Editorial: Will TV news- or its audience- finally grow up?

Sep 24, 2001  •  Post A Comment

In the wake of the terrorist attack on the United States, it’s hard to believe Americans once cared who would win “Big Brother 2” or whether Anne Heche is crazy. And it’s hard to believe that as recently as two weeks ago, that’s exactly the kind of pablum, along with the latest celebrity/politician sex/murder/kidnapping scandal, that dominated television news.
Along with everything else that changed in American life when the World Trade Center was destroyed and the Pentagon was attacked, the tragedy was a wake-up call for broadcast news divisions big and small, reminding them, at least momentarily, what their job is: covering actual news.
We hope it’s a lesson that sticks.
And we hope the American public, whose appetite for mindless entertainment has been suppressed for the time being, learns a lesson of its own.
Our interest as a society in hard news-particularly international news-has eroded steadily since the end of the Vietnam War. And to some extent, our lack of enthusiasm for the harsh realities of the world beyond our borders helped put us at risk. Some Americans were surprised to learn on Sept. 11 not only that the United States is vulnerable to terrorism but also that our nation is the object of violent, focused hatred in certain parts of the world. This information should not have come as a surprise.
Terrorism has been a very real threat for decades, but we have done an impressive job of ignoring it, choosing to focus our attention instead on which movie stars are hopping into bed with each other. And the news media have gone along all too willingly.
Before Sept. 11-before we had videotape of an act of destruction so violent it would make every Hollywood action movie look tame-the topic of terrorism, like the national debt and campaign reform, was considered unsexy-and therefore, presumably, unimportant. And like those other critical national issues, it was largely relegated to the cable channels where the news junkies hang out: CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.
As a nation that has learned to take its freedom for granted, we have forgotten the warning of Thomas Jefferson: “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” We are guilty of letting our guard down. And the television industry is guilty of abandoning its role as watcher, guilty of indulging our lethargy.
On Sept. 11, we began to reverse that course. Many observers have stated that things will never be the same. As an industry and as citizens, we must see to it that those words hold true. We cannot afford to return to the way things were.