It's almost impossible to keep track of all the TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, and web sites out there. Fortunately, most of the content is repetitive junk, so it doesn't matter if something falls through the cracks. But the latest attack of what one film critic calls DiCapriosis and the reactions to it should have created a larger-than-normal blip on my radar.
Apparently ABC sent sex idol of the 90's, Leonardo DiCaprio on tour of the White House to celebrate Earth Day. To conclude this event, Leo sat down to a serious interview on environmental politics with another sex idol of the 90's, President Clinton. So what? It sounded like more inane prime time balderdash. To media pundits, however, this was a mortal sin against the canon of professionalism and more proof that journalism under corporate demons like Disney is passing through the valley of the shadow of death. You see the DiCaprio nonsense was produced by ABC News, not the network's entertainment division.
"Why didn't Sam Donaldson, Barbara Walters, or Diane Sawyer, the reputable journalists at ABC, do this interview?" the pundits ask. Well, they were probably too busy chasing down Monica Lewinsky, Elian Gonzales, or the meaning of the third prophecy of Fatima.
The other day, I tuned in Good Morning America for the first time in years to see how Sawyer was doing in the role of morning hostess. In the first segment, she and weather guy Tony Perkins were off for breakfast with Aretha Franklin, who nowadays looks like a manatee but sings like a chickadee. Aretha fried chicken, provided dubious dietary advice, got flour all over Diane's designer pant suit, and finally brought in back up singers for a little a cappella soul music. Throughout Sawyer and Perkins chatted, laughed, even strutted some pretty good synchronized dance moves. In her next segment, Sawyer got down to serious business, interviewing Frank and Kathy Lee Gifford about holding their marriage together and still managing to sell books in the wake of Frank's philandering and overall goofy behavior. I had to change channels at that point.
So is this the nadir of Diane Sawyer's career? She, who once asked tough questions of heads of state and other newsmakers as a top investigative journalist at two major networks, is reduced to promulgating pap. Quite frankly, Diane looked like she was enjoying the experience. Ask yourself how you'd rather spend your mornings -- nibbling chicken wings and grooving with Aretha or staring Madeline Albright in the face while wondering how long that soft-boiled egg is going to stay down?
What the pundits don't admit understanding is that ABC and Disney are not producing news; they're producing television. Information is only part of this mix. We see more of what media critic Steven Brill calls vicarious news because the network news divisions can crank out feature and soft news programs with popular hosts at low cost. But more importantly, the audience likes to watch this stuff, so advertisers support it.
Like it or not, this is the niche for network news. The Internet does a better job delivering basic information like stock prices, weather reports, or the results of wrestling matches. The 24-hour news channels are superior at covering breaking news and continuing stories. Vicarious news is what's left, and it's profitable.
So Dan Rather can go down to the Freedom Forum and condemn contemporary journalistic practices until his face turns CBS gray, and the audience could care less. If it did, his evening newscast wouldn't run third in a three-horse race.