News is Entertainment and Entertainment is News


This is an expanded and updated version of an article published in The Hill on 4/9/18.

The United Nations described it as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” the military offensive that led to the exodus of Rohingya Muslims in the Myanmar province of Rakhine. Almost a half-million men, women, and children have fled persecution or death in the region over the past year, crossing the border to Bangladesh or climbing into small boats for the trip to Thailand and Malaysia. One refugee called the slaughter in Rakhine “house-to-house killing.”

CBS brought the horrible situation back to center stage on Sunday, March 25, with a show focusing on the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, noting in particular the plight of children and the cries of the people facing gruesome government hostility. It is a newsworthy story, with so many aspects that could be reported on weekly, along with all other stories of global consequence.

Instead, the broadcast highlighted a classic problem with the U.S. news media. You see, the broadcast didn’t run on CBS News. It was a storyline on a CBS Entertainment series, “Madam Secretary.”

Over at CBS News, a few hours earlier, CNN’s Anderson Cooper conducted a “60 Minutes” interview with a porn star who claims to have had sex with Donald Trump in 2006; that episode drew 21 million viewers, triple that of “Madam Secretary.”

It was quite the juxtaposition, and a shameful demonstration of where some American media have come and gone.

The night before, on ABC World News Tonight, weekend anchor Tom Llamas beat Cooper’s interview with his own “breaking news” via Michael Avenatti, lawyer for Stephanie Gregory Clifford, the same performer of porn and striptease, alias Stormy Daniels.

Avenatti’s big news, according to Llamas, was Avenatti’s warning to the White House to be careful what they say because he had proof. Llamas then aired a grainy photo of a nondescript video disc sitting in what was described as a safe, which Avenatti swore was full of evidence against Trump. But neither the news desk nor the lawyer offered corroboration, proof, specifics, or even any circumstantial evidence. And that was the most important news in America, according to ABC.

Much of the drama of the Stormy Daniels story hinges on her lawsuit against Trump, seeking release from a contractual obligation she signed with a Trump attorney exchanging the paltry sum of $130,000 for her silence. It is this lawsuit on which the media hook their claims that the tryst between Trump and porn star is news, touting possible illegal in-kind campaign contribution to Trump.

Now there is speculation about bank fraud, not by Trump, but by his personal attorney whose homes and offices were raided by the FBI, which in itself raises all kinds of questions and concerns that the media ought to spend time on. If you think about it, though, it is somewhat incongruous that they are hell bent on assassinating the character of someone who doesn’t seem to have any, at least that is recognizable to those looking from the outside in, mostly through a media filter.

None of the broadcasts featuring Daniels have offered viewers a real sense of her character and credibility. Stormy, as you’ll surely recall, first starred in the Wicked Pictures blockbuster, Heat and went on to star in Dirt and Maroon 5, as well as competing in the Miss Nude America Great Plains contest (all according to Wikipedia).

The media have given her and her attorney more credibility than they could have ever hoped for in their no rags to riches adventure. The Washington Post, in eight stories published on just one day, March 27, 2018, devoted a combined 8,160 words of copy to Daniels and her lawyer; her column inches in the major national dailies must total in the millions by now.

In fairness, two Washington Post columnists have called the Daniels coverage a sideshow.

The intense media coverage serves two purposes, discrediting the President and producing eyeballs, which produce clicks, which produce ratings and readership, which produce handsome profits. A CBS executive said not too long ago that while Donald Trump may be bad for the country he’s good for CBS.

The military assaults on Rohingya villagers, meanwhile, get news coverage but not to the degree that Daniels has commanded. The same highly suspect news judgment applies to the annihilation or displacement of millions of innocent people in the killing fields of Syria, Rwanda, Yemen, the Congo, and Nigeria, where school girls are once again being abducted. Anti-Trumpists will argue that such inhumanity isn’t news because it’s been going on since the Egyptian pharaohs.

Coverage of Stormy Daniels’ escapades and media tours also squeezes out needed attention to problems that do have a profound impact on the lives of Americans.

These problems include the critical dilapidation of our national infrastructure; the vulnerability of our electric grid that poses a national security risk; the size of our national debt; the crises facing us in Social Security, Social Security Disability, Medicare and Medicaid; the crippling of the health care insurance industry; or the emergence of health care technology that will transform life as we know it.

How much do the American people really know about the historic and transformational changes happening in the auto industry, changes that could alter lives and, maybe more profoundly, save thousands of lives each year?

What about the latest highway designs that will enable continuous recharging of electric car batteries? What about the growing crisis in workforce education and training, or the real-life challenges we face in educational opportunity at all levels?

The list of issues and subjects, from pertinent to profound, that the media could dive into and inform Americans responsibly and objectively on is endless, urgent — and largely ignored.

The concept of an enlightened electorate, exercising responsible self-governance, is facing serious challenges while the news business continues to undergo transformation that is gradually deconstructing journalism, from ethical standards to the very definition of a journalist. Yet there is so little introspection and oversight, only Madison Avenue slogans such as “truth to power” and “democracy dies in darkness.”

“Madam Secretary” provided a serious contribution to the education of the public on an important political issue, but that is not what television entertainment should be about; that’s what we always thought journalists were supposed to do.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.