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Lewd News Is Good News?

(AP / CBS)
One of the knee-jerk defenses offered for the media's tabloid obsessions – like the hours of coverage given to Paris Hilton – is something like, "Well, hey … people are watching. Check out our ratings!"

That ends-justify-the-means attitude is something we've gotten used to in cable news, where the concept of "breaking news" has broken down.

But we like to think of print media as a different animal altogether. It's more cerebral, it's more serious, it's more … rational.

But perhaps no longer.

Don't take my word for it, however. Evidence of this comes from … the sober-minded ombudspeople at two of America's leading papers: Deborah Howell at the Washington Post and Tim McNulty at the Chicago Tribune.

Take for example last week's Howell column, where she explained/rationalized the media coverage given to Hillary Clinton's … uhm … chest.

There's a bigger issue about her Clinton piece: Does this have anything to do with whether Clinton should be president? Not a thing. But do we want to read the column about her cleavage? Yes indeed. It was the most viewed story on the Web site all day.
So Deborah Howell is basically pointing the finger at the readers, even though there's no way to track the precise motivation of why somebody clicks on a story. They could have easily received a link via e-mail with someone asking, "Can you see what passes for commentary at the Washington Post these days?" Sure, clicks are clicks, but c'mon, Deborah.

I remember reading that Howell column a few weeks back. I grimaced and tried to let it lie. But it's clear that this attitude is starting to spread. Remember that sex study from a week and a half ago? The one that dubiously laid out the 237 different reasons people like to have sex? Apparently, the Chicago Tribune ran that study on the front page, above the fold, upsetting some readers. What did the Tribune's reader representative say to them?

More than 90,000 readers of chose to view the article, in addition to those reading the nearly 600,000 copies of the newspaper. And 4,000 online viewers also read the accompanying list of all the reasons -- a list that did not appear in the print edition.
I'm no prude. I read the sex study story. And tried, unsuccessfully, to avoid the debate over Hillary's fashion statement. There's no secret about drawing readers or viewers – flash a little skin (or just write about it) and you're sure to attract attention. But when the consciences of the newsroom start using ratings or click-throughs as a defense, you've got to wonder if the watchdogs need a little watching themselves.
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