! Now the rumors from other publications are making headlines.

This stuff makes me yearn for the old days of the tabloids, when the headlines came from the Twilight Zone. You know.. "My Two-Headed Alien Baby Is Love Child Of Elvis Presley" and "Family Pet Gets Elected To Congress." But then I remember that the weird headlines are now found in the news section of the "legitimate" newspapers. Consider some of the more recent ones: "Wife Leaves Husband For Internet Lover" or "Child Dies While Mother Plays Video Poker."

I realize there are people out there who look at all this stuff going on and, like me, are scratching their heads and wondering if we really need to know what’s going on in the personal lives of the rich and famous. I don’t give a rat’s ass about what Michael Jackson is doing with his life, only as long as he isn’t "doing it" with someone underage. And Liz Taylor looking like Susan Powder’s mother? Hey, it’s her life. She wants to do that, fine. Demi Moore dirty dancing with someone besides Bruce Willis? Their affair, not mine! I only care when their actions have an impact on the public, such as the conduct of politicians who act contrary to their reported political beliefs.

At the same time, I understand the need of other people to relish at the misery of those who are seemingly more successful than they ever could be. We all have a perverse streak of schadenfreud that exists in the recesses of our psyche, myself included. We all need that sense of satisfaction that deep down beneath all that wealth and gold, those who are rich, famous, and powerful are not gods, but humans like the rest of us. Well, with the obvious exception to the list of supposed aliens in the movie "Men In Black." I’ve always wondered about Newt Gingrich.. (Just kidding!)

And with the tabloids come the Paparazzi, the obsessive, unethical, media hounds who spend their time getting their "exclusive" picture of celebrities being human beings. Lately the Paparazzi have come under fire for their conduct in the death of one of their long-time celebrity targets, and the backlash is being felt all over the world by the legitimate media. When Islamic extremists detonated three suicide bombs in Jerusalem that same week, the Israelis shouted "Paparazzi Go Home!" to even to the seasoned network reporters who were filming the carnage.

Perhaps the journalists themselves weren’t deserving the harsh treatment by the public, but those who did were not as accessible. We’re talking about the producers and editors of that so-called legitimate media that make the conscious decision to go from reporting the news to sensationalizing the news. This apparent lack of journalistic integrity doesn’t have to concern the rich and famous, but also can involve serious issues. Time Magazine lost credibility when they featured their "Cyberporn" story based on a report that was neither credible nor accurate.

Then there are journalists and news anchors who can’t help but add an editorial in their reporting of news. I’ll be brutally honest here -- As someone who was in his time both a columnist and a reporter, I know there is a forum for opinions, and it’s not when you’re reporting the news.

The media, both tabloid and otherwise, claim that what they are doing is feeding the appetite of the public monster, essentially saying "Not On My Conscience" like a homeowner would shout "Not In My Back Yard!" Perhaps there is a hint of truth in that. People may rail about the Paparazzi, and yet they still want to watch "Hard Copy," and "Entertainment Tonight." We still want our schadenfreud. But in the case of JonBenet, is this really the case of the media feeding the public monster?

One can only look at the evolution of the talk shows to see where this is headed. Once upon a time Phil Donahue started a show that really appealed to the public. Then that idea changed, as did the number of similar shows. Sweeps weeks meant more strippers and ad-hoc beauty contests and makeovers. Arguments, screaming matches, and actual down-and-dirty brawls began to become the norm. Then there were claims that issues were being fabricated by guests eager to be on the air and producers eager to put them on the air. It was supposedly these actions that resulted in the murder of one talk show guest by another. The talk shows, and the stations that sponsored them, were forced to rethink their situation and determine at what cost was entertaining the public worth.

I personally think that the media should rethink it’s situation. Is the goal of the news media to inform the public or to entertain them? There is a difference between informing the public and entertaining them, and if the members of the news media from the executives to the reporters cannot determine what that difference is then they have no business whatsoever being associated with journalism.

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