The Audacity of Hype

Published: December 11, 2009

By Jim Lichtman
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“There are two kinds of celebrity crash,” Time Magazine’s James Poniewozik writes (Dec.14). “The first, like Tiger Woods’ on Nov. 27, is accidental… The second is intentional.  You crash a President’s State dinner…”

Due respect, Jim, you missed a third: when the mainstream media drives us to distraction with non-stop coverage of notorious, celebrity events.

In describing the White House State Dinner crashers, Poniewozik comes close to this discovery on his own: “For attention seekers [like the Salahis], controversy is the point…”

No, Jim, you should have said, “For the titillation-obsessed mainstream media, any controversy is the point.”  Although the subsequent revelation of Woods’ multiple “transgressions” missed the print deadline for Time, the electronic media neverhas deadlines, only endless “Breaking News.”

From Larry King, to Good Morning, AmericaWashington Post pundits to NBC’s Today Show – many news groups have offered-up a parade of PR flaks, lawyers, friends, relatives, and most everyone in between, all giving their “expert” opinion on the scandal-du-jour.

What has happened to the network shows’ focus on important national and international news?

Answer:  Many news directors seem to have adopted the TMZ/Entertainment Tonight tabloid model of controversy, hearsay and scandal.  Now, whether we like it or not, (and most people I talk to, don’t) what passes for news is not only the number of soldiers being sent to Afghanistan, but the number of bedmates Tiger Woods has had recently.

Last Friday (Dec. 4), PBS journalist and anchor of The NewsHour Jim Lehrer said goodbye to his nightly newscast in a sobering and telling way.

“People often ask me,” Lehrer said, “if there are guidelines in our practice of what I like to call MacNeil/Lehrer journalism.  Well, yes, there are. And here they are:

* Do nothing I cannot defend.

* Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.

* Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.

* Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am.

* Assume the same about all the people on whom I report.

* Assume personal lives are a private matter, until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.

* Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything.

* Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes, except on rare monumental occasions.

* No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.

* And, finally, I am not in the entertainment business.”

Lehrer’s list should be stapled to brain of anyone whose job it is to report the news. But maybe, not all is lost.

Yesterday (Dec. 10), ABC News announced that George Stephanopoulos, host of the issue-focused This Week, would replace Diane Sawyer as co-anchor of Good Morning, America. According to the Washington Post (Dec. 10), that announcement also made clear that Stephanopoulos “…wanted GMA revamped with a harder-news focus as a condition of [his] taking the job.”

Let’s hope that not only happens, but becomes a trend.


  1. Author

    Ah yes, the wonderful world of Tiger(celebrities foibles) as news. Let’s hope it ends soon.

  2. Author

    You take the time to help me understand why I have lost all interest in television. I want to know the number of troops sent to Afganistan. I have less interest in the party crashers, except that they are an obvious threat to our nations leader. (The second time I saw the woman in the red dress, Mrs. Salahi, turn back and do the Hollywood nod and curtsey, I had had enough of her and the program. The 10th time in as many days…I was through.) Then Tiger and his story. Once, ok. Ten times, not good. Thousands of replays. Contagious boredom would be more interesting.

    As you say the media offers “a parade of PR flaks, lawyers, friends, relatives, and most everyone in between,” over and over and over, as if multiplicity somehow brings significant to that which is meaningless.

    I was raised on TV. As a kid I watched Clarabell and Black & White movies on TV. I loved the media. I watched the moon landing. I watched the highs and lows of current history on my TV. I loved it. But I no longer watch TV. You call attention to the flakes of TV now that Huntly, Brinkly, MacNeil and Lerher have gone from the screen. We are left with lovely blonde talking heads and we survey who has the best hair and is the sexiest in the news biz.

    Now my only exposure to TV is at my gym. When I am on the cardio equipment, I can see five screens on five different channels all working silently. Often all are on the same silly story. Too bad. The medium had such potential.

    Give me the NY Times, the LA Times and a supply of good books. My capacity to learn and dream remain resolute. My capacity for “malarkey” is completely exhausted.

  3. Author

    Solid piece on Tiger et al. Lehrer’s take is right on. He will be missed.

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