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Anger Management for Journalists

In defense of being pissed off.

By Elizabeth Spiers - November 16, 2004

If Matt Drudge were composing a headline to summarize last week's events, it would probably read, "PISSED!!!" in screaming capital letters followed by a string of angry little exclamation marks. The blue states are pissed at the red states, Palestinian hardliners are pissed at Mahmoud Abbas, and Michael Jackson is pissed at Eminem. The Court TV-viewing public is pissed at Scott Peterson and Michael Eisner is no doubt pissed that newly-appointed Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia CEO Susan Lyne has refused to stay ignominiously fired and turned neither desperate nor housewife. (That last one is speculation on my part, but really, when is Eisner not pissed?)

Personally, I'm pissed that the Celine Dion-Anne Geddes collaborative book, Miracle, which consists of photographs of Dion clutching babies dressed in humiliating costumes, currently has an Amazon ranking of 125. But that's only because I believe that children can be scarred by traumatic events at a very young age and I'm appalled that a sizable portion of book-buying America seems to be endorsing the practice of dressing the nation's youth like decorative plant life and subjecting them to Celine Dion before they're even able to walk. But I digress.

In each of the situations above, the acrimony was, if nothing else, predictable. So predictable, in fact, that if the aggregate pissed-ness and subsequent reporting on the pissed-ness registered at all, it failed to elicit the appropriate outrage and merely made readers and viewers vaguely more grumpy.

Perhaps it's anger fatigue. After all, we've been through weeks of campaign speeches, months of war in Iraq since the war in Iraq supposedly ended, and god knows how many episodes of Ashlee Simpson's MTV reality show. Maybe we're just too tired.

At any rate, the absence of anger has been, in some ways, more conspicuous than its presence. So here are three things we all possibly should have been angry about last week, and noticeably, sadly, and anticlimactically weren't:

A senior producer for CBS interrupts a fictional entertainment show to announce breaking news about an event that is likely to materially affect U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and gets fired for it.
I'm not sure what's more perverse here—that CBS fired the producer, or that there are enough viewers who are genuinely livid that they missed CSI: NY for news about something that actually affects the lives of many other people in a very real life-and-death way to warrant the producer's dismissal. (I guess it's worth noting that they're capable of getting pissed off about something.) What does that say about American culture? And does the network have more of an obligation to entertain than to inform?
CBS Axes Producer for Arafat Cut-In. [Broadcast & Cable]

Entertainment journalists are caught shamelessly sucking up to the subjects of their stories.
This isn't so much a last-week problem as it is a perennial problem. The Toronto Star's Geoff Pevere best illustrates the absurdity: "Think of it this way: What if political journalists were prone to blurting out 'You're the Man!' whenever the Prime Minister entered the room?...When you're a fan, you're not being critical. And when you're not critical you're doing what most of the entertainment industry would die and go to heaven to see you do in first place: promote." Imagine if the White House press office demanded quote approval for and told reporters they wouldn't be allowed to write about certain subjects—and the reporters happily agreed to that arrangement!...Okay, you're right. It's a bad analogy. But still!
Journo As Movie Fan? Not This Man! [Toronto Star]

Scott Peterson's trial was covered by every major news network. But at the expense of what?
The San Francisco Chronicle's Joan Ryan has a theory: "We are tuning in for two reasons, I think. One is simply to find out how the story turns out. The other is to see justice done. Maybe that is not so insignificant." And maybe she's right. But even if the object is to see justice done, why is one person's tragedy more significant than the tragedy of many? (See Darfur, Sudan.)
Trash TV or a Lesson in Justice? [SF Chronicle]

If we could do last week over again, it might have been worth it to get a little angry. It might have generated some friction, which might have generated some debate and healthy conflict. If the redwood longevity of Crossfire and Jerry Springer reruns have taught us anything, it's that people like some level of conflict—with or without airborne set furniture. And managed properly, that conflict can be productive. (Take heart, ye Jon Stewarts, ye Michael Kinsleys!) There's something comforting about being able to work up any level of self-righteousness at all in a culture where reality TV proves that nothing is really offensive and even the basest of human instincts can be easily repurposed as entertainment. After enough repeated exposure to that sort of thing, any resulting indignation can barely be bothered to manifest itself in a half-hearted eye roll.

But then again, maybe it's not worth getting worked up about. Life is good: Scott Peterson's guilty, I got Clay Aiken's autograph on the last junket, and CSI: NY is on.

[All links via Romenesko]

Elizabeth Spiers is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com.



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