A Nation of Nincompoops

Posted: Apr 13, 2007 12:01 AM
A Nation of Nincompoops

I am sick to death of Don Imus, and I'm tired of hearing his disgusting rant against the Rutgers women's basketball team. I don't care who fathered the daughter of trampy Anna Nicole Smith, nor was I interested in what killed the blowsy blonde or where she would be buried.

I don't need to know that the nutty astronaut who drove cross-country to confront her lover's other girlfriend wore diapers to cut down on her pit stops. I can't understand why the sight of police vehicles chasing speeding cars down interstates holds hypnotic power over millions of television viewers. Nor do I wait breathlessly for word on the latest missing coed who disappeared while on spring break or the hapless wife whose cheating husband dumped her body in San Francisco Bay.

Don't get me wrong. For those people who want to know who's sleeping -- or feuding -- with whom in Hollywood, or have an endless appetite for the macabre or just plain weird, there are plenty of resources available to get their fix, from the relatively respectable People magazine to the myriad pulp tabloids at the checkout stand, not to mention shows like "Access Hollywood" or cable channels like E! and Fox Reality.

But why must network news shows and serious newspapers, not to mention cable news stations, cover these insignificant stories ad nauseam? Blame it on the 24-hour "news" cycle. Admit it: There just isn't enough real news to fill 24 hours of programming a day. On some days, there's not even two or three hours' worth.

It used to be that television news followed the lead of the big, prestigious print media. If a story appeared on the front page of The New York Times or Washington Post, it led the nightly network newscast. But cable news changed that. A breaking story could be instantly covered and was old news by the time the paper came out the next morning. So, newspapers increasingly followed television's lead on some stories.

In the past, however, the print media could usually be counted on to provide more depth than a two-minute TV story. Even more importantly, newspapers could discriminate between legitimate news and fluff, relegating the latter to the style and entertainment pages in the back of the paper.

No more. Now, in the rush to attract readers, the silliest stories appear alongside the latest news from the Iraq war or the reversal of a longstanding Supreme Court precedent.

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.