The News Business Needs a Few Good Hypocrites

With print news migrating to a Web environment that’s as motivated by traffic as TV is by ratings, the time is fast approaching when anyone who dares criticize media excess will be immediately open to charges of hypocrisy.

To that I say: Send in the hypocrites.

Legitimate concerns voiced about CNN’s wall-to-wall, at times wildly speculative coverage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 triggered a familiar rejoinder — deflecting such second-guessing by saying the equivalent of, “Oh yeah? Well, you (or at least your organization) do it, too.” Yet it’s too facile and convenient to fall back on the Pee-wee Herman “I know you are, but what am I?” defense, and thus wind up shutting down any conversation about journalistic standards.

CNN producer Vaughn Sterling sought to do just that, using Twitter (what else?) to slap back at gibes from NBC News’ Chuck Todd by citing MSNBC’s own news-free alerts. “The Daily Show” conveyed much the same thing with clips of MSNBC hosts Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes lamenting the CNN coverage, then cutting to a clip of MSNBC’s Ed Schultz engaging in silly conjecture about the flight on his program.

And while CNN segued from Flight 370 media analysis on “Reliable Sources” to what’s-that-in-the-water non-news, one could just as easily look back to January and invoke the image of MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell interrupting an interview about National Security Agency spying with “breaking news” from Justin Bieber’s arraignment.

At one time, print critics could crush these hanging curve balls; now, they, or their employers, are hardly immune to such criticism. As the New York Times’ David Carr reported, some Websites have tethered writers’ compensation directly to traffic, a system rife for overreach and more likely to incentivize bad practices than it is to engendera nuanced approach.

Last month, practically everyone (yes, including Variety) pounced on a Twitter campaign unleashed against Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert over an out-of-context tweet from “The Colbert Report” intended to spoof the very thing that got people riled up; still, racism allegations are newsworthy, and the hashtag was catchy, so in hindsight it’s hard to find anybody with untarnished standing to say — as Colbert did on his show — how ridiculous that brouhaha was.

Well, let the charges fly. Because someone really should note that just-anointed Disney/ABC TV Group president Ben Sherwood partially feathered the path to his promotion with ample fluff while running ABC News, downplaying distinctions between “hard” and “soft” news, turning “Good Morning America” into a wacky morning family that out-“Today”-ed the “Today” show, and devolving “Nightline” from its in-depth single-topic focus to a dessert-heavy Smorgasbord.

In TV, of course, the tension between information and entertainment is as old as sweeps months. Nevertheless, its historic efficacy doesn’t erase questions about its propriety, or eliminate the value in asking whether the traditional balance between more high-minded pursuits and paying the bills has lurched toward the latter.

So while one can clearly argue Bieber’s legal woes or the Kim Kardashian/Kanye West nuptials are ripe news fodder, the fact that everyone feels compelled to pile on doesn’t absolve serious news outlets from being nagged about tone, perspective and volume. Indeed, such pushback is healthy, if not always pleasant.

The digital age’s ability to quantify everything might have made us all bozos — or at least, forced us to wear those floppy shoes now and then — but riding in the clown car shouldn’t preclude sounding a warning when the driver appears headed toward a cliff.

What journalism can use are a few more proud, unapologetic hypocrites. Because if people who live in glass houses become too shy to throw the occasional stone, at this point, that leaves no one left to pitch them.

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