Film at 11

The media ruin lives.  We know this to be true; it’s been well-documented on film and television, even if inadvertently.

You know the scene: A thing happens, either a sensational thing (child kidnapped, lovely  young woman found beaten and stabbed) or a Significant thing (white woman passes for black, movie star interviews drug lord).

The sensational thing often features grieving relatives, stolid police officers and pictures of volunteers combing the forest searching for clues. Microphones are shoved into unwilling faces, houses are surrounded by camera trucks, family members quickly become media shorthand — the sad father, the noble mother, the suspiciously chatty cousin.

They’re actual people leading actual lives, but we don’t care about that. We know about them what we are trained to know. We have three facts and we extrapolate into a whole human being. Our brains are victims of the media too.

And of course lives are ruined.

The Significant thing often features tame experts opining, usually while not in possession of all the facts. Dueling ideologues debate — on the one hand this, on the other hand that. (There is never a third hand). Often, the experts make assumptions about the humans involved, assumptions that are accepted as fact by many people.

So we’re dealing in symbolism. We’re dealing with people who are the unwitting avatars of some social dilemma. They’re the face of racism or the face of people standing up to government intimidation. They’re the face of rape or the face of refugees or the face of anguish in a coal mining disaster.

But of course they are also real human beings, who lead real lives and have real parents and real children and real bosses, and if they have cameras following them everywhere and cable news stations running the same one-quote loop over and over again, and some op-ed writer implying dreadful things about them — well, their lives are ruined. They have to change their phone numbers, delete their social media accounts, move to Brazil.

The media sort of know this. After all,  they bring us the images of disorganized press conferences, chaotic perp walks,  phalanxes of photographers standing in disorderly rows. We can hear the screaming reporters and the terse “no comments” repeated hundreds of times.

This from reporters who think that “how did you feel when” is a probing question.

The media will argue that The People want this kind of coverage — when they’re not distracted by the latest celebrity divorce or sex tape. (Although the sex tape thing seems to have run its course, perhaps because everyone has one now.)  They want the missing blonde tourist, the cheating politician, the video of a car chase.

The audience, sadly, is not particularly interested in defense contractors taking bribes,  Chinese children making iPhones, or even scientists discovering the visible light emitted by black holes. (That just happened. Did not make the evening news.)

Newspapers are mostly owned by large profit-seeking entities.  They want to maximize returns while minimizing expenses. “Expenses” often include people, who are costly and often whiny. So yes, of course, this is America, and that’s the way we do things. And if people want big-J journalism, there are always a few places willing to maximize that profit center too.

OK, fine. I get it; we all get it. The question remains: Why do the media get all unctuous about “the public’s right to know” when they are ruining people’s lives?

You’d think, by now, that some media organization would have at least formed a blue ribbon panel to look into this. You’d think the Poynter Institute or the Columbia Journalism Review might push for a conference of all relevant organizations, from the National Enquirer and TMZ to Scientific American and the New York Review of Books. The goal: How to stop ruining people’s lives.

One suggestion comes immediately to mind: pool reporters. Media companies hate pool reporting because it prevents them from adding their secret sauce, their anchorhuman standing in a front of a memorial for the fallen or a destroyed church. Disaster happens, and famous faces congregate. The idea that their cameras, their repetitive questions, even the anchorhumans themselves, might be ruining lives, does not occur to them.

Or how about a Hippocratic oath for media people? Just a little “first, do no harm” pledge. People who first, did harm, might get fired from their jobs. Or even  jail time; that would be good.  When Rolling Stone falsely accused “Drew,” as it called him, of raping an undergraduate at the University of Virginia,  was the magazine required to make him whole? It was not. His name is known by many people and can be discovered with a little google spying.  And you try to get a job with a rape on your resume.

Or Anthony Weiner’s penis. I mean, it’s a mistake, but did he need his life ruined for it?

I’ve been in the media for 50 years. I have seen ethics rules get tighter and more diligently enforced. I have never seen this issue addressed, even tangentially. We follow the law, and the law is guided by the First Amendment, which allows for free, vigorous debate on the issues of the day. Which is good. It also allows the media to ruin lives. Which is bad.

