UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Fall 2004
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Illustration: Tom Nick Cocotos

The tabloidization of mainstream media

By Elayne Rapping
UB Professor of American Studies

Last summer, during a single week in June, I did about a dozen news media interviews, both print and radio, for such prestigious venues as USA Today, Newsday, the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and the CBC (Canadian public radio). One would think, given my expertise as a scholar and analyst of all aspects of mass media, that I would be asked about important issues, since the things I study, write and teach concern the impact of media and popular culture on all aspects of our public and private lives, here and globally.

One would be wrong.

Most of the interviews I did were about the “Are they” or “Aren’t they” relationship of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and the bizarre antics of Tom Cruise in his very public relationship with actress Katie Holmes. One interview was about the rise of “pole dancing” (as in strip-club entertainment) as a growing activity among American women. Given my interest in issues of gender and sexuality, I did my best to comment on what this trend might imply about women’s feelings and attitudes about their own sexuality. The reporter seemed dazed. She knew nothing at all about the Women’s Movement and cared even less about such ancient history.

Far and away the Michael Jackson case was the most frequent topic of reporters’ queries. What was of interest to the media— and had been from the start—was the sensationalism of the charges and the bizarre behavior and lifestyle of the famous defendant. The actual legal issues at stake interested almost no one. By contrast, 10 years ago when O. J. Simpson was tried for sensational and bizarre crimes, there had been much more serious commentary by legal analysts on what the case was actually about.

So, what has changed? There are two things that need to be understood. First, within the last decade, all the major broadcast networks have been acquired by entertainment industry mammoths, such as Disney, whose eyes are always on the bottom line: ratings and money. In this vein, new management has gutted the news divisions, and merged them with the entertainment divisions, thus doing away with serious commentary and hard-hitting investigative journalism of the kind Edward R. Murrow pioneered in the early days of the medium. “Lighten up,” has been the far from subtle directive of new management, as was evident, for example, when the late Peter Jennings appeared with Mickey Mouse to announce the new ownership of ABC; and in the increasing silliness of NBC’s Today Show, where Katie Couric, who used to do hard-hitting interviews with important political figures, has been largely reduced to giggling and showing her legs. Secondly, and of equal importance—and here, too, ratings trump content every time—was the rise of 24-hour cable news networks with all those hours to fill with something, even if nothing much was going on with the hot story of the moment. Rather than strive to fill these long hours with in-depth reporting on serious domestic and global news, we get endless, meaningless chatter as we await, for example, the arrival of Jackson from his Neverland Ranch to hear the verdict in his case. Ironically, the syndicated scandal shows that used to be called “tabloid” news and dismissed as trash by the “serious” news media have all but disappeared by now, and “real” news media now cover the same tawdry gossip topics in the same tawdry way for which these earlier shows were vilified.

Are there any signs of a backlash against this trend? This may seem like a strange thing to say, but I do think there is something encouraging happening, although I wouldn’t yet want to make too large a claim for its long-term “healing powers.” Studies show that increasingly large numbers of Americans, especially, but not exclusively, younger viewers, are getting “all their news” from a show that is, amazingly, a comedy: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, broadcast by cable TV’s Comedy Central channel. The show, which won a Peabody Award for journalism, is dedicated to dissecting and ridiculing what passes for news these days. By passing itself off as “mere” comedy, or “faux news,” the show and its clever, informed host, who was the subject of a Newsweek cover story, do in fact give serious, informed commentary on public issues.

In fact, when Stewart appeared on CNN’s Crossfire and attacked it for its detrimental effect on national discourse, one of Crossfire’s hosts was fired the next day and CNN subsequently announced it was canceling the show. Stewart so embarrassed the network that its management felt obliged to announce a “return to serious news coverage” and the cancellation of several of its “You scream at me and I scream back at you” political “debate” shows.

Is this a revolution? Well, it certainly speaks well of the media-savvy generation of students we now teach. In fact, almost all of my own graduate students watch the show religiously, “get it,” and agree with Stewart’s intelligent, often hilarious, riffs on current events.

Which makes what I do in my classes not only easier, but also increasingly gratifying.

Elayne Rapping   Elayne Rapping is a nationally known media critic, analyst and author of several books on television, media and pop culture, including Law and Justice as Seen on TV (New York University Press, 2003) and The Movie of the Week: Private Stories/Public Events (University of Minnesota Press, 1992).

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