Junk Food News 1877-2000
By Carl Jensen, Founder and Director Emeritus, Project Censored,
with Victoria Calkins, and research assistance by Amy Bonczewski
In 1877, John B. Bogart, an editor with the New York Sun, offered a definition of news that has not only endured but, indeed, seems to have become even more widely adhered to in recent years. Bogart wrote, "When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog its news." His definition implies that there is a need for a sensationalistic aspect for an event to become news. Its an ingredient that now appears to be endemic in the press. "Man bites dog" is the classic example of Junk Food News.
Our annual Junk Food News (JFN) effort evolved from criticism of Project Censored by news editors and directors who argued that the real issue isnt censorshipbut rather a difference of opinion as to what information is important to publish or broadcast. Editors often point out that there is a finite amount of time and space for news deliveryabout 23 minutes for a half-hour network television evening news programand that its their responsibility to determine which stories are most critical for the public to hear. The critics said I wasnt exploring media censorship but rather I was just another frustrated academic criticizing editorial news judgment.
This appeared to be a potentially legitimate criticism, so I decided to review the stories that editors and news directors consider to be most the important and worthy enough to fill their valuable news time and space. In the course of this research, I didnt find an abundance of hard-hitting investigative journalismquite the contrary. Indeed, what I did find is the journalistic phenomenon I call Junk Food News, which, in essence, represents the flip side of the Top 25 Censored Stories announced annually by Project Censored. The typical Junk Food News diet consists of sensationalized, personalized, and homogenized inconsequential trivia that is served up to the public on a daily basis. While it may not be very nourishing, its cheap to produce and profitable for media proprietors.
Given the diversity, enormity, and propensity of the media for Junk Food News, it is readily apparent the problem is not a lack of time and space for news. The problem is the quality of the news selected to fill that limited time and space. Today were suffering from news inflationthere seems to be more of it than ever before but it isnt worth as much as it used to be.
|Junk Food News is served up to the public in a number of predictable varieties|
|BRAND NAME NEWS
||Britney Spears, Brad Pitt, Madonna, Robert Downey Jr., John F. Kennedy Jr.
||Ricky Martins sexuality, Ellen Degeneres and Anne Heche, and Pamela Andersons breasts.|
|YO YO NEWS
||The stock market is up or down, the crime rate is up or down, unemployment is up or down, inflation is up or down, the interest rate is up or down.
|SHOW BIZ NEWS
||"Survivor," "Big Brother," "Who Wants To Marry a Multi-Millionaire?," "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?"
||The latest internet craze, dot-com craze, diet craze, fashion craze, drug craze, video game craze, and, of course, the always newsworthy latest crazed killer.
||Commemorating the Columbine shooting, Oklahoma bombing, Jon Benet Ramsey murder, Princess Diana accident, and, the ultimate anniversary, The Millennium.
||Super Bowl, Super Salaries, Super Injuries, and Super Drug Problems.
||The bi-annual political news season, when congressional candidates promise you anything to be elected, and the 2000 election that added "pregnant chads" to the political lexicon.
News should be nutritious for society. We need more steak and less sizzle from the press. The news should warn us about those things that make our society ill, whether economically, politically, or physically. And there is a significant amount of such news out there, as Project Censored has revealed each year since 1976.
Ever since 1984, when Clara Pellers "Where's the beef?" commercial became a national slogan, Project Censored has identified and announced the top Junk Food News stories of the year. Members of the national Organization of News Ombudsmen have participated as judges in the effort since 1988 and we appreciate their input and first-hand knowledge.
Ombudsmen, an invaluable yet rare presence on daily newspapers, generally defend the quality of news published but also acknowledge the problem of sensationalism. One ombudsman said, "Media types are gossips at heart who love scandal, controversy and bad news (all prime ingredients of news). Newspaper folk are driven to get it firstthe scoopgenerating the feeding frenzy."