Self-policing is the only answer. The media has to be as candid about itself as it is about the people and institutions it covers. Media companies have to do something about the whole mess, a mess that continues and continues and…

“This is David Davies on scene at the courthouse/villa/blasted landscape, reporting to you live exclusively from the site of today’s tragedy, a tragedy that will change the way we think about forests/toddlers/cheese. I am standing here next to a guy in a blazer and a woman in a perky suit, and they are all talking about what I’m talking about, which means it’s important because everyone is talking about it.  Here is some footage of a shoe, a poignant reminder that disaster can strike at any time. Meanwhile, we await a tear-stained relative who can be convinced to make herself look sufficiently pathetic. Then some footage of bodies being carried somewhere by somebody. If we haven’t ruined a life by 5 p.m., I’d be very surprised.

“We seem to blocking someone’s driveway. It’s all right, ma’m, we’re the media.  Oh, she’s running away.”


Photography by Tracy Johnston
Marketing and explaining things by Michelle Mizera

26 thoughts on “Film at 11

  1. Thank you for writing this. I hear the latest tragedy and turn off the news until a day or two passes and then I read the summation. Sorrow is different than bloodsucking.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I, too, worked for a newspaper. I always tell people, “Reporters are not your friends.” I believe that reporters CAN report sensitively and with respect, but most don’t. There is so much manipulation to “get the story”. I think this was evident in the movie “The End of the Tour”. Management pressures reporters to ask about this or that without regard for personal consequences. Reporters are also trained to ask questions to get the most personal information. It is very sad.


    1. No sane person would agree to an on-the-spot interview. Maybe when you have time to think about what you think about whatever, but not right away. And remember that a series of no comments is probably the best strategy.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Jon & all,

    In Britain news folks on TV & radio are called “news readers” (nothing to do with Tabloid Journalism there). The idea is to focus on facts and not emotion or contrived angst. I don’t know if it’s still done that way, but I think it was good as it required you to listen and use the information to draw your own conclusion.

    For us in the US it would take a pretty courageous media mogul to climb to higher ground and maybe the average media consumer wouldn’t be interested. My wife and I spend a lot of time in research to get the real skinny on important matters from a wide range of sources, none of which tends to be popular TV news folks, radio and most newspapers.

    I like your thought, but the devil is in the details about how to get it implemented!?

    Happy blogging………this is better then when you were employed!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I always remember the humiliation of being dispatched to knock on some family’s door at 9 a.m. and ask for a picture of their son or daughter who had been killed in a car accident a few hours before. Of course I did it. And they went inside and came back, red-eyed, with the picture. I always wished they’d growled at me to get the fuck out of there.


    1. I am the nobody grand-daughter of a minor somebody and had the instincts at 9 to tell a reporter to ‘go away, I’m eating.’

      My grandmother was horrified at how “rude I was” to that nice reporter.

      I can remember being puzzled that while I was rude for telling a perfect stranger to leave me alone, she wasn’t rude for interrupting our meal with her steno pad and bright flash camera.

      I still haven’t figured out that one..

      And I don’t know how many times I have cringed at the generically offensive query “How did you feel…?”

      Weird stuff and odd things make humans tick…


  5. As a former reporter and the mother of a missing child, I have been on both sides of the situation. I always wonder at the dressed-up manicured victims who are willing to weep on camera. What with this and all the vigils and street altars that dominate television news, sometimes I wonder if we are living in some kind of penitential age.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I sure hope you’re wrong about that sex tape thing. There are still a few I have to look forward to, should they ever surface (in, of course, some kosher way).


  7. Cases in point: sisters in Montana (Helena and Billings) who call me to see if I’m in a disaster zone whenever, lately, the national news shows shots of CA landslides, floods, immersed cars, hillsides collapsing, etc. without noting where in California this might be happening. Earlier, it was the cracked earth shots of drought-ridden CA, followed by calls about my possible lack of water. Anything that can be made to look like a disaster here, it seems, is.
    Also, two movies: Amy, the doc about Amy Winehouse, and Love and Mercy, about Brian Wilson. Brian survived the killer media; Amy did not.
    Thank you for your thoughts!


