Trash of Pseudo-News Programs Could Poison the Network News (Feb 21 1994)


Staff member
Trash of Pseudo-News Programs Could Poison the Network News
Omaha World - Herald
Feb 21, 1994

Network television news shows established by the likes of Edward R. Murrow, Chet Huntley and Walter Cronkite are in danger of being poisoned by the excesses of tabloid television shows and their checkbook journalism.

"Frontline," a public television show, recently took a look at tabloid television. The PBS show, which described how tabloid television works and considered its potential impact on network news shows, was disturbing.

Some viewers have already noticed a change in the nightly news. It dwells more on the seamy, the sordid and the titillating, presenting story after story, minute after minute of details on Tonya and Jeff, Amy and Joey and his wife, Heidi and her black book, John and Lorena, Michael and an unidentified youth, brothers Erik and Lyle - stories that just a few years ago were confined to the screaming, half-size pages of publications sold in supermarkets.

Indeed, it would be hard to find a better example of the decline of network news than the assignment that Connie Chung drew last week. Miss Chung ordinarily co-anchors the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, reporting on world affairs and major domestic developments. Last week, CBS assigned her to fly to Norway with Tonya Harding and stake out Miss Harding during the Winter Olympic Games. Sometimes it's hard to tell where the tabloids leave off and the evening news begins.

"Frontline" suggested that the networks may believe they will be left behind if they don't compete in the games that tabloid newspapers and television shows play.

The "Frontline" show used as an illustration the treatment by tabloid television of a teen-ager's allegation that Michael Jackson had sexually abused him. The story began with a tip to a freelance writer, who sold the story to a Los Angeles television station. When the story of a police raid on Jackson's ranch broke, so did the dam that held back a flood of newspaper and television tabloid types around the world.

Once the fact of the raid had been broadcast, a lack of new developments was apparent. That's when the checkbooks came out.

Thousands of dollars went to former Jackson employees and others less directly connected to the entertainer. People who claimed to have information dickered with tabloid negotiators over hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some potential witnesses approached television producers instead of prosecutors, who learned about the witnesses from watching television.

Appearing before the "Frontline" camera were people from tabloid newspapers and television shows who defended what they do as "journalism" while saying that it was necessary to wave checks at people who claimed to have a story to tell. Truth, a cornerstone of legitimate journalism, seemed irrelevant. "It doesn't matter if it's true if you've got someone to say it's true, right?" said one.

"When news and entertainment is all one thing," another said, "there is no wall between fact and fiction. It's all commerce."

Commerce indeed. Commerce in sleaze, gossip, insinuation. Tabloid porn - all accusation and bought-and-paid-for innuendo with little provable fact.

Checkbook journalism is a disservice to truth and a disservice to justice. Honest journalists don't buy stories. As the "Frontline" narrator said, "What does it cost us when all our news is entertainment and every story, even child abuse, is a property with a price?"

A critic of tabloid television answered that key question by saying, "When every story is bought and sold . . . we'll never know what is true." That's already a problem with some television shows. Let's hope it goes no further.

Indy Researcher 'TSColdMan'