Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker, and can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com. His column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.
They say if you work in a candy store, you're likely to gorge on sweets for a while and then get sick of the stuff. Perhaps, something similar will happen to consumers of news and information who, in the relatively new age of digital consumption, are filling up on fluff.
For most media, it's a time of tabloidism.
The other day, NBC's "Today" program began it's 7:30 a.m., half-hour with a lengthy report about the so-called "Honeymoon Murder Mystery" trial, involving a man who allegedly drowned his bride in 2003. Next came a feature from London about how Kate Middleton celebrated Valentine's Day. Then, a discussion of Whitney Houston's drug addiction, followed by an in-studio appearance of Malachy, the Pekingese who won best in show at the Westminster Kennel Club.
ABC's "Good Morning America" also focused on the honeymoon trial and Whitney Houston, while CBS's new "This Morning," promoted as a more serious alternative, began the half hour with a report on basketball phenom, Jeremy Lin, followed by details of a murder trial concerning the death of a Virginia college student.
Network morning shows have long favored the softer side of the news, but tabloid topics are getting increased space these days, mirroring what's happening across the Internet and on cable-TV. The same day's Huffington Post featured on its front page: "Sore Muscle Remedies that Really Work," and "Lawrence O'Donnell Calls Out Ann Coulter." Over on the Drudge Report, page one included: "Electronic cigarette blows up in man's face," Knife-wielding woman attacks boyfriend over Valentine's gift snub," and "Cops: Man killed in dog poop dispute."
The confounding part of this is that we're in the midst of an information explosion –– a virtual supermarket of news options –– and Americans are stuffing themselves with sweets. Part of the explanation is that consumers have so many choices just a click away that programmers don't dare bore them with seriosity. The scene at the checkout aisle, where tabloids scream for attention, is now spread across the media landscape.
Even major newspapers that still take a serious approach to news coverage in print, increasingly succumb to sensationalism on their web sites. A popular tool in the nation's newsrooms is an electronic tote board that provides minute-to-minute details of what's hot online. Low click counts send editors scurrying for stories or photos that will grab readers' attention.
With few exceptions, major media give consumers what they want. It's a lucky publication or broadcast that is able to find an audience that actually wants meaningful news and information. Look what happened to the cable channel, Bravo, launched in 1980 as a premium outlet for fine film, drama and other performing arts. Today, the channel is almost entirely devoted to reality shows about real housewives, top chefs and other frivolous fare.
More "real" than any of Bravo's sappy shows is the fact that the programming represents what a vast audience now wants. What's changed? Some would say that a stressed population gravitates to escapist material.
But it's also our modern information systems that inspire low octane content. For example, there's a bigger audience for video than for words, which is why local TV news has long favored helicopter shots of car chases and fires. So, as news organizations build web sites, they tend to overdose on video clips, no matter how sugary, like those on TMZ and YouTube.
Instant communication thrives on "breaking news," so video of a vacant runway in New Jersey where "the plane carrying Whitney Houston's body is expected shortly," passes for news on cable TV, because it's happening now, not because it's important.
Most media, from print to radio and TV, were originally launched with meaningful approaches to information and entertainment and then, as audiences grew and competition increased, drifted more toward tabloidism. The Internet is experiencing this, at the accelerated pace that marks the digital world.
Our older British cousins have long had a passion for gossipy news. If we worry about following their path socially and economically, we might as well add tabloid tendencies to the list.
I'd like to blame the media for this, but they only provide the candy. It's we who have the sweet teeth.
Syndicated columnist Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker. He can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com. His columns are distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.