Incredible News

Way back in the days when Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan were still an item, an earnest news reporter from a local television station called with a request: He wanted me, as a media critic, to comment on camera about the appearance of Tonya Harding's breasts on A Current Affair. I declined, and not because I had anything against either Ms. Harding or her breasts, or even the tabloids. Stoically pushing aside the temptation of minor celebrity, I simply saw the request to criticize the phenomenon as a veiled invitation to feed it.

What, I asked the journalist, was his story about? After all, Tonya on a tabloid was hardly novel at that stage of the game. "Our story is about whether this is a new low," he told me, "or whether things can go any lower." I imagined myself playing the requested role, righteous and Yale-clever, turtle-necked and blazered in front of a stack of books. "Absolutely shocking," I would say. "The end of civilization as we know it, blah blah. Tabloids bad, news programs good, blah blah blah." And I imagined his gratitude ("that's a wrap," he would say, thanking me), and myself at home setting the VCR, to catch myself playing the outraged professor.

But, I wondered, is that what I think? Is this a new, unbeatable low? The question is its own answer. When a new set of celebrity breasts come along, or perhaps a famous penis, news programs will find questions such as these, and answerers such as me, to allow them a legitimate piece of the action. They may be opposed to tabloids, but they want what the tabloids have: an audience. As long as public-service news is meant to compete with entertainment, there is not much reason to expect that it won't simply become entertainment. The Harding-breasts-tabloid question indicates not a desire to rise above tabloids, but an increasingly bald strategy for cashing in on their success.

There are important lessons here for those of us wanting to challenge the current hyped-up information environment, not only about the hypocritical news-media strategy of condemning tabloids while borrowing their fare, but also about our own place in the media system. Media critics are, paradoxically, essential for the transformation of public-service news into an entertainment form. Called in to damn the tabloids for destroying news, critics often help hide the fact that there is only a thin line between commercial news and commercial entertainment -- or, for that matter, between a Tonya Harding who bares her breasts and the media critics who beat theirs.

To understand trash TV in its most glorious superficiality one can do worse than to tour the now ubiquitous network news magazines. Along the way, all sorts of scandalous substance and goofy tricks appear, but not much mystery in the logic. The search for ratings is rarely subtle and hardly astonishing, but it is not without its self-undermining dynamics. Networks produce audience-grabbing news at their own peril, since they risk undermining the credibility on which their claim to trust depends. Yet from the instability of trust in television news an important mystery emerges: why are so many people, not all of them dolts, willing to have their source of information become so fun and yet so untrustworthy?

Surfing the television channels lately, visions of a slow, happy apocalypse fill the mind. We are each in our living rooms, laying on a couch or maybe in bed. We are watching television, laughing and hooting, delighting in the figures of doomsday: knife-wielding ex-football players with their own sitcoms, heroic plague sufferers hosting infomercials, necrophilic flesh-eaters with book deals, politicians with their pants around their ankles. And we park there, with nothing but stories, some of them maybe based on true ones, and our minds and souls are happily emptied. We are Stepford wives with remote control, pod people. There is no important information, no world filled with injustices to fight, complicated truths to mull over, powerful people whose actions change everything; only me, the couch, and fun simulations of a world that doesn't much matter. Rwanda is a movie-of-the-week, more about drama than death. Policy disputes get a few seconds before the feature on presidential sex disputes. (World leader or groper? Golddigger or victim? You decide.) And so, as the world outside explodes in fire, you and I are inside having a good time, watching the TV movie. Or worse, watching a prime-time news magazine.

A disquieting picture, although not a new one at all: the charge that Western culture is going to hell in a handbasket, dragged down by vulgar masses, has always been the ugly twin of the claim that Western civilization is the world standard-bearer. It has roots, no doubt, in ongoing struggles over status and culture, as elites of various stripes seek to define preferred forms of knowledge and expression. This is an uncomfortable business in a democracy, since it often involves being quite up-front about one's hostility toward things that are popularly chosen. It implies a snobbery toward those doing the choosing, albeit often hidden in the claim to be deeply concerned about the fate of public taste.

Yet, while we should be wary of sky-is-falling claims, we can't dismiss the case simply on grounds of elitism. The critics of trash TV have rightly focused attention on the ratings-driven displacement of seriousness and substance in public discourse and oversimplification of important realities. They point to an increasing capacity to fake things on a massive scale, to create what Daniel Boorstin called "pseudo-events," to blur the lines between fiction and reality. There is decent cause to worry, as Neil Postman famously did about a decade ago, that we Americans, given our new electronic tools and toys, are "amusing ourselves to death."

