What Ails News: Entertainmentitis

What Ails News: Entertainmentitis

By Michael Smerconish - March 12, 2009

On Monday, I went looking for more information about the 27-year-old man who walked into a Maryville, Ill., church and killed the Rev. Fred Winters.

You know that story.

Terry Joe Sedlacek's first shot hit Winters' Bible, spraying shredded bits of it into the air. Another hit his heart.

Sedlacek then pulled a knife, stabbed two parishioners, and cut himself before congregants could restrain him.

Curious about what could have motivated Sedlacek's "death day," I went online to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Scanning the paper's Web site, I was surprised to find that the murder wasn't atop the list of most e-mailed stories.

No, that distinction belonged to a recipe for St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake.

"Be careful not to overbake it. If it isn't jiggly in the middle, it is overbaked. It will still taste great, but it won't be gooey," offered a brief item that accompanied the recipe. Overbaked? More like half-baked. And yet so symptomatic of the entertainment-oriented sound-bite world we live in.

There's no depth anywhere. No "there there," as a famous writer once said.

And it's no wonder newspapers are dying when they can't fulfill the desire for instant entertainment gratification.

Think I'm stretching? Consider a paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology examining whether GOP presidential candidate Sarah Palin's appearance negatively affected perceptions of her competence.

University of South Florida psychologists Nathan Heflick and Jamie Goldenberg divided 133 undergraduates (ages 18 to 25) into two groups.

The first was told to record "thoughts and feelings" about Palin; the other did the same for actress Angelina Jolie.

Within each group, half were instructed to record their thoughts about the "person" while the other half considered the "person's appearance."

The finding? Participants who focused on Palin's appearance thought her less competent and said they were less likely to vote for her and Arizona Sen. John McCain.

If you apply that to a conventional TV newscast, it would mean that directing viewers' attention at an anchor's appearance might cause the audience to deem the product less competent. But we all know competence isn't the goal - viewers are.

That's why TV news anchor Katie Couric's legs always got plenty of play on the "Today Show" and why fair and balanced give way to legs and lipstick on Fox News. The anchors are all hotties. Many would fit in as well on a runway as they do at the news desk.

Here's another. Right now, the de facto head of the opposition to the White House has no political portfolio. He wasn't elected to anything. Rush Limbaugh's world is sound-bite-driven. It's entertainment, not policy. But as Democrats hyperbolize his influence and Republicans capitulate to it, the talk-show host has somehow become the voice of a political party.

In today's new media world, there's more information - and less substance - than ever. Pass the St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake, and put your feet up because "American Idol" is set to begin, even if the singing takes a backseat to the contestants' back stories.

"It's the first time in eight seasons we got some of everybody," said judge Randy Jackson this week. He was imitating James Watt when he reflected that one contestant is blind, another is Puerto Rican, a third an Indian-American and another a mother who lost her home in a tornado.

If you can't hold people's attention for more than 30 seconds, it isn't treated as news in today's cycle. All of which reminds me of something I've often heard St. Joe's basketball coach Phil Martelli say, and that I once had him scrawl on a basketball as a keepsake: People often fail because they trade what they want most for what they want now."

And lest you think you've read this far for nothing, here's your reward: A link to the gooey butter cake - Just don't overbake it.

Michael Smerconish is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News. He can be heard from 5 to 9 a.m. weekdays on "The Big Talker," WPHT-AM (1210). Contact him via the Web at

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