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Ink-Stained Socialites

by The Cranky Media Guy

Let's get the niceties out of the way. Yes, of course, it's a crying shame that JFK Jr. and his passengers died in that plane crash. Like everybody else over a certain age, I remember the picture of him saluting his father's coffin back in '63. In fact, I had a passing acquaintance in the 70's with the guy who shot that picture. I was a security guard for the Yankees, Mets and Madison Square Garden and Dan O'Farrell, the guy who took that famous shot, was working as a sports photographer for the New York Daily News then. Ah, but I digress. It isn't John John that I really want to talk about today, but the people who covered his plane crash.

It became obvious pretty quickly last weekend that, once the networks told us that the plane had gone down, there really wasn't that much else to report. The plane was down, the passengers (dead or alive) hadn't been found and a search was underway. That was really all there was, in actual news terms, to say. The mentality around today's TV news rooms, though, seems to be "big stories deserve a lot of air time" whether or not there's actually anything new to say to the viewer. So, what you got was a lot of stalling and reporters "on the scene" (meaning the beach at Martha's Vineyard) trying to stretch the same lack of new information into a ten-minute back-and-forth with their anchor in New York.

The anchors. Ah, now we get to the good stuff! Because there were so few actual facts to the story, they had to fill with something, right? They all seemed to have endless "personal" John F. Kennedy Jr. anecdotes to relate. Even Christianne Amanpour had some John John stories. I didn't think she had a personal life! How can she socialize in New York City? Isn't she permanently on Baghdad time? When I think of Amanpour, I immediately think of the phrase "war-torn" 'cause that's the kind of place she's always reporting from. She's gotta be like jet lag with bangs! Anyway, even she seems to have been able to take time out of her busy schedule to party with the one-time Sexiest Man Alive.

That brings me to my actual point. At the risk of sounding like a bad Seinfeld clone, "What's the deal with reporters hanging out with the rich and famous all the time?" I'm referring mostly to the big-name TV types, but this applies to some of the newspaper folks, too.

Believe it or not, to be a journalist (and, in the case of some of the TV news people, I use the term loosely), it is NOT necessary to hang out with gazillionaires and Senators, movie stars or Internet moguls on your free time. All the big TV names seem to, though. Everytime some Mr. Bigshot dies, one or more of the TV newsies has some personal reminiscince about him to relate to us, the Unwashed Masses who will never get any closer to Tom Cruise than the old People magazines in the dentist's office with the feature story on Rain Man. Not only is it not necessary, I would argue that it actually detracts from your ability to do your journalistic duty. Journalism, like show business (which, in this country, it resembles more and more every day) should be about the audience.

The AUDIENCE. Remember them? They're the people on the outside of the velvet ropes when you're going to the big Charity Gala with your wife next to you in the $10,000 designer gown. They're the ones who don't get the invitations to the Gridiron Dinner and the White House Correspondents shindig. Ever seen one of those little weenie roasts? The Gridiron is this deal where all the big name reporters show up and take lame, sub-Dean Martin Celebrity Roast shots at the President, all the while stealing glances over his way to make sure the Big Guy is laughing. Then, when they're done, the Prez gets up and makes his own "funny" speech, saying that in the Gridiron tradition, once again, they "singed, but did not burn". Yes, that's the actual phrase they use every year. Pretty lame, huh? Remember, these are the "hard-nosed" reporters who report to you every day about what's going on inside the White House. Singed but didn't burn, my left buttock. The thing's a freaking Love Fest! Why don't they just all strap on knee pads and do a mass Lewinsky on the guy?

The thing is, these guys go into journalism for much the same reason the guys they cover go into politics--they like being around power. If, as Martin Mull once said, show business is "high school with money", then politics is high school with power. If reporters take cheap, semi-funny shots at the Chief Executive one night a year, they can delude themselves into believing that they're not really part of the elite, that they're still ink-stained wretches. Hey, we made fun of the President last night. We singed but didn't burn. Right before we ate the roast beef. You're missing the point, Press Weasels. The very fact that you get to go to dinners like that with the President and the rest of us don't means that you are part of the elite. Look around you next time you're at one of those wing-dings. Don't see any plumbers or cable installers there, do you?

Remember a few years ago when the White House Correspondents dinner made the mistake of inviting Don Imus to M.C.? If you didn't see this on C-Span like I did and only read about it afterwards, you'd have thought Andrew "Dice" Clay hosted the thing. Although a few of his jokes fell flat, the fact was that Imus did a pretty funny monologue, no worse really than stuff you'd hear on Letterman or Leno. It's just that the President and First Lady aren't used to stuff that doesn't "singe but not burn" said to their faces. The Clintons (and many of the press people in the audience) looked as if they found a rat turd in their custard cup. Their wrinkled-nose reaction to the kind of stuff most of us have heard many times spoke volumes about the coziness between the press and the people they ostensibly cover "objectively". Do these people get out of the house much? Jeez, I've been hearing lesbian jokes about Hillary since about the second week of the first Clinton administration. Imus didn't even tell one of those. I wish he had. It would have been priceless to see Mike Wallace's face.

Wanna see just how good the national press corps really has it? Next time you're in Washington, D.C., schedule a stop at 14th and G Streets, Northwest. There you'll find the National Press Club building. Take the elevator to the top floor and look around. Even if you don't get any further than the lobby, you'll think you died and went to Country Club Heaven. How can I describe this place? Well, do you remember the episode of the Simpsons in which Homer joins the Stonecutters? Remember their headquarters? Now you've got the picture. Anyone want to explain to me why reporters need a hangout that looks like the Taj Mahal with mahagony panelling? Aren't reporters supposed to hang out in seedy bars wearing fedoras with cards that say "Press" stuck in the hat band?

OK, I'm about to do it again. I'm giving away another multi-million-dollar idea. Wanna make some dough? Start the Blue Collar News Network. The whole idea is that the reporters and anchors are average Joe-types, who would explain the news in terms the viewer could understand. No anchor or reporter would make more than $100,000 per year, a fact that would be widely publicized. Anyone wearing a suit costing more than $150 on the air would be fired on the spot. All right, maybe the last one is a bit facetious, but I'm serious about the network idea.

The talent would be encouraged to eat lunch at fast food restaurants so they could mingle with the people who actually watch their shows. Every news show on the network would have a "What Does This Mean To Me?" segment that would explain the impact proposed legislation would have on the viewer. Economic news would be reported in terms of things that actually impact the average wage-earner, rather than just what happened on Wall Street that day.

You think this can't work? You think that anchors in outfits from J.C. Penneys can't have "credibility"? Uh, taken a look at any surveys about public confidence in the media lately? Talking heads in tastefully-tailored Armani suits aren't convincing the American public that the news is accurate or relevant. Maybe it's time for an anchor with a Big Mac stain on his tie. Maybe it's time for reporters who prefer pinball to polo and who have jobs outside the media on their resumes.

I know someone's gonna steal this idea. All I'm asking is that you give me a job there, OK? I want to be the anchor of the Blue Collar Nightly News. I want to be the anti-Dan Rather, the guy who isn't always shaved on-camera and who admits that the government is lying to us every day and that we're all going to Hell in a leaky dinghy. I want to interrupt White House press conference feeds by pointing out that the Official Spokesman is totally full of crap. Come on, wouldn't you watch a news show like that?




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