Newsmakers have always tried to manipulate the media for the best possible coverage. But today, the game is more than ever stacked against the news outlets — and against news consumers hoping for more than self-serving sound bites.
The LeBron James extravaganza last week was the latest example. James used his star power to demand a one-hour, prime time special on ESPN to reveal where he’d play basketball next year. He chose his interviewer and dictated the terms of the production.
This was pure entertainment — there was little, if any, journalism involved. The “journalists” who took part in the special were functioning as actors, playing roles in James’s drama.
But the show got ratings, which makes it likely that we’ll see more of this kind of programming in the future.
When celebrities can demand — and get — that kind of free, fawning coverage, what incentive do they have to stand up and answer questions from real journalists? Very little, I’d say.
More and more, newsmakers have the capacity to bypass real journalists. Social media has given them the means to talk directly to their fans on Facebook or Twitter.
Paula Abdul and Lance Armstrong
When Paula Abdul decided last year to step down as a judge on “American Idol,” she told the world with a tweet. Other celebrities have broken up relationships on Twitter.
Lance Armstrong’s cycling team communicates largely through recorded sound bites collected by the team manager, who plays them back to the assembled media. Armstrong also tweets on Twitter, allowing him to say what he wants without answering questions about issues such as the doping allegations that are a staple of world-class cycling.
Now, you can say that news of these sports and entertainment celebrities is fundamentally trivial and unimportant, and I wouldn’t argue with you. But social media like Facebook and Twitter are also being used by public officials and politicians to bypass the news media.
For example, Sarah Palin largely avoids any interaction with traditional media, except for the friendly confines of Fox News. When she has something to say, she tweets it or Facebooks it.
When you think of it, what’s the incentive for a public official to answer questions from the increasingly ineffective and weakened news media? Why not just communicate directly with citizens by means of social media, avoiding potentially embarrassing questions or gaffes?
You could make an argument that any politician in today’s world who interacts with the traditional media is committing political malpractice. Stay aloof, control your own message, have a high-powered public relations staff write your tweets and Facebook postings. It’s safer and less likely to embroil you in a controversy.
I foresee a day when candidates and public officials speak only rarely to the shrunken remains of the traditional news media. Want to know what your governor thinks? Better be following her Twitter feed.