WHEN HONEST REPORTING GIVES WAY TO GLITZ
by Walter Brasch
American Reporter Correspondent
BLOOMSBURG, Pa. -- The relationship between the tv networks and nation's publicists is incestuous. Most guests on the morning news shows and the late evening talk shows are actors and musicians plugging their latest releases. Some of the guests, however, are writers and editors for mass-market magazines. In one dramatic example of how the news and entertainment are becoming one, NBC's "Today Show" broadcasts stories that first appeared in People magazine.
At least one of the Peacock's Florida affiliate, you can even buy interview time. For $2,500, almost anyone hawking just about anything can be interviewed for four to six minutes in a journalistic-like format for a program that follows the "Today" show. The station management says that charging guests is acceptable because the entertainment division and not the news division produces the show. However, the station places its official "news" logo at the bottom of the screen. It's not klnown how many other network affiliates across the channel do the same.
The most serious cross-over between news, entertainment, and advertising may have occurred when the media began a bidding war to get the "exclusive" Jessica Lynch story. The Washington Post, which first broke the story shortly after Lynch was rescued after nine days in a six-story Iraqi hospital in April 2003.
Using unnamed sources, the Post reported that Lynch, a 19-year-old supply clerk who was driving a water tanker, "fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed [a convoy of the] the Army's 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company, firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition." The unnamed sources also told the Post that Lynch "continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in fighting... . She was fighting to the death ... She did not want to be taken alive." The Post also reported that Lynch "was also stabbed when Iraqi forces closed in on her position."
Other media quickly jumped onto the story and reported not only was she was shot several times by her Iraqi attackers but was also tortured while in the hospital. A daring Navy SEAL/Army Ranger/Air Force rescue effort, against possible hostile fire, freed her after nine days in the Iraqi hospital.
based on an Iraqi'S account, the Post reported - quickly followed by other media - that "four guards in civilian clothes stood watch at Lynch's first-floor room armed with Kalashnikov rifles and radios." The rescue came, according to CBS, when U.S/ Special Forces "ran through a hail of gunfire." The media gave the story front-page play and top-of-the-news broadcast placenent for several days.
There was only one problem most of the story, piped to the media by unnamed sources, some in the Defense Department, and never verified by the media was wrong. Lynch wasn't driving a water tanker but was a passenger in a Humvee; she never fired a shot, nor was she shot; her injuries were caused by being trapped by the overturned Humvee; the convoy wasn't ambushed it had gotten lost, then was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade from a small group of Iraqi irregulars; she was treated well by Iraqi physicians; she wasn't beaten while held as a prisoner; there was no military opposition to the Americans' rescue attempt; the Iraqis even offered to give the Americans a master key to the hospital.
Lynch herself later said the military exaggerated what happened in the desert. In an interview on ABC-TV, she said the lies and use of unnamed sources by the media "hurt in a way that people would make up stories that they had no truth about." She was quick to praise others who had died in the crash or who fought; one, a young soldier, would eventually receive the silver star for heroism and almost no media coverage.
But the blonde-girl-fights-off-soldiers-and survives-torture made a good story. So good that a CBS News senior vice-president, trying to get exclusive rights, wrote a letter to the Army that blurred the distinction between news and entertainment. In that letter, Betsy West wrote: "Attached you will find the outlines of a proposal that includes ideas from CBS News, CBS Entertainment, MTV networks and Simon & Schuster publishers. From the distinguished reporting of CBS News to the youthful reach of MTV, we believe this is a unique combination of projects that will do justice to Jessica's inspiring story."
Writing in the November 2003 issue of Quill, the official publication of the Society of Professional Journalists, Peter Y. Sussman pointed out "it would be exceedingly difficult for any of CBS's 'distinguished' journalists to question dispassionately an interviewee whom their boss had wooed with intimations of lucrative deals and the assurance that the network found her story 'inspiring'."
Nevertheless, it was NBC, ABC, and publisher A.A. Knopf that won the first rights. NBC ran a two-hour, semi-fictional docudrama during Fall 2003, and ABC aired the first "exclusive" interview with her on Nov. 11 the same day a book, based upon interviews with her, was published.
"That interview, to be followed in quick order by interviews on other major networks, thus completes the transition from news story to promotional sales campaign, with the 'news media' playing the role of compliant handmaiden," Sussman wrote, "... [it's} hard to imagine how any true journalism can emerge from the blizzard of Lynch interviews on news shows that networks fought so hard to secure during the ... promotional campaign for her book."
Ethical issues have continually clouded the information, entertainment, and persuasion areas of mass communications, dissolving any pretense that there are walls between journalism and advertising. Perhaps, we should just classify the mass media as entertainment and disregard the belief that journalistic integrity is important in the media's quest for circulation, ratings, and higher profits.
Walter Brasch is professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University. His latest book is Sex and the Single Beer Can; Probing the Media and American Culture. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org