The media elite

For all of us, a little theater is a good amplifier

Issue: "Cracking the code," April 29, 2000

What do good journalists and good preachers have in common? Both would sincerely like to believe that the very truthfulness of their message is enough to attract readers and listeners. But both, if they're old and experienced enough, usually also know that it takes something more to make things work. It's why Dan Rather likes to go to the site of the hurricane and show his viewers that he's willing to risk the danger of the storm in order to bring them the story. It's why Billy Sunday would sometimes leap from the platform and physically shake a listener in his audience. The truth itself may be powerful-but a little theater tends to be a good amplifier. But when does "a little theater" become too much? That question is why there will always be a lively debate in both fields about when the faithful carrier of the word (whether he's a preacher or a reporter) has veered a little too far toward being an entertainer as well. It's why the professional news staff at ABC got bent out of shape when network officials sent movie actor Leonardo DiCaprio to do a much-publicized interview about Earth Day with President Clinton. "We're selling out to celebrity journalism!" screamed the regular news team. They probably saw it as a little like putting Madonna in the pulpit during a Billy Graham crusade. Who would think of such a thing? The sad fact is that a great many Americans think of little else. So bored are they by basic truth that only after lots of bells and whistles have been added will they sit around and listen to it. I'm not just pointing fingers; none of us is exempt. We at WORLD magazine know that pictures, color, good layout, and an occasional special offer help promote subscription sales. Knowing when you've crossed the line, however, and when you've sold out to entertainment interests, is crucial. As noisy as the professional news people were in critiquing the DiCaprio interview, none of them seemed bothered by the borderline ethics of one of their own-Tom Brokaw of NBC News-when he co-sponsored a "town hall" discussion on gun control in Denver with President Clinton. To put on an air of dispassionate objectivity while providing a two-hour forum for a highly politicized point of view is at least as questionable as letting a movie star do an interview.

  • More about double standards among the media elite: When CBS Sports analyst Billy Packer insulted a couple of women students recently at Duke University, he got a meaningless slap on the wrist-but no more. Instead, CBS defended him. On his way into a game he was covering at Duke, Mr. Packer had been asked for his press credentials by ticket-takers Jennifer Feinberg and Sarah Bradley. "You need to get a life," Mr. Packer shot back. "Since when do we let women control who gets into a men's basketball game? Why don't you go find a women's game to let people into?" The two women, stunned at such treatment from a major media figure, complained to the Duke athletic department, wrote about their experience in the student newspaper, and asked CBS for an apology. What they got instead was one of those "If-I've-offended-anyone" pseudo-apologies-and this response from CBS Sports President Sean McManus: "Billy has always had extremely strong opinions, which is one of the reasons he's the best college basketball analyst in this business. And why reporters like asking him questions." You can only imagine what CBS's response would have been if it all had happened to baseball pitcher John Rocker, golfer Ben Wright, or someone else who didn't have the network brass to back him up.
  • But here's a friendly item about still someone else from my list of the media elite. William F. Buckley, for whom public speaking must come more easily than breathing comes for the rest of us, says that an address he gave in Fort Wayne, Ind., a couple of weeks ago was the last speech of his long career. I remember hearing one of Mr. Buckley's earliest, almost 50 years ago. The then youthful founder and editor of National Review was speaking in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and several of us teenagers went off to hear a performance that wowed us by its smoothness, its breadth, and, of course, its wit. I don't remember the topic-but I'll never forget his final answer during the Q&A session that evening. "You've done a pretty devastating job, Mr. Buckley," complained one woman listener, "of telling us what's wrong with our society. What do you propose now to do about it all?" Flashing his wonderful grin but never missing a beat, Mr. Buckley shot back: "I think I favor a Constitutional amendment, ma'am, to abolish original sin." It was basic and heady stuff-of the sort which, I've wondered ever since, if it made such good sense to us kids, why couldn't anyone in Washington catch on?

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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