Reputations take a lifetime to build, yet only a mere second to tear down; and media is relentless in the pursuit of destruction. The way of the world is such, as excitement sells subscriptions and ad space. In public relations, happy stories are considered fluff, or “feel good” items, hawking tales of babies and puppies or photos of seniors taking dance classes and basket weaving rather than merely fitting the legs of the walkers with pierced tennis balls for traction.
On the other hand, crisis communications yields grand fees as a specialty. Protecting a reputation is as important as saving a life. It is a belief that gossip takes three lives – that of the speaker, the one being spoken about and the one listening. Yet, and most unfortunately, gossip and sensationalism is what inspires news today. In a world of useful news and important issues, we know more about celebrity affairs, undergarments and substance abuse than the plight of the dying on far away continents, the hungry in our own backyard or the real facts behind the pain in the Middle East.
Most media simply answer the call of a natural constituency yearning for superficiality; after all, it sells ad space and time, and commerce is essentially what makes TV networks and printing houses tick anyway. The daily grind of life may be too much for some, and for others, just mundane, so they seek out excitement and live vicariously through the characters in gossip rags and TV magazine shows. The more dangerous media, and the ones who truly epitomize the evils of gossip, are the ones who believe they are serving a greater good by exposing someone, true or not; seeking the bad, finding the scandalous and neglecting objectivity.
In a true account, a reporter was seeking drama for a story she was running, so she phoned a business contact of an individual who was the focus of her story and tried to find some lurid news to enhance her article. The business contact relayed only positive feedback and asked the young journalist if she planned on using that. Wryly she replied, “That’s not the angle of my story.” Sadly, had it run, it may have actual had some journalistic integrity; pros, cons – all sides. Alas, this is what we face today. If it isn’t mean, it isn’t usable; if it doesn’t hurt, it won’t get printed.
Today, we see journalists who fancy themselves idealists rather than objective writers, and their ideals often yield a belief that an exposé on an individual with whom they disagree is the appropriate means to vent. Now I am not talking about murderers, rapists or deadbeat dads, for they perhaps deserve the scrutiny; I am referring to people in the public eye who render strong opinions and ideas, practice and preach one religion over another – indeed, sometimes any religion at all – possess wealth or perhaps even advocate for pragmatism; people who use their Constitutional rights to talk, earn and pray. These are the people who find themselves not merely at the tip of writer’s pen opposite a different set of viewpoints, for that on its own would be fair and just. Instead, and often, they are at the ruthless edge of horror stories about lurid tales, speculative allegations, and cruel depictions of inhumanity or depravity of one kind or another.
I once heard a teacher comment on another teacher in an adjacent room who had a habit of raising his voice. After an outburst that stopped the class for the moment, the teacher sardonically commented, “When the facts are on your side, argue the facts. When logic is in your favor, employ logic. When you’ve got nothing, yell as loud as you can.”
I suppose some of these “journalists” must have learned the very same, and resort to the yelling to get attention. There is never anything wrong with expressing an opposing view or questioning someone’s faith or reasoning with equal amounts of rhetoric and reason. Yet, I find it disingenuous to resort to defamation and character assassination. It is simply way too easy to destroy someone for the sake of challenging a view you loath, as the public at first falls easy prey to the maxim, “tell a story enough and it begins to take on an air of truth.”
Do I have an answer to this epidemic? No. Sadly I do not. Today, even more than ever, we have media that has become more relentless and even more irreverent. From the emergence of blogs to their proliferation today, bloggers need to become edgier and all they need is an opinion. Facts and reason are pushed down the requirement ladder, as anger, judgment and sheer frustration in the “system” (whichever system one disagrees with) take precedence in a writer’s rant. Worse now, true media, trying to stay “on top of the news and ahead of the times”, often reference these blog’s rants where it is believed they can drive eyes to their venue. So, we have chaos in an anything goes atmosphere, and the average reader or web/channel surfer, serves as the hungry bee to the gossip pollen. The bad news just spreads, excites and maims.
As money talks and viewers drive the quality of the headlines, the only real solution is for people to wise up. We need to help our children sift through the garbage for the jewels worth keeping.
In an encounter with one of my child’s eighth grade teachers, I believe I found wisdom. My daughter comes home every Tuesday asking for an actual newpaper section. When I missed bringing it home once or twice, in frustration I asked why she just could not get it online. My daughter conveyed that her teacher required it. Rolling my eyes at the frivolous embrace of ancient times, knowing of course that the future is the Internet, I just walked away perplexed.
When my wife met the teacher at the school a few days later, she conveyed my frustration to her. She said that when her high schooler was in eighth, she too asked the same question; yet when she began teaching the class and realized that the Internet is so prone to wayward “journalism” she wanted to teach the kids to first understand what a newspaper actually is.
Not to say that the papers are pure, but some still profess their aim to be so. The solution to the wayward new media is for us to learn to focus on what is real, meaningful and important. News that advance us as a people, news that make us think and learn, news that makes us laugh, cry and hope, is the news that we should want to seek out. Bloggers can do this too, they just have to try harder, but they have to want to do so. As unrealistic as it may sound, we need to learn and then teach how to tune out the mediocre. In doing so, anyone who wants to generate views will strive for truth and excellence.