Nets cover inane issues instead of economy

The Wall Street Journal recently theorized that tough times are stoking the public’s appetite for hard TV news. Yet while networks have self-serving reasons to advance this theory, it actually looks like the opposite might be true.

Sure, “60 Minutes” is enjoying a modest resurgence, and the public was caught up in the election. But media bad habits die hard, and while it would be lovely to think harried broadcast and print journalists could hold two thoughts at once — simultaneously patting their heads and rubbing their stomachs — in an era of shrinking resources, that’s rarely the case.

Space on the Web is infinite, but the allocation for news content in newspapers and TV is shrinking. Nor does it take much to send TV news broadcasters scurrying back to a noxious mix of human-interest stories, true crime and tabloid freakshows, as demonstrated by the undignified jockeying for access to “hero pilot” Chesley Sullenberger and “octuplet mom” Nadya Suleman, which left even major outlets looking sullied and silly.

So while CNBC and PBS’ “Frontline” delve into the roots of the U.S. financial crisis with dueling specials — the former’s “House of Cards” and the premiere of the latter’s “Inside the Meltdown” — the more widely seen NBC provided Suleman more face time than Meredith Vieira, including a full primetime hour of “Dateline.”

Indeed, the week President Obama held his first primetime news conference to discuss his economic stimulus package, the debate over jump-starting the economy had to compete with a deluge of the relatively inconsequential, flying by on a big rotisserie of foolishness.

The dizzying array of almost-equally ballyhooed events, each awarded the TV-equivalent of above-the-fold treatment, included: Swimmer Michael Phelps doing a bong hit; Chris Brown and Rihanna’s Grammy Awards no-show; Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez’s admission of steroid use; memorials for Florida toddler Caylee Anthony; and rumors of key cast exits at “Grey’s Anatomy.”

The list goes on. The night Obama played meet the press, every Los Angeles O&O station blew out its late newscast to cover an unidentified man sitting in his car following an extended police pursuit. After the NBC and CBS O&O’s finally switched to Leno and Letterman, the guy shot himself, later dying in a local hospital. Flipping around one morning as the Senate debated the stimulus bill, Fox News could be found interviewing a firefighter who had pulled a dog out of a frozen lake.

Hero pilot, meet hero (or at least pet-loving) firefighter.

To be fair, many of these are good, juicy stories. But if our media are genuinely committed to hard news, most of these stories should be relegated to prominent placement on ESPN and “TMZ,” not CNN and “Nightline.”

As for Suleman mania, where to begin, other than saying that NBC News’ Ann Curry did an interesting job of dancing around the general assessment that if the 33-year-old mother of 14 were to be given a cereal endorsement deal, the obvious fit would be Froot Loops.

Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten rightfully called the Suleman case “a caricature of the issues raised by contemporary fertility medicine” but (on a day his paper splashed the infants across its front page) skipped the obvious — acknowledging that the news media embraces caricatures precisely because they’re so much more wacky and fun than ordinary (and considerably more relevant) topics.

Uncertainty and complexity, moreover, yield a powerful temptation to gravitate toward the black-and-white. So Sullenberger landing his plane in the Hudson earns him a “hero” designation that might as well be embossed on business cards. Phelps’ indiscretion becomes another “What message does this send our children?” lament. (Here’s one: Dude, share the pipe.); and NBC tries to have it both ways — exploiting Suleman while implying she’s certifiable for crooning that old Monty Python song, “Every Sperm Is Sacred.”

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press’ latest News Interest Index survey found that solid majorities deemed coverage of both the Phelps and Suleman stories excessive — but don’t believe them for a second. Besides, 10% of the respondents described the octuplets as the week’s top story, which is more than enough to keep it front and center for quite awhile.

So yes, there’s a heightened focus on the economy right now, but a cosmic shift toward hard news? Let’s get serious.

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