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Out of Bounds

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 24 hours, you’ve heard about the passing of award-winning actor and comedic genius, Robin Williams. The outpouring of love and affection for this man who took his own life when his battle against depression became too much to bear has flooded both traditional and new media alike. There was, however, one notable exception.

I’ve noted reports online about national FOX NEWS anchor Shepard Smith who decided, when reporting of Williams’ death, to turn the moment into less a news report and more of an editorial.

As the reported, Smith commented on-air, “something inside you is so horrible or you’re such a coward or whatever the reason that you decide that you have to end it.”

The man’s body isn’t cold yet, and he’s being called, on a national stage, a coward?

There’s a saying, “Never say ill of the dead.” But beyond just basic social decorum, there’s another reason this remark—for which Smith would quickly recant, offering an apology—is out of bounds.

It isn’t news.

There once was a time when sensationalism was the norm, when newspapers made no qualms about which political parties and candidates they supported, and mudslinging was a way of life. It was the era of “yellow journalism,” when 19th century titans of the Gilded Age, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, battled for supremacy. As Wikipedia defines it, “Yellow journalism, or the yellow press, is a type of journalism that…uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers,” and features “exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism.

HEADLINE: Kim Kardashian’s OUTRAGEOUS outfit! (it’s a dress and she’s wearing it)

HEADLINE: Vice President Biden INCREDIBLE gaffe! (he coughed during a speech)

HEADLINE: INCREDIBLE News about Cotton! (it shrinks)

Sound familiar? Applied to the modern era, the term “yellow journalism,” Wikipedia notes, is used as a “a pejorative to decry any journalism that treats news in an unprofessional or unethical fashion.”

The problem, when one puts aside journalistic integrity in order to “sell newspapers,” or in today’s parlance, “to drive SEO and TV advertising dollars,” when you start to blur the lines between reporting the news and commenting on it, when every key moment in time becomes an opportunity to push forth a political agenda or to offer personal opinion, the credibility of media as a whole suffers.

Enough people have written about the rise of “infotainment” to make a further diatribe on the topic rather pointless, because the message is painfully clear: American media conglomerates have made it their mission to shock, upset, thrill, entertain, infuriate and placate the audience, first and foremost, with informing them a very distant second.

About 10-15 years ago, before the change in the media landscape wrought by the internet, I can recall the editor of a major daily newspaper saying it was not their goal to inform, but to “stir controversy.” If that were actually true, Mr. Smith would be due an award, as his “coward” comment certainly has done that.

From a public relations professional’s perspective, I am less likely to want to expose my clients to the national media circus. Consider the recent DR. OZ fiasco, where Dr. Mehmet Oz himself was called to accounts before a government panel for hawking 21st century snakeoil in his segments about the latest “magic pill” for weight loss. When this story came to light, I remember thinking, "Right now, I wouldn't advise a client to appear on the DR. OZ show." What?? Turn down a national media opportunity, to appear on a show that can be seen in just about every waiting room of every kind across the U.S.?? Would having a physician on the show as a guest be read as complicity, that my doctor and the hospital he or she represents is in favor of this form of hucksterism?

Fortunately, we in PR are trained at finding the positive in a sea of negatives. Smith’s “coward” remark offers mental health organizations and advocacy groups a rallying point, an opportunity to bring their efforts to educate people about the devastating effects of depression, bipolar disorder and other mental illness to the fore.

And that’s what we in PR do. Turn lemons into lemonade. Turn chicken (bleep) into chicken salad, as one venerable Baltimore news icon used to say about a particularly challenging story. And if you’re a top executive with the Fox network—or any major news network for that matter—maybe you use this moment to take stock of your organization, to meet with your reporters and anchors and try to impress upon them that one should save the personal thoughts for the “opinion page,” or for their diary or to themselves.

As a former full time journalist, I continue to believe in the power of the media to inform, to educate, to bring important matters to public attention, to serve as the “watchdog” to ensure that those in power are brought to account.

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