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janet's boob and other important news stories
all the news that's fit to print.
by matt morin

You’ve been reading about it for weeks now. You know exactly what I’m talking about. That little “happening” that occurred on Super Bowl Sunday. It was a shock, sure. No one expected things to end up quite like they did. Reports about what actually happened were a little spotty, although a few news organizations did cover the event thoroughly. However I, for one, must admit I never saw it coming. I mean really, who would have thought Sudan would end their civil war after 20 years?

What? You thought I was talking about Justin, Janet, and the now-famous nipple?

Thank you for illustrating my point perfectly. I rest my case, Your Honor.

I’m not sure when the news became a kissing cousin of the National Enquirer. It was certainly before Feb 1st when Janet Jackson’s semi-bare B cup became the talk of the entire United States. Not long after Justin Timberlake caused a “wardrobe malfunction,” news outlets nationwide started running first-segment, above-the-fold stories about the "scandal." And as the weeks have rolled on, the news has found plenty of air time and print space to discuss this half second of television voyeurism.

Because as we all know, Janet’s right boob is way more important than the end of a two-decade war that killed more than 2 million people.

Did you know that Vice President Dick Cheney may be charged in an international court for allegedly bribing politicians in Nigeria with $180 million to let Halliburton build a gas refinery there? Of course you didn’t. That’s because almost no news organizations in the United States are reporting it.

But I’ll bet you an open-ended Iraqi rebuilding contract that you know J-Lo and Ben broke up.

I can't claim to be on the cutting edge of editorialism. This isn’t a new phenomenon I'm talking about. Back in 2000, a report on American newspapers showed that foreign news received only one-seventh as many column inches as was devoted to sports, one fifth as much as business, and even less space than comics. Apparently, a rerun of Snoopy as the Red Baron is of greater significance than information on Pakistan selling atomic secrets to other countries.

Television news isn’t much better.

Back in the late 70’s/early 80’s, network big wigs who cared far more (read: 100%) about the bottom line started wondering aloud in board meetings why Dan Rather couldn’t pull in a better Nielsen rating than the Cosby Show. And when news directors saw their budgets get cut faster than 99% of American Idol hopefuls, the first thing to go was the international correspondents and their expense accounts in Paris. In their places marched new, young, cheap on-air talent with easy-to-understand, short-attention-span “human interest pieces.”

The King is dead. Long live Charles Kuralt.

Suddenly, instead of spending big bucks to report on real news that was complicated enough to make viewers flip the channel to a Cheers rerun, you could buy a reporter a $200 plane ticket, a $75 Motel 6 room, and voila! You had a gripping, all-important piece on the pilgrimage to see a goat with a spot on its side shaped like Dale Earnhardt’s head. Instead of a Whitewater-esque investigative report on the Whitehouse/CIA leak, you get two minutes of file footage of Michael Jackson and Neverland Ranch.

Of course the news outlets aren’t entirely to blame. I am. And while you’re pointing a finger at me, notice the mirror right next to me. Yes, you’re to blame, too. We all are.

There’s a reason People Magazine has more readers than Mother Jones. There’s a reason people spend more time watching "Punk’d" than they do watching CSPAN. It’s because we’re lazy. And we’re insular. And we’re so used to being bombarded with entertainment every second of every day that we’d rather be spoon fed "Hollywood Squares" than work our brains around the issues surrounding the destruction of the rain forest in South America or the sheer ridiculousness of more than 7,000 special earmarks in this year’s budget.

Just like it’s easier to cram several billion artery-clogging, cholesterol-skyrocketing, heart attack-inducing Big Macs into our mouths instead of taking the time to cook a healthy meal, it’s simpler for us to watch an hour on E! about the Grammy fashion winners and losers than it is to, oh, I don’t know, maybe learn more about why we just went to war for no reason. And it’s easier for the networks, too. They do less. They make more. Everyone wins.

Or loses. Depends on how you look at it.

But what’s the big deal, right? Lighten up! Quit being so serious. What’s wrong with reading Details instead of Salon.com? “It’s not hurting anything to watch a little 'Survivor' to wind down the evening, “ you say.

Well, here’s the problem. Without you and I actively seeking out this underreported news, or without the networks, newspapers and other news sources finding this information for us, we become more and more isolated. We understand less and less of the world around us and our place in it. And when that happens, how are we supposed to act/debate/protest/vote on/solve the problems that we face? While the rallying cry these days may be terrorists or weapons of mass destruction, the biggest threat to democracy is, has, and always will be one very evil thing: ignorance.

