Saturday, February 18, 2012


For those who need to see an example of what really happened to cause the majority of Americans to distrust mass media, look no further than one Nancy Grace on the HLN network. Grace epitomizes the slow and steady decline of honorable reporting. But you already knew that. This week, Grace blatantly exploited the death of Whitney Houston to draw attention to herself. This act, and so many others in Grace’s misuse of the airwaves separates her in a most unfortunate way from those who understand the real privilege of having a voice that reaches millions. In case you missed Grace’s ill-conceived take on Houston’s untimely death, watch:

If you want to know how a broadcaster with Grace's sensationalistic style of reporting could rise in the industry, just know it has all to do with competition. When there were three major television networks, no cable, no Internet, people like Grace could not emerge. Unprecedented industrial competition has given rise to a media landscape that causes each company to take desperate grabs for viewers. It wasn’t always that way. One would be hard pressed to imagine a David Brinkley or John Chancellor showing such direct disrespect to the family of Whitney Houston by questioning the circumstances of her death. One cannot envision Walter Cronkite speculating about the most intimate moment of Whitney Houston’s life, when she drew her last breath. All of those who approached truth telling with dignity, who knew their jobs were simply to convey information, would cringe at the image of Nancy Grace using Houston’s death for selfish reasons, for attention grabbing, or as ABC’s Barbara Walters said, for ratings.

In late 2011, the Gallup organization polled Americans about their trust of media. Not surprisingly, the results showed the majority of Americans still do not have confidence in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly. The 44% of Americans who have a great deal or fair amount of trust and the 55% who have little or no trust remain among the most negative views Gallup has measured. As a journalist, I couldn’t be more discouraged by this development in our culture. That is because I know how much the truth matters. I know that our culture only advances in the right direction when we all come from a place of truth. So when a broadcaster comes forth from a place of half truth and manufactured drama, we all suffer for it.

Days after Grace’s fully unsubstantiated questioning of Houston’s cause of death, ABC’s Dan Abrams quite graciously offered Grace an opportunity to walk back her comments or at least acknowledge they were inappropriate, but Grace used the moment to defend her original assertion. This, even though law enforcement officials in L.A. were quick to announce after Houston’s death that no foul play was suspected. Watch:

Grace, it should be pointed out, is not a journalist. She is an attorney who got lucky and got a TV gig that caught on with a significant number of viewers. Unfortunately, in the eyes of many American viewers, talk show hosts are often mistaken for trained journalists. That being said, Grace does a disservice to all legitimate journalists by exercising her low standards of reporting on air. What she did in speculating about Houston’s death was thoughtless, especially as Houston’s family struggles to deal with their loss. I view Grace’s dramatic ratings grab on the same level as M.I.A.’s obscene gesture during the recent Super Bowl halftime. Each showed a lack of professionalism and a full disregard for the viewers.

Clearly, with “Dancing with the Stars” and the Caylee Anthony case behind her, Grace has no cause célèbre to keep herself in the forefront of media consciousness. Houston’s death happened right on time for Grace. Unfortunately for all of us, it also enabled Grace to further chip away at the tenuous relationship between the media industries and the public. And worst of all, it further erodes what little credibility news networks have left. Nice going Nancy.

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