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The Dartmouth
June 19, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

"Runaway" Media

JonBenet Ramsey, Scott Peterson, O.J. Simpson, Kato Kaelin, Chandra Levy, Gary Condit, Terri Schiavo, Martha Stewart, Elian Gonzalez, Monica Lewinsky, Michael Jackson. What do all these individuals have in common?

At some point, they all were at the eye of an excessive media hurricane. Each serves as monuments to the limited attention span of the American media. The media today resembles 10-year-olds playing soccer. The media outlets furiously and collectively scramble after the rapidly changing news stories that take them in all directions. Scott Peterson becomes long forgotten soon after the Michael Jackson case began. Over the past weeks, the name of Jennifer Wilbanks deserves to be etched onto the "Wall of Overblown Media Feeding Frenzies." The saga of the Georgian "runaway bride" captured the imagination of -- well -- cable news talking heads, requiring incessant "team coverage," 24-hour live-feeds and expert on-air criminologists and psychologists. To the seemingly dismay of some, the prospect of a lengthy media firestorm dimmed as the saga became an instance of premarital "cold feet."

At the same time of the Wilbanks fiasco, Private Lynndie England admitted her culpability in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison abuses -- one of the darkest moments for the United States' history of human rights that will take generations to fade away. In many cases, the "runaway bride" story overshadowed the major developments in the Abu Ghraib case. Apparently, the "runaway bride" saga proved much more compelling than Iraqi prisoner abuse. Beyond any "liberal" or "conservative" slant, the media bias for sensationalism and ratings influences American news coverage. Americans seek both news and entertainment and today's media often seems like the illegitimate child of the two desires. In the highly competitive cable news market, the quest for the latest engrossing story contributes to the media's short attention span.

Americans can be constantly updated on the Michael Jackson trial through a variety of cable news conduits. The fact that the "mainstream media" offers the same extensive Jackson coverage as the E! Network -- an entertainment network with such quality programming as "E! True Hollywood Story" and "Wild on E!" -- demonstrates today's journalistic nadir. Television media outlets lopsidedly cover the Jackson trial for the same reason high-speed police chases garner so much media attention in Los Angeles -- ratings.

In the perilous months leading up to the September 11 attacks, reputable Time Magazine declared the summer of 2001 as the "summer of the shark," in the aftermath of a series of high-profile shark attacks. In reality, there were fewer shark attacks in 2001 than in previous years. Reminiscent of a Hollywood film, the story captivated audiences, leading to unnecessarily extensive coverage. September 11 served as a reality check that moved the media beyond the sensational fluff. However, today, amid the string of overblown California court cases, the nation may have returned to "summer of the shark" mentality, possibly ignoring imminent hazards.

Americans are probably kept equally, if not more, informed about the daily innuendo of the Jackson trial, with the risqu photos and surprise witnesses, as the daily events in the Iraq.

Despite living in the "information age," with instant global communication and "embedded" reporters in the Army, wars in distant lands still feel like wars in distant lands. For most Americans, it does not even feel like the United States is currently at war. There is no common national sacrifice that characterized previous war efforts. No rations. No "victory gardens." No communal tax increases to pay for munitions or veteran benefits. In general, the media provides the American public their only window into the reality in Iraq. Despite the gaudy lure of Jackson and Peterson, the media has the responsibility to muster an extended attention span for Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans cannot afford to become complacent about the reality abroad.

Perhaps "hard" news stories are often delegated to the backburner because the public simply demands "lighter fare." In a fitting microcosm, President Bush's latest primetime press conference began 30 minutes earlier than scheduled due to lobbying from NBC. NBC did not want the press conference to interrupt the "The Apprentice." The Donald bested the President. Across the entire nation, a collective expletive from American teens could be heard as the press conference forced the postponement of "The O.C." (This decision may signify that Karl Rove is finally conceding the youth vote.) The nation has come a long way from Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "fireside chats" that loyally drew 70 percent of the American public to hear about the "hard" news of the day. Though Americans were loath to surrender their Thursday night entertainment, the public has a responsibility as well along with the media. Americans must demand the abandonment of excessive, even if entertaining, media circuses for the sake of the most "newsworthy" stories.