Indeed, if one takes the recent trend of news magazines to heart -- at this writing, there are nine such weekly hour-long network programs in prime time -- the rumors of our giggling demise seem hardly exaggerated. Although the prime-time shows include more traditional investigative pieces (60 Minutes-style), they are often indistinguishable from sensational tabloid melodrama (A Current Affair-style). For example, Turning Point debuted on ABC this year, very successfully, with a much-hyped interview with has-been murder guru Charles Manson. Jeffrey Dahmer's father read from his book and hugged his serial-killer son on NBC's Dateline. CBS News sent Connie Chung to Oregon (for more than a week) and then to Norway to secure an interview with Tonya Harding, a world-class figure skater but not exactly a world figure. ABC News flew a Prime Time Live producer to Manila in a bid to land an interview for Diane Sawyer (she of the estimated $7 million salary) with Michael Jackson's former housekeepers.

Sex-crime-celebrity stories accumulate into a sensational goo: Simpson, Jackson, Harding, John and Lorena Bobbitt, the Menendez brothers, this year's models; obscene-phone-calling university presidents, families of Long Island Rail Road shooting victims; Phyllis Diller, Michael Keaton, Elvis. Not long after A Current Affair asked Gennifer Flowers to rate Bill Clinton on a one-to-ten love-maker scale, ABC News' Sawyer was asking Marla Maples if Donald Trump really provided the best sex she'd ever had. Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz describes Jeff Zucker, the 28-year-old executive producer of NBC's Now with Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric, deciding whether and how to cover Whitewater. "It's just so boring," Zucker complains. "Nobody cares about Bernie Nussbaum. I don't even understand it." In the end, he tells his staff that -- rather than, say, attempting to understand White- water -- "we should do the Rose Law Firm. This is The Firm, and it should be played off the movie. They all have fancy houses and fancy cars. I want this to be The Firm. Got it?"

Got it. On these programs, public service criteria (is it important? is it something citizens need to know?) are less important than entertainment criteria (is it fun? is it like a movie consumers have seen?). Disaster is good stuff, sex and crime and celebrity make terrific news, and famous sex criminals with disastrous impact are the very best. Personnel move back and forth quite comfortably now between tabloids and news programs; the executive producer of A Current Affair, for example, used to be the executive producer of NBC News' weekend newscasts, and the producer for Diane Sawyer's Menendez brothers special had worked for the National Enquirer. Production techniques have also increasingly begun to mimic tabloids: the point-of-view and slow-motion shots, the choppy MTV editing, the bold graphics, the high-emotion music. Most famously, the news divisions have demonstrated that they are not above simply staging the news to grab good visuals. In November, Dateline NBC aired a report on GM trucks showing one bursting into flames and in February publicly apologized for rigging the truck with sparking devices to ignite a leaking gas tank -- this from network news divisions, still the dominant source of information for the majority of people in this country. This is news?

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Certainly there are differences between news programs and tabloids, as any defensive news magazine producer will tell you. News producers answer to network ethical and legal guidelines, which remain quite strict; as one such producer told me, they cannot and will not "report it as fact when you just get somebody who makes some sort of scandalous remark." They will not pay sources, as tabloids do -- or more accurately, they pay with prestige and star-anchor attention, not with a checkbook. The balance of subject matter still tips toward solid political, social, and consumer reporting. Nor is it clear that the news magazine trend will last; a recent ratings decline suggests that, like other trends, this one has been overdone.

But somehow none of that is particularly comforting. One need not see news magazines as total sell-outs to see the dangers. The point is that journalistic norms have proven very malleable and an erosion of them by market forces has clearly begun in earnest. In fact, given the economic logic behind the transformation of news into entertainment, the surprise is not that the change is happening, but that it has taken so long.

A Current Affair and its cronies, however trashy in appeal, are not the root of the problem. Tabloids go back at least to the "yellow press" of the 1890s: audacious headlines, flamboyant language, poetic license. Big symbols, big circulations. As the sociologist Michael Schudson has documented, the notion of the press as an institution responsible not to itself but to the public good, and the rhetoric and practices of objective reporting, are relatively recent developments. The rise of tabloid reporting in television is simply another rediscovery that information is more widely and easily consumed when it is big, flashy, dramatic, personal, and emotional. That is particularly fitting for a visual medium and an industry dependent for its survival on ratings-based advertising. It is a wonder that commercial broadcast journalism has managed to institutionalize and hold onto the public service model of news at all.

Networks held onto that model with a cost. The news system was never "pure" of entertainment concerns, of course; even Edward R. Murrow, the hero of public service TV's "golden age," went into the homes of Bogart and Bacall on his Person to Person, a precursor to Barbara Walters' successful star-sell journalism. For most of their early existence, however, news programs were "loss leaders," filling an expensive public service niche that lent networks prestige but lost money. As television grew into a rationalized money-making industry, news divisions were increasingly vulnerable to the charge that they were a business drain.

