If you turned on television news over the past week or picked up a newspaper, Governor Spitzer’s scandalous rendezvous with a prostitute was likely reported, analyzed and dissected for your viewing pleasure. Is transporting a prostitute across state lines a crime? Yes, but it has little relevance or news value compared to the massive salience it has received in the media.
Governor Spitzer, his wife, and the woman whom he paid for sex are the latest public figures to be made a part of a media soap opera, jacking up ratings, ad revenue providing endless opportunities for magazines and television programs to drum up “exclusive” interviews with all three parties when they’re willing to talk.
Not much happened between the governor’s admission and resignation, but the image of his wife standing beside him is probably burned into the back of your retina. The media would’ve loved to catch a tear, as they did with Hilary Clinton. That was a headline for days. With America on the verge of the largest financial crisis since the Great Depression, it is troubling for the media to devote so much of its attention to this ordeal.
Why do they do it? Sex sells. The news media has endured a gradual shift from a fourth estate of public service to being the latest product in a capitalistic society. Other nations support an independent news media, but the major conglomerates who own and control the media are unlikely to ever allow that to happen when they are able to earn revenue, cut corners and control what the nation is focused on.
Ted Koppel stated on PBS’ Frontline that ratings jumped 10 percent whenever the OJ Simpson trial was covered on Nightline. Koppel admits that the story did not usually deserve being covered once a week, but the program was in direct competition from rival networks and profit-seeking executives were eager to capitalize on the opportunity.
While tabloids have been sold on newsstands and in supermarkets around the world for some time, the birth of cable news programming increased sensationalism dramatically. Spending time, man-power and resources building international news bureaus capable of covering worth stories around the globe would be extremely costly for cable news organizations, far more than they’d ever dream of spending. Most media organizations continually eliminate jobs and spend less and less on international bureaus. It is far easier to cover a story about JonBenet Ramsey, Michael Jackson or Elian Gonzalez. Analysts already under contract by the network can then be brought to debate one another and drum up conversation and continued interest in the story. The analysts are unlikely to know more about the story or add any depth of perspective, but the on-air arguments are wonderful for television and make brilliant sound-bytes to be analyzed and debated by rival networks.
Celebrities are often the target of media sensationalism. Celebrity trials and dealings with the law are topics that television news editors salivate over. Stock footage is easy to find to serve as a backdrop to whatever narrative is being told, analysts are readily available and the recognizability of the individual has already been established.
Ironically, sales of supermarket tabloids have dropped over the past two decades. Who needs to pay for magazines when you could watch the same stories on television for free?