Friday, April 20, 2007

What's happening to journalism?

It's my turn today, and like Betina on Tuesday, I'm not feeling very glib. What little brain I had left after turning in a manuscript has been completely blown by recent events. I'm filled with shock and sadness one minute, awe and admiration the next. And I'm now quite bewildered, and that's the part I want to talk about, because my thoughts for the last couple of weeks keep coming back to the same source of bewilderment.

I'm a great believer in the free press. In my lifetime journalists have earned respect and gratitude from the public for the way they dig for the truth and get it out there for all the world to see. But lately their mission--or that of whoever makes decisions for the news media--seems to be more about entertaining than informing. We need news and a variety of informed opinions, but what we're getting is whatever boosts ratings and sells advertising. In the last few weeks we've gone from the death of a woman who was famous for being famous, to a shock jock's racism and denigration of women, to the outrageous publication of videos made by a madman who was able to use the media to get personal attention for his horrific crimes. NBC said that their decision to immediately air those images and rantings was a responsible one because it gave us insight into the workings of a mass murderer's mind. But they interviewed several FBI experts and psychologists who said that airing that material so quickly was sure to be hurtful to the people who had been hit hardest by tragedy and would very possibly encourage copycats.

I am at a loss to understand what's going on with the news media. Yellow journalism belongs in scandal sheets. I'm a writer. I believe that language is more powerful than almost anything else under human control. Look at the Imus incident, for example. Racist, sexist stereotyping at its worst--the power to teach derision and subjugation. And then the light was shone on the bright, talented, poised young women Imus had tried to humiliate, and they spoke. And we saw what words and images can do to influence minds and create attitudes.

Now comes another national nightmare. I wrack my brain, and I cannot find any excuse for televising a psychotic killer's "manifesto" within two days of the deed other than sensationalizing his delusion. I think the media greedily gave the inmates the keys to the asylum, not in the interest of reporting a newsworthy piece of this incredible event--they could have reported the receipt of the package without playing the contents all day in a form scripted and illustrated by the killer himself--but to get market share. If the guy had lived, I'm afraid there would be interviewers and publishers lined up to pay him a fortune to tell his story. Our news media gave a mass murderer exactly what he wanted. And the threats roll in.

Before the horrors of the past week I had been planning to blog about the Imus incident and the power of language--sort of a spin-off from my blog a couple of weeks ago about stereotyping. I don't advocate censorship. But there is such a thing as responsible journalism, and I think we're losing sight of that. The pen is truly mighty, but so is the TV screen.

What do you think? Is language as powerful as I claim, or will we all become oblivious and immune soon?


Betina Krahn said...

Kathy, I was a bit shocked that they and almost every newspaper in the country were so eager to air and print those lurid photos of the killer in his "Rambo" pose. It was on the front page of our paper-- huge! And when I went online, MSN had a link to the stuff that was sent to NBC and all kinds of photos of the guy with his own captions. He got what he wanted, I guess, revenge and the attention of the nation.

What scares me is the number of little boys out there (like HIM, apparently) who will see those images and subconsciously think they're cool. Where did this kid's mishapen ideas come from in the first place? Movies? The Media? Violent video games where blowing people away is gleeful fun?

And no matter how disagreeable or nasty or mean-spirited someone is, it appears they can find plenty of air time to glamorize themselves. Look at Ann Coulter-- Fox continues to feature her and exploit her nastiness, despite incidents of viciousness that would shame the rest of the world. Has it come to the point that it doesn't matter what you say or who you hurt-- as long as it's sensational?

Yeah, Kathy. I'm ashamed of what journalism has become. And these days, whenever I read a story or watch a new segment, I find my cynicism rising to ask "Yeah, but what aren't they showing us?" and "Who decided that we needed to see that?" Now something as simple as a car accident can be warped into ugly conspiracy and lurid content.

Boy, do we need some humor in this blog! I'll work on it, I promise!

lois greiman said...

Does it seem like we are constantly being distracted sometimes. Obviously Cho's heinous crimes are newsworthy. But it's done now, let the victims' families mourn in privacy.

But what I really don't understand is 'news' such as the endless reels about Anna Nicole Smith. We have HUGE issues in this country that we seem to be ignoring. Hundreds of people are dying weekly in Iraq. Dozens of species are being lost everyday due to polution and encroachment. But sensational stories still hold the limelight.

Journalists do have to be held to a higher standard. I'm just not sure how to make that happen.

Keri Ford said...

Its like I read on a different blog somewhere...the victims are being forgotton (or left out perhaps?) while the media focuses on the nastyness of the shooter. They're giving him exactly what he wants, him forever remembered and his victims gone.

