Saturday, February 10, 2007


There are a lot of important things happening in our world today. One congressional oversight committee is investigating billions of dollars of fraud and waste in Iraq, another is investigating the fabricated intelligence that was used to sell the war, the vice president's top aide is on trial for lying to a grand jury about that same pre-war intelligence, congress is debating just what it can do to stop the president from sending more troops to Iraq, and the president himself is apparently making plans to invade Iraq's next-door neighbor, Iran. Yet with all this important news to report, what is our mainstream media reporting?

Anna Nicole Smith. And a deranged astronaut with romantic problems.

Our mainstream media has devolved into tabloid journalism. Television and newspaper reporters pander to the lowest common denominator; coverage is dictated by ratings, circulation, and web page hits. The result is perhaps the lowest point for our media since the yellow journalism of a century ago. The situation is deplorable.

Obviously, a great number of people are interested in Anna Nicole Smith. They're also interested in Tom Cruise's baby, Jennifer Anniston's body parts, and Bigfoot. That doesn't mean, however, that our respected news media needs to devote all their coverage to these vicarious subjects. That's what we have tabloids for. Let the National Enquirer and the Weekly World News report on dead ex-strippers and diaper-wearing homicidal space travelers; CBS News and the New York Times should eschew such frivolous topics and instead report on the life-and-death news that really matters.

Unfortunately, when newsrooms are ruled by accountants, only the bottom line matters. So our media gives the public what they want, not necessarily what they need. Yeah, the Scooter Libby trial is complex. Yeah, the news from Iraq is depressing. Yeah, no one really wants to hear about yet another pending war in the Middle East. But we need to hear about these things, or else our democracy becomes a sham; a well-informed public is essential to a functioning democracy, after all. And the public is not well-informed when it knows more about Anna Nicole Smith's sex partners than it does about who's running what in Washington.

The death of relevant media can be directly or indirectly blamed on the rise of the for-profit 24-hour cable news networks. One such network was fine; CNN in the old days served a very useful purpose. But today's three-or-more-way competition results in too much airtime to fill and excessive pandering to the know-nothing masses. Call me elitist, call me an intellectual (oh that word!), but I want to be informed -- and I need my neighbors to be informed, as well, whether they want to or not.

Real news isn't always pretty, and becoming informed takes effort. Our news media needs to facilitate that effort, not pander to the low-brow tastes of an apparently congenitally disinterested public. The media must help us rise above our intellectual sloth, not push us further into the muck. Give Anna Nicole Smith a short bio in the entertainment section, but leave page one (and the hour-long cable analysis) for news that really matters.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

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