Bob Franken


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There is a story about a councilman in a Rust Belt city populated by those with Eastern European roots, who took to the floor decades ago to rage against ethnic jokes, decrying them as divisive. That’s hard to dispute. The problem is that he used examples, and each one would bring the house down. That would work him up even more, so he’d tell another one, to more peals of laughter.
It’s not all that different from TV news these days. How many times have we watched as one bent-out-of-shape commentator after another has gone bananas over Miley Cyrus’ raunchy gyrations at the MTV Video Music Awards? Their fury, real or contrived, is further inflamed by the fact that she used to be famous for playing Disney’s squeaky-clean Hannah Montana. Now with her jerky twerking, she was more like post-teen obscene. Of course, each time the pundit or other moral guardian would bring it up again, and again, he or she absolutely, positively had to play the tape. It’s been an orgy of sanctimonious titillation.
In this time of grave developments in the Mideast, and far-reaching debates over health care and the financial health of this country, valuable news time and space is wasted in the trivial and cheesy. As we wrestle with the fundamental issues of national security, domestic spying and classified information, the coverage swirls around whether the one responsible for massive leaks is a him or a her. Now that Pfc. Bradley Manning has been convicted and faces years in a military prison, his demand that he be called Chelsea and that she get hormone-replacement therapy while serving her sentence has largely observed the debate over government secrecy. As you can tell, I believe anyone can be called whatever she wants, so it’s Chelsea from now on. Of course, it’s not that simple for the people who run Leavenworth, but it’s a shame that questions about the fundamental nature of this democracy are being shoved aside by Chelsea vs. Bradley.

As always, the media insist that they simply report on what people find interesting. That, however, is just half of what we’re supposed to do. It’s up to us in journalism to cover what matters, even if it’s complex or seems dry. Budget matters, for example, will never be sexy. Health-care reform, which has everybody in a tizzy, is a twisted knot. Our mandate as journalists is to untangle it and somehow make it interesting. Obviously we haven’t done a good job. That means political hustlers can prey on everyone’s confusion to further their ambitions and sabotage the entire endeavor with half-truths and outright lies. They know that simple-minded political theater can always bypass a thicket of facts, and that those of us in the news biz are lazy and always ready to pay attention to the he-said-she-said cheap shots. We’re so worried that we’ll lose viewers and readers, we are afraid to lead them through the maze. Is it any wonder our profession has so little credibility?
The recently announced plan by gazillionaire Jeff Bezos to buy The Washington Post has inspired lots of speculation about what he will do with the paper. Will it even be a paper? Or will it become some sort of app, where the coverage is just listed and the customers can select whatever stories pique their interest, and ignore the rest. It’ll be the equivalent of a news jukebox. I guarantee you that it’ll be all Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears, and very little health care or budget matters or why the world is exploding. Nobody will know when disastrous decisions are made until it’s too late. Maybe that city councilman was ahead of his time, and government is a big joke. Well, it isn’t funny.

© 2013 Bob Franken
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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