I lost interest in the death of Anna Nicole Smith about five minutes after it was announced. I wouldn't have let her or any of her pack of seedy hangers-on into my home, I get tired of boob jokes in a hurry, and I don't care which Hollywood rodent is the father of her child.
But lots of people do care; we know that, because the coverage has been relentless. The story of her death even knocked murder-minded astronaut Lisa Who?! off the front pages. Right now, I imagine, the National Enquirer is searching for an old lady willing to claim that Ms. Smith appeared to her in a dream and cured a dread illness.
This is nothing new, of course. Rupert Murdoch, the owner of FOX News and umpteen tabloids around the world, has simply reprised the formula employed so lucratively by Joseph Hearst and, thanks to the democratizing influence of the Internet, other media outlets have been forced to follow suit.
Oh, for the "good ol' days," when the media were operated by snobs resolved upon uplifting public tastes instead of satisfying them. Recall correspondent Edward R. Murrow's warning, in 1958, about television: "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire, but it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box."
I co-founded in 1994 an organization known as the Southwestern Virginia Internet Society, and at an early meeting I speculated that the Internet must inevitably change the nature of the news business. The traditional, above-ground news organizations, I reasoned, were bound to lose control of the collection and dissemination of news. That might be a good thing, I added. A Roanoke Times editor stood up and ranted at me for about five minutes.
I was right about what has happened, but not the outcome. It has not been a good thing, because there is no longer a brake upon the appetites of the coarse and unintelligent — the majority, that is.