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Media Madness

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For the past two months, American television viewers have been on a stomach-turning hellride--strapped into the front car of a kind of media Magic Mountain, then whipped about with such head-snapping fury that it's often been difficult to tell where one story ends and another begins.

In early April, we'd just about squeezed the last drop of blood from the Anna Nicole saga--an eight-week public autopsy that did little more than confirm that poor Anna was still dead--when along came Imus with his idiotic racial slur. Before we knew it we were diving back into our La-Z-Boys, our TV trays stacked high with juicy new slabs of media meat.

So out of control was television's coverage of ImusGate--with its slap-happy "nappy" analyses and up-to-the-minute hyperventilating--that viewers momentarily lost contact with the real world: At the height of the brouhaha, the "unfolding" saga (which by then had done more unfolding than the housekeeping staff at the Waldorf-Astoria) managed to upstage an unprecedented suicide bombing inside Baghdad's Green Zone and the near-fatal auto accident of New Jersey Governor John Corzine.

Instead, America's gaze was locked onto reporters embedded in New Jersey, where Imus and the victims of his stupid crack were engaged in a détente. Behind the on-the-scene correspondents, the meeting house stood lit against the blackened sky. All that was missing was the green hue of night-vision goggles.

But then fate dropped another bombshell. Just hours before Imusmania was scheduled to jump the media shark, a deranged man-boy in Blacksburg, Virginia, slaughtered 32 classmates and professors on his college campus, showering the nation in sadness while pumping fresh barrels of gasoline onto a raging new broadcast bonfire.

As tragic as the Virginia Tech massacre was, TV news has rarely been more disturbingly comic, as networks around the dial spent an entire week desperately repackaging a horrific event that ostensibly began and ended in a single, treacherous three-hour block the previous Monday. The shaken students themselves quickly confirmed the callous overkill, posting signs on campus that read, "Media Stay Away."

Yet the anchors continued to replay the same b-roll, re-interview the same shell-shocked witnesses, and re-analyze the same addled prose and sick self-portraits that the killer had sent to NBC News. Indeed, with the arrival of Seung-Hui Cho's pitiful little press kit at NBC last Wednesday, hyperbole and hypocrisy ruled the day, as news teams everywhere instantly sprinted with the materials while simultaneously wrist-slapping themselves for their exploitative excesses. Group-think, meanwhile, quickly overtook the ugly affair, with commentators uniformly referring to the shooter's angry 1800-word cover letter as a "manifesto."

Mao wrote a manifesto. Cho wrote an unhinged rant.

By Day Four, many networks tried to instill new life into the depressing sameness of the awful story by veering hard-left into a ludicrous sideshow involving an alleged diss to Virginia Tech students by American Idol host Simon Cowell. The attempt to inject a shot of gotcha journalism into such a heartbreaking story was a failure. It was also embarrassing.

Does the Virginia Tech tragedy deserve extensive TV coverage? Of course it does. Like a death in the family, it has left a nation not only numb, but longing for some sort of connection. Television can provide that bond.

But when broadcasters turn every story into a breast-beating spectacle--when the senseless snuffing of nearly three dozen young lives gets the same circus-like treatment, the same graphics, the same eerie theme music as the reckless drug overdose of a former Playboy Playmate and the reckless crack of a former shock-jock--then how are we really being served by the news? The sad fact is, we aren't.

In her stinging analysis of the Virginia Tech coverage, New York Times TV columnist Alessandra Stanley suggested that much of the blame for the transformation of TV news into a 24-hour reality show lay at the feet of news anchors who behave "as if they are the nation's grief counselors," as they routinely swoop down onto the scene with all the professional detachment of a codependent spouse.

"In the middle of so wrenching a tragedy," Stanley observed, "tone matters as much as content. Hurricane Katrina, even more than 9/11, emboldened television newscasters to fold themselves and their feelings into the story, and that has led to the Anderson Cooperization of the evening news."

On Friday night I tuned into CNN to discover that, in fact, Cooper was still running Virginia Tech at the top of the hour--but in a surprising development, he abruptly cut away to a breaking story: In Hollywood, divorcee Alec Baldwin was under siege for leaving a nasty message on his daughter's answering machine. Experts were now beginning to weigh in.

"If you haven't heard the tape," said Anderson, "you will--coming up next."

That was my cue to turn off the TV.