What happened to news that matters?

By Karl Terry: CNJ columnist

Andy Warhol was the first to claim, in 1968, that we’ll all have our 15 minutes of fame. Some are just more impatient than others on getting their time.

I’m all for new media and burgeoning technology that can instantly put any of us in front of an audience of millions instantly but trying to manufacture instant fame isn’t cool at all.

Lately we’ve seen lots of manufactured “news” stories instigated by people who think they’ve got something to gain by capturing news headlines. Most recent was the case of the so-called “balloon boy” story in which an entire family in Colorado is alleged to have conspired to gain news coverage and get on TV by claiming the family’s 6-year-old floated away in this weird balloon his dad made.

The first clue for people should have been that, when the emergency started, the family called a TV station with a helicopter before calling 911.

The 6-year-old eventually let slip that the stunt was hatched to get the family on a television talk show. They made it on all the talk shows, as news.

Other fame seekers who have become infamous include “Octo-mom” Nadya Suleman who sought coverage after her decision to give birth to eight children, bringing the single mother’s brood to 14.

At the root of both stories, I believe, was the subject’s desire to be famous and in the news. Because the circumstances of each was incredible enough, news media bought into both stories and gave them more coverage than either deserved.

Over the years as a news editor I’ve had to back down on stories I thought were being promoted just a little too hard. If you stop and think clearly for just a second the questions that will shed the light on the real motives will come. When you ask those questions it’s inevitable the subject is going to become irritated and usually storm out.

I think news managers and media outlets both big and small aren’t showing enough fortitude when they fail to ask those questions.

Competition in the news business is fierce these days and if you pass up a bad story someone else is going to pick it up and run with it.

That fact drives too many bad decisions.

The American public has developed a huge appetite for, titillating stories that can sustain discussion around the water cooler for days.

The truth is that other than that titillation no other purpose is served. Coverage didn’t save the boy in the balloon and it didn’t reverse Suleman’s decision to have invitro fertilization.

It’s a shame these are the kinds of stories that people go for these days. It hasn’t done the news business any lasting good to pursue them. It only turns us into something of a prostitute.

It’s time for media to grow a backbone and not give a port for those promoting their 15 minutes of fame.