• U.S.

Vote Me Off This News Island!

3 minute read
Joel Stein

My short career in real journalism came to an ugly end in L.A. last week around the fourth time I said, “I’m going to stay by the pool and have one more drink. I’ll catch Al Gore’s speech on television.” Upon returning to New York, I found myself assigned the Survivor story. It ended up, though, that I kind of missed last Wednesday’s big finale episode. And I also missed all the Wednesdays before that. I don’t foresee keeping this reality-show beat very long either. In two weeks I figure I’ll be back to my normal assignment of covering myself.

Luckily, the rest of America’s news team was dedicated to the Survivor story. In fact, reporters were having trouble distinguishing the results of a four-month-old, prerecorded television show from actual live news. CBS cast its local-news anchors in a deserted island set with tiki torches. And because CBS’s news shows could monopolize the newsmakers created by its entertainment division, the other networks had to be pretty creative in coming up with folks to talk about the CBS show. NBC’s Today show booked Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island. That’s an actress who played a character on a deserted island commenting on a game show set on a deserted island–a fake person analyzing a fake event. “I think Mr. Howell would be in there paying somebody off,” she told Matt Lauer. “I was saying at the beginning, I thought he’d get voted off one of the first two or three. But I don’t think so, now that I think about it.”

The day before the winner was announced, CNN interviewed Clay Fondren, a private investigator who determined that the winner was Rudy, using “protonesis,” which he described as “a proprietary speech-analysis process.” Fondren further explained, “We were able to break down linguistics to the sublayer level, and we gain extra content from that.” CNN, however, failed to gain any extra content whatsoever.

I had to save journalism. I got myself and Josh Tyrangiel, who sits across the hall, booked on a conference call last Thursday with Rich Hatch, the guy who won the $1 million, and about 100 other reporters. Our plan was to ask really, really stupid questions. We thought this might wake our society up from its psychosis. If not, we’d still get to ask stupid questions.

Hal Boedeker of the Orlando Sentinel kicked it off by asking if Rich saw parallels between Survivor and corporate life. Then I asked, “Rich, could you tell right away that Darva wasn’t in it for the long haul?” Rich said, “I could. Almost immediately.” But my victory was squashed when Tina Cassidy from the Boston Globe asked Rich to elaborate on his pre-high school life. So when Josh got his turn, he took on the heretofore unexplored topic of cannibalism: “Was it difficult choosing to eat Sonja in the second episode?” Rich asked to have Josh disconnected. There was a short struggle, and I heard a dial tone from his office.

Journalism, it turns out, can’t be saved. That’s partly because people like me have reporting jobs, people who are more interested in being liked than in reporting news. But it’s also because campaign-finance reform is really boring. Trust me. I overheard someone talking about it by the pool.

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