Thursday, July 28, 2011

Meredith and Katy

In my opinion, one example of the decay in American journalism is the fact that the movement of journalists from one program to another has itself become news. When a journalist is fired or resigns or takes a new position, that journalist often makes the rounds on other shows and is interviewed about the move. The journalist is the news.

This phenomenon is part of our current focus on so-called “celebrity news.” The journalists themselves have become celebrities, so events in their lives are considered celebrity news in this day and age. But when a journalist is the news, it detracts from her ability to deliver other news objectively.

This summer two media stories received a lot of attention. One involved Meredith Viera’s departure from the Today show. The other involves Katy Couric’s departure from the CBS Evening News, her initial indecision about the next stage of her career and her eventual decision to host an afternoon talk show. I rarely watch TV, but when I turned it on this summer, I saw an awful lot of attention paid to these two news stories.

I am not even clear why we consider these stories to be newsworthy. Plenty of people make career changes. In modern America, it is indeed a frequent occurrence. When a journalist goes from one employer to another, it should not distract from learning about budget battles on Capitol Hill or the details of the violence in Syria.

But people like Ms. Viera and Ms. Couric are celebrities, so their career changes are lumped in with other celebrity news. To me, people like Ms. Viera and Ms. Couric don’t really seem like journalists any more. The line has been so blurred between journalism and celebrity. These big name “journalists” earn millions of dollars each year. Those big paychecks are not doled out for straight delivery of the news. They are doled out because these “journalists” have become entertainers, and like many entertainers in this country they earn the big bucks.

As fate would have it, on the day that turned out to be Meredith Viera’s last day on the Today show, I was under the weather. Confined to my bed, I turned on the TV and watched a bit. Frankly, I don’t think I watched the Today show the whole time Ms. Viera was co-hosting. On that last day, I caught a montage of what were apparently her finest moments on the show. The montage was accompanied by her on-air colleagues singing her praises. In the montage, she was shown in past appearances making goofy faces, playing jokes, dressing in costumes, and showing compassion to guests. Her on-air colleagues praised her warmth and sense of humor. They gushed at how she brought so much of herself to each interview.

I was horrified. Why are these thought to be laudable attributes of an alleged journalist? How does bringing so much of oneself aid the objectivity that is supposed to be the hallmark of good news programs? I was particularly horrified that the montage included clips of interviews where Ms. Viera was clearly shown sympathizing with a particular guest. This was seen as a good thing because she was being so compassionate. What about the other side? Aren’t there always at least two sides to every news story? How do we know the guests’ position was the best to support?

Even though I was a semi-captive audience due to my illness, I turned off the T.V. I couldn’t bear to watch any more. Despite the wildfires in Arizona, the devastating drug war in Mexico, and the cruelty of Qadhafi’s attempts to retain power, real news was being ignored to celebrate ad nauseum the five years Ms. Viera had been on the Today show.

The attention this summer to Ms. Couric’s next career move was also demoralizing to me. The news stories focused primarily on her ability to attract viewers and the changing realities of attracting ratings in the age of the 24/7 news cycle and internet updates. Even on NPR, real news was ignored and time was spent debating whether Ms. Couric’s talk show will be successful from a ratings perspective.

It is so sad that we allow ourselves to be sidetracked from more pressing matters to focus on such trivialities. The news is frankly now just viewed as another form of entertainment. Moreover, the presentation of the news has become just one segment of the entertainment industry. Thus, we pay attention to how many consumers it will attract because that is what drives the bottom line. We don’t pay attention to how well the news is being delivered and how much information we are getting about what is going on in the world around us.

Proverbs 9:6

Leave off, simple ones [forsake the foolish and simpleminded] and live! And walk in the way of insight and understanding.

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