Another ombudsman suggested the public had some responsibility, saying, "Im not bothered by a little JFN, just as I can tolerate some of the junk food its named for. As long as there is showbiz theres going to be showbiz reporting, and theres nothing wrong with that. Whats wrong is a way of eating that relies too heavily on empty calories and fatand a diet of news that consists mostly of trivia, gossip, and mockery."
One ombudsman, less charitable about the journalists role, said "
were getting too damned lazy and
we underestimate the intelligence of our readers and listeners." Another ombudsman suggested the solution for the press is to "satisfy the appetites of all of its readers without stuffing them too full of junk."
There has been little change in the make-up of the top junk food news stories in the past 16 years. The leading category of JFN is show business news with about 30 percent of the stories. Its followed by brand name news, sex news, and political news. This years JFN stories, selected before the 2000 election debacle, follow the pattern set in 1985.
In last years Censored Yearbook, I predicted, "The news media in 2000 will be dominated by the quadrennial explosion of political junk food news. The media will loudly decry the trivialization of the presidential election and the influence of money but then go on to portray it as an expensive horse race, characterized by endless polls, political scandals, and unending 20-second television sound bites." About the only thing I missed was the intrusion of the Supreme Court and those pesky chads.
Although we have been conditioned to Junk Food News as a nation, its still not too late to get off the JFN diet before we become fatally addicted to it. To do this, we all have to participate. Corporate-level media heads should start to earn their unique First Amendment privileges. Editors should rethink their news judgment. Journalists should persevere in going after the hard stories. Professors of journalism should emphasize ethics and critical analysis and educate more muckrakers and fewer buckrakers. The judicial system should defend the freedom of the press provision of the First Amendment with more vigor. And the public should show the media that its more concerned with the high crimes and misdemeanors of its political and corporate leaders than with television fantasies and Britney Spearss belly button.
The effort will be worth it. America today is a pale imitation of what it should or could be. More than ever, we need a free, impartial, and aggressive press to expose the conditions that tear our nation apart.
My first published use of the term Junk Food News was in an article I wrote for Penthouse magazine in March 1983. The article focused on a comparison of The New York Times coverage of two news events that occurred in 1981. In one case, the New York State Worker's Compensation Board ruled that a telephone company supervisor had been killed by prolonged exposure to microwave radiation. It was the first official finding in the United States that long-term exposure to microwaves could cause death.
That information appeared to provide the basis for a significant news story. Experts at the time, and even to this day, suggest that our nation is engulfed daily by microwave pollution that might endanger our health and lives. Studies have linked sustained microwave exposure to headaches, dizziness, fatigue, irritability, loss of judgment, leukemia, cataracts, heart trouble, cancer, central nervous system disorders, and genetic damage. The New York Times, Americas "newspaper of record," devoted just three column inches to the death of the telephone company supervisor.
For comparative purposes, later that year, The New York Times devoted five column inches to a story headlined LONDON ZOO SAYS PANDA IS PREGNANT. Throughout 1981, the Times ran 20 separate stories about pandas, which took up more than 100 column-inches, while it referred back to the microwave death just once. Some of the newsworthy headlines in the Times devoted to pandas included: "Londons Giant Panda to Get U.S. Valentine," "Panda Mating," "British Panda on Way to the U.S.," "London Zoo Says Panda is Pregnant," and subsequently, "Pandas Birth is No Surprise."
Personally, I have nothing against pandas. With the possible exception of Great Dane puppies, they may indeed qualify as the cutest animals on the planet. I am, however, intrigued by their awesome ability to attract the attention of our leading news media.
I have often wondered if this might have been one of Richard Nixons final jokes on the press. Pandas first burst onto our news scene in a major way when then-President Nixon gave two musk oxen to China. In response Chou En-lai gave the United States two giant pandasHsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling. Ive often wondered how much coverage our two musk oxen received in the Chinese media.
It may seem that I have been carried away by the pandas myself. Nonetheless, when the nations most prestigious newspaper devotes twice as much space to the pregnancy of a panda in a London zoo as it does to the death of an American citizen from microwave radiation in New York City, its time to question the judgment of our news media managers.
