Media Feeding Frenzies

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Media Feeding Frenzies

Sharks tend to be solitary creatures, but blood in the water can draw them from a long distance away. Sometimes, when a number of sharks are consuming the same prey, they can be gripped by a kind of hysteria in which they frantically attack their food, each other, and anything else that may happen by. Such a display of mindless bloodlust is known as a "feeding frenzy." And according to William Safire, this expression was first applied to reporters in 1977, in a speech given by Gerald L. Warren, editor of the San Diego Union. Warren compared the overly aggressive tactics of some journalists to "sharks in a feeding frenzy." Today, the term usually refers to the covering of a story by a large number of reporters, who do their work aggressively, intrusively, persistently, and, in some cases, recklessly.

A media feeding frenzy usually stems from two elements: a celebrity and a scandal. "Celebrity" can be used to describe anyone well-known to the public, such as an actor, politician, or star athlete. "Scandal" usually involves allegations of immoral behavior—often, but not always, of a sexual nature. The two biggest scandals to attract the American media's attention in the 1990s were President Bill Clinton's relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and athlete-turned-sportscaster O. J. Simpson's trial for the murder of his wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Goldman.

Some feeding frenzies have taken place even when celebrity involvement was lacking. In 1992, teenager Amy Fisher, dubbed the "Long Island Lolita," was accused of attempting to murder the wife of Joey Buttafuoco, her considerably older boyfriend. The salacious elements of the story (including the revelation that the 17-year-old Fisher had been working as a call girl) were enough to create a frenzy—first in the New York City media market, and, eventually, nationwide—despite the fact that none of those involved were public figures. Four years later, Atlanta security guard Richard Jewell was accused of involvement in the Olympic Park bombing that killed one person and injured several others at the 1996 summer games. The media frenzy, which all but convicted Jewell in the court of public opinion, began with a leaked FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) report saying that Jewell was the "focus" of the investigation. Jewell was ultimately cleared of any involvement in the bombing, and he successfully sued several media outlets for defaming his character.

But media feeding frenzies most commonly involve scandals of the famous. In America, they have focused on the misbehavior of presidents (Clinton and Lewinsky; Richard Nixon and Watergate), presidential candidates (Clinton and Jennifer Flowers; Gary Hart and Donna Rice; Joseph Biden and speech plagiarism), vice presidential candidates (Dan Quayle's military service; Thomas Eagleton's mental health), members of Congress (Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick; Wilbur Mills and stripper Fanne Foxe; Bob Packwood and a host of women), Cabinet nominees (John Tower and allegations of drunkenness and womanizing), Supreme Court nominees (Robert Bork and allegations of racism and sexism; Clarence Thomas and sexual harassment charges by Anita Hill), sports figures (Pete Rose and gambling; Mike Tyson and rape; Billie Jean King and a lesbian affair), television evangelists (Jimmy Swaggart and prostitutes; Jim and Tammy Fae Bakker and corruption), and movie stars (Hugh Grant and a prostitute; Eddie Murphy and a cross-dressing male prostitute).

Although the terminology may be of relatively recent origin, media feeding frenzies are not new phenomena. One of the worst frenzies of the twentieth century took place in 1935. It stemmed from the trial of Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnapping and murder of the 18-month-old son of Charles Lindbergh. In this case the celebrity (Lindbergh, who, in 1927, had been the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean in an airplane) was a victim, not the alleged perpetrator, but that did not stop the Hauptmann trial from turning into a three-ring circus that would have made P. T. Barnum proud. Reporters declared Hauptmann guilty before the trial had even begun; drunken journalists caroused in the streets of Flemington, the small New Jersey town where the trial was held; and reporters in the packed courtroom were able to pass notes to both the prosecutors and defense lawyers as the trial took place. So egregious was the conduct of the press on this occasion that it prompted the American Bar Association to pass its Canon 35, which led to the banning of cameras and radio microphones from all courtrooms. It was a restriction that lasted for 15 years, and even then it was only amended, not abolished. Judges were given discretion about allowing television cameras into their courtrooms, as well as complete control over the ways the cameras were used when their presence was permitted.

According to Professor Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, several developments in modern society underlie the rash of feeding frenzies noted in recent years. A major factor is the changing nature of the news business, especially its greatly increased scope, speed, and competitiveness.

There is much more news coverage in the 1990s than was available just 20 years before. This is especially true of television, the source for most of the news that Americans receive. Although the half-hour of network news at dinnertime remains a staple, even the networks have added to their coverage of feature stories by offering a plethora of prime-time "magazine shows" such as 60 Minutes, 20/20, 48 Hours, and Dateline NBC. Additionally, cable television offers a wide variety of news programming, much of it available 24 hours a day. Cable News Network (CNN) was the first to provide this service and was successful enough to spin off a second channel, Headline News. This has led to such ventures as CNBC, MS-NBC, and Fox News Channel, with more still to come. In addition, sports networks like ESPN offer news coverage of athletes, both on and off the field; entertainment channels, such as E!, present news focusing on films, television, and popular music; and specialized "ethnic" cable networks provide news programs geared toward blacks, Latinos, or other ethnic or racial groups. There is, in short, an immense amount of news being offered to the American (and international) viewer every day. That void has to be filled somehow, which places heavy demands upon those who find, report, and package the news.

