Tim Robbins is right: this country’s media conglomerates – networks, station groups, beleaguered newsgathering organizations – could and should be offering the American public a more dignified diet of news and information.
“Stop making money on the prurience of others and the salacious desires of the public,” Robbins exhorted broadcasting’s business leaders on Monday.
I wish I could say I believe they have heard the call and soon we will be seeing less TMZ and more 60 Minutes. But it ain’t gonna happen.
On April 3, CBS’ The Oprah Winfrey Show scored the highest ratings it had seen in weeks with an episode on Thomas Beatie, a transgendered woman living as a man who is six months pregnant. While the peerless Ms. Winfrey handled what could have been an extremely awkward and exploitative interview with grace and aplomb, I can’t avoid noticing that it came at a time when Oprah’s ratings had been on a long downward trend. Winfrey clearly has some other things on her mind these days: getting a different sort of candidate elected to the White House, changing the world view of spirituality, altruism in all its forms. She does shows on most of these topics in abundance – and none of them score ratings like the tabloid-esque episode on the so-called pregnant man did.
While Oprah is doing more than probably any other person in television to save the world, even she is not above going for a headline-making interview to grab ratings. It’s what people want to see. If Oprah is going to stay atop the talk chart, she knows she has to kowtow to what the public wants.
Oprah’s one-time prodigy, Dr. Phil, is going even further. This week, the good doctor and his ardent producers have come under fire for bailing out the ringleader of a group of Florida teens who attacked a peer, videotaped it and put it on YouTube. In return for accepting the bail, the teen, Mercedes Nichols, was to have appeared on the show. Bribing would-be show participants has never met with a ton of public approval, although I’m sure it’s done all the time.
"It’s an example of the sleaziest kind of behavior," according to Roy Peter Clark, who has taught journalism and ethics at St. Petersburg, Fla.’s Poynter Institute for Media Studies, as quoted by ABC Action News’ Matthew Schwartz.
Dr. Phil’s publicist ultimately decried the move in an email, stating that the producers in question "have been spoken to” and that the show “has decided not to go forward with the story.” Had the public not discovered the bail-out, however, I am certain Dr. Phil would have marched bravely ahead with the episode and gotten huge ratings for it to boot.
Meanwhile, CBS just laid local news staff off in droves, the New York Times is encouraging reporters and editors to take buyouts, and large daily newspapers across the country are dying. It’s admirable for Mr. Robbins to encourage the media to provide us with balanced, in-depth reporting on serious issues, but the truth is that people vote with their pocketbooks. Tabloid media is raking in the profits; news organizations are going out of business. What viewers really want to watch couldn’t be clearer.
“We don’t need to celebrate our pornographic obsession with celebrity culture,” said Robbins. “We are better than that."
As a culture, are we better that? Sadly, no economic indicator leads me to agree. And if I’m trying to run a giant media business that must show hefty profits to stockholders, that’s all I really need to know.