And the vicious cycle got worse as cable news increasingly turned to sensational stories with little substance in the search for more and more viewers. A fire in a warehouse in Duluth? Send in the cameras so millions can watch it burn. A raunchy pop singer forgets her underwear when she goes partying? Flash the pictures every 20 minutes -- making sure her private parts are blurred just enough to satisfy the Federal Communications Commission while still titillating viewers.
We seem to be losing the ability to distinguish what is noteworthy from what is simply notorious. And in the process, we are creating greater celebrity for people who don't deserve it.
Don Imus is a crank. But his bigoted remarks have made him more famous than anything he's done in the past and will probably attract more listeners when he returns to his ornery morning show than he has ever had. MSNBC and CBS may have cancelled him for now, but he'll be back, and when he returns, ratings will go up. And we can thank the "news" coverage Imus has received when they do.
Is it any wonder that more people can probably identify Sanjaya than their own senator? We are becoming a nation of nincompoops. And in a democracy, that's a worrisome thing.
We live in a dangerous and complicated world in which we're asked to make difficult decisions with too little information. The news media have always played an important role in getting us the facts to inform those choices. But they are quickly abdicating that role in lieu of entertaining us.
It almost makes me hanker for the 15-minute news broadcasts of my youth. At least Chet Huntley and David Brinkley could be counted on to report real news and leave the entertainment to Ed Sullivan and Sid Caesar.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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