A Confession about Television News

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The inbox for my blog is increasingly becoming the destination point of disgruntled news junkies. It’s like a digital confessional box where faceless people drop by and unload their concerns. But here, penitents generally only confess the sins of others, the most common being the disordered infatuation of cable news producers with Hollywood fluff.

Men and women (mostly women) tell me they have been disgusted with the media hype over Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Now they fear the arrival of the television sequel, O.J. Simpson 2.0, will make the amount of air time invested on the blond divas look modest (the amount of time, not the divas).

Viewers plead with me to dish out strong reprimands to media executives for their editorial mischief. The many notes I receive look a lot like this one from Tom, in Ohio:

“Father Jonathan, I can’t stand it any longer. I thought the Paris Hilton fiasco was bad … but now I see the cable news channels and even the networks revving up their engines over O.J. Simpson. I am fuming mad and if I were writing to anyone else, my vocabulary would be more colorful. Is there not a war in Iraq? What about Iran and Russia and Africa? What is more important? I change the channel, and I see the exact same thing. Do something for us! The state of television news is pitiful and getting worse."

I used to get just as overheated as Tom. No more. Here is my thinking process:

Most news channels and programs are for-profit businesses. Owners and mangers are in the industry primarily to make money. News channels get almost immediate feedback (ratings) about viewers’ preferences. With money on their mind, they will continuously show us more of what we most watch.

While I would love to sit down and witness a perfect lineup of news stories in accordance with their relative importance to world and local affairs, I no longer expect that from for-profit news outlets.

Instead of huffing and puffing and losing my peace about the state of television news, I prefer to spend my energy on bridging my own information gaps. I analyze various sources and come up with my own conclusions about what’s going on in the world and what I should do about it. Admittedly, I sometimes inhale entertainment shrouded as news, but when I do, I am conscious of what I’m getting, and I don’t pretend it’s anything else.

Some will take my laid back approach as an exoneration of news executives. They will forget to quote this paragraph. With power comes responsibility. Firstly, news outlets should be living up to their stated function. They should be giving us the news or they should change their name. This requires editorial discernment that at times may hurt the fiscal bottom line, at least in the short term. Secondly, news organization should demand the respectful treatment of every human being (even the Paris Hiltons and O.J. Simpsons of the world). In many cases, informing the public of the scandalous behavior of a public figure is a service to society, but never should a news outlet dish dirt on anyone with the sole purpose of boosting its own ratings. Thirdly, a reporter must seek the truth without bias and present it in a truthful way. Sexing up a story in a way that misleads viewers is reprehensible.

I don’t envy the suits that overlook news editorial nor the program producers who make the news lineup each and every day. Many of the ethical choices they face fall in the gray areas of moral judgment and I don’t suggest I would do any better if I were in their shoes. But perhaps stating these simple principles can serve as a reminder for the few big-spirited, big-minded men and woman in the media who dare to beat their competitors without losing everything else.

But, in any case, let’s not get all bent out of shape.

God bless, Father Jonathan
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