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Far Short of Perfect

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If you watched the opening of Good Morning, America Thursday you found stories covering President Obama's Afghanistan speech, unemployment, health care, Salahi-Gate; and then there was this: Golf Superstar Tiger Woods apology for his "transgressions."

The Today Show, Early Show, same thing. All this in the first half hour of what used to be reserved for serious news of the world and the nation.

Somewhere over the last several months - it seems to have begun with the unexpected/unusual death of Michael Jackson - network media has Jumped the Shark by focusing much more on entertaining/tabloid stories; stories that carry no more relevance to our lives than a trail of cars slowing down to watch a car accident. And, in this case, what had begun as a minor car accident involving a celebrity has grown into non-stop media coverage of that celebrity's alleged marital infidelity.

"Jim, you're a dinosaur, behind the curve, out of touch! Tabloid-Shmabloid, these are the stories the public wants, needs to know in the morning!"

And then I opened the front page of The New York Times - the equivalent of the opening segments of the morning shows - "Bank of America Ready To Refund Federal Bailout," "New York Senate Turns Back Bill on Gay Marriage," "Rattled Nerves in Afghanistan and Pakistan," "Obama's War Speech Wins over some Skeptics." Below the fold, at the bottom, under a snapshot listing stories in other sections, you find: "Woods Issues Apology." Washington Post, same thing. The Woods story is listed at the bottom of the front page.

I am not saying that the Woods incident is not a story. I just don't think it rises to the same level as an important policy speech by the President, or the struggles of 10% of the population that is currently unemployed.

In their book, The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel talk about the lure of infotainment. They point to ABC News personality Barbara Walters's interview of Monica Lewinsky. Concerning her affair with then President Bill Clinton, Walters asks Lewinsky what kind of kisser Clinton is, how passionate, sensual, etc.

"The much-anticipated scoop/interview," Kovach and Rosenstiel write, "was produced as Monica's Story, which coincidentally was the title of the book Lewinsky was using the interview to promote. In this case, news not only emphasized sex and emotion; it was also a form of commercial cross-promotion. ABC was using Lewinsky to build ratings. Lewinsky was using ABC to sell books."

"This is a major technique of turning news into entertainment and entertainment into news," Kovach and Rosenstiel say. "These are the classic gimmicks of tabloidism."

So now we have network shows so desperate for ratings and ad revenue, that they'll feature entertainment stories in the first thirty minutes of a program that has normally been reserved for serious news.

"The powers of the press should be used responsibly," ethicist Michael Josephson writes, "to advance public interest without causing unjustified harm. As a watchdog, the press should be fair, vigilant and aggressive in assuring that people of influence are held accountable. As a public conscience, it should remind citizens of their ideals and values and the way events bear on them. As teacher, it should inform, clarify and explain about matters of social consequence without pandering unduly to public dispositions to be entertained and titillated."

Wait, go back, what was that last part, again?

"...[the press] should inform, clarify and explain... without pandering unduly to public dispositions to be entertained and titillated."

In a statement on his Web site, Woods writes, "I am not without faults and I am far short of perfect."

Whether Woods is guilty of marital infidelity or not is not the point. When the media in general, and the network morning shows in particular, place a story of a sports celebrity's alleged infidelity in the same breath as the President's policy speech they not only fall far short of perfect, they lose credibility as an appropriate news source.

Jim Lichtman writes and speaks on ethics to corporations, associations and schools. His commentaries can be found at www.ethicsstupid.com