As the John Mark Karr debacle shows, TV news loves stories that keep
viewers passive and fears the ones that might motivate us to take action.
John Mark Karr is one sick puppy -- a school teacher who fantasized that he'd
engaged in consensual sex so passionately with six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey
that he accidentally killed her.
And television news in our country is one ravenous beast -- abandoning any
notion of journalism, proportion or decency to again prey upon JonBenet's corpse
for ratings and profit.
God only knows what combination of hurt and mental illness went into producing
the sick puppy. On the other hand, there's no mystery about what created the
media beast: corrupt government policies combined with corporate greed.
Make no mistake: The media beast is every bit as compulsive and out of control
as Karr, who may yet end up behind bars for child pornography. But the beast
is free to maul again and again.
For 10 days, TV news has fixated on this imposter-culprit as if he were a world-historical
figure -- like Nelson Mandela emerging from prison, only bigger. TV tracked
Karr's travels across the globe, telling us what he ate for dinner, analyzing
To extend Karr's allotted 15 minutes of fame into a 10-day ordeal,
TV news ignored important stories of war, environmental degradation, corruption,
citizen activism. Instead, TV viewers were offered hundreds of hours of single-minded
examination and debate on one burning question: Did Karr do it? The inquiry
was relentless and aired all sides.
If only we'd had such in-depth, full-spectrum debate when the Bush
team was dragging our country into war based on pretense.
I worked in cable news just prior to the Iraq war. As I describe in my book
Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media, journalists at
MSNBC got into trouble with management for questioning Team Bush too strongly,
for insisting on genuine debate.
By contrast, no one will get into trouble for this embarrassing 10-day spasm
of overwrought Karr coverage ... as long as ratings were good and coverage was
cheap. If so, news producers can expect congratulations for a job well done.
Tabloid stories involving sex, crime or celebrity are preferred by
TV news management today. These stories are inexpensive to cover, since speculation
by alleged experts can fill fill up hours of airtime. And tabloid stories typically
don't offend anyone in political or economic power, including corporate sponsors
and media owners.
But aggressively covering an administration bent on war can cause all sorts
of problems. Especially for a media conglomerate that has business pending before
the Federal Communications Commission. Especially when that media titan is lobbying
the FCC to allow it to grow even more titanic -- as was happening in 2003 exactly
at the time the Bush White House was launching its invasion of Iraq.
During the run-up to war, I was a senior producer on Phil Donahue's primetime
MSNBC show, the most watched program on the channel, until it was terminated
three weeks before the war began. An internal NBC memo soon leaked out, complaining
that Donahue was "a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war ...
He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical
of the administration's motives."
Stick to tabloid stories and your TV career will flourish. Be skeptical about
officialdom's war motives and they'll show you the door.
I'll never forget my first day of work at MSNBC headquarters in the spring
of 2002. As I entered the building's central corridor, I saw a number of framed
posters celebrating highpoints of the channel's early history. The first one:
"The Funeral of Princess Diana." Then: "Death of JFK, Jr."
On the opposite wall, I saw "Columbine Shootings, Live Coverage" and
"The Concorde Crash."
I remember thinking: If these are what MSNBC considers its highlights, what
were its lowlights?
TV news owners and management love stories that keep viewers passive, on the
sidelines -- as spectators. They fear the ones that might motivate us to take
action, on the field -- as citizens.
Active, informed citizens seek out (and build) independent media. They're the
kind of pesky activists who intervene in FCC decisions and fight to diversify
a mainstream media system that's been surrendered corruptly to a half-dozen
TV news is trying desperately to hold on to its audience of passive consumers,
those who know everything about John Mark Karr's dinner of pate and chardonnay,
and next to nothing about the court ruling that Bush's warrantless wiretapping
Last night, with cable news anchors looking ridiculous over their 10-day JonBenet
binge, one MSNBC host seemed to need a scapegoat. If not murder, she asked a
legal expert, couldn't Karr at least be charged with "conspiracy to set
off a media frenzy"?
You see, the 10-day hijacking of the airwaves was not her fault, or her bosses'
fault. It was Karr's fault ... TV's version of "the sick puppy ate my homework"
Jeff Cohen is the
founder of the media watch group FAIR,
and author of the new book, Cable
News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media.
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