Wouldn't it be nice if, instead of CBS doing an entire segment on the latest Survivor to get kicked off the island, they did an entire segment on how the new hybrid cars were going to help reduce pollution and our reliance on foreign oil?

Did you know that Harvard scientists have found that methyl mercury contamination of seafood can cause more irreversible heart and brain damage in children (both in the womb and as they grow) than previously thought? And did you know that despite that information, Bush has asked the EPA to remove mercury from the list of toxic substances?

I didn’t think so. But that’s OK, America. You have Janet’s breast to be outraged about.


Matt would love to be George Plimpton...welll, except for the being dead part. He supplies the doing and the writing. All he asks of you is the reading.

more about matt morin


russ carr
2.16.04 @ 12:14a

I've been itching, itching, itching for this column to run ever since I saw what it was going to be about, and Matt you're lucky you jumped on it first. About the same time Nipplegate was exposed, I had e-mailed a friend of mine a list of three above-the-fold stories featured on CNN.com -- stories which I'd expect to see in the checkout line at the grocery store, not in the "Top Stories" column of one of the leading news outlets worldwide. The one I remember distinctly was about some unlucky bloke who had to drive to the hospital with a shark on his foot.

Who CARES? I mean, apart from the shark-bitten guy and maybe a few close friends? Haiti is in a state of anarchy. There's an impending refugee crisis in Central Europe as the new nations prepare to join the EU. Gas prices are up and down like a binge drinker popping Cialis. But here's a news flash: Brad Garrett MAY NOT RETURN for the next season of "Everybody Loves Raymond."

Does the media give us stories about crap because we're too thick to care about the important stuff, or is it the other way 'round?

matt morin
2.16.04 @ 1:22a

Russ, I struggled with your last question when writing this. I don't know if the media are just giving us (in the big general sense of "us") what we really want, or if it's the other way around.

I have a feeling it's more because we, as people, are lazy and we'll take what's fed to us. So the news reports on the sizzle and not the steak.

robert melos
2.16.04 @ 1:28a

I think of the media feeding the public "junk food" news as the Harrison Bergeron syndrome. We are being dumbed down.

Unfortunately you can't force people to care. I feel that is the reason our world is in the poistion it is today. If more people truly cared, instead of sitting around like Homer Simpson waiting to be fed a donut, perhaps much of what has happened in the world would not have happened. Alas, that is hindsight.

So how do we go about making people care?

matt morin
2.16.04 @ 1:33a

Information, Robert.

Think about how fast people cared about SARS. It's because they were bombarded with news stories every day. Think about the outpouring of support for Ethopians back in the 80's once the news started covering the famine.

I think people would start caring if the news did its job of informing us.

russ carr
2.16.04 @ 1:34a

As more and more media outlets fall under the control of conglomerates, particularly those who own large entertainment franchises as well, the already faint line between entertainment and information is going to dissolve completely. I know our local NBC affiliate loves to run network-friendly "news" stories that tie into the disease-of-the-week on ER, or the heinous crime that was on Law & Order. If you've got that kind of cross-pollenation on the local level, how much worse can it get on the national level?

jen bell
2.16.04 @ 2:24a

We have a White House that is focused on entertainment and sports, too. The line is blurred even further!
Last week I heard one evening about the congressional hearings regarding "indecency in broadcast", ie, Nipplegate, followed the next morning by Ashcroft talking about the "crackdown" on athletes using steroids. So, per the Bush administration, the focus should be on athletes using drugs and god forbid, a nipple on TV, Has ONE child EVER been scarred for seeing a nipple? Aren't there things, like say, hunger, unemployment and pollution that are a lot more threatening? And, as for the drugs, I'm glad Ashcroft is putting his time into going after a handful of athletes rather than the millions using them on the street. Although, come to think of it, maybe it's better to keep his damage to a select few that can defend themselves.

roger striffler
2.16.04 @ 2:25p

I think part of the problem is that, for most people, hunger seems distant...it effects other more than ourselves...unemployment is too overwhelming for the average person to feel they can effect it, and pollution - well, everyone agrees it's bad in principle, but so far it hasn't it us where it hurts (at least not in an obvious way). But SARS, anthrax...these just freakin' scare the hell out of people, so it gets their attention, and we feed off the media coverage.
Bottom line, I think the majority of people only care about things that effect them directly. Other than that they want to hear about things it's easy to have an opinion about. Basically, entertainment.

robert melos
2.16.04 @ 4:46p

Roger, I get the feeling people would rather not care about anything of substance. Caring about who is the best actor is easier than caring about the best candidate for president, or caring about who's lying to who.