The bottom line is that while the nations most prestigious newspaper essentially ignored a story about death from microwave radiation that potentially affects millions of people, it found the space to report the intimate details of a panda couplea classic Junk Food News story that, without media coverage, would affect few of us.
Joseph Pulitzer, the renowned American journalist and publisher, once said, "We are a democracy, and there is only one way to get a democracy on its feet in the matter of its individual, its social, its municipal, its state, its national conduct, and that is by keeping the public informed about what is going on." Joseph Pulitzer, whose will provided for the establishment of the Pulitzer Prizes, did not have Britney Spears or pandas or the following JFN stories of 2000 in mind when he said that.
(A John Bogart update for the record: On September 9, 2000, Stephen Maul, 24, a San Francisco furniture mover, was arrested for biting his dog, an 80-pound Labrador puppy named Boo. He also made national news. And, to complete the panda saga, we must note that two new Chinese pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, made national news when they arrived at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., on December 6, 2000.)
2000 Top 10 Junk Food News Stories
- Elian Gonzalez.
- The millionaire bride (Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?).
- Britney Spears.
- Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
- Whitewater and the private lives of the Clintons.
- TIE: The Ellen Degeneres and Anne Heche break-up/ JonBenet Ramsey.
- Ricky Martins sexuality.
- TIE: Brad Pitts wedding/ Dot-coms and IPOs.
The year 2000, opening to the fizzle of the Y2K panic and turning at its close on the counting of pregnant chads, seemed to befuddle both the media and news consumers. In the interim, reporters shrank from dicey news and converged on the simple, easily assimilated entertainment that now all too often masquerades as journalism. Dan Hortsch, public editor for The Oregonian, contends that stories like Whitewater and Elian Gonzalez are legitimate stories, but that they are "over reported or are just not covered thoughtfully, or consistently." Dot-coms and IPOs may be legitimate business stories, for instance, but overreporting is what pushed them onto our Top 10 list. Likewise, as Elian shouted, "Leave me alone!" to scores of waiting photographers, few reporters were looking into more telling aspects of the drama such as the conservative Cuban-American hold on Miamis political structure and the more reasonable posture of moderate Cuban-Americans across the country. The Elian Gonzalez tug-of-war finally ended with infamous front-page photo spreads of the SWAT team seizure of a frightened boy, later seen smiling in his fathers arms on inside pages.
The Top 10 JFN for 2000 succeeded in edging out other equally dubious headline stories by small margins. Runners up were Harry Potter, the breakup of Microsoft, gas prices at the pumps, Madonnas baby (see also 1996 JFN, # 1), Olympic human interest stories, and the ongoing print and air wave saturation by Britains royal family, in this case Prince Williams 18th birthday, and an ongoing fascination with the gone-but-not-forgotten Princess Di.
Other stories our judges wished would fade from American consciousness were the anniversary of the Columbine shootings and the JFK, Jr. plane crash. In a few instances ombudsmen nominated their own Junk Food News favorites: the 2000 elections (just wait until next year), the Super Bowl, and newly minted dot-com billionaires.
In fact, stories of instant wealth and sexual exposés (sometimes ludicrously intertwined) dominated our Top 10. Our Junk Food News "winner," the mid-summer reality-TV/game show, "Survivor," pitted 16 strangers against an isolated South Sea islandand each otherfor $1 million and fame. Who would have thought that the ultimate winner (survivor?) would have been the smug corporate trainer/motivational speaker, Richard "Machiabelly" Hatch, the naked fat guy? The ABC summer ratings success spawned an entire new sub-culture which included "Survivor" parties, office pools, and additions to the American lexicon of vacuous phrases such as "the tribe has spoken" (accompanying Regis Philbins "Is that your final answer?").
Overnight millionaires became the paradigm for the Great American Hero. Two popular paths to riches (less risky than dot-comming or IPO-ing, as Winter 2000-2001 demonstrated) were to either get money (and lots of it) by answering inane questions on a TV game show ("Who Wants to Be a Miliionaire?" was the highest rated TV show ever, by the way) or, in the case of Darva Conger, by marrying a complete strangerstand-up comic and real estate developer Rick Rockwell. Although the "millionaire bride" chose instant annulment when unappealing stories about the grooms real life began to surface, lucrative offers poured in including the chance to be Regiss co-host and to do a nude Penthouse spread.
