“We are the best entertained least informed society in the world.” Neil Postman
For a decade Project Censored at Sonoma State University has been releasing a list of the most frivolous over-reported news stories of the year. We call this list Junk Food News because it fills up the American airways and newsstands with celebrity gossip and meaningless coverage of the unimportant. Famous lives provide us with an entertainment rush and a false reality that radiates in comparison to the darkness of war, business fraud, and government repression.
The honor of this year’s number one Junk Food News story goes to Joe Millionaire. The Dating Game and Love Connection have been a part of the American television landscape for decades, but when you raise the stakes they seem to become a media event. Reality TV has taken America by storm and Joe Millionaire is no exception. The show was the talk of the town and water cooler gossip for many Americans over the weeks it was on the air.
At number two on this years Junk Food list is Michael Jackson. Where do we begin? The latest plastic surgery, the dangling baby or the hype surrounding the prime time special and then the rebuttal prime time special? With 27 million televisions tuning in to the British interview that aired on ABC, would a lengthy national media discussion be necessary after the event was over? Apparently so, in fact, the media attention was so great and the discussion so widespread that FOX deemed it necessary to air a special of its own, giving Jackson the opportunity to discuss what had happened during the ABC interview. In addition to all this, Dateline NBC drew 14 million viewers to a special about the changing of Jackson’s face.
And now we switch gears back to the deceptively important private life of one of our beloved celebrities. The number three spot on the list is reserved for Winona Ryder and her possible kleptomaniacal tendencies. As the media frenzy surrounded a shoplifting case that normally wouldn’t even have gone to trial, the discussion ranged from how she plotted the scheme to the possibility of kleptomania. Whether Ms. Ryder is a kleptomaniac may be a valid question for the National Enquirer, but we hardly think it warrants the time and attention the national news networks and papers contributed to the discussion.
Coming in at number four, American Idol is the top reality TV culprit of undeserving media dominance. Again, a show with a weekly time slot was awarded extra time in the lives of the American people. With newspaper column inches being consumed by the hundreds asking who would win and delving into the past of the top contenders and discussing the latest witty remarks of the now infamous judges. We don’t recall the weekly guests and judges on the original Star Search making headlines and dominating the news. Apparently times have changed and there is less news to inform the citizens of our democracy about, or at the very least there is apparently more time available in the mainstream media for the discussion of frivolous TV hype.
From her movie releases and music award-show outfits to her stormy relationship with rapper P Diddy and then her eventual engagement to heartthrob Ben Affleck, Latin Queen Jennifer Lopez in our number 5 slot has crowded real news stories off the airwaves and out of the print media. Did Diane Sawyer really need to interview J Lo to ask her all the sultry questions about her relationship and eventual engagement to Affleck? Here at the Project Censored headquarters it appears that mid-November of last year could have yielded a far more informative interview for Ms. Sawyer.
The runners up for Junk Food Story of the year in ranked order are Martha Stewart and her insider trading, The Osbournes: from the show to Kelly’s burgeoning career, the anti-marijuana campaign, SUV mania, and Anna Nicole: The show, the lady, the inanity
Given all the news that doesn’t find its way into the mainstream media, Project Censored disputes the necessity and relevance of this type of news coverage by the national media. Much of the coverage is nothing more than hype that amounts to advertising for the next episode, but the newsprint and aftermath coverage of the personal lives of the participants is rubbish and absolutely deserves the dubious distinction of being voted Junk Food News story of 2003.
The awards were determined by a nationwide vote of some 4,000 members of the Project Censored listserv available on line at www.projectcensored.org.
Peter Phillips is a professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University and Director of Project Censored. Jason Spencer is a Project Censored research intern and president of the Associated Students at Sonoma State University. Both can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.