That’s not news. That’s entertainment.
I was a summer intern at The Charlotte Observer in 1994 when a teenage girl went missing after Lollapalooza. I happened to be at the same show, and I also happened to find out that the missing girl attended the show with her older sister. I found the sister’s name and the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. Minutes later I arrived at the restaurant and asked to be seated in her section. After she brought my coffee I told her who I was and rattled off questions about her sister’s disappearance. She started to cry then fetched a manager who (correctly) told me to leave.
I was 21 years old. My peers in the internship program praised my moxie. My editors, mostly old salts, were not impressed. The gambit at the restaurant revealed nothing. I wasn’t being a newsman. I was being an asshole.
With this in mind I watched the clip of a Providence mother assaulting a TV news crew. The crew was looking for reaction from the mother after her teenage daughter was shot at a graduation party. The mother responded by throwing a rock at them and ordering her two dogs to attack.
I won’t defend the woman for throwing rocks and unleashing Hell. She should have gone into her home and, if warranted, called the police. (The news crew was on public property.) But I don’t know that I’d be composed and polite if a news crew showed up in front of my house to ask me about someone shooting my daughter.
A young girl getting shot is news. Her mother’s reaction – even if it were composed and weepy – is entertainment. In this case, it turned out to be the kind of entertainment we devour in this country. A disheveled black woman attacks a pretty white newswoman with a rock and two dogs. Some people will watch this and have their bigoted assumptions reaffirmed. What I saw affirmed my despair for the business I once loved, and the things I did while under its spell.
I was a reporter/editor for 20 years. I’ve been the guy looking for comment from people suffering with undeserved tragedy. One day they’re living their lives, the next day news trucks are parked out front. I’ve been out of the business for two years. Context is my reward. When I see reporters dogging the innocent – the unsung working class we swore to give a voice – I realize that news now follows entertainment.
That is, of course, old news. That line was crossed long ago. But while it might not change your life to see a frazzled mother hounded by a reporter, your stakes are much higher when it comes to politics.
In 1959, senator and presidential candidate John F. Kennedy wrote an essay for TV Guide about television’s influence on American politics.Kennedy said television could bring politics – both campaigns and scandals – straight to the public, highlighting the contrast between political personalities.
In his words, a “slick or bombastic orator pounding the table and ringing the rafters” would fall before a more congenial candidate and “is not as welcome in the family living room” as a candidate with “honesty, vigor, compassion [and] intelligence.”
It was as if he was writing his own future. One year later Kennedy faced his Republican opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon, in America’s first televised presidential campaign debate. The handsome senator famously buried Nixon in what we now call “optics.” Poised, calm and preened, Kennedy came off better on TV than an apparently flustered Nixon. More was made of Nixon’s five-o’clock shadow than his answers. Kennedy handily won over the TV crowd. It was later reported that the majority of people who only heard the debate on radio believed Nixon to be the winner.
In his TV Guide article Kennedy warned that political campaigns “could be taken over by public relations experts, who tell the candidate not only how to use TV but what to say, what to stand for and what kind of person to be.”
“It is in your power to perceive deception, to shut off gimmickry, to reward honesty, to demand legislation where needed.”
It is also in your power to demand news, not entertainment or gimmickry, from journalists.