Not to be outdone, belly button baring Britney Spears, teenybopper role model and most searched-for subject on Lycos, kept the media hopping as she bounced between classy and trashy. Celibate? yes according to Ms. Spears; a Lolita? yes, too, by the looks of a Rolling Stones magazine cover. Vacillating between porn queen and prom queen suits her bankroll well; Ms. Spears, at 18, has sold 20 million albums. A fuzzy sexual image also seems to serve Latin heartthrob Ricky Martin well; he continues to refuse to say if he is gayor not. Who wants to know? Everyone, it seems, including entertainment interrogator Barbara Walters. The breakup of Ellen and Anne (see also 1996 JFN, # 8), however, was the gay event of the year, culminating with the tragic news of "poor" Anne wandering deliriously in a rural California town after the public announcement of the breakup. While breaking up is hard to do, Brad Pitt finally succumbed to Eros and tied the knot. And so it goes in Tinseltown, on and on like the Energizer bunny, providing fodder for so much of what we call "the news."
On the more prosaic side, Napster put the question of intellectual property rights into the pop culture limelight and turned the music industry forever on its head. In the Whitehouse, the Clintons were vindicated in the Whitewater case (bad news for "Hillary haters"). "Whitewater [was] a force of its own and hard to ignore, but the special prosecutor drove much of the coverage, and to what end?" wonders ombudsman Hortsch.
Kenneth Starck, ombudsman at the Cedar Rapids Gazette, notes, "Like a one-eyed Odysseus, the news media these days scan the environment for that single story that will captivate an audience. Television is particularly prone to obsessing over what attracts viewers. Theres little effort, if any, to examine the news for its social relevance. Maybe news execs think the audience is so dumb it cant pay attention to more than one news story at a time. Another problem is the intermingling of talk shows posing as journalism. Real journalists should distance themselves from the blabbermouths."
Once again Project Censored would like to thank the members of the Organization of News Ombudsmen who helped select this years junk food news. The job of news ombudsmento keep the news media on the high road of journalismoften goes unnoticed. Empowered by their editors or publishers to critique published articles and take in and investigate claims from readers and viewers of inaccurate, unfair, unbalanced, or tasteless news reporting, they then make appropriate recommendations for clarification or correction. All too many newspapers do not employ ombudsmen (also known as readers representatives, readers advocates, or public editors). Those who dont, might, if the reading and listening public were to expect and demand it.
Junk Food News, 19841999
Unfortunately, gathering together the JFN stories of the past 16 years made two things abundantly clear: news reporting has not gotten better, and some stories just wont go away. News ombudsmen Emerson Law Stone finds the 25-year trend in junk news reporting troubling. "The grievous part is not just that Junk News has increased markedly, not just that it has infected the traditional news sources, but that those traditionalists continue to deny that it is so, that they do hard news
Junk eye-candy and ear-candy now often dictate news selection, broadcast length, and placement in the newscast in such once-solid outlets as network evening news. Even the august New York Times succumbs now and then. Weekly newsmagazines? Routinely.
And now, here are Project Censoreds winners for the "junk eye- and ear-candy" that dominated the news each of the last 16 years.
- Octogenarian Clara Pellers "Wheres the beef?!" commercial for Wendys.
- Coca Colas formula changenew-old-classic-Cherry-Coke.
- Guru Baghwan Shree Rajneeshs lavish lifestyle, Oregon commune, and 85 Rolls Royces.
- Rambo; the movie, the doll, the craze.
- The Wall Street merger craze.
- The stock market yo-yo.
- Lee Iacocca saves Chrysler and writes a book.
- Chicago Bears William "The Refrigerator" Perry.
- Fatal Vision, real-life murders become number one book, mini-series.
- Halleys Comet.
- Prince Charles and Princess Di (continued from 1984).
