One night 10 years ago, I found myself in a crazy place. It was only the parking lot of a courthouse in Santa Monica, but craziness had come to that place on the wings of a jury verdict in the civil trial against O.J. Simpson. The Miami Herald had dispatched me there to gather color - i.e., anecdotes and imagery that gave a sense of what being there was like.
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I found more color than a paint factory. A sky full of news helicopters. A guy with a guitar crooning "Johnny B. Goode." An old lady chanting, "O.J. is innocent!" People screaming right in each other's faces for the benefit of TV cameras. A young woman fretting that she hoped she'd get a chance to scream, "Murderer!"
"It's weird," Sidney Lee, an L.A. screenwriter, told me as we watched the crowd, "because it's not something that's going to affect them. They're not going to go to jail, they're not going to get out of jail, they're not going to have to pay." These people, he said, would wake up the next morning and realize, "I guess it didn't involve me, did it?"
But 10 years later, there has been no such realization. Ten years later, the Simpson trials seem less an aberration than a seminal moment in the de-evolution of TV news into something that might better be called "The News Show."
And 10 years later, Stepha Henry is missing and David Ovalle is livid.
She is a pretty, 22-year-old black girl from New York who came to Miami for Memorial Day - and disappeared. He is the Miami Herald reporter covering the story. In a June 8 entry on his blog, he explains that he was asked to go on MSNBC to talk about it. So he rushes to the studio, he's all set to go - and the interview is canceled.
It seems there's a new twist in the Paris Hilton traffic violations story and the network needs to cut away to nonstop, eye-in-the-sky coverage. "I"m through with cable TV news," wrote Ovalle. "It's a joke."
I'm no fan of these damsel-in-distress stories about which TV news obsesses so obsessively. Still, it seems obvious that if your choice is between the airhead heiress and someone who is missing and maybe dead, you choose the latter. Does the world collapse if you get to the airhead heiress two minutes later?
Maybe. Because "The News Show" is predicated on news as entertainment, news as story arc, news as show complete with theme music and cool graphics, news as everything except, you know - news. So the choice isn't really between an heiress and a missing girl. Rather, it's between a soap opera that is known to glue eyeballs to the screen, and one - with a black girl as star, no less - that is yet unproven.
Notice how importance never enters into the equation. Notice how there isn't even a pretense to public interest. TV "news" has become celebrity trials and runaway brides, missing girls and sex. While foreign bureaus are closing and news budgets are shrinking, we become a people ever more thoroughly entertained than informed, even as we live through the most dangerous and portentous days in recent history.
How high a price will we pay for that luxury? As Al Gore puts it in his book, "The Assault on Reason," "The subjugation of news by entertainment seriously harms our democracy: It leads to dysfunctional journalism that fails to inform the people. And when the people are not informed, they cannot hold government accountable when it is incompetent, corrupt, or both."
I understand the interest in Paris Hilton. But is she really 24-hour, eye-in-the-sky, let-me-bring-in-the-expert-commentators news? When will we see, as the screenwriter put it, that "it didn't involve me"? He had to yell to make himself heard over the helicopters, camera crews, screaming people and other distractions.
Ten years later, that night feels like a portent. Ten years later, the whole country is a crazy place.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpittsmiamiherald.com.