The media panders to the lowest common denominator. I doubt it'll change much with networks like Fox and CNN spewing the Michael Jackson/Janet Jackson scandals as real news.

nor mal
2.16.04 @ 7:59p

What a great hook, Matt. I thought for sure you were talking about how they refused to air Moveon.org's "kids pay" add, during the superbowl. Who knew things weren't just ducky in the Sudan?
Very cool. You get yourself a nice, shiney brahhh-vo for this one.

matt morin
2.16.04 @ 10:23p

I like Roger's comment about people wanting to hear about things that are easy to have an opinion on.

It's true: it's a lot easier for people to discuss Janet's Tittygate over the watercooler than it is to discuss why NAFTA is a bad idea or talk in depth about Bush's recinding the ban on MTBE.

But just because it's easier, it doesn't make it good for America. Ignorance may be bliss, but it's a hell of a way to have a strong country.

dan gonzalez
2.16.04 @ 10:25p

Our CBS affiliate actually has a daily Oprah segment called "After the Show" which explores how Oprah's topic du juor affects our community. As if her topic is ever relevant to our current local events. It's a blatent attempt to maintain viewers.

As Russ and Robert pointed out, consolidated media ownership exarcerbates the pandering for ratings/ad-revenue as well as the editorial myopsy which is plaguing us lately.

It may be a reflection of viewer's preference as well. In that case, it may not be such a bad thing. Wouldn't you rather have them (tv journalists anyway) stick to the tabloid candy and not try to explain anything too complex to people who can't or won't do their own research and analysis in the first place?


matt morin
2.16.04 @ 10:39p

But the news can be such a great catalyst for people to start their own research.

The news showing the realities of the Vietnam War helped start the nationwide uproar.

The news breaking the Watergate story brought down a president.

robert melos
2.17.04 @ 2:43a

I think people are desensitized to the lies of politicians to the point that they no longer care. So A bared breast can hold their attention longer than war or political cover-ups.

There is an adage that you only get out of something what you put into it. People don't want to put too much into anything of importance now, because they feel betrayed by the recent past when they felt they got nothing after putting forth an effort.

I still meet people who feel that the upcoming election is already "fixed" and have no interest in voting. They care about the harmless things, because they fell helpless. You can't make people care if they choose not to.

Unfortunately it is frustrating to those of us who do care.

jael mchenry
2.17.04 @ 9:15a

Well, with all this focus on GWB's now-you-serve,now-you-don't National Guard record, maybe we'll be informed about something for a change. Bring on the investigation.

I know it's a hell of a lot easier for me to debate things I don't care about -- are the Oscars racist? does Mulholland Drive actually make any sense? -- than important issues with consequences, like terrorism or Liberia. But maybe I shouldn't be let off the hook so easily. Maybe none of us should.

What frustrates me about the focus on Da Nip is the ridiculous set of standards used by the MPAA and TV censors that makes violence OK and nudity completely unacceptable. I've dragged out the example a thousand times, but just once more: in an episode of Alias where a man's about to get shot in the head, he calls his murderer a "son of a bitch," and because it's ABC Family, they bleep out "bitch."

matt morin
2.17.04 @ 10:19a

Ah...don't get me started with the double standards and the waaaay over the top reaction of the FCC. That's a whole 'nother column.

I'm just stunned that the media spent so much friggin time talking about it instead of real issues. It's one thing for Access Hollywood to report on Janet's nipple for a week. But it's a sad, sad time when Tom Brokaw does.

adam kraemer
2.17.04 @ 11:10a

What? You thought I was talking about Justin, Janet, and the now-famous nipple?
To be fair, it was in the title of your column.

russ carr
2.17.04 @ 12:33p

Top Stories on CNN.com right now include:

• Polaroid warns buyers not to 'Shake It'

• 'Mister Ed' gets a new voice

...and two items related to the A-Rod trade.

matt morin
2.17.04 @ 6:22p

Yeah, Excite's "Top AP News Stories" today include:

"Courtney Love's Arrest Warrant Dropped" and "Former Prison Chef Writes Cookbook."

And the A-Rod thing.

sandra thompson
2.24.04 @ 4:55p

I don't mean to come on as a conspiracy theorist, but did it ever occur to you that it is beneficial to the powers that be to keep us ignorant? Did it further occur to you that a very small number of huge media corporations own something like 80% (or more, I forget the exact number) of the news outlets in this country? (Cue "X-Files" theme here, rent "JFK" and mull it all over.)

lisa r
3.31.04 @ 1:46p

My impression of the whole "I swear it was an accident, but buy my new album because its dripping with sex" incident was that it simply gave new meaning to the phrase "boob tube".

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