- Clint Eastwoods campaign for mayor of Carmel.
- The 15th anniversary of Disney World (and an all expenses paid junket to Orlando for 10,000 lucky journalists).
- The 75th anniversary of the Oreo cookie.
- The Vermont romance of Jessica, the cow, and Bullwinkle, a 700-pound moose.
- The wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson.
- Herb the Nerd, Burger Kings answer to Clara Peller.
- The super cockroach contest.
- Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcoss shoe collection.
- The weekly media ritual of the White House lawn arrivals and departures of Ronald and Nancy Reagan and their dog.
- The trials and tribulations of TV evangelist Jimmy Bakker and his wet-eyed wife, Tammy Faye.
- Junk Food tarts Jessica Hahn (Jim Bakker), Donna Rice (presidential candidate Gary Hart), and Fawn Hall (Ollie Norths secretary) hustle to turn sins into profits.
- Princess Di, also sets an all-time record in Americas Index of Leading Magazine Cover Stories (along with the Stock Market Crash of 1987 for those of you who want to know).
- Celebrity heartbreaksMadonna and Sean (Penn), Di and Charles, Brigitte (Nielsen) and Sly (Stallone), Bess (Meyerson) and Andy (Capasso), and Liz (Taylor) and Malcolm (Forbes).
- Long Island garbage barge makes a 62-day, 6,000-mile odyssey to six states, several foreign countries before being sent home.
- OlliemaniaCol. Oliver North T-shirts, posters, yo-yos, and buttons.
- "Weird" Michael Jackson.
- The Loch Ness Monster revisited; alas, the $1.64 million "scientific" search produced no monster but plenty of headlines.
- The California Raisins: TV cartoon raisins dancing to Marvin Gayes "Heard It on the Grapevine" promote the California raisin industry, make a TV special, and record a hit single.
- Vanna Speaks, autobiography of "Wheel of Fortune" spinner Vanna White.
- Political trash and trivia of the 1988 election: the endless polls, Dan Quayles malapropisms, and the medias fascination with itself.
- Trapped whales.
- The Mike Tyson/Robin Givens bout.
- Television talk shows.
- The Age of Aquarius and the White HouseNancy Reagan consults the stars.
- 25th JFK assassination anniversary.
- Mickey Mouses 60th birthday.
- The Last Temptation of Christfundamentalists protest at movie theaters across the country.
- The last temptation of Jimmy Swaggartfundamentalist evangelist publicly confesses to "being entertained" by prostitutes.
- The Emperors death watch; the nations media rushes to Tokyo to record the final breath of Emperor Hirihito.
- Zsa Zsa Gabor stands trial for slapping a cop.
- Roseanne Barrs off-tube antics.
- Jim and Tammy Faye BakkerJimmy gets 45-year prison term.
- The feuding Bryant (Gumbel), Willard (Scott), Jane (Pauley), and Deborah (Norville); "The Today Show" goes from news show to early morning soap.
- Billionaire real estate heiress Leona Helmsley, "The Queen of Mean," goes to jail for tax evasion.
- Pres. George Bush, Sr. trivia, from fishing fiascoes to Millie, the First Dog.
- VP Dan Quayle.
- Malcolm Forbes $2 million birthday bash in Morocco.
- The 20th anniversary of Woodstock.
- Donald Trumps marital problems.
- Roseanne Barrs crotch-grabbing rendition of the national anthem.
- The New Madrid (Missouri) Earthquake prediction.
- Milli Vanilli surrenders its Grammy when caught lip-synching their hit album.
- Women sportswriters in male locker rooms.
- Madonnas wardrobe (or lack of it).
- "The Simpsons."
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
- The president, George Bush, Sr,. hates broccoli.
- The quirky nighttime soap, "Twin Peaks."
- The William Kennedy Smith rape trial.
- Elizabeth Taylors weddingagain.
- Lady and the Tramp.
- The Gulf War.
- Pee Wee Hermans misadventures at the movies.
- Magic Johnson, the medias first AIDS victim.
- Nancy Reagans biography.
