When it came to making or reporting news, it used to be that there were certain requirements for being on the radio or TV.
It certainly helped your bona fides if you were a trained journalist, like an Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite. The airwaves were a public trust, and you felt a responsibility to report the news accurately and fairly.
Oh, there were media scoundrels, of course. Father Coughlin, the fascist and rabidly anti-Semitic priest, had a huge radio audience in the 1930s. But he was a major exception in an inherently forthright industry.
There are many, many qualified and hard-working people toiling in radio and television, but, unfortunately, our media culture seems to reward those who seek notoriety rather than fame, controversy rather than logic, hyperbole rather than reason.
This was abundantly in evidence in the tragic case of two Australian disc jockeys who thought it would be really cool to pull a prank on the hospital where Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, was being treated for severe morning sickness.
The DJs pretended to be the Queen and Prince Charles asking for information about the patient’s condition. Jacintha Saldanha, the 46-year-old nurse who took the “royal call” and unwittingly gave out the sensitive information to the DJs, committed suicide three days later.
The DJs’ show was canceled, they have received death threats, and they said they’re really, really sorry. Whether their “prank” was the main reason for this tragic death is up to interpretation, but it was certainly a catalyst.
But even as we mourn Saldanha, so we mourn that an Ann Coulter can say the most outrageous, offensive statements and still be a regular guest on what are supposed to be responsible media outlets.
Just one of Coulter’s many vile utterings: “If I’m going to say anything about John Edwards in the future, I’ll just wish he had been killed in a terrorist assassination plot.”
And Rush Limbaugh, whose radio show has made him wealthy almost beyond measure, has had a litany of inappropriate utterings long before he called Sandra Fluke a slut this year. Here’s just one: “Let the unskilled jobs that take absolutely no knowledge whatsoever to do — let stupid and unskilled Mexicans do that work.”
Chris Matthews certainly wasn’t operating anywhere close to the best tradition of his NBC predecessors Chet Huntley and David Brinkley when he said: “I’m not going to pander, or pee all over Jesse Jackson every night just to make a point with the conservatives.”
The Bill Mahers, Don Imuses, Michael Savages and too many others are thriving. But we should demand better than insipid pranks and bluster on our airwaves.