TV's Big Assist
Kobe Bryant media circus could prove dangerous distraction
By Harry A. Jessell, Editor in Chief -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/3/2003 8:00:00 PM
A conspiracy at the highest levels of government is afoot. Lean in and I'll tell you all about it. Here's the deal: Donald Rumsfeld and his pal Paul Wolfowitz set Kobe up. You heard me right. They hired that 19-year-old woman to seduce Kobe and yell rape.
It's a reverse "Wag the Dog" ploy. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz know that the best way to distract television from their debacle in Iraq is to come up with a big-time TV circus, one in which you can smell the elephant dung from miles away. And what better show than a beloved and wealthy celebrity athlete accused of a violent crime.
So far, it seems to be working. TV and radio are ramping up for the story just as they did for O.J. and Tyson and that minor Kennedy guy in West Palm Beach. And every correspondent, every camera crew and every minute of airtime used for this story is that much less available for figuring out what's going on in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places the Defense Department likes to play.
OK, OK, so maybe Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz didn't have anything to do with Kobe's troubles. But the fact remains that TV and radio will spend too much time and effort on the story because viewers and listeners will line up for it like hayseeds at a freak show. And other stories—like the sluggish economy, merciless African wars, Middle East peace efforts, the whereabouts and doings of hundreds of thousands of U.S. service men and women overseas—will just have to wait until NBC gets around to interviewing everybody at that woman's Sweet 16 slumber party. (ABC News broke the news last week that the woman had some sexual activity with Kobe before the alleged rape. The tabloids were quick to pick up the scoop. Way to go, ABC News.)
The cable networks will lead the charge in this gross misallocation of time and resources. Every prime time pundit will take turns putting his or her spin on that day's revelation. Greta is already on this like leeches on a Fear Factor contestant. O.J. made her a cable news staple. Maybe Kobe can make her a star.
Our issue two weeks prior to 9/11 featured Connie Chung's "big get" for ABC News: Gary Condit. Remember that non-story that consumed the electronic media during the summer of 2001. Twenty-four million people tuned in to hear Condit's canned responses. All that attention by the way destroyed Condit's career, even though no evidence ever emerged that he was involved in Chandra Levy's death.
After 9/11, we ran stories in which TV newsfolk admitted that they had missed the story about the mounting antipathy toward the U.S. because they were obsessed by Condit, shark attacks and scores of other meaningless stories. They promised to pay closer attention to world affairs. Yeah, right.
If TV news didn't screw around so much, if before the Iraqi war it actually investigated the government as it's supposed to, the American public might have found out that the Iraqi army was not armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction and that Iraqi officials were not running around Africa shopping for nuclear material. Let's guess how those facts might have affected responses to surveys on whether to go to war.
The Kobe story seems irresistible. Kobe is a bona fide star with a Boy Scout image and a beautiful wife. His accuser is the girl next door. The mystery of who did what to whom will unfold in tantalizing bits and pieces.
But the story is resistible. Dan Rather famously refused to be drawn into the Condit story, in part because the story had been sensationalized and in part because he thought Condit was being railroaded. Rather took heat for his refusal, but time proved him right.
The Kobe story has no broader meaning. The outcome of this tragedy matters only to those directly involved. Like the local officials and citizens, the media has a role in this as it does all trials: to bear witness and make sure that justice is done. That's it. Anything else is pandering and sensationalism.
The media doesn't have to ignore the story. It just has to keep it in perspective and remember what really matters. It will be tough for TV, which leans more toward the New York Post than the New York Times. But come on, we did learn something from 9/11, didn't we?
Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz didn't set Kobe up, but I'm sure they and other wielders of great power won't mind if TV focuses on the trial of Kobe rather than on the tribulations of the rest of the world.
Jessell may be reached at email@example.com
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