- The (Annette) Bening/(Warren) Beatty Baby-Boom.
- The Julia Roberts/Keifer Sutherland almost-wedding.
- Almost Presidential candidate Mario Cuomos definite indecision.
- Dan Quayle misspells "potato."
- Madonnas best-selling bare-all, Sex.
- TV character Murphy Brown and Vice President Dan Quayle on "family values."
- The final days of Johnny Carson.
- Royal scandal: Fergie and Di, the naughty royal wives.
- Woody Allen vs. Mia Farrow.
- Clinton paramour, Geniffer Flowers.
- The Barbara Bush/Hillary Clinton cookie bake-off.
- The Elvis stamp election.
- The U.S. Olympic "Dream Team."
- Wife-shooter Amy Fisher (17) and her 39-year-old lover, the husband Joey Buttafuoco (later convicted for statutory rape).
- Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, again.
- Bill Clintons $200 haircut.
- Madonna, still.
- John Wayne Bobbitts severed penis.
- The Michael Jackson allegations.
- Burt and Loni Reynolds divorce.
- Late night talk show Armageddon: Letterman vs. Arsenio Hall vs. Leno vs. Chevy Chase.
- Heidi Fleiss, the Hollywood Madam.
- Jurassic Park "dinosauritis."
- The O.J. Simpson case.
- Ice-skating hussy, Tonya Harding.
- More Roseanne Barr.
- Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley.
- The British Royals.
- John Wayne and Lorena Bobbitt (the movie, the pity).
- Singapore caning of American teenager, Michael Fay, for malicious mischief.
- The Information Super Highway.
- Woodstock II.
- More O.J. Simpson.
- The compromising position of Hugh Grant.
- Kato Kaelin (see Story #1), aspiring bad actor gives testimony.
- Mike Tyson returns from prison.
- Windows 95, the media-hype circus.
- Michael Jackson, near-death collapse, Sony deal.
- Jerry Garcias demise.
- Colin Powell, "no" to presidency, all-around "Mr. Nice Guy."
- Mickey Mantle and his liver.
- Shannon Faulkner storms the bastion of the all-male Citadel.
- Celebrity pregnancies: Madonna, Melanie Griffith, Christie Brinkley, Rosie ODonnell, and Jane Seymour.
- The British Royals.
- The Macarena.
- The Kennedys auction and JFK, Jr.s wedding.
- Dennis Rodman, from NBA to Hollywood.
- Lisa Marie Presley dumps Michael Jackson.
- O.J. Simpson, part III: the wrongful death suit.
- Ellen DeGeneres comes out.
- The "anonymous" Clinton satire, Primary Colors.
- Sex scandal of Clinton advisor, Dick Morris.
- Sports announcer Marv Alberts hairpiece, indictment for sexual assault (bites a woman).
- Princess Di and the British Royals.
- Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford.
- Michael Jacksons baby, Prince Michael.
- JonBenet Ramsey.
- The Tyson/Holyfield match.
- O.J. Simpson, part IV: The Goldman civil case.
- TIE: Andrew Cunanans killing spree/the anniversary of Elviss death.
- Howard Stern.
- The Paula Jones sexual harassment suit.
- President Clintons sex life and "Zipper-gate" including "Monica Lewinsky, Linda Tripp, Kathleen Willey, Vernon Jordan, the cigar, and "the dress".
- The Spice Girls.
- Paula Jones.
- The British Royal Family.
- JonBenet Ramsey.
- John Glenn, the geriatric astronaut.
- Jerry Springer.
- Jerry Seinfield.
- The purple Teletubby, Tinky Winky, is menace to society, says Jerry Falwell.
- Pamela Lee Andersons breasts.
- Star Wars.
- Clintonthe Clintons search for a house, Monica searches for an apartment, the release of Monicas book, and the Hillarys-side-of-the-story interview.
- The Columbine shootings, teen shootings in general, killer classmates, and Marilyn Manson delays video release.
- The John F. Kennedy, Jr. plane crash.
- George W. Bush and cocaine.