This just in: Michael Jackson still dead

Zach Wiita

The tension was palpable. The airplane carrying deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was circling the Toncontín International Airport in Tegucigalpa, the capital. Zelaya’s supporters were gathered at Toncontín, and there had already been violence.

As the plane circled above, it was uncertain if it would land, returning Zelaya to the country whose Congress, Supreme Court, and Armed Forces had ousted him, or if the military would attack – risking violence not only to the erstwhile president, but to U.N. General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockman of Nicaragua as well. Finally, the military began blocking the runway, and Zelaya’s plane was forced to land in El Salvador.

As I sat watching the news Sunday, I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat. This is living history! A coup d’état, right in our neighborhood. Lives were on the line. The future of a nation standing in the balance. Surely the news networks would be all over this, right?

Nope. Moving frantically from channel to channel, I could find no substantial coverage of the Honduran crisis on an English-language channel. I found myself glued to CNN en Español, trying to use my admittedly weak Spanish verbal skills to interpret what the correspondents were saying and to read the headlines before they flashed away. Thank goodness for BBC News’s Web site.

What was so pressing as to monopolize CNN en Español’s English-language flagship channel? Michael Jackson. He was still dead, after all.

This is emblematic of a growing problem in the American news media. Instead of fulfilling the functions of journalism, they have been reduced to a collection of circus barkers trying to hawk the latest scandal. Sensationalism has replaced sobriety and the news has become little more than another entertainment option.

It often seems to begin innocently enough. As much as Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann may irk their ideological opposites, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea of a news analysis and commentary program, even one that reflects distinct partisan biases. Part of the function of the news, after all, is to provide meaningful context for the information it conveys, and a commentary program can do this to great effect.

The problem arises, however, when commentary turns into entertainment – when analysis simply becomes another way to kill time between lunch and dinner. Loud, angry confrontation replaces reasoned discourse, and arrogant posturing and mindless flag-waving substitute for thoughtful analysis. Programs like these, as Jon Stewart so memorably put it on an appearance on CNN’s “Crossfire” in 2004, indulge in partisan hackery and are hurting America.

And this entertainment mindset spreads to the rest of their networks. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow does an excellent job of providing actual content, but Ed Schultz offers nothing but glitzy rants during what ought to be a daytime news slot. Meanwhile, CNN has seemingly relinquished its journalistic responsibility to inform the public of the important events of the day. When its news anchors aren’t making unprofessional jokes on air, they spend so much time begging their audience to send them information over Twitter, Facebook and blogs that it is almost as though CNN expects the public to inform it of the important events of the day.

It’s a sad state of affairs, but perhaps we cannot expect anything better from an era of for-profit infotainment.

Zach Wiita is a senior political science and theater studies major and a columnist for the Summer Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].