Between a rock and hard place.
That's how I felt regarding the Sheen-a-thon - "news" coverage of actor Charlie Sheen's meltdown over five days last week.
Recently, I was asked "What's the difference between news, analysis, opinion, and entertainment?" My response:
News: Last night a ship sank in the Atlantic.
Analysis: What caused the ship to sink and how can we possibly prevent this in the future?
Opinion: This is the third ship sinking in the last six months. (Republicans, Democrats, you-fill-in-the-blank) are to blame!
Entertainment: Charlie Sheen was in one of the lifeboats with his goddesses. NBC News Chief: Get a camera crew down to the dock, right away! ABC: Get a camera crew down to the dock, and get Stephanopoulos on a satellite link for an exclusive interview!!
A nanosecond ago, this would, in fact, be laughable. Not anymore. In interviewing ABC's Andrea Canning - who conducted the first Sheen interview - CNN media analyst Howard Kurtz reveals that the reporter did not have much remorse.
KURTZ: So you're sitting there with Charlie Sheen, you're asking him about doing drugs and using hookers and hitting his porn star girlfriend, and he's talking about his tiger blood and acting really strange. Did that throw you off?
CANNING: For some reason during the interview I didn't realize just how crazy it was going to come off. I don't know -
KURTZ: You didn't?
[Watching the interview, I said this out loud at the same time Kurtz did!]
CANNING: No, it's weird. I don't know if I had gotten just really used to his sense of humor by that point. But I was almost, I think, in somewhat of a fog, too, because after the interview, I thought, well, that went pretty well.
[Then, Kurtz asks the question I would have asked Canning.]
KURTZ: Let me ask you a broader question, because here's what bothers me about this freak show. ABC, NBC, CNN all seem to be taking advantage of a guy who is clearly in an emotional tailspin, who seems out of control. Do you have any hesitation about what you were doing?
CANNING: Not at all -- well, especially for us, because we were the first ones to sit down with him. So it hadn't exploded, you know, the way it had. I mean, just this week, he got over a million Twitter followers in 24 hours. So I don't know if you can really stop the train once people are this interested in it.
KURTZ: But you gave him a pretty good platform for that train... journalists are just kind of aiding his self-destruction. We're watching a guy melting down in public. Did you feel sorry for him at any point?
CANNING: I feel sorry a little bit for the way that he looks, especially when we look back at the Charlie Sheen that everyone fell in love with. He's just thinner, he's a little pale. You know, he looks worn out, he looks beat down. I think that physical appearances can say a lot. Not just the mental side of it, but just seeing him was sort of indicative of the person that he's become. And that's what kind of made me sad. And I was also a little bit sad for the children, as well.
Canning admits to being sad, but not sad enough to stop an interview with a man who, based on the reporter's own observations, looks and acts like he needs help.
Farther along in the interview Canning remarks, "All we can say is that we did some great TV...."
"Hasn't he had enough air time at this point?" Kurtz asks.
CANNING: You know, I still think he has some things to say. And I feel now, given the news of it all, the kids and the restraining order; it's become more of a news story at this point....
[After FIVE days, you think Sheen has more to say that TV should cover?]
KURTZ: It's also a story that drew nine million viewers for 20/20, the highest ratings in two years. So, can you separate the fact that he is box office - that we're all watching this train wreck - and it's fascinating and revolting at the same time, from whatever you see as the news value? Can you separate those two?
CANNING: Well, look, Charlie Sheen is a grown man. Charlie Sheen can do whatever he wants. He's in the news right now. You know, he's got these family problems going on with his ex- wife. I feel like he's entitled to talk if he wants to talk. And people still care. And, you know, who are we to say, well, Charlie, you know, we shouldn't put you on the air anymore? Charlie, you shouldn't do this interview. I feel like that's his choice.
My follow-up to Canning: How would you respond to a reporter conducting an interview with your own adult son or daughter who was in a similar state of distress? Would you support their job as a journalist "doing some great TV," or would you believe that they were taking advantage of a sad situation?
Ethics is not about the way things are, it's about the way things ought to be.
To reiterate from my earlier commentary (The New TMZ), ethicist Michael Josephson points out that "The powers of the press should be used responsibly to advance public interest without causing unjustified harm.... it should inform, clarify and explain about matters of social consequence without pandering unduly to public dispositions to be entertained and titillated."
While there will always be those in the media that exploit the seedier side of news, I hope that those networks who consider themselves responsible journalists, will strive to offer us the important news of the day utilizing higher standards than those we witnessed last week.
Jim Lichtman writes and speaks on ethics. His commentaries can be found at www.ethicsStupid.com.