News is entertainment and entertainment is news

News is entertainment and entertainment is news
© CBS

The United Nations described it as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” the military offensive that led to the exodus of Rohingya Muslims in the Myanmar province of Rakhine. Almost a half-million men, women and children have fled persecution or death in the region over the past year, crossing the border to Bangladesh, or climbing into small boats for the trip to Thailand and Malaysia. One refugee called the slaughter in Rakhine “house-to-house killing.”  

CBS brought the horrible situation back to center stage on Sunday, March 25, with a show focusing on the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, noting in particular the plight of children and the cries of the people facing gruesome government hostility. It is a newsworthy story, with so many aspects that could be reported on weekly, along with all the other stories of global consequence.

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Instead, the broadcast highlighted a classic problem with the U.S. news media. You see, the broadcast didn't run on CBS News. It was a storyline on a CBS Entertainment series, "Madam Secretary."

 

Over at CBS News, a few hours earlier, CNN's Anderson Cooper conducted a "60 Minutes" interview with a porn star who claims to have had sex with Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight South Korea leader: North Korea agrees to take steps toward denuclearization Graham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' MORE in 2006; that episode drew 21 million viewers, triple that of "Madam Secretary."

It was quite the juxtaposition, and a shameful demonstration of where some American media have come and gone. 

The night before, on ABC World News Tonight, weekend anchor Tom Llamas beat Cooper’s interview with his own “breaking news” via Michael Avenatti, lawyer for Stephanie Gregory Clifford, the same performer of porn and striptease, alias Stormy Daniels.

Avenatti’s big news, according to Llamas, was Avenatti’s warning to the White House to be careful what they say because he had proof. Llamas then aired a grainy photo of a nondescript video disc sitting in a safe, which Avenatti swore was full of evidence against Trump. But neither the news desk nor the lawyer offered corroboration, proof, specifics, or even any circumstantial evidence. And that was the most important news in America, according to ABC. 

Much of the drama the Stormy Daniels story hinges on her lawsuit against Trump, seeking release from a contractual obligation she signed with a Trump attorney exchanging the paltry sum of $130,000 for her silence about that alleged sexual encounter 12 years earlier. It is this lawsuit on which the media hook their claims that the tryst between Trump and porn star is news, touting possible illegal in-kind campaign contribution to Trump — speculation that is unsubstantiated.

None of the broadcasts featuring Daniels has offered viewers a portrait of her character and credibility, other than the mysterious disc sitting on someone’s bookshelf. The media have given her and her attorney more credibility than they could have ever hoped for. The Washington Post, in eight stories published on March 27, 2018 alone, devoted a combined 8,160 words of copy to Daniels and her lawyer; her column inches in the major national dailies must total the millions by now.   

The genocidal slaughter of Rohingya villagers gets news coverage among U.S. media but not to the degree that Daniels has commanded. The same lack of intense coverage applies to the mass slaughter of millions of innocent people in Syria, Rwanda, Yemen, the Congo and Nigeria.   

Coverage of Stormy Daniels’ claims, and so much more like it, also squeezes out in-depth coverage of the enormity of our national infrastructure problem; the vulnerability of our electric grid that poses a national security risk; the size of our national debt; the crises facing us in Social Security, Social Security Disability, Medicare and Medicaid; the erosion and pending collapse of the health care insurance industry; or the emergence of health care technology that will transform life as we know it. 

How much do the American people really know about the historic and transformational changes happening in the auto industry, changes that could alter lives and, maybe more profoundly, save thousands of lives each year? What about the potential crisis in workforce education and training, or the real-life challenges we face in social and cultural integration? The list of issues and subjects, from pertinent to profound, that the media could dive into and inform Americans responsibly and objectively is endless, urgent — and largely ignored. 

The concept of an enlightened electorate, exercising responsible self-governance, is facing serious challenges. But a good many in the media are negligent, driven by their own agendas. The news business continues to undergo transformation that has gradually reconstructed journalism, from ethical standards to the very definition of journalist, and too many in the industry now hide behind Madison Avenue sloganeering such as “truth to power” and “democracy dies in darkness.”  

“Madam Secretary” provided a serious contribution to the education of the public on an important political issue, but that is not what television entertainment should be about; that’s what we always thought journalists were supposed to do.

Michael S. Johnson is a former newspaper journalist who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel. He co-authored “Surviving Congress,” a guide for congressional staff, and co-founded the nonprofit Congressional Institute.