    1. Your examples are just great; “Amy” is a tragic story in media destruction. When we were in Dehli there was a demonstration that turned violent. Big media plas; Dehli on fire. We saw nothing at all as we wandered the streets, which is what you do in Dehli.


  8. And… Al Jazeera America just announced it is giving up.

    Despite numerous awards for journalistic “good,” it seems ‘Murcans ain’t interested in that.

    (And many cable companies refused to carry A. J.)

    Someone tried, no one watched.

    News isn’t information.

    It is entertainment for profit.



  9. So many good points. Yes, what you said and what Allan said. News is about Entertainment. It went from passing along information, to Info-tainment, to Entertainment…Which just makes the latest Kardashian/ any celebrity news as important as a tragic earthquake in China. I hate this!

    I’ve worked for 2 newspapers, One daily, one weekly. They have both ruined lives, although our competitors were more “tabloid”, more obvious in their quest for stories and headlines with a bit of “sex appeal”, as an editor friend of mine said. Our papers were just not as obvious, but possibly because more of the staff were older, more “old school”…you know…with ethics!

    One of the biggest problems that I see is that the information, whether false or true, stays online FOREVER now! This has affected a few friends of mine.
    If you commit a minor felony or are merely a name in a court case, it will ruin you for the rest of your life. Finding employment, etc. becomes difficult.


  10. It’s been Bread and Circuses here in the US for decades; a slow erosion of news to BS. Journalism is taught under Marketing and PR in colleges–so is it any wonder? One of my favorite SF stories, You Bet Your Life, about a game show with that title and yes, it was as deadly as you can imagine. The reporter finally yells at the crowd who are cluck clucking about how awful it all is that they do this because people watch it. So kudos to those who don’t join in the frenzy and have real conversations about real topics and who go out and do real things. And shame on those exploiting tragedy and making everything worse for their 2 second adrenaline rush.


  11. The media will never police itself. Murders, rapes, kidnappings, children killed in drive-by shootings, natural disasters, molestations of children — these tragic and sad occurrences are the resources that are eagerly mined by the press which knows that there is a quirk in the human mentality that derives some kind of satisfaction by viewing or reading about the suffering of others. Perhaps we find relief that we have been spared the suffering that we see inflicted upon others, a sense of “there but for the grace of God goes I.” Asking the press not to exploit this resource has about as much chance of success as asking the coal mining moguls to stop selling coal. So long as there is a market it will be sold. So long as people are willing to tolerate the interview of the mother sobbing over the murder of her child the media will continue to exploit human tragedies. Sorry about being so negative, Jon. But I think you are on a Quixotic quest. And I respect and understand that; after all, I pray every night for world peace.


    1. The media could absolutely limit the destruction they do and still report on weeping widows. One cameraperson, one interviewer to ask her “how did you feel when your husband was impaled by a javelin?”

      “It felt bad, Cynthia.”

      Liked by 1 person

  12. After the space shuttle Columbia was lost I saw a news program where they interviewed the sister of one of ths astronauts. The reporter kept pressing her with increasingly impertinent questions based on “How did you feel when…?” The young woman stood up straight, set her back teeth and responded firmly and courteously to each probe and simply would not fall apart for the camera, although you could see that it cost her something to maintain control. I was so proud of her I wanted to hug her!


  13. Spot on, Jon. btw, it’s time to lose the “this blog is going to be about…” verbiage at the top of your page. This blog IS about, and don’t use the word “blog” or any of that tentative language. You’ve found your new Space, and you’re rockin’ it, so there.


  14. Thank you, Jon, for verbalizing what so many of us feel. It’s all about horror-porn and grief-porn by the media.


  15. Yesterday I found one of your old columns I’d filed away (Something’s coming, something, well, uh), thought about writing you an email, so I googled you to see how to connect now that you’re gone from the Comical. Just read all the columns in your blog including this one.
    I haven’t had a television hookup since December of 1994. I read.


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