Forget ethics; bring on the entertainment

By Philip Meyer * 

Reprinted from USA Today, 3/23/99 By permission of author

May 1999 – Neil Postman was right. We are amusing ourselves to death.

The latest evidence to support the professor’s dour prophecy comes from the great state of Minnesota. Gov. Jesse Ventura has called Walker Lundy, editor of the state’s second-largest newspaper, “despicable.”

Readers of the St. Paul Pioneer Press have chimed in with epithets of their own, including “greed and sensationalism,” “toilet-sniffing journalism” and “cancel my subscription.”

Postman’s thesis seemed bizarre when Amusing Ourselves to Death was published in 1985. He warned that the death of our culture would come not from brutal, force-wielding tyranny, but from our quiet acquiescence in the substitution of entertainment for rational public discourse.

The theory explains a wide variety of phenomena: the corruption of education, politicians as actors, cheating in sports and public outrage when media try to take matters seriously.

Now we have Minnesota.

Lundy’s offense was to publish a report on systematic academic cheating in the University of Minnesota’s basketball program and to do it on the eve of the NCAA tournament. The university promptly suspended four players. Without their presence, the seventh-seeded Gophers lost to lower-ranked Gonzaga in the first round. Gonzaga made it to the West Regional Final before finally losing to Connecticut on Saturday. All because of journalistic enterprise.

“It couldn’t have waited until after?” demanded Ventura. He said Lundy meant to “take the pleasure of these young people who have worked so hard to get to that tournament and somehow try to spoil it for them.”

Hundreds of letters and phone calls to the newspaper echoed his view. Few thought about the moral implications for the university if it had played and eliminated other teams through wins based on rule breaking.

Before higher education got mixed up with entertainment, sports was an educational enterprise. Rule-based athletic competition taught the values of honesty, loyalty, perseverance, discipline, cooperation, and fairness.

But as the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics pointed out six years ago, universities have built their sports programs into independent profit centers whose loyalties are to the entertainment marketplace. It is a market that Ventura, the former professional wrestler, understands.

When the Knight Commission was gathering its data, Jack Lengyel, director of athletics at the U.S. Naval Academy, put his finger on the flaw.

“This is not an athletics problem,” he testified. “This is a mission problem where the institution has not accepted the athletics program as part and parcel of the educational objectives of the university.”

The die-hard, win-at-any-cost Minnesota fans don’t care about the educational objectives. They want their amusement. Even Lundy, himself a basketball fan, confesses that he did not realize that the university could move quickly enough to suspend the players in the hours remaining before the tournament.

But even so, he would follow the first law of journalism, which is to get the facts out as quickly as you can. Gene Miller of The Miami Herald has articulated it best: “Publish, publish, always publish.”

The timing was driven by attainment of the critical mass of evidence needed to back up the story. After more than 20 interviews with a former university employee who admitted writing term papers and book reports for basketball players, the editors still needed physical evidence.

They finally got it in the form of computer disks containing more than 100 themes and reports, plus some paper copies with instructors’ grades and comments. Then they waited for comment from the ghostwriter’s former supervisor, who had been out of the country.

The last step was to seek comments from the players and university officials. When all of that was done, it was March 9, two days before the tournament. Sportswriter George Dohrmann’s stories were on the front page the next day.

Journalists generally agree with Immanuel Kant, the 18th-century German philosopher, that following a rule is more important than worrying about its consequences. This is the basis of the Miller rule.

But a consequence-based decision would likely have led to the same outcome. Delaying the story would amount to participating in the university’s corruption. Experienced editors know that protecting individuals or institutions from the consequences of their wrongful actions only leads to worse consequences later on.

Some Minnesotans agree. Lundy reports that after the first few days of outrage, the reaction has settled down to where about a third of his incoming cards, letters, and E-mail messages are supportive.

But the substitution of entertainment for educational values continues to afflict us. As the Naval Academy’s Lengyel puts it, we need to be more interested in “character development, not developing characters.”

Speaking of which, how is Gov. Ventura doing?

According to Rob Daves, director of polling and news research for the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis, Ventura’s approval ratings are the highest given any Minnesota governor for his first few months in office since the Minnesota Poll began in 1947.

Do Minnesotans really love their governor just because he is entertaining? Lundy is more generous. He thinks voters find Ventura’s directness refreshing.

“I don’t think he says anything that he doesn’t believe,” says Lundy.

Newspapers are expected to be entertaining, too. The Pioneer Press is being punished for getting serious. Cultural death by entertainment is too much fun to make us want to stop, and, sadly, it never inspires a stirring call to arms by a postmodern Thomas Paine or Patrick Henry.

“Who,” asked Neil Postman in 1985, “is to take arms against a sea of amusements?”  undefined

* Philip Meyer holds the Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is a member of USA Today’s board of contributors.