As news media, we are supposed to be reporting the news, not making it. However, in the last two weeks – during Libya and before the Japan earthquake – journalists have been making the news in an attempt to get readers and ratings. The two most recent examples are Charlie Sheen and the Westboro Baptist Church.
Charlie Sheen is clearly mentally ill. He claims he is sober and not drinking. He may not be drinking, but in the mental health field his behavior is what is what is known as a “dry drunk.” It is as if he is drinking. His mental filters are not working. Like someone who is drunk, he says anything that comes to mind. If he were falling down drunk and smelling like the local brewery, no one would interview him. Charlie Sheen doesn’t look like a falling down drunk, so he is OK to interview? Are his contract negotiations and his “firing” or his webcasts suitable for main line news? I think not. They should be relegated to stay at TMZ or the grocery store tabloids and shouldn’t be infecting the news. His exploits and the reporting of them by the “news media” are exactly what concern the non-Western world about our values and culture.
Sheen’s interviews are the gift that keeps on giving. Anyone who is granted an interview is sure to make headlines and get a ton of publicity for the interview. Is that journalism? Journalists are provided access and have a certain amount of shields provided by the First Amendment. With any special privilege we are supposed to have responsibility. Interviewing someone who has such a clear mental handicap is just taking advantage of that person.
The same is true of the people of the Westboro Baptist Church. They made their point. The Supreme Court said two weeks ago that they have a right to free speech. The question is, why do local and national media report on their protests? Westboro Baptist is a family operation with fewer members than many local churches. They take their relatives, often children under the age of 12, to protests. The news media do not report on why they take their children to protests. No one questions if that may be a form of child abuse. Their protests give great local color and legitimacy to a family-run fringe operation.
Everyone knows that the Westboro Baptist Church is not representative of mainline Baptist churches, so why do they get so much ink? Are my fellow members of the news media so desperate for attention grabbing headlines and video that we will take an inbred “church” and give them that much publicity? Are we afraid that no one will read, listen or watch us? How about doing stories that really affect our everyday lives?
Giving Charlie Sheen and Westboro Baptist Church continuing access to major media is shaping and making news. It is not reporting it. Time for those of us in the profession to wake up to our responsibilities.