News suffers in the name of cash

Oscar Abello

America has always been a place where the bottom line matters most. Stock markets fluctuate up and down corresponding to profit reports. Musicians’ careers are judged by how many records they sell. The success of a movie is directly linked to ticket sales. Professional sports franchises move across the country to find a more profitable market for their product. Millions of parents across the country struggle to find time to balance their checkbooks. When the English became too expensive as a government, we kicked them out. The slaves stayed for so long because they were pure profit. At every level, at any point in history, success in this capitalist country is judged by the bottom line, the profit or loss – that is, except for the federal government (but that’s for another column).

The bottom line even explains why American culture is so hypocritical. Violence sells because it’s supposed to be taboo. Same goes for sex. People are attracted to the forbidden and this has always been true. We aren’t the first culture to become enthralled by sex and violence; the Romans became so obsessed by violence that they built a whole arena just to watch it; and not just one arena, but an arena for every city of consequence. For decades, crowds gathered to watch the blood and gore of combat. Today, we don’t even need arenas. We have movie houses and televisions to bring the blood and gore right to our neighborhoods and our homes. The screens glorify sex and violence in a way the Romans could only dream about. And just as they were once captivated, so are we. We watch, we buy tickets, we are sold, despite our own self-awareness of this tumbling moral standard.

Seventy percent of the country is at least somewhat worried that popular culture – television, music and movies – is lowering the moral standard in our country. That same poll says 62 percent of Americans blame Hollywood, and its media moguls, for lowering moral standards. In another curious phenomenon, despite the clear and recent heightening of sex and violence in television programming, the percentage of people who believe the entertainment industry should do something to reduce the amount of sex and violence has fallen, from 83 percent in 1995, to 75 percent in 2004. As sex and violence in the media increases, so too does our willingness to tolerate them. It seems even our own self-awareness is tumbling.

We seem to have forgotten and perhaps even ignored the fact that an obsession with death ultimately played a part in the demise of the Roman Empire. Roman governors and emperors used games of death to gain the favor of the Roman people, allowing them to govern as they pleased, often with negative effects on society. It is a scary thought, but there are those who make the claim that Bush’s war in Iraq is used as a red herring, to win our favor, and essentially distracting us from what may be a detrimental domestic agenda (but again, that’s another column). Whatever your opinions are on Bush’s domestic plans, what is most troubling is the lack of responsibility on the part of the news media in making these plans known and making them a part of the debate.

Forty-six percent of the country still says Iraq or terrorism should be Bush’s top priority. Only 11 percent point to health care as the top priority. Only seven say education is the most important. The point is not that Iraq or terrorism aren’t near the top. The point is that the lopsided numbers indicate what the news media believes to be more beneficial to ratings and therefore more worthy of coverage. Nightly news programs routinely begin with an update on Iraq while saving updates on health legislation for last. Headlines from Iraq or anything related to it will always trump a headline on education funding policy debates. Policy debates and legislation sound boring, I know, but health and education is guaranteed to affect us, our parents, and our children. The war in Iraq may not necessarily do that, although its debts will certainly be draining our economy for years. News corporations, especially those on television, need to get off their profit-crazed horses and realize that they need to report the news, all of it, without bias. By bias, I don’t mean liberal/conservative, I mean exciting/unexciting. The news is the news; it all needs to be reported so that we, the viewers, can decide what is important. We seem to have forgotten what it means to have freedom of expression. We take it for granted, and those who have any business sense seek to profit from that lack of civic awareness. The rights we have, the rights that have been paid for in blood, aren’t license to do anything just to make money. They aren’t license to entertain for the sake of profit. Rights come with responsibility, the responsibility to improve ourselves and improve society by the free exercise of speech, religion, and association. It is a great offense to me and many others that everything has become a business.

Journalism used to mean something, the news used to be about what happened during the day, not what will bring in the most viewers. When we are constantly seeking to improve the bottom line, we forget about the higher responsibilities.