Journalism Panders to Viewer Bad Taste

It gives me great pleasure to report that the media worship of celebrities has not sunk to an all-time low.

 It does not give me great pleasure to report the reason, which is that the media worship of celebrities long ago reached its nadir and has not in the interim given the slightest indication of ascent.

As an arbitrary starting point---and one could go back a century earlier if one chose---consider Barbara Walters’s 1999 interview with Monica Lewinsky. Consider Walters’s 1997 interview with Marv Albert. Consider Diane Sawyer’s 1996 interview with Robert Downey, Jr. Consider Sawyer’s 1995 interview with Michael Jackson.

And now consider Sawyer’s latest addition to the canon, her interview Wednesday night on the ABC News program Primetime with drug addict and part-time singer Whitney Houston. The pointlessness of the exercise is not worth space in this column.

What is worth some space, in my view, are the following points:

First, it is entirely the fault of the viewing audience that programs like this are aired. They are not examples of a television network’s trying to force its own bad taste on the American public. They are, rather, examples of the bad taste of the American public forcing a network into a business decision of the utmost soundness. These kinds of interviews always get high ratings; that means millions of people want to watch them; that means, in a nation which is a democracy culturally as well as politically, that they should have every opportunity to do so.

Second, the popularity of these programs forces a network into compromises to which it should not agree. Rosie O’Donnell proclaimed her lesbianism to Sawyer several months ago only after ABC News promised that it would, as part of the same program, report on one of O’Donnell’s pet causes, the adoption rights of same-gender couples.

It is a worthy enough topic, both interesting and important, but a network news division should be making its own decisions about what stories to cover, not have those decisions made for it by an interviewee with a vested interest. Among other things, this arrangement virtually guarantees that the report will reflect the celebrity’s point of view rather than anything approaching an objective assessment.

No one knows, as of this writing, what compromises ABC made to persuade the irrelevant Ms. Houston to appear before its cameras, but something one does know is this: Whitney Houston has a new CD coming out; it will be in the stores within a week of the Primetime special. What a coincidence!

Third, the people who watched Sawyer and Houston deserve even more censure than they got a few paragraphs ago. Their taste is not only bad; it is execrable, a blight on the society of which they are so regrettably large a part. For although they will sit in front of their TVs in large numbers to watch interviews with celebrities, they will sit in front of their TVs in larger numbers to watch interviews with disgraced celebrities. Monica Lewinsky was a bigger draw than Tom Cruise, Marv Albert bigger than Julia Roberts, Robert Downey, Jr. bigger than Brad Pitt, Michael Jackson bigger than Rudy Giuliani, and Whitney Houston bigger than George W. Bush.

The first celebrities in the preceding pairings were---or are---at crossroads in their careers. Americans tune into interviews with them for the perverse pleasure of acting as judge and jury; if they like the way Whitney performed with Diane, they’ll spend their money for her new performances on CD. The viewers, in other words, feel empowered by watching celebrities grovel and pretend not to. They feel empowered by rendering their own verdicts on the mea culpas. They feel empowered by the buying decisions they will make afterward.

It is a kind of power that, morally and ethically, corrupts absolutely.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .

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