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Sick Puppy Meets Media Beast

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John Mark Karr is one sick puppy -- a school teacher who fantasized that he'd engaged in consensual sex so passionately with six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey that he accidentally killed her.

And television news in our country is one ravenous beast -- abandoning any notion of journalism, proportion or decency to again prey upon JonBenet's corpse for ratings and profit.

God only knows what combination of hurt and mental illness went into producing the sick puppy. On the other hand, there's no mystery about what created the media beast: corrupt government policies combined with corporate greed.

Make no mistake: The media beast is every bit as compulsive and out of control as Karr, who may yet end up behind bars for child pornography. But the beast is free to maul again and again.

For 10 days, TV news has fixated on this imposter-culprit as if he were a world-historical figure -- like Nelson Mandela emerging from prison, only bigger. TV tracked Karr's travels across the globe, telling us what he ate for dinner, analyzing his attire.

To extend Karr's allotted 15-minutes of fame into a 10-day ordeal, TV news ignored important stories of war, environmental degradation, corruption, citizen activism. Instead, TV viewers were offered hundreds of hours of single-minded examination and debate on one burning question: did Karr do it? The inquiry was relentless and aired all sides.

If only we'd had such in-depth, full-spectrum debate when the Bush team was dragging our country into war based on pretense.

I worked in cable news just prior to the Iraq war. As I describe in my book Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media, journalists at MSNBC got into trouble with management for questioning Team Bush too strongly, for insisting on genuine debate.

By contrast, no one will get into trouble for this embarrassing 10-day spasm of overwrought Karr coverage. . .as long as ratings were good and coverage was cheap. If so, news producers can expect congratulations for a job well done.

Tabloid stories involving sex, crime or celebrity are preferred by TV news management today. These stories are inexpensive to cover, since speculation by alleged experts can fill fill up hours of airtime. And tabloid stories typically don't offend anyone in political or economic power, including corporate sponsors and media owners.

But aggressively covering an administration bent on war can cause all sorts of problems. Especially for a media conglomerate that has business pending before the Federal Communications Commission. Especially when that media titan is lobbying the FCC to allow it to grow even more titanic -- as was happening in 2003 exactly at the time the Bush White House was launching its invasion of Iraq.

During the run-up to war, I was a senior producer on Phil Donahue's primetime MSNBC show, the most watched program on the channel, until it was terminated three weeks before the war began. An internal NBC memo soon leaked out, complaining that Donahue was "a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. . .He seems to delight in presenting guests who are antiwar, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives."

Stick to tabloid stories and your TV career will flourish. Be skeptical about officialdom's war motives and they'll show you the door.

I'll never forget my first day of work at MSNBC headquarters in the spring of 2002. As I entered the building's central corridor, I saw a number of framed posters celebrating highpoints of the channel's early history. The first one: "The Funeral of Princess Diana." Then: "Death of JFK, Jr." On the opposite wall, I saw "Columbine Shootings, Live Coverage" and "The Concorde Crash."

I remember thinking: If these are what MSNBC considers its highlights, what were its lowlights?

TV news owners and management love stories that keep viewers passive, on the sidelines -- as spectators. They fear the ones that might motivate us to take action, on the field -- as citizens.

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Jeff Cohen was director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, where he was an associate professor of journalism. He founded the progressive media watch group in 1986.

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