Several factors converged in the 1980s to begin the conversion of news divisions into show business enterprises. Competition exploded dramatically, with cable television and local news operations in particular taking a huge cut of the networks' audiences. All three major networks changed hands; significant cuts in news staff and budgets followed. "The networks under the old owners would more often choose their programs for reasons divorced from the bottom line," Ken Auletta writes in Three Blind Mice. The new owners have declared allegiance to shareholders rather than viewers; Auletta reports Jack Welch, head of General Electric, which owns NBC, as saying that the owner's obligation is no different from and no more special than the obligation of a helicopter manufacturer. News divisions are now expected to make money. As one network producer told me, "Ten years ago, they would have said, 'Well, goddammit, this is important, the public needs to know about X and we're going to do it.' Now, if you put on something you know is going to put people to sleep at 10 o'clock, and it does horribly, you know you're going to be hearing about it. You are the thing people are supposed to be watching."

News magazines grew in this context. "There's a straight line from the discovery that news can be profitable to the glut of news magazines we have today," says Sid Feders, a former network news producer (of, among other things, Meet the Press), now executive producer of NBC's Person to Person with Maria Shriver. The appeal of prime-time news magazines is more their cost-effectiveness than any informational advantages. They are much less expensive to produce than dramas (around $500,000 for an hour, usually less than half the cost of a drama) and are owned by the networks, which can better control costs, especially by avoiding production-company licensing fees. Even a modestly successful news magazine can turn a profit.

But how to be successful? One strategy is to mimic the investigative seriousness of CBS's 60 Minutes, the most lucrative program in network history, which has made more than $1 billion over its 25 years. That, however, is risky, particularly when the prime-time competitors of news magazines are primarily entertainment shows. The logic is not hard to follow. Responding to competition, networks decide news can and will make money, and news magazines are the vehicle for doing so; lined up against prime-time entertainment, news magazines become entertaining. "You're competing with things like Law and Order, or NYPD Blue," says a magazine producer. "So what you're trying to do is give them the reality but with the dramatic elements." It's the same logic driving tabloids, talk shows, Cops and Rescue 911, and Court TV, whose recent full-page ad in the New York Times featured a television set with the words, "Movie of the Week," and below it, the Court TV claim that "The trial was better!"

If this is a descent into information hell, then it is one built into the structure of the industry and the nature of the medium. News-as-public-service veterans often refer to themselves as "dinosaurs," and the label may be apt: it is quite possible that network news production in the traditional sense is close to extinction, leaving the "serious news" niche to news-only, headlines-mostly cable networks such as CNN. After all, financially, the free-TV networks can do pretty well, perhaps even better, without public service news dragging them down.

A hand-to-brow stance of shock and outrage at this turn is naive and unhelpful. Nor are alarm-based policy directions especially promising. Simply demanding that news media not borrow from entertainment -- a "come on, you guys" appeal to integrity -- is spitting in the wind. There are of course journalists who will resist the fraying of public service news, and they should be encouraged and supported, but they are not running the show. Allowing news to be isolated only where it is an exclusive priority (that is, on cable news networks) is a half-hearted solution: news by subscription only, and in such captioned form, is not a recipe for informed citizenship.

Dislodging the commercial network structure also seems a dubious task in a country so committed to a free market of ideas as well as commerce. In fact, as sociologist William Hoynes shows in his recent Public Television for Sale, even American public television has not offered a fundamentally different system, operating instead "within the same market-oriented paradigm" as network television, albeit for a different audience. Although more legal pressure can certainly be brought to bear on networks (to provide certain kinds of programming, for example), regulations on television are notoriously ineffective and easy to dodge.

Perhaps the first step is to call attention to and encourage a building crisis of credibility for network news. Criticizing the distinction between news and tabloids underlines the credibility questions that network news divisions want and need to quell, and which, with the help of tabloid-vilifying critics and "trusted" anchors, they often succeed in repelling. When it can no longer be rebuffed, when tabloids are acknowledged as outcomes of commercial news logic rather than aberrations, there is a small chance to revive dissatisfaction with a public information system so heavily dependent on commerce.

The dilemma for network news divisions is plain; it turns on trust. The key problem for news magazines, as they get entertainment makeovers, is to attract a recreation-seeking audience while offering the credibility that network news has enjoyed. News is created, like any other brand of story-telling, fictional or otherwise, through selection, framing, editing. Reputable news institutions thus depend less on the claim that they are transmitting the truth (news as a window on the world is an increasingly hard sell) than on the notion that they can be trusted to select, collect, and present information honestly and well. They will not make things up, they will collect all sorts of significant information, and they will tell the story as they see it. This is, after all, mediated information, and the mediator must be trusted for the information to be believed.

