BOSTON -- For one brief moment this fall -- before Monica became a household voice, before Barbara Walters and Andrew Morton got video and print dibs on her story -- it looked as if Fox TV had won this ultimate TV "get." They were ready to pay a $3 million talk tab.
Of course, the Fox folks insisted on a scrupulous parsing of their media ethics. Why no, Fox News wouldn't pay the bill -- their
journalistic palms would be clean -- it would be Fox Entertainment.
With that uproarious pronouncement, I asked the musical question: News? Entertainment? How on earth could anyone tell the difference.
Now as Ms. Lewinsky talks to Ms. Walters for free, to Mr. Morton for at least $600,000 and goes up for TV sale abroad, we are supposed to applaud the ethical distinctions all over again. I mean, it's been that kind of a year.
A year when news morphed into information into infotainment into entertainment. A year when the newsmagazines acted like a transmission service for federal audiotapes, and the newspapers looked like a printout of independent counsel Ken Starr's R-rated documents.
On television, it became harder to separate the reporters from the news analysts from the senators from the comedians. They were all sharing the same video platforms and the same green rooms. They were TV "personalities" one and all.
Meanwhile, in politics, the attack ads looked more and more like professional wrestling matches while a professional wrestler became governor of Garrison Keillor's Minnesota.
This morphing of news and politics and entertainment was not entirely new, thank you Ronald Reagan. Indeed Pat Buchanan once explained how "Crossfire" was the perfect training for running for the presidency.
But today it's even harder to tell the TV anchors from the moderators from the hosts from the ringmasters. Which brings us (unhappily) to the subject of Jerry Springer, the self-described "ringmaster" of the No. 1 television show whose new book "Ringmaster" has come out just days before his new movie "Ringmaster."
Any daytime TV watcher knows how the anti-war activist and lawyer became the mayor of Cincinnati, then a television journalist and finally ran away to the circus, also known as "The Jerry Springer Show." The talk-and-slug fest runs some five times a day in my own city with nearly as many bleeps as words. These aren't guests, these are walking restraining orders.
On a recent morning, the standard fare was "In-Laws Face Off" with the requisite family feudin', swearin' and swingin', the cameo appearances by the beefy bouncers, and the ads for psychic readers and disability lawyers with 800 numbers.
To describe the "Jerry Springer Show" as trash TV is to describe Hurricane Mitch as a shower. But just about the time my superior skin started to crawl, on came a promo for the 10 o'clock "news" with a "report" about binge drinking among teens when their parents aren't home. Trash TV? News? Can you tell them apart without a tip from the psychic hot line?
The opening premise of the book, in which Mr. Springer tells all, except the fakery which he denies, is an imaginary talk show with God. Before the big judge, he offers up the employment defense: "You see, God, it's like this. . . . It's just a job. What a person does for a living doesn't determine what he or she believes or thinks."
His defense against more humble critics, however, is that he used to be in the real exploitation business. "You see I did the news." While the guests on his show are volunteers, the subjects of news shows are not, he says, and both are slaves to ratings.
The important stuff
As for the need to know, says the ringmaster, "90 percent of what the news reports, we don't need to know. . . . We need to know if we're at war, or if the water we drink is poisoned or if taxes are going up." We don't need to know about, he sniffs, two years of O.J. Simpson, the details of Marv Albert or President Clinton's personal life.
So much for the one-man Jerry Springer defense committee. Whatever he says, there is a difference between the food fights of the McLaughlin Group and the in-law slugfests of the ringmaster. There's a difference between the standards of CNN, even when they screw up, and those of "Jer-ry, Jer-ry," a show in which truth is not stranger than fiction: It is fiction.
There just isn't enough of a difference.
The sliding scale from All the News That's Fit to Print to all-Monica to all-trash is like a mudslide. It's all downhill.
Remember the 1988 film, "Broadcast News"? When the glitzy news anchor was lambasted for crossing the line between "real journalism" and fake, he replied, "It's hard not to cross it. They keep moving the little sucker, don't they?"
Ten years later, the little sucker has traveled at the speed of light. Swing away, bleep all you will, but Mr. Springer's role in life is to show us the bottom line. At least so far.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 11/24/98