I'm mad as hell, and I won't take it any more!" Remember that movie line? It came from the 1976 movie Network. William Holden was the TV news executive who considered journalism a profession of public service. Faye Dunaway was the entertainment executive who worshipped ratings.
Peter Finch played Howard Beal, an aging newsman having a nervous breakdown. Holden is trying to get his friend off the air and under psychiatric care. Then Dunaway notices the crazier Beal talks, the higher his ratings go. So she makes him a star. The movie ends when Beal turns his insane ranting against the network and they murder him. On the air, of course. Why waste the last gob of hormone pumping sensationalism that can be squeezed out of a human tragedy?
But that was just a movie.
Then came O.J. Simpson. Remember the coroner describing the examination of Nicole Simpson's body, with particular emphasis on the undressing? On every national network, over and over again, for days and days. Straight-faced commentators credited the continuous coverage with helping us better understand our judicial system.
Then Monica Lewinsky. The cute, chubby girl with the beret hugging the President. The cigar. What sex is. What "is" is. More civics lessons.
And the blood. Columbine High School. Oklahoma City. Princess Diana. The Washington D.C sniper. Don't get me started on the "Mother of All Media Orgies" -- September 11, 2001.
Sex, blood, fear and guilt. We Americans seem to have insatiable appetites for them. Thanks to the Spokesman-Review, Spokane residents can now wallow in their favorite pastime -- right here in River City. Is Mayor Jim West guilty of more than an "unconventional" sex life? Are his accusers lying? Is there a dark plot by "unknown" powers? With an exciting summer like that in store, who needs Jerry Springer reruns?
In a democracy, the media does have a duty to inform citizens about official malfeasance. Citizens need such information to make informed voting decisions. Officials evidently also need the sword of public exposure over their heads to keep them in line.
But, information is not the same as continuous, blanket coverage, focused on the most prurient aspects of public misconduct. For example, as I write on Monday, the top two stories on the Spokesman-Review's front page concern whether Mayor West masturbated in his City Hall office.
Spokesman-Review Editor Steve Smith says he consulted an expert on journalistic ethical standards before proceeding with the West story. Good for him. I am not suggesting Smith, or anyone at the Review, violated standards of their profession.
It's those standards that are the problem. Smith, along with other Spokane media leaders, should ask themselves a different question: Do we want to follow our profession into the gutter from whence came O.J. Simpson's bloody glove and Monica Lewinsky's semen-stained dress? Or are we brave enough to set a higher standard?
We in the public can help them make the right choice. Somewhere in this newspaper, there's an article about something positive, or of real, long-term importance to our community. Read it. Then comment in the next letters column. Nothing increases coverage faster than evidence that the public is paying attention.
Don't have time? How about when you might otherwise be ogling the Michael Jackson "news" circus on TV? Or when you might be reading the latest issue of the Spokesman-Review -- the one with the screaming, prurient headline?
Robert Stokes is a retired college professor who lives in Spokane.
Publication date: 05/12/05