Ironically, as networks cross the thin line between news and entertainment, they risk destroying their claim that the line is thick and that they can therefore be trusted. The hot pursuit of ratings undermines the cool claim to objectivity and trust. The more network news products look like tabloids -- the more, for example, that O.J. Simpson leads and dominates the news -- the harder it is for them to maintain their claims of credibility.

At first glance, the line-crossing does not seem to elicit much of a crisis. Lots of people love tabloids. Executives point out that if people wanted to watch "serious" television, PBS would be topping the ratings and we would have nine Frontline lookalikes on network prime time. Entertainment is a most effective hook, producers tell you, to get information across. "I would rather reach three or four times the audience with half the amount of information," says producer Sid Feders, "than put a hundred percent of the hour into the information and reach a quarter of the audience."

Over and over, viewers vote by tuning in, and they vote not only for entertainment programs, but for sex, crime, disaster, and celebrity information. "The very first spring break show we ever did," says a network magazine producer, "was basically a bunch of kids running around scantily clad in Daytona Beach. We had to work from the concept and then find something to drive the story, rather than having a real editorial starting point. That's rare for us. The only reason we did it was for the ratings, and at the time it pulled in the second highest ratings we'd ever had. Second only to a hurricane." Go figure, she shrugs. Much as some of us would like to deny it, there does indeed seem to be a much larger appetite for Daytona Beach than for Bosnia. One can bluster all one wants about the need for an informed citizenry, and the obligations of the press to build one, but if no one watches no one gets informed.

Yet, while obtuse and manipulable people undoubtedly exist, an increase in stupidity hardly seems an adequate explanation for the success of infotainment. It is not at all clear that, simply because many people enjoy dramatic realities, they do not notice the overall defects and impoverishments of a docudramatized world. In poll after poll, not to mention in everyday conversational hostility toward "the media," people deny the appetite, and blame news media for sensationalizing and fluffing up their information. Mini-rebellions circulate around every feeding-frenzy story: Gennifer Flowers/Paula Jones and Clinton's sex life get too much attention, people complain; we're sick of hearing about Nancy and Tonya, or O.J., and we don't care that much if Michael Jackson is guilty. Do your job and give us something real and serious. This is not an enfeebled public but an acutely ambivalent one.

Perhaps people simply want to hide their guilty pleasures. The public ambivalence strikes me as deeper and more promising, though, powered by a genuine sense of loss -- a sense that even as fun is increasing, trust is vanishing. Tabloids do not depend on trust for their popularity. They're viewed for fun, titillation, drama, a hoot. The entry of tabloid signs -- the subjects, the styles, the stars -- into news programming indicates to audiences not only that they should watch, but that they should watch with tabloid eyes. Even a small dose of sensationalism can be enough to indicate that entertainment rules are operating: that the audience is being courted and sold to advertisers rather than being informed, that journalists are presenting information for commercial interest rather than public interest, and that viewers should suspend belief. Let us entertain you, they say; watch us like fiction.

And, resentment in tow, people do accept the invitation, converting themselves from a believing audience into an entertained one. Having fun with infotainment does not mean that the desire for truth has dissipated, but that the likelihood of finding it on television has declined. It is not evidence that tastes are tabloid-debased, or that the "masses" are dragging the rest of "us" down, or that most people are too stupid for anything but the soap operatic. The popularity of infotainment is based on accepting the summons to treat information as play.

Play is best when consequences are small. This is the heart of the matter and the truly disturbing part. Only when people perceive public life as inconsequential, as not their own, do they readily accept the invitation to turn news into play. When the outcome matters, it is not so easy to switch gears and give up the need for significant and trustworthy information. Today, a shrunken sense of political efficacy makes possible the unsurprising conversion of news into infotainment. Without a renewed sense of political consequence, we can only expect television news to continue on its happy, profitable march towards the incredible.

Thus some fundamental and creative rebuilding is in order. We might begin by mobilizing the popular distrust of the media on behalf of a commitment to an updated vision of public service journalism. Even as television's big fun expands, occasional encounters with unmediated electronic information give promising glimpses of a different path. Although they are few and far between on television, the new technologies have made information available in raw forms: the now-endangered C-SPAN, the explosion of computer networking, citizen videotaping. These democratic modes of getting and disseminating information about the world need to be nurtured and fiercely protected. They offer some general instructions to the unwieldy task of starting from scratch, hints of what it will take to rebuild the American news environment from the shards of television's broken trust.

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