Backsliding into bad taste

Oct 29, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Is it too early for a “funny” story about the World Trade Center disaster? Good God in heaven, yes. It will always be too early. Over at the Fox News Channel, however, they view the world from their own skewed perspective. Normal rules of bad taste never apply to anything owned by Rupert Murdoch.
Thus very early on last Thursday’s joshy-jokey “Fox & Friends” show-ostensibly a newscast-co-host E.D. Donahey shared an anecdote she had heard about a wife whose husband worked in one of the towers. She was watching TV in horror the morning of Sept. 11 and kept trying to reach him on the phone.
Apparently the husband was out on personal business involving another woman. He was unaware of the unfolding tragedy. So when he called his panicked wife later from some other location, and she asked where he was, he told her he was at the office, of course.
Donahey laughed. She “loved” that story, she said. Maybe she did, but she should not have told it on TV. Not even on Fox. It was hard not to think of the indignant woman exiting the opening-night performance of “Springtime for Hitler” in Mel Brooks’ film “The Producers” and pausing at the door to exclaim, “Talk about bad taste!”
Too soon for laughs
In America now, getting back to “normal” apparently involves making the airwaves safe again for such obscenely disrespectful bilge as Donahey was dishing. “FNC” really stands for Fun News Channel during “Fox & Friends,” which attempts to give the news to viewers conversationally and laced with smirky, smart-alecky wisecracks.
It’s “the news” as friends might relate it over their morning coffee or really, considering the demeanor of the show’s anchor trio, over the morning booze. It’s hard to see, though, how making jokes about a traumatizing national tragedy fits into FNC boss Roger Ailes’ sanctimonious vow to provide “fair” and “balanced” coverage. Maybe he thinks simple human decency should be balanced with equal parts jeering, meretricious trash.
Ailes objected once when I referred to him here as Murdoch’s “lap dog,” and I apologized. I haven’t the facts to support that allegation. Besides, as I think about it now, Murdoch probably has a lap rat anyway.
Maybe the growing presence on TV of insensitivity about the terrorism is part of a kind of defense mechanism, the cruelty of the nightmare still being more than even the most well-balanced and even-keeled people can bear. Or maybe, sadly, it’s more like this: a sign that the business of television being business, and tragedy being bad for business, the incident will be made to seem remote and distant long before it is proper to make it so.
The wrong words
Steve Doocy, another “Fox & Friends” co-host, and one with aspirations to stand-up comedy, referred on the show to “Osama bin Laden and his kooky band of terrorists” and wondered aloud what sort of “sneaky” thing they might be up to. This isn’t healthy ridicule of a sickeningly evil enemy; it’s the trivialization of a mass murderer. It reminded me of a CNN anchor, since retired, who during a discussion of World War II made a reference to “Adolf Hitler” and his “antics.”
Antics! The genocidal murder of 6 million people labeled an “antic”! But in the anchor’s defense, he was ad-libbing-searching for the right word and happening upon a very wrong one.
The people at “Fox & Friends” know what they’re doing. They are trying to resume the demolition of a wall that was already badly damaged before Sept. 11-the wall that separates what folks might say and do privately from what is appropriate to say and do on television.
There were encouraging signs that the shock of the tragedy was causing broadcasters and cablecasters to rethink the systematic obliteration of that boundary, maybe even to undertake repairs. It would never be fully rebuilt, but maybe a certain decorum and propriety could be restored. But, damn-already people like Ailes are hacking away at it again. Apparently it helps sell Hondas.
FNC and “Fox & Friends” are hardly alone in this pursuit, but one other feature from that day’s show deserves mention. A regular visitor to the program, via remote from a radio station, is a brain-deficient shock jock who goes by the name of Mancow, suggesting he is the result of some ghastly experiment in genetic mutation.
Mancow, wriggling on his chair as he ranted about anthrax-contaminated letters sent to the offices of Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, denounced such media big shots as “pompous asses” who have a “Jesus syndrome” and who “talk down to the `stupid’ people of America. … These guys are very hated individuals by many of us,” he said. So then, they deserved to be infected with a potentially fatal disease? Is that what Mancow was saying? Perhaps the FBI should consider him a suspect.
He made some reference to the self-important anchors as having all been tested for anthrax, apparently unaware that Rather had said publicly and emphatically that he had not and in fact would not be tested for the illness.
Probably the most notorious attempt at exploiting the tragedy has apparently been scrubbed. It was announced that John Edward, the pseudo-psychic who hosts a syndicated series called “Crossing Over,” would attempt communication with people who perished in the World Trade Center disaster. Imagine. These seances were scheduled for, as fate would have it, the November sweeps.
Fortunately, this ghoulish scheme was withdrawn.
Remember how the networks also declared, in the aftermath of the tragedy, that in the name of civility and out of respect to victims and survivors, they were going to bury their competitive hatchets for a while and not play the ratings game when it came to coverage? This era of good feeling didn’t last very long.
On Sept. 28, CBS issued a press release headlined as follows: “During the Week After the Terrorist Attacks, CBS News’ `The Early Show’ Posted Significant Increases in Households, Total Viewers and Key Demographics.”
Yes, the show was up 33 percent in total viewers, 18 percent in women 18 to 49 and 20 percent in adults 25 to 54 over the same week a year ago, the release stated. Bryant Gumbel and Steve Friedman must be so proud.
Apparently “Early Show” was benefiting partly from gains in the late-night ratings of David Letterman, who was justifiably praised for the dignified and sensitive way he returned to the air and for the modifications he made in his previously raucous, madhouse program. Very commendable.
Rampant egos
But last week, as is traditional prior to a sweeps period, Letterman and his staff took a holiday, and reruns included howls and capers from the pre-terrorization era. It was kind of nostalgic, though, to hear Gary Condit jokes again. They seemed to go back years, not mere months.
Finally, a plea: Could all those public-spirited and big-hearted recording artists and movie stars who’ve been holding benefit concerts for firemen, policemen and terrorism’s victims call a merciful hiatus to the performances now, and instead of raising money with their “artistry,” just donate some of their own excess millions to the cause?
Paul McCartney’s recent all-star concert from Madison Square Garden, which rated a no more auspicious TV venue than VH1, included such cringe-inducing moments as Jim Carrey’s pathetically unfunny imitation of a waving American flag.
It is often said of these occasions that the stars “check their egos at the door.” And yet well past the hour that the concert should have ended and many viewers had no doubt called it a night, there was McCartney singing song after song after song, as unstoppable as the Energizer Bunny but arguably less entertaining.
Let’s be brutally honest here and face one simple fact: There is no door in the entire universe big enough to keep out egos of such immensity. And no stars ever really check theirs anyway.#