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TV’S ABILITY TO REPEL KNOWS NO BOUNDS

Oct 20, 2003  •  Post A Comment

You don’t hear words like “decorum” used much anymore, nor do many people voice objection over indecorous behavior. This is especially true where television is concerned and maybe for news media in general. We’ve had years to become accustomed to unflinching reports on TV news-not only accustomed, but inured. Herewith a wee small voice raised in defense of flinching. That’s right, there is something to be said for the flinch. It may be out of style, but every now and then it’d be nice to bring it back again.
One current ongoing story that a little flinching wouldn’t hurt is the case of Kobe Bryant, the great NBA star charged with violent sexual assault on a mostly unnamed woman. In one edition of this column, we questioned the conventional wisdom of always withholding accusers’ names in such cases. Keeping the name out of news stories is one of those rare decorous gestures; it has a lot to do with political correctness, of course.
But recent reports about developments in the case could have done with a bit more pruning. Specifically, how necessary is it, really, to talk about deposits of “semen” found in the accuser’s “underpants”-yellow underpants, it was repeatedly pointed out. I saw news stories where these terms were used ad infinitum, as if the anchors and correspondents were thrilled at being able to say them on TV. For “semen,” there is a simple, only moderately euphemistic substitute: DNA. That seemed to be the term of choice in the infamous matter of Monica Lewinsky’s stained blue dress. Indeed, even “stains” can get the meaning across without indulging in quite so much specific, gross-out terminology.
Maybe if more of the people employed in TV news went to journalism school instead of wherever it is they do go-law school, or drama class, or some other such wayward route-they would know by the time they are practicing journalists that even in these unsavory times, certain proprieties can still be observed. We don’t need to hear about ejaculate when there are perfectly suitable alternatives, and statements like “semen is present in the underpants” are almost laughably unnecessary and even amateurish.
“It’s getting very nasty,” said wet-behind-the-ears CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien of the Bryant proceedings the other night. What’s getting nasty is the way the case is being reported. There’s nothing particularly nasty about a defense attorney attempting to clear her client. And there’s no law that says language used in the courtroom need necessarily be the same language used in TV news reports.
“Reality” television has brought with it, of course, a seemingly endless parade of ghastly sights that are fed into the American mainstream in the guise of keeping things real. Good manners are considered something out of a quaint and ancient past, apparently. Likewise good taste.
Any discussion of disgusting TV has to include the NBC show “Fear Factor,” but it’s been mentioned so often in this column that there’s probably little point in raising yet another objection. It’s worth noting that that an NBC promo for “Fear Factor” last week promised viewers “one stunt we can’t even show you!”-presumably that meant it couldn’t be shown in a promo, but will be shown on the program. A woman was seen sinking her poor face into something horrid that was electronically blurred. Here we have a major television network using the same basic appeal in its advertising that circus freak shows and X-rated movies have used.
That’s what much of prime time often resembles: a cross between a circus freak show and an X-rated movie.
These are not good times for people with delicate sensibilities. Indeed, in an age of worldwide terrorism and obscene inhumanities, delicate sensibilities are arguably a silly luxury that no one can afford. But there’s delicate and there’s simple decency. Prime time is now a battlefield littered with scarred victims; crime shows like the “CSI” genre are free not only to show us gaping wounds but to take flying trips via micro-cam into the wounds and the flesh and blood beneath.
Then we have the matter of conjoined twins, who used to be called Siamese twins for some reason and who still occur in nature from time to time. News directors throughout the nation and apparently on all the networks love nothing more than a good conjoined twin story and the frightening pictures that come with it. Again, flinching seems a highly defensible tactic in such encounters. We shouldn’t be sissies, admittedly, nor flutter with horror at such abnormalities. But the networks show the pictures over and over and over until well past the point of wretched excess.
Last week a pair of boys who had been joined at the head were successfully separated and, at least at this writing, both survived the operation. CNN took grisly pleasure in showing pictures of the boys on all its newscasts, 24 hours a day, prior to the operation. And once the twins were separated? It didn’t matter. They hauled out the stock footage of the poor kids still locked together.
If the twins have been separated, must there still be, several times every broadcast day, the footage of them joined at the head? Apparently what’s happened is there just aren’t enough people working in TV news anymore with the power to say “enough, already”-or else it’s feared that saying “enough, already,” while a genuine service to viewers, might somehow work to the advantage of the competition.
Result: Children all over America have nightmares about being joined at the head to their siblings, or else their parents shoo them away from the TV set when the pictures come on, making the kids more morbidly curious than ever. Today’s television regularly reduces all of us to the status of unfortunate victims at a peep show. The whole world is peeping.