Complain though we might about the poor quality of Irish journalism, we have the small consolation that things are not yet as bad as in the States, though one sometimes wonders just how much better we can honestly claim to be. In the U.S. the constant hunger of rolling news stations for talking heads has combined with the celebrity culture to bring about a drop in professional standards that makes even some of the more reputable news outlets unwatchable. Worse, it infects other areas outside journalism, as anyone with even a minor interest in the story jumps in in the hope of being the next ghoulish mini-celeb.
On Saturday morning I saw an hour or threabouts of coverage of Anna Nicole Smith’s death. The network was the supposedly respectable CNN, the host Larry King, one of the more revered figures in American journalism. King and colleagues treated the whole thing with a mixture of pompous solemnity and trashy prurience. The doctor who performed the autopsy gave a detailed interview, and footage was shown of him showing a CNN journalist around the premises where the autopsy took place. A few moments later, the lawyer for one of the possible fathers of her child took the opportunity of an in-studio interview to fight her client’s case before Larry. Her demeanour was closer to that of a PR representative than a lawyer, though such legal material as was contained in her performance should have been kept inside the courtroom. The performance was spiced with such nuggets as “I say things straight, Larry. That’s who I am”. Thus were the ethics of three professions degraded in the space of a few moments. Myself and the doctor friend with whom I watched the coverage turned it off and concluded that everyone who has anything to do with that story should go and take a shower. (The Daily Show, always at it’s funniest when filled with a barely perceptable fury and disgust, covers the whole apalling carry-on here, here, here, and here.)
That things aren’t as bad here as they are in America need not be reason to congratulate ourselves. It is only because we don’t have rolling news channels that we don’t have our own palavers like the Smith story – I refer you, if you doubt, to the perceived (front page) newsworthiness, in the eyes of some of the print press, of such figures as Gerard Keane, Lisa Murphy, and Katy French. Less close to home, the slavering of the press (print and TV) over the pathetic Pete Doherty is particularly egregious. One can almost sense their longing for a grisly death, which would be the ultimate pay-off for all their effort in making him famous. If he stubbornly continues to live, á la Shane McGowan, then that’s fine too. As the Irish press regularly proves, Shane is a gift that keeps on giving, though as a talent he stopped being worth their attention over ten years ago. Factor in the almost standard practice of crime reporters acting like an arm of the Gardaí, and the unpleasant new practice of reporting on funerals simply for their emotional punch, and you have to wonder if we’re all that much ahead of the Americans at all.