|The other day, NBC's "Today" program
began it's 7:30 a.m. half-hour with a lengthy report about the so-called "Honeymoon
Murder Mystery" trial,
involving a man who allegedly drowned his bride in 2003. Next came a feature
from London about how Kate Middleton celebrated Valentine's Day. Then, a discussion
of Whitney Houston's drug addiction, followed by an in-studio appearance of Malachy,
the Pekingese who won best in show at the Westminster Kennel Club.
ABC's "Good Morning America" also focused on the honeymoon trial
and Whitney Houston, while CBS's new "This Morning," promoted as a
more serious alternative, began the half hour with a report on basketball phenom
Jeremy Lin, followed by details of a murder trial concerning the death of a Virginia
Network morning shows have long favored the softer side of the news, but tabloid
topics are getting increased space these days, mirroring what's happening across
the Internet and on cable-TV. The same day's Huffington Post featured on its
front page: "Sore Muscle Remedies that Really Work," and "Lawrence
O'Donnell Calls Out Ann Coulter." Over on the Drudge Report, page one included: "Electronic
cigarette blows up in man's face," Knife-wielding woman attacks boyfriend
over Valentine's gift snub," and "Cops: Man killed in dog poop dispute."
The confounding part of this is that we're in the midst of an information
explosion - a virtual supermarket of news options - and Americans are stuffing
themselves with sweets. Part of the explanation is that consumers have so many
choices just a click away that programmers don’t dare bore them with seriosity.
The scene at the checkout aisle, where tabloids scream for attention, is now
spread across the media landscape.
Even major newspapers that still take a serious approach to news coverage
in print, increasingly succumb to sensationalism on their websites. A popular
tool in the nation's newsrooms is an electronic tote board that provides minute-to-minute
details of what's hot online. Low click counts send editors scurrying for stories
or photos that will grab readers' attention.
With few exceptions, major media give consumers what they want. It's a lucky
publication or broadcast that is able to find an audience that actually wants
meaningful news and information. Look what happened to the cable channel Bravo,
launched in 1980 as a premium outlet for fine film, drama and other performing
arts. Today, the channel is almost entirely devoted to reality shows about real
housewives, top chefs and other frivolous fare.
More "real" than any of Bravo's sappy shows is the fact that the
programming represents what a vast audience now wants. What's changed? Some would
say that a stressed population gravitates to escapist material.
But it’s also our modern information systems that inspire low octane
content. For example, there’s a bigger audience for video than for words,
which is why local TV news has long favored helicopter shots of car chases and
fires. So, as news organizations build websites they tend to overdose on video
clips, no matter how sugary, like those on TMZ and YouTube.
Instant communication thrives on "breaking news," so video of a
vacant runway in New Jersey where "the plane carrying Whitney Houston's
body is expected shortly," passes for news on cable TV because it's happening
now, not because it's important.
Most media, from print to radio and TV, were originally launched with meaningful
approaches to information and entertainment and then, as audiences grew and competition
increased, drifted more toward tabloidism. The Internet is experiencing this,
at the accelerated pace that marks the digital world.
Our older British cousins have long had a passion for gossipy news. If we
worry about following their path socially and economically, we might as well
add tabloid tendencies to the list.
I’d like to blame the media for this, but they only provide the candy.
It’s we who have the sweet teeth.
© Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed
by the Cagle Syndicate.