A Walk on the Sleazy Side of News

One of several hundred books I’m never going to write is a study of how the 24-hour news cycle has created the need for a default story of the moment, which can be talked about endlessly on cable news networks that live in terror of boring their fickle viewers.

Thus it came to pass this weekend that, instead of spending precious air time covering, say, the battle over the future of Social Security, cable news devoted most of its resources to its two favorite story lines: Celebrity Justice, and Photogenic White Girl in Distress.

Although the battle over Social Security involves trillions of dollars of intergenerational wealth transfers, and hence profound questions of political morality and social justice, it is also, it seems, really boring.

For one thing, it leads to arguments about how to crunch extremely large numbers, which is something every cable news program director dreads almost as much as a panel discussion about Canada.

For another, it’s about things that are going to start happening roughly a decade from now, which from the perspective of our infotainment industry might as well be the year 2525. Let the policy wonks drone on about Social Security for the benefit of both of CSPAN’s viewers: cable news has more important issues on which to lavish its attentions.

For example, the Michael Jackson case, and the kidnapped bride who really ran away. Both of these stories are so perfect for cable news that the more conspiratorially minded could be forgiven for suspecting that they are actually reality TV shows disguised as news events.

Celebrity Justice is an ideal story for cable news because it panders to the sleaziest side of our culture’s voyeuristic fascination with the famous: the urge to see the larger-than-life cut down to size.

It’s also perfect because nothing is easier to cover than a trial. As any hung over script writer staring at the blank screen of his PowerBook can tell you, a trial scene practically writes itself.

Still, there are only so many Jacksons and Stewarts and Blakes to go around. That’s the beauty of Photogenic White Girl in Distress: in a nation of 300 million people, you can always find one when you need one.

Consider this very partial list of names, generated off the top of my not-very-attentive head: Terri, Ashley, Laci, Amber, Elizabeth, Chandra, Jessica (in Iraq), Jessica (down a well), Polly, Jon Benet, and now Jennifer, the Runaway Bride.

Some of these stories were genuine tragedies, and some were merely melodramas, but all have two things in common. First, none of them deserved one tenth of the coverage they received, if newsworthiness is measured by either the public importance or the uniqueness of the news involved.

Second, and not coincidentally, the average American knows far more about each of these stories _ and indeed can identify most of them from nothing more than the first name of the PWGID involved _ than he or she does about, say, the battle over Social Security.

Of course our news industry has an all-purpose excuse for this state of affairs. “We don’t decide what people want to hear about,” the priests of the media declare. “We are but humble servants of The Market, which speaks to us through its oracle, Ratings.”

This is not, strictly speaking, altogether true. Pack journalism, with its fixation on Celebrity Justice and PWGID stories, has a certain circular quality: Stories are given lots of coverage, in part, because they are getting lots of coverage.

But even if it were, who decided that something counts as news only to the extent it entertains us?

(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)

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