The Dangers of Entertainment "Journalism"
Updated: Aug 3
There’s a soapbox I get on sometimes, from which I like to rant about the dangers of entertainment “journalism” like Tiger King or the popular podcast, Serial. But I step off the box pretty quickly — and it’s not because I’ve already lost everyone’s attention, that doesn’t usually deter me— it’s because I know I’m a hypocrite: I consume that type of media, too.
I was no different than any other American that binged the entire season of Tiger King over the course of a weekend around March 20th— an experience that is now the Opening Ceremonies into our collective dip into quarantine.
At the time my partner and I laughed with each other as he chanted “Carole F*ckin’ Baskin!” around the house and I wondered, “how did the filmmakers manage to get this incredible access?” Most notably I was impressed that one of the side characters, Mario Tabraue, a fellow tiger enthusiast that looks like a Miami Vice mobster, admitted on camera that he once helped saw a guy’s head off. Hey, I guess if you’ve done the time it’s no secret, but to admit it on camera nonchalantly… wow.
Now, with a little bit of distance, I’ve been holding court with myself debating whether the series was a fun and entertaining romp in a wild world I’d otherwise not see, or simply a very bad documentary with glaring issues of ethics and storytelling.
Maybe it doesn’t have to be just one of those things, but more and more I think it’s important to consider how these types “journalism” really aren’t journalism at all — and that’s important to recognize.
I’ve always had a reverence for traditional journalism. Even though I have more of an interest and background in art in film, I thought when it was time to pursue my career, I’d learn about filmmaking through the lens of a pretty stringent ethics system by going to grad school for documentary journalism. On the flip side, film school would have come more naturally to me, but I was excited for the challenges and the boundaries that the ethics of journalism set out for you. I wanted to learn how to tell stories and be objective but engaging. I was in for a rude awakening because I pretty quickly realized that:
There’s no real measurement of objectivity.
The news and media landscape was changing, and the lines between journalism and entertainment were blurring, perhaps like they ever had before.
My grad program at Northwestern had the obligation to stress objectivity in it’s curriculum, even when the professor’s own work lay out on a spectrum from hard-hitting to sensationalized. In one of my classes we discussed how our professor eventually adopted the subjects of his book — two boys from the Chicago projects, which opened up endless discussions if objectivity in reporting was more important than activism.
Journalists everywhere seemed to be struggling with the question of whether doing the right thing was more important than objective journalism, especially in an increasingly complicated world.
Added to this was a new phenomenon. Netflix binges weren’t just for goofy sitcoms anymore. Documentary and non-fiction was making its way into streamable serialized content on all the major streaming sites and podcast platforms.
It wasn’t long after grad school that Serial came out, and journalist Sarah Koenig was telling the story of the murder of Hae Min Lee, and the possible unjust incarceration of her high school boyfriend Adnan Syed. Over the course of 12 episodes Koenig promised us she was objective about the case, but somewhat unconvincingly. She and about everyone else at the time seemed to be on “Team Adnan.”
Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed, subjects of NPR’s Serial Season 1.
Next it was Making a Murderer. The armchair juries of the world were more split on this one. Were two men involved, or had the police framed a man they didn’t like? My personal opinion is that it’s probably both or something in between and that we may never know. Maybe these opinions are as a result of the cynicism that formed while working in a newsroom and being behind the camera. Everything gets a little more complicated when you see how the sausage is made…
Netflix’s feature image for the popular series that debuted in 2015.
There are, of course, millions of examples of these types of series with varying degrees of ethical standing. I think they have an affect on how we consume, consciously or subconsciously choose to believe, and act upon storytelling.
Last week I wrote a long post online about what it means to “demand justice” in the light of police brutality and killings. It was meant to pose the question on whether people (audiences) think they can demand the outcome of a particular situation once it becomes public news, or if it’s just a demand that law enforcement takes its course.
In the light of something so unjust, common, and outrageous, I wondered are we at a point in society where the people know the system isn’t working and demand a different course? Or are we just putting necessary pressure on the system to force it to work better?
(^^ All of us in society, all the time.)
Similar situations arise after terrible national news, new true crime series, etc. Conversations, classrooms, Instagram stories, etc. are full of regular Joes’ opinions on how a case should have been handled. Overall, the point is this:
Our opinions on media often affect our real-world views and actions. If that continues, audiences should be diligent in seeking the truth in media and journalism.
In the case of Tiger King, our commentary about Joe Exotic or whether Carole Baskin killed her husband probably isn’t going to hurt her. Joe obviously loves the attention and Baskin already puts herself “out there” on social media on her own volition. Both agreed (under what terms no one seems to know) to be a part of the Netflix project. But the film series is blatantly non-journalistic and has ethical storyline flaws from downplaying the role of meth in Joe’s camp, not revealing that Joe killed many of his animals and likely deserve his sentence, or even questionable decision for Joe’s ex-husband not to wear a shirt on screen. (From a filmmaker’s perspective, I assume this was to solidify a “character” and a “role” he was thrown into.) I remain convinced that neither the filmmaker or Netflix was even trying to make anything objective.
This was for entertainment, through and through. How could it not be?
You had some of the strangest and most compelling characters ever that were happy to go on camera and talk about a feud that likely could have stopped at any time, save for power trips and drugs. Pitting the characters against each other over the stretch of a long story arc certainly is bingable gold.
Joe Exotic’s “ex-husband” John Findlay.
Someone, tell this man to put a shirt on.
But I sincerely hope that the audiences aren’t duped into thinking this is a piece of journalism, or worse, that society doesn’t begin to accept this type of content as a new type of journalism going forward. As much as we all sit in our separate but collective spaces, an episode of Tiger King and the memes that follow is a nice way to bring us together in an age of so much separation, but no one of us is part of the story. Do not be fooled, we are not an investigator privy to any more information on the subject than the person on the couch next to you. It’s deeply important to remember that.
Additional reading on the subject:
The Most-Watched Show in America Is a Moral Failure (The Atlantic, 2020)
Why ‘Tiger King’ Is Not ‘