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Washington media critic takes on sleazy newscasters--and the film '15 Minutes'

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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

It's lunch-time in Washington D.C. Tom Rosenstiel--director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an influential Washington think tank--is taking a break from his directorial duties, munching on what sounds like a celery stick as he takes my call to discuss the semi-satirical thriller 15 Minutes.

"I saw the movie. Yesterday," Rosenstiel affirms, with a sigh and a crunch, uttering these words with the same level of enthusiasm one might use in saying, "I've just had my spleen removed."

15 minutes stars Robert De Niro, Edward Burns and Kelsey Grammer. De Niro is a media-savvy cop. Burns is a shy arson investigator. Kelsey Grammer runs a sensational TV news show that strongly resembles Hard Copy.

In the course of the film, these characters each encounter a pair of psychotic Russians out on a murderous Big Apple crime spree, video camera in hand. On a quest for fame and fortune, American style, the bad guys--with the cop and the fireman hot on their trail--film their nasty little crimes, then attempt to sell the tapes to Grammer, who huffs about spouting stuff like, "Image is everything!" and "If it bleeds, it leads!" When he's offered graphic footage of a beloved celebrity being beaten to death, Grammer forks over a million George Washingtons and runs the murder smack in the middle of dinner hour.

The message of 15 Minutes is obvious: we are a violent society and the news only feeds our appetite for blood. Ouch. Take that, Tom Brokaw. Or maybe it's saying that being famous will get you killed.

Or, actually, I don't know what the point was, other than to lure innocent people to the theater to pay good money to sit in the dark watching mindless violence--and maybe that is the point.

To help out, I've asked Rosenstiel to provide a little context.

Rosenstiel knows the treacherous terrain through which 15 Minutes crawls. A journalist since the late '70s, he's served as media critic for the Los Angeles Times and MSNBC, and 1996 founded the aforementioned Project for Excellence in Journalism. WIth Bill Kovach--himself an award-winning journalist and editor--Rosenstiel is the author of the much-anticipated new book Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect (Crown; $20.00), a sharp, entertaining romp through the ethical crises inherent in the today's deeply-conflicted News Biz. Or is that the Advertising-and-Entertainment Biz? It's hard to tell the difference sometimes--but maybe that's also the point.

First things first.

"So. If you were the news guy in the movie," I ask, "would you have made the call to run the murder on TV?"

I am answered with a few seconds of thoughtful munching before Rosenstiel responds that he might show some of the killing--but not all of it.

"We've defined 'sensationalism' as the moment that you are no longer imparting any information," he explains. "So I think that at a certain point, once you've communicated that [the victim in question] is being killed, you don't have to actually show the murder itself. You do have a responsibility to kids who might be watching."

As if kids actually watch the news. But more on that later.

Next question.

"Does anybody in the journalism ever really say, 'If it bleeds, it leads?'"

"They may think it, but they never say it," Rosenstiel tells me. "And nobody also says, 'Image is everything,' or 'Perception is reality.' Those clichés undermine the reality of the film, which could have been good. It has pretensions of being a movie with a serious message, but it's basically just a big, violent, cop thriller."

He munches thoughtfully for a few seconds. "But does what bleeds truly lead in a lot of cities, on a lot of newscasts? Yes. Is that because people think murder and gore are good for ratings? It's not that simple."

Crime and slime have, at various times, been very good for ratings. But it's not a foolproof formula, as evidenced by the fact that 15 Minutes itself dropped out of the top ten faster than the two psycho Russians start killing people. Sometimes, indulging in such voyeurism does make us feel dirty--and a bit guilty.

"As evidenced in the movie by the scene where Edward Burns punched Kelsey Grammer, and all the cops cheer," Rosentiel says. He goes on to point out that many newscasts are getting the picture, realizing that a strategy of "all crime all the time" is not the solidly dependable cash cow it once was. Or at least not as effective among the increasingly attractive advertising demographic of women.

Still, the news we watch, when we do watch--and our level of news consumption is definitely down--is decidedly more harrowing than it once was.

"When I was little, my parents used to insist that I watch the news with them," recalls Rosenstiel. 'They'd tell me, 'This is important. You need to see this.' Today though, because of the character of local television, the news is something I feel I need to shield my kids from."

Isn't that ironic? Because of the desire of some broadcasters to treat the news so sensationally in order to drive up viewership, the next generation of potential news-watchers are not being allowed to acquire an appreciation for watching or reading the news.

"We've effectively destroyed the news habit in this country," says Rosenstiel. "We've broken the cycle. By becoming too graphic and crime-addicted in our coverage of the news, we've all but killed the Golden Goose."

There is hope, however, he says, and it comes in taking a careful look at the history of journalism. When we trace today's news programs all the way back to the first journalists--brave lads with strong legs who could run over the hill and back, then relate what was going on over there in a succinct, accurate, and entertaining fashion--we see that cycles of journalistic sensationalism always tend to burn themselves out. Sometimes at the stake.

"Styles go in and out and up and down and change all around," Rosenstiel reports. "But the thing that makes journalism exist is the human need for information. 'Is it going to snow? Will the roads be closed?' That's what people want from journalism. The business end of news flows out of that, and if you get too far away from serving that need . . . you go out of business. Those who continue to pander to the lowest common denominator will one day end up the way Kelsey Grammer does--flat on their backs."

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From the March 29-April 4, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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