Carrying on from the Hugh Grant tabloid exec interview topic, there’s another angle, aside from unjustified invasions of privacy, that disturbs me about what that guy was saying. His conflation of celebs and politicians in his justification illustrates the disheartening degree to which matters of true seriousness–politics, economic issues, etc.–have been tabloidized in news coverage.
Those unfamiliar with U.K. media may find themselves shocked to see what runs there. As nasty as U.S. tabs can be, they’re nothing compared to the things that come out across the pond, even in supposedly above-board publications (there’s a reason the Mail is often referred to as “The Daily Fail” and likewise, the Telegraph becomes the “Torygraph.”) I don’t know what specific legal differences there are between the two nations that allow for such questionable ethics (my guess is variations in defamation laws) but whatever the reason, pretty much all journalists, and not just tabs/paparazzi, are considered vermin over there. Or so my Brit friends tell me.
Just as it is here, this is a really big problem. The Fourth Estate is often all that stands between the public and an ownership/power class that would otherwise be running amuck. Keeping a close eye on the big players in government and industry is an essential public service, and one that every news outlet, regardless of format, ought to take seriously.
Unfortunately, more and more simply don’t, which is killing credibility not just for their individual outlet, but for the media in general, thus making the public less likely to trust journalists and the stories they report. The obvious example here is anything Rupert Murdoch owns (as mentioned in Grant’s interview), particularly Fox News, which has out-and-out admitted to making stuff up and slanting stories to favor far-right ideals and corporate interests. Yet the virus has spread pretty much everywhere, and the illness is so bad now that the average member of the public assumes that all news reporting is the same, and it’s all fluff and nonsense.
The key culprit, in my opinion, is the cross-contamination of celebrity, entertainment and sports coverage with serious news. He may not have intended it, but Grant lit upon a big thing in this interview, with how his interviewee talked about actors as if they were somehow critically important enough for reporters to go after the same way they would politicians. This is bad news not just for the poor celebs facing clots of paps everywhere they go, but for anyone hoping that the level of discourse about politics and the economy might someday rise to the seriousness it deserves.
Granted that coverage of big players in business and politics hasn’t ever been wholly serious. As long as there have been charming first ladies and CEOs on their fourth mistress there has been some level of public interest in the personal lives of the people with control over the world’s purse strings. And, when such things do have a bearing on the more-serious subjects–say, a “family values” politician caught soliciting rent boys–then yes, covering that stuff is worthy.
But what we have now in terms of serious news coverage mostly looks like the producers of “Survivor” or the Super Bowl have started directing coverage of political and economic news. It shouldn’t be any surprise that average voters know next to nothing about these critical issues when the primary coverage of them looks more like “American Idol” auditions than a debate. The public is now debating politics the same way they talk about playoffs, with everyone picking a team to back for solely arbitrary reasons. And, like rabid sports fans, they go on backing their team even if they find out that their quarterback has been rigging the game.
I don’t wish to imply equivalency in political sides, here, nor am I calling for detached, “balanced” coverage. On the contrary, I think balance for its own sake is a miscarriage of journalistic responsibility. When we frame these issues as if they are just two equally valid teams duking it out for a championship, we fail to serve the public interest. Giving endless coverage to, say, Sarah Palin just because she has a colorful cheerleading squad and attracts the attention of rubberneckers (and thus, theoretically, will spike ratings and pageviews) is an out-and-out violation of what this profession is supposed to do. Politics is not a sport, and it’s not entertainment, and covering it that way is only further killing true civic education and involvement, which is hurting us all.
This is not to say that coverage of serious issues has to be bland. Undoubtedly, there’s a legitimate fear of losing audience by giving more newshole space to subjects they find boring. But there are ways around that, particularly with the vast multimedia resources that are now available. People are going to skip over critically important statistics if they’re included inline in copy. But will they look at a colorful pie chart illustrating those statistics in real-world terms? Hell, yes.
It’s not, in other words, necessary to cover serious subjects like a Japanese game show in order to get people to pay attention to them. You just have to make the information relevant, concise and easily understandable by a public that, for several generations, has had next to no proper civics education. And if you want to serve that public? Then you must.