In the wonderfully comic and deeply poignant 1987 film Broadcast News, William Hurt plays Tom Grunick, an empty-headed but ruggedly handsome network news reporter who is climbing his way up the ladder toward the coveted anchor spot on the evening news. He is also involved in a love triangle involving the no-nonsense producer of the evening news, Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) and the serious investigative journalist Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks). In the film, the news segment that clinches Tom’s bid for both Jane’s heart and the anchorman chair involves Tom’s interview with a woman who tells a heartbreaking story–indeed, the story is so sad that Tom is shown on camera welling up with tears of compassion and empathy.
Near the end of the film–when Aaron realizes he has lost Jane to Tom anyway–he points out to her something he noticed long before: Tom’s interview with that woman had been a one-camera shoot. The camera could not have been on the woman and on Tom simultaneously when he begins to cry. Aaron then leaves Jane with this piece of information. Jane immediately sprints to the video archive, retrieves the unedited raw footage of the interview, and discovers that sure enough, well after the woman had told her story, Tom had the cameraman film him separately as he then generated a fake crying spell. That secondary footage was subsequently edited into the final segment as though it had happened in real time. Good entertainment value! Great for Tom’s reputation and career.
I recalled this scene Sunday night while watching NBC’s Christin Cooper drill down on an emotional Bode Miller just after he had tied for the bronze medal in the Super-G downhill ski race in Sochi. Miller’s brother died suddenly of a seizure last year, and so the reporter dove into Mr. Miller’s pain over this and then began poking at it as with a stick until finally Miller literally collapsed to his knees in tears. The camera then lingered on him a good long while, presumably so that we viewers could take in this entertaining spectacle which had been so nicely engineered by the reporter. In this case the reporter did not fake the tears but rather did all she could to produce them in someone else. Good entertainment value. Probably good for reporter Cooper’s career.
As many commentators noted Monday morning, the reporter’s behavior was bad enough (though Mr. Miller was gracious in forgiving her). But NBC had all day to decide whether to air it or not and clearly saw enough entertainment value in the interview to run with it. The Super-G had been exciting, after all, but hey, the Olympics has to compete with Downton Abbey as well so let’s go for the melodrama (even if doing so meant shredding a man emotionally on national TV). NBC issued a statement defending the whole spectacle, saying that what the reporter was after was a part of this very emotional and dramatic story.
The author Neil Postman warned us years ago that we would, in the title of his seminal and prescient book, end up Amusing Ourselves to Death. And we do. Whether it’s the daytime TV spectacle of families falling apart over paternity tests done live or something like the exploitation of Mr. Miller Sunday night, we ingest for entertainment the pain of others. And we do so not to reach out in empathy or to do anything to alleviate this world’s pains and sorrows–they are just fun to watch. It passes the time.
As Christians, we need to ask ourselves how we might become counter-cultural enough to step out of this and urge others to do the same. Among the things at stake here is our becoming inured to the need to reach out to bring healing. Many in our society seem already to be thus inured through the sheer coarsening that comes from viewing this kind of thing over and over.
By the way, in Broadcast News Jane dumps Tom after learning the truth about his fake tears. Tom, however, does become the evening news anchorman five years later.
Maybe after Sunday night we now know who will succeed Brian Williams one day, too.
“NBC Nightly News with Christin Cooper.”