As a result of the sheer amount of news programming that is available, and the rapidity with which it can be collected and presented to the public, competition between news organizations has reached a new level of intensity. This is one of the prime reasons behind media feeding frenzies. When a "newsworthy" story breaks, a large number of journalists will descend on the scene of the story, driven to find material to fill the many hours of news broadcasting, and eager to outdo the competition in discovering new angles to pursue. If the story has elements that make it especially "newsworthy" (i.e., celebrities and scandal), then the feeding frenzy will begin in earnest.

Another important reason for the increase in the number and intensity of feeding frenzies derives from the way that both journalists and the public have come to view news. For instance, among reporters there has been seen a marked decrease in civility. This manifests itself in such practices as reporters swarming around a public figure, cameras running and microphones extended, as well as the practice called "ambush interviewing," wherein a reporter, usually with a minicam operator in tow, will attempt to surprise an interview subject who has already shown a disinclination to talk to the media.

But the largest difference in terms of civility in the late twentieth century is that, for journalists, nothing is considered "off limits" anymore. For instance, President John F. Kennedy is known today to have been a chronic womanizer, and his weakness was no secret to most White House correspondents during the Kennedy administration. But there were no exposes in the media about Kennedy's many affairs, because journalistic conventions of the day held that private sexual conduct was not newsworthy unless it affected public behavior. Those who followed the frantic media coverage of President Bill Clinton's sexual involvement with a White House intern (and possibly other women, as well) can easily discern how much media ethics have changed since the early 1960s.

The way that journalists approach the gathering of news has also been affected by an increased cynicism within the profession. It is doubtful that experienced reporters were ever given to wide-eyed naivete, but events over the last several decades have done much to prompt the Fourth Estate to expect the worst of the public figures they cover. President Lyndon Johnson's rhetoric justifying American involvement in Vietnam eventually led journalists to coin the term "credibility gap"—which meant that many people thought that Johnson had engaged in deliberate deception in his relations both with reporters and the American people. A few years later, the Watergate scandal revealed the lengths to which a president could go to deceive the press, manipulate public opinion, and attack his political enemies. In the following decade, reporters covering the Iran-Contra scandal learned how an uninvolved president, "plausible deniability," and the judicious use of paper shredders could combine to violate the law and undermine the nation's foreign policy.

At times, journalistic cynicism seems to be matched by public prurience. As is shown by the ready market for such "tabloid television" programs as Hard Copy and A Current Affair (as well as their print counterparts, which are available at any supermarket checkout lane), there is a substantial appetite for sleaze in this country. Many Americans are loath to admit their taste for such programs, perhaps out of embarrassment, but the numbers speak for themselves. At the height of the media feeding frenzy over the O.J. Simpson criminal trial, a network anchor was asked for his reaction to polls that showed a large percentage of Americans claiming to be disgusted with the media's obsessive coverage of every aspect of the case. "They may say that," the anchorman replied, "but look at the ratings. Our evening news numbers are up since trial coverage started, and every 'Special O. J. Report' we do in prime time pulls in bigger audiences than our regular programming usually gets…. People may say they don't like this stuff," he concluded, "but they still watch it—they watch it a lot."

Apart from whatever media feeding frenzies may say about American culture, they pose other concerns, as well. One involves journalistic objectivity. Journalists involved in the excitement of a scandal story soon begin to take sides, whether they recognize it or not. If a President is accused of sexual misconduct, reporters know that the audience interest is usually in what he did and with whom, not in an evenhanded sifting of the evidence, with full weight given to the denials by the accused. Thus, sides are taken, and objectivity falls by the wayside.

If objectivity is endangered by feeding frenzies, accuracy may not be far behind. A reporter who finds a new angle to a story, or an undiscovered bit of evidence, knows that the competition is not far away. The glory, acclaim, and fame come from being first with the story. This leaves precious little time to double check information, or to ponder the credibility of those providing it. Of course, one can always issue a retraction for a mistake, but retractions never seem to be accorded the same audience attention as allegations, and there is often no way a retraction can wipe out the harm that may have been done.

Furthermore, any news program (or publication) is subject to zero-sum logic. That means, for every minute (or column inch, in print) devoted to Story A, there is correspondingly less time available for Stories B, C, and D. The subject of a media feeding frenzy will almost always be given considerable air time—such a story generally guarantees good ratings, competing stations will almost certainly feature it, and news editors have to be able to justify the resources allocated to the covering of the story. The result is that the "frenzy" story will take up a significant portion of the newscast, and other stories, regardless of their import, will likely receive short shrift—and short segments. And this practice will probably be repeated, night after night, for as long as the story remains current.

The principal fact to keep in mind about the news business is that it is a business. Although the Constitution says that the news media have a public service obligation, in practice public service today is considered far less important than the bottom line. Feeding frenzies take place because the result of all this frenetic news coverage, to use an old phrase, "sells papers." And the future does not appear to offer hope for much improvement. Competition between news outlets is likely to increase in intensity, and the technology of information transmission will only become faster. As a result, the media feeding frenzies of the future may make the coverage of the O. J. Simpson trial look like a model of good taste and self-restraint.

—Justin Gustainis

Further Reading:

Garment, Suzanne. Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics. New York, Times Books, 1991.

Sabato, Larry J. Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics. New York, The Free Press, 1991.

Safire, William. Safire's New Political Dictionary. New York, Random House, 1991.

Walsh, Kenneth T. Feeding the Beast: The White House versus the Press. New York, Random House, 1996.

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