Rubber necking

Behind The News
December 15, 2010 11:41:25 AM PST
Ever wonder why traffic comes to a stop on your side of the highway when there's an accident on the other side? Traffic experts have long known -- but you don't have to be a transportation planner to understand it.

It's called rubber necking--- the just-have-to-watch impulse of passing drivers. It is hard, apparently, not to watch a wreck - even if it's not in your self interest; self interest in this case being it slows you down.

I try to not rubber neck, but sometimes even I succumb.

I think about rubber necking with the celebrity divorce cases that have somehow made it to the top of the news coverage food chain.

We can talk about how above-it-all we think we are, but the hard truth is that these stories apparently resonate with more than a few people. Otherwise, the New York tabloids and the entertainment shows that now drown much of the airwaves wouldn't keep splashing the headlines across the page and across the screen.

Two cases of domestic chaos are now front and center -- the divorce trial of Christie Brinkley and her soon-to-be ex-husband, Peter Cook; and the now-public divorce case of Yankees Third Baseman Alex Rodriguez and his wife, a case that has dragged into the fray the entertainer Madonna and rocker Lenny Kravitz.

Last week, I asked readers of this space to talk about whether they wanted to read and watch news coverage of this type of celebrity story. The response was impressive -- and you can read some of them below.

Our position, as a TV station, was that we would cover the Brinkley case - because it was public -- but we wouldn't cover the A-Rod mess because it was just gossip. That changed over the weekend, when Mrs. A-Rod went quite public -- announcing she'd file for divorce on Monday, which she in fact did.

There are many important problems facing us -- war, a terrible economy, millions without health care, a polluted planet; the list goes on forever. And many wonder why in the world talking about whether A-Rod is intimate with Madonna should trump coverage of real problems. I'd be the last person in the world to argue it should, and in fact we don't let one story trump the other.

But I suspect there are many people who read and watch stories about celebrities who would never admit they do.

I'm not passing judgment, I'm just sayin'.

With that in mind, we will be covering the A-Rod domestic mess, now that it's a court case. We will not be sacrificing covering the other important news, however. And that's a promise. Lucy Yang has our story, tonight at 11.

Also at 11, some big developments on the campaign trail. First, something of a scare in the sky for Barack Obama today. The MD-80 he was flying in today deployed an emergency slide during the flight. Not exactly what you want happening on your flight. The plane made an unscheduled landing; everyone was all right.

Sen. Obama also wants to shake up the Democratic Convention in August in Denver. He wants to give his acceptance speech not in he 22,000-seat Pepsi Center, where the convention will be held, but instead in the 76,000-seat Mile High Stadium, where the Broncos play football. It's a bold move -- few politicians could attract those kinds of numbers. But it's also a logistical challenge for the Secret Service and for the media, which has already ponied up gazillions "wiring" the convention center.

Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to mount casualty numbers. And it's again taking a toll in our area. In the past two weeks, three New York State National Guardsmen have been killed in Afghanistan. Lt. Daniel Farkas -- a 20-year veteran of the NYPD and a resident of Queens, was killed on Saturday.

Two weeks ago, Sgt. First Class Joe McKay of Brooklyn and Spc. Mark Palmateer of Poughkeepsie, died in Afghanistan.

We'll also have any breaking news of the night, the AccuWeather forecast, and Scott Clark with the night's sports. I hope you can join Sade Baderinwa (in for Liz Cho) and me, tonight at 11.

Now, as promised, here are some of your comments about covering celebrity news.

From Abbey: "I actually concur with the decision not to air the Rodriguez/Madonna story (and actually, wish the same was done on Christie Brinkley). It's just not news and as much as the celebs at the center complain about the attention, they often employ PR people that 'create' the buzz ... so it's all takes on a certain fakeness.

"The proliferation of tabloid media to programs (TMZ, The Insider, ET, etc.) has gotten out of control and it is disconcerting how that is beginning to bleed into local and network news. Hard to understand sometimes what passes for news today. It's nice to tune in to a broadcast and actually get the stories of the day, the economy, the election, etc. (Although ... I have to say that the recent addition to the music before every story on Eyewitness News has almost become satire material for Saturday Night Live).

"Not to be hypocritical, I've always enjoyed my daily dose of Page Six, but these platforms go way beyond that and their tactics have become almost guerilla-like. Celebs are virtually hunted like prey. The tabloid are just unwatchable at this point. The novelty has worn off and it's worse than a freak show."

