For the past few weeks with hundreds of people being killed in Iraq, the “nuclear-option” threat from Republicans on judicial nominations, and an uncertain world economy, NBC's “news” magazine Dateline has chosen to focus on snake-handling religious sects, visions, revelations and other mystical religious subjects.
Why? Because the network needs to boost its ratings fortunes and it is sweeps and the show leads into a miniseries, Revelations. Or at least that's what it looks like from here.
NBC points out that it has some serious news specials in the works, including a Tom Brokaw take on global terrorism and a hidden-camera report working condictions in Bangladesh, but admits it would be “a missed opportunity on many levels not to take advantage of the time period” and the Revelations lead-out opportunity.
OK, but we are still troubled by the escalating trend toward prime time news that flacks for other entertainment programming and by story choices driven by synergy rather than news.
Then there is the historic trend of local “news” stories that unabashedly cross-promote entertainment shows as well.
Notice how during weird-disease drama House on Fox, stations use every break to tease the weird-disease story that will follow on their newscasts.
It's not that this is new, but it has increased in reach and frequency, as they say, and it is particularly troubling now.
That's because cowed and battered networks can more easily be seduced into the safety of synergy over the risk of doing hard-hitting stories that could get them in trouble with the government that controls their licenses and, sadly, some of their content.
Crusading journalism could be chilled on noncommercial TV and radio by a move to “balance” an alleged liberal bent.
On commercial TV, CBS' mistakes on the National Guard story have helped embolden the government to begin a constant drumbeat for so-called fairness and balance that Americans are encouraged to believe is not there most of the of the time.
Elsewhere, investigative journalists are fighting for information in a world where “wartime” restrictions on access threaten to become the new law of the land until the last terrorist is silenced.
Add the political fight over video news releases that has further damaged journalistic credibility, and the picture is bleak.
In the face of that onslaught, the industry does itself no favors by running promos for its entertainment lineups under the guise of news, or “news” from public-relations firms that provide the footage.
In fact, at the Free Press media-reform conference last week, FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein called on his audience to start looking for plugs in news and entertainment programming and report them to the commission, with a copy to him personally, if there is no on-screen disclosure of the economic tie-in. The commission will investigate, he promised.
After 9/11, we were promised, the news media would toughen up, dig deeper, cover the world for us. What we seemed to have gotten was softer coverage and a propensity to pull punches. How odd and dangerous it is that, in these most perilous times, the news business has rarely seemed more frivolous.