Its terrible how the media focuses in on one small thing and it blows and blows. There's a lot that goes on the air that I don't think belongs there. Some of the happenings in Irag should be left off so those soliders can do their job and get home.

I'll never forget a clip a saw on TV. media was hounding Justin Timberlake and wanted his thoughts on Britany's latest marriage. His answer: "You know, there is a war going on right now."

BTW, thanks Debra and Christie for the info, I had a boy!

Kathleen Eagle said...

Beautiful, Keri! A precious little boy--congratulations! What a wonderful reminder that life goes on; miracles happen quietly every minute of every blessed day.

Cindy Gerard said...

Keri - what a beautiful little boy. You must be over the moon. And like Kathleen said, he's the most solvent and precious reminder of the true blessings of life.
Congratulations and hugs for all!!

Betina Krahn said...

Keri-- whoopee! A sweet little boy! Do you have others or is this your first with a "Y" chromosome? This will be an adventure for sure!

Read this to him for me:
Blessings on you, little one. May your life and heart unfold as the Creator intended. May you grow into all the wonderful possibilities inscribed in every cell or your body by the architect of creation. May the blessings of love and joy mold your life and may you share that love as an instrument of peace in a needy world.

I'll have a candle burning today for you and your little one, Keri.

Grace and Peace.


Christie Ridgway said...

Keri! Congratulations! Cuddle that sweet baby and give him a kiss for me. Your boy will be an unending source of delight...particularly because he is a boy. They constantly surprise (this woman anyway).

Kathy: I think in this case it wasn't words but the pictures that were so shocking and uncalled-for. If the package and its contents had been described in a newspaper, then I think the "airing" (verbal, not visual) of the material wouldn't have bothered me. It's not that words aren't impactful, but when we read we take the time to process and consider. The visuals are too strong for us to be anything but emotional about them. I think, shame on NBC for airing them as they did.

Helen Brenna said...

Keri, congratulations on your new baby! Can't think of anything more wonderful in this world than a safe and healthy birth.

Kathy and everyone else, I completely echo your sentiments. I was just complaining to my dh about the media's attention to this guy. News has, unfortunately, become entertainment for many. I'm afraid it won't change until the masses quit watching. I turned my tv off this morning as soon as they started showing more photos of the guy. I'm trying not to remember his name.

Michele Hauf said...

I'm on the fence about this one. I sympathize with the victims' families. It was not something they should have had to see on national television.

But we cannot deny that the nation has become MTV-ized? And we have been for a while. We want our news, TV, music, food and everything else in fast, easy to use bits. We need information instantly. We demand it. No longer are we content to wait weeks for a correspondence through the snail mail, now we can get that response within hours by email. (And we still complain that sometimes it's not fast enough.)
So the media was giving us what we demand. Answers. Fast. What we do with that is up to us. Was it unthinking, disrespectful of the families? I feel it was. But at the same time, I also feel it was necessary.

What troubles me the most about this past event is the issue of gun control. The kid was not a citizen, and yet he was able to get this incredible arsenal with, what seemed, ease. How does that happen? Guns are meant for one purpose, and one purpose only--to kill. Why does there have to be such a struggle to make tougher gun laws?

Sigh... My heart goes out to all the families, friends and students.


Kathleen Eagle said...

Christie, the pictures really are upsetting, but for me it's the fact that this guy put his message together--words and pictures--and was allowed to take over the airwaves exactly the way he'd obviously envisioned in his terrible fantasy. Divorced from the words, the picture of him posing like an ad for the latest movie or game aimed at thirteen-year-old boys wouldn't be so sensational. The words printed in the newspaper probably wouldn't reach those boys or the minds of other people we know are out there suffering with some awful psychosis. But the whole's fantasy gone horribly real. We certainly need to know about it, but we don't need to complete the fantasy for this guy in this way.

We often talk about the difference between pornography and other literature (which I'm using here to refer to material that isn't porn), and I think we also need to figure out how to distinguish between real news and pure sensationalism. We need to send Rupert Murdock and his ilk back to their scandal sheets--let them know that they have the right to publish that stuff, but those of us who are interested in real news, good journalism, we demand some changes. We aren't sheep. We know the difference between real news and stuff that is pushed at us for shock value alone. This stuff is powerful, and it can damage our social fabric as well as enlighten. I'm afraid we're letting the market dictate everything. Hey, it's what the people want.