From Robert Edwards: "The media is in a transitory time in history. Newspapers are dying out, traditional newscasts are reaching fewer people (sorry!) and the web is filled with news and gossip sites.

"True journalism is under attack in print and on the air. On the very day you asked about our perceptions of the difference between web and broadcast emphasis, the LA Times is laying off 250 employees. And this type of layoff is, and has been, occurring around the country. Two local TV stations in my hometown in PA have fired experienced journalists and replaced them with air-head, carpet-bagging, pretty faces who have no understanding of the community they are supposed to be serving. One station is playing background music under the news! And a hand-held camera tilts, zooms and jumps around the talking heads. Clearly, these are desperate times.

"You are correct that people are creating personal newscasts via the web. Some websites even allow people to enter keywords and the site puts together a daily "newscast" for them.

"The difference here is that the end user is neither a journalist nor an editor. And computer scripts filter only what they are told to filter. The web is filled with stories from non-professionals; it is the era of hack writers. Stories often have little depth and are not vetted. The danger is that web tracking of stories will be the deciding factor on future coverage decisions for broadcast (including web) media. Divorces that are high-profile are that way only because someone is deciding to make them so. A true journalist knows better.

"What's a real journalist to do? With newscasts available via broadband cell connections for laptops and on cell phones themselves, every person will have instant access to whatever they want. On my daily bus ride, there are half a dozen people checking out the news and watching live TV on their laptops. They are their own managing editors.

"With viewing of traditional TV newscasts sinking, it seems to me the future lies in news simulcasts for the web, live and delayed. We have seen this transition occurring on WABC's website and others in the last year, with multiple videos available on most topics. Major news web outlets have short commercials before many stories.

"I believe that at some point the dust of change will settle and quality will reign. I hope in the future, a few taps on my broadband cell will give me some kind of 'Bill Ritter's WABC News Journal' for the day, filled with wisely chosen and balanced stories. In the end, people will return to trusted journalists, because they will realize that the mountains of crap available to them are just that. Crap."

From Deirdre LoCasio of New Jersey: "See, Bill, that's why I love watching you guys on ABC, you deliver what really is news. These extramarital affairs are simply not newsworthy and yes, I could not agree with you more that what they will eventually do to the children involved is despicable. Did you happen to hear what Madonna said about her husband... she doesn't like to share her "divadom" with him. What kind of a thing is that to say to the world about your husband. Madonna, GET A GRIP!"

Neil O'Donnell writes: "Amen to you and your staff. I believe that you are the only newscast not to say something about this and I applaud you for this. It is really none of anybody's business about this guy's personal life. He is not the President, Governor or Mayor. He is a very fortunate human being (who) is very talented at playing baseball. You want to know something else, that some of the people reporting this news have had affairs of their own. Do we scrutinize them?

"As you know some television stations live for this garbage -- AKA TMZ. I and I am certain most of the American public could care less about this stuff. It is just a shame that we live in a world today where gossip prevails. "Again I applaud you and your staff for not airing this garbage. As always Love your program. And of course you can use my name."

From George Oertel: "Thanks for the opportunity to voice an opinion. This is one way we can make use of the right to free speech. Of course, if you have enough money or fame, you have more 'free speech' than the average person.

"I don't know how to solve the problem of equal 'free speech,' but I try to use it whenever possible. The Internet certainly gives me a greater opportunity than the person who does not have a computer. We will never have a democracy where every voice can be heard, but let's keep trying. You are doing your part.

Dana Trentacost from New Jersey says that, "I feel that everything that is going on with Christie Brinkley and her husband and A-Rod and his wife I do not want to know about. It is horrible what is going on and the more I hear about it the more sick it makes me especially since their children are suffering because of it. So, I am very glad to hear that you are not going to say much about either during your newscast because what they are doing should not be acknowledged and talked about much, that is their private business and that's how it should remain!"

Irene Gurdin writes: "I perfectly agree with your analysis of our selection of what we want to hear about the news. There is so much salacious news about celebrities on TV and I can't do anything about it other than be forced to listen to it, or use the remote to change channels ( and hear the same thing elsewhere- again and again)."

Barbara Scarnechia writes: "I am in total agreement with you that these stories about who is running around with who should be kept for the Web and the tabloids, in order to give the public the option of viewing/reading or not. Actually, who cares what all these 'celebrities' are doing in their private/not so private lives?

"I do feel sorry for the children of all these people. They are the innocent ones who usually get hurt by all of this and why should they have to deal with the dirty laundry of their parents, when they have nothing at all to do with it and certainly no control over it. It isn't isn't new anyway, mainly gossip."