Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Sensationalism sells

Paul Dacre said this, in support of tabloid journalism:

Sensation sells papers
He was arguing in favour of the sort of journalism that hid cameras to record the sexual exploits of Max Moseley. There are a lot of arguments that could be set against this idea, some from his own speech that extolled the virtues of newspapers from a golden age:
Page 3 of the Sunday Express said it all. The lead article under the title “Meeting People” was an interview - not with the kind of half-baked trollop who passes as a celebrity these days, but with, say, the mother of a newly chosen British Nobel Prize winner.

Next to it was a large cartoon by Giles whose genius for clean, gloriously warm family humour is matched today only by the Mail’s magnificent Mac. Why this genre of cartooning - which combines superb draftsmanship with a timeless universal humour that often contains great truths - is dying out is a subject for another speech. Anyway, underneath was the “You the Lawyer” column addressing the problems of every day life such as fencing disputes and dog bites. What paper today would have such a low-key, non-newsy page 3. Yet all human life was on that page.

Elsewhere in the paper, the Book Editor’s reviews were beautifully crafted digests with barely a nod to literary criticism. Motoring Correspondent Bobby Glenton’s road tests were exquisitely oblivious to the technical qualities of the vehicle he was driving but consisted of glorious chuckle-rich evocations of the joys of life that appealed to even those who hated cars. And in Hollywood, Roddy Mann’s drop-dead intros, magical words and pyrotechnical metaphors transformed the stars into fabulously witty, romantic creatures that they almost certainly weren’t.
During this golden age, the private infidelities of public people were largely ignored.

Hypocritically, despite his reverence for this age of gold, Dacre argued that a print version of tar and feathers is now a public good, and had the logical inconsistency to backdate his claim:
Since time immemorial public shaming has been a vital element in defending the parameters of what are considered acceptable standards of social behaviour, helping ensure that citizens – rich and poor – adhere to them for the good of the greater community. For hundreds of years, the press has played a role in that process. It has the freedom to identify those who have offended public standards of decency – the very standards its readers believe in – and hold the transgressors up to public condemnation. If their readers don’t agree with the defence of such values, they would not buy those papers in such huge numbers.
Nearly thirty years ago, a News of the World reporter put it differently, saying that his newspaper provided the material for its readers to slip away with to the lavatory, and indulge in a quick "J Arthur" (Rank - rhyming slang). He was more honest than Dacre, but dishonesty is the least of this man's sins.

Michael Totten, months ago, explained how this drive for sensationalism is destructive not of private lives (people exposed by the tabloids have killed themselves, but this wasn't Totten's subject), but rather of our whole political and social world:
More than one fourth of the population of Lebanon demonstrated in Beirut’s Martyr’s Square on March 14, 2005, and stood against the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis that has been sabotaging their country for decades. When I lived in a Sunni Muslim neighborhood of Beirut, the overwhelming majority of my neighbors belonged to that movement. The international media gave them lots of exposure, but moderate, liberal, secular, and mainstream conservative Muslims elsewhere rarely get any coverage. They are almost invisible from a distance, but it isn’t their fault.

Journalists tend to ignore moderate Muslims, not because of liberal bias or racism, but because sensationalism sells. At least they think that’s what sells.

And reporters often assume extremists are mainstream and “authentic” when they are not. Somehow, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has been designated the voice of American Muslims. But CAIR is, frankly, an Islamic wingnut organization with a minuscule membership that has declined 90 percent since September 11, 2001. (More people read my medium-sized blog every day than are members of CAIR.)

The coalition of Islamist parties in Pakistan got three percent of the vote in the recent election. Pakistan’s radicals have made a real mess of the place, but they can’t get any more traction at the polls than Ralph Nader can manage in the United States.
The public disgrace is not Moseley, whose private sexual predilections are not our concern and who had the courage to take the fight to his persecutors despite the embarrassment that would obviously involve. The public disgrace is rightly that of Dacre and his fellow tabloid editors, who will glorify criminals when it suits them, excoriate them when they sell their stories to others, and poison the well of public discourse, even in such a serious matter as Islamism, if it will sell papers and therefore make them money.

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