Part of a Series
What’s news? Well, it depends who you ask. According to both the networks and the cable stations last week, it was a spat between the press people for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama over who was responsible for David Geffen’s words about a presidential election almost two years away. And that was the high-minded variety. Even newsier—at least judging by the amount of attention devoted to them—were developments relating to Britney Spears’ shave-and-detox, and the apparently difficult to bury body of ex-porn star Anna Nicole Smith.
The celebrity madness led NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams to post the following on his Daily Nightly blog: “Viewer warning: There will be no mention of Britney Spears’ baldness or rehab in tonight’s broadcast, nor will there be any mention of Anna Nicole’s ‘body possession’ hearing.” That it needed saying at all is kinda’ sad.
But nobody else was saying it—or at least no one in the television news business. Over at Fox News, the war is apparently considered an issue for elitist snobs. Or so says my old friend John Gibson, mocking Anderson Cooper’s criticism of the media’s over-coverage of Anna Nicole: “Oh, there’s a war on, there’s a war on. Maybe, just maybe, people are a little weary, Mr. Cooper, of your war coverage, and they’d like a little something else. Maybe that’s why they all thundered to this story.” Thinkprogress notes that Gibson referenced Anna Nicole 300 percent more often than Iraq during his show, and that he featured stories about her for 19 straight days after her death.
Gibson knows of what he speaks. According to an analysis by the Project on Excellence in Journalism Anna Nicole Smith News edged out “events in Iraq” across the entire spectrum of media and positively murdered it on Cable TV.
Still, a People and Us Weekly driven cable media is not exactly news. More depressing is when the fancy-pants press dives down into the same gutter and acts as if it is the important stuff. That’s what happened when Maureen Dowd got Hollywood mogul David Geffen to dish on the Clintons in anticipation of a fundraiser he was giving for Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign. As Mark Jurkowitz of Project for Excellence in Journalism noted, “The press played on the dynamics of story lines it had already laid down—was Hillary going to be too tough? Was Obama ready for the big time?”
The Geffen-gate was annoying on many levels simultaneously, not least of which was that, despite the enormous attention it engendered, it was based on an entirely false premise. David Geffen held a fundraiser for Barack Obama and agreed to give an interview to Dowd, where he apparently spoke candidly in response to her questions about his feelings about the Clintons. Yet the entire press pack treated these comments as if they had come from the “Obama camp.” And if you think that because Obama’s getting a fundraiser from one of the half-dozen most powerful men in Hollywood, that means he gets to tell him what to say and do about anything, you understand nothing whatsoever about politics and power. Everyone who either covered or attempted to exploit this story should have understood this, and if they genuinely did not, then their judgment can’t really be trusted on anything much having to do with politics.
But leave the “truthiness” of the story aside, and look at the cost of focusing on this nonsense. As E.J. Dionne observed in The Washington Post, “Oh, but health care is so boring compared with a Hollywood big shot who drops hints about Bill Clinton’s love life. Yeah? Tell that to the family of someone who died of cancer because she had no insurance and couldn’t afford a screening test.”
What else wasn’t covered last week in between Brittney’s thighs, Anna-Nicole’s boobs, and David Geffen’s canapés on thin wafers? Let’s take 10 examples of stories that are unarguably more important to the future of the republic—and to virtually all Americans’ lives—than the cotton-candied crapola that dominated news coverage:
- Sy Hersh had yet another scoop in The New Yorker, this one revealing a strategic shift in U.S. foreign policy that potentially benefits our enemies. And the BBC revealed the U.S.’s contingency plans for an attack on Iran.
- The federal government’s plan to check flight passenger names against terrorist watch lists is five years behind schedule.
- More news is emerging about U.S. Attorneys being replaced with GOP cronies in what Adam Cohen calls a “political purge.” One ousted attorney seems intent on fighting back.
- Vice President Dick Cheney was traveling in Southeast Asia pressuring Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and refusing to talk to the press except on an absurd “background” capacity that shamed everyone who participated in it and fooled no one who really cared. (It took a suicide bombing targeting the base Cheney was visiting to make front-page news.)
- Habeas Corpus continued its slow death as the Military Commissions Act of 2006 was upheld in federal court
- British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced his plans to bring 1,600 of his country’s troops back from Iraq. U.S. government officials pretended that this somehow good news.
- A top Republican fundraiser was indicted for financing terrorists.
- Record numbers of Americans are living in extreme poverty—nearly 16 million.
- House Democrats debated an Iraq policy linking further war funding to high standards for troop rest, training, and equipment, as a fractious Senate temporarily moved its focus to post-9/11 reforms.
- And 14,000 National Guard troops are going back to Iraq early.
And now back to your regularly scheduled broadcast….This just in: Anna Nicole Smith is…still dead.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His popular blog, “Altercation,” has moved from MSNBC.com to Media Matters. The new URL is http://mediamatters.org/altercation/.
Research assistance: Tim Fernholz
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