Ethical Air Time

In our last class, we discussed the business of media by discussing examples of times when the two were at odds. The question that was raised was, in essence: Which becomes the higher priority, credibility in journalism or running a successful network?

In order to get our minds working, we listened to a portion of War of the Worlds, which was a1938 radio broadcast of the fictional story read aloud by Orson Welles in a news-bulletin fashion. The broadcast reportedly caused panic among listeners as they gullibly took in accounts of aliens invading the planet. Welles had opened the broadcast by informing listeners that it was indeed fiction, however those who tuned in later, had no such warning.This broadcast remains the most famous in radio history (as far as my research goes) and yet it broke standards and principles in journalism, and it went against media business fairness. 

Listeners were made to look naive and gullible while the entire broadcast lacked credibility.We then discussed the show Intervention. In an episode the of the “reality” show, a woman gets behind the wheel while intoxicated and is filmed throughout the process. Should a show remain loyal to its viewers and get the best (albeit worst) footage of an alcoholic, or should producers intervene before she hurts someone? 

Professor Orosz indicated that legally, producers are treated as witnesses and do not bear the responsibility to intervene – they are not police.I ask myself this question all the time: if these producers are there to film a person’s demise into alcoholism, why not do something? Admittedly, I do not see the fascination in watching someone spiral out of control and so it seems to me, producers might get better ratings if they put a foot down and stop an alcoholic from doing something they may all regret. Wouldn’t that be the ethical thing to do? And yet, ethics cannot be enforced.

In terms of running a network and showing questionable content, we observed two performances: Madonna’s 1990 MTV performance of Vogue which contained more grabbing and grinding than your average dance party, followed by Janet Jackson’s Superbowl XXXVIII halftime show that ended in the infamous wardrobe malfunction. The two were risqué, but only one received complaints and lead to a large fine paid by the network. Why? 

Because MTV has always aired content that some viewers may not deem acceptable, and they get by this with their discretionary warning at the end of commercial breaks. This little blurb before airing the performance was all the network needed to keep complaints at bay. 

Whereas the network that aired Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction did not show a discretionary warning and had a mere 1.5 seconds to decide which camera angle to use once the exposé occurred before airing on national television. Viewers were not expecting this surprise – thus, a fine was charged.

This leads us to the icing on the cake: Howard Stern, the crème de la crème of eloquence in radio broadcasting. Always known for lewd behaviour, Stern was hired by WNBC without a listen to his work. Needless to say it came as a shock to network bigwigs when they discovered his affinity for the use of the seven sinful words as deemed by the FCC. Stern’s show was based on obscenity and it irked the network, however there was no easy solution. 
After failed attempts of calming Stern down, they discovered that listeners who enjoyed his show were taking in on average 1.5 hours per day, whereas those who disliked him were listening to an average of 2.5 hours per day. The high rate in listening time was due to curiosity with regards to what Stern might say next. WNBC didn’t want to fire him and lose the ratings, and yet they didn’t want to put up with his ongoing audio stunts.

Stern was eventually fired from WNBC which then begs the question, was his departure a blow for freedom of speech? Perhaps it was, but like Orson Welles, Howard Stern did undermine the credibility of the network. 

While Welles lost network credibility through his fictional account of aliens invading, Stern lost network credibility by being obnoxiously obscene – I have to note that I am not a Stern fan. 

That’s not to say that a better solution couldn’t have been implemented. Certainly, a listeners’ discretion might have been the answer with Stern’s show, on the other hand, ethics is based on human dignity and tolerance. In order to keep their dignity, it was best for WNBC to let Stern stir up controversy elsewhere.

Now, let’s see if this year’s Superbowl blunder will lead to another hefty fine...

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