People have to speak up. They told MSNBC that what Imus said was disgusting. It was only after the outrage was expressed that the sponsors started pulling the plug. Without the public hue and cry, is there any doubt that companies would simply continue to sponsor what sells?

What's in the media has power. "The Medium is the Message." Or was it the Massage?

Candace said...

I was just having an email discussion with my mom about this very subject—the descent of journalism. And the hypocrisy of it. I admit, I can barely bring myself to watch any of the news about the Virginia mass murderer—it makes me physically ill—but I have been following the Imus incident with increasing incredulity.

What I can’t believe is that—in all the text and breath that has been wasted on this incident—no one has even commented on is the hypocrisy of Imus’s employers, advertisers, and the high-powered political guests he’s had on his show over the years. They’ve gleefully pointed out the hypocrisy of the Jacksons and the Sharptons and that rapper (Snoopdog?) who said it’s okay for him to say the disgusting things he says in his rap songs about black women because, hey, he’s an artiste (pardon me while I throw up) and what he says in his songs is social commentary on the human condition. As if.

Except…what no one is admitting is that what Imus said was nothing new for him. He’s been saying this kind of stuff for years—blithely making ethnic, racial, and sexual slurs with impunity. And his bosses and the advertisers and his guests never even blinked. It’s all been wink, wink, nudge, nudge, and aren’t we having harmless fun and making pots of money and (in the case of his guests) getting my book plugged or exposure for my campaign or issue.

And, then, suddenly, he says “nappy-headed ho” (which is mild compared to a lot of the crap he’s spouted) and for some unknown reason (maybe the alignment of the stars) this time his words catch the attention of the media and the public. And, just as suddenly, his employers and his advertisers are shocked—shocked, I tell you!—standing open-mouthed and incredulous at what he’s said. And his high-powered guests start backing away so fast, they leave tread marks on the studio floor. “My goodness,” they all declare, “we certainly didn’t know he was saying that kind of stuff! We wouldn’t have had anything to do with him if we’d known that!” And so they fire him and he becomes a pariah for doing what earned him high praise and a high salary just the day before.

To my mind, his employers, his advertisers, and his guests—and maybe, I don’t know, the public who tunes in to hear him—are just as culpable as he is. They were complicit and complacent in his actions and they are as much to blame for the filth he was sending out into the airwaves as he was. Without them, he wouldn’t have had that microphone in front of him. His employers paid him to do his show. His advertisers paid for airtime because they wanted to reach his audience and his demographic with their advertising message. And his guests clamored to be interviewed by him because they knew it would provide exposure for whatever it was they were plugging. Without them, Imus wouldn’t have been on the air to say what he said—and has been saying for years.

Anyone who has listened to even one of his shows—even a part of one of his shows—knows what kind of rude, crude persona he presents on the air. No one who’s ever heard him on-air can be surprised by what he said. And, yet, his employers, his advertisers, and his guests all profess surprise. They deny they stood behind him, paying his salary, earning money from his show, silently approving his sick shtick for years. That’s hypocrisy. Worse, it’s stealth bigotry. Which, to my mind, is infinitely more dangerous than one crude shock jock spewing tasteless crap for all the world to hear.

With Imus, you consider the source, mentally flip him off, and go on with your life because he has no influence over it. But the media moguls who paid his salary, and the advertisers who paid big bucks to hock their wares on his show, and (God help us!) the political pundits who have prostituted themselves to appear on his show and espouse their views—they influence our daily lives.

And that’s what’s really offensive about this whole incident.

I agree with Kathy. Words are power. They can hurt people and influence thinking and shape minds. And there seem to be a lot of people throwing a lot of words around without thinking about the power they wield.

Keri Ford said...

Thanks ladies for the congrats. He is truely a little wonder and it's so interesting how I already know so much about him and his personality. This is my first (and I'm the youngest, never did babysitting) and I had no idea what to expect when becoming a mother. I couldn't have asked for a better laid back baby than the one I was blessed with.

JoAnna said...

I think the media goes too far with the stories and with the sensationalism. They will go on and on with a story now days until I almost want to say "I just dont care anymore!"

I thought the airing of the shooter's video was uncalled for and without thought for the victim's families. They were only thinking of ratings, and how big the story was. It was bad enough that they played it, but it was on every station, every news paper, every website, and every newscast!

This is not what news brodcasting should be about it should have some tact and some dignity about it. Save the sensationalism and the tawdry gossip for the tabloid shows.

Kathleen Eagle said...

what an interesting discussion--thanks guys! I'm so glad I wasn't alone in my concerns. Just watched Bill Maher, who said many of the same things mnay of us said.

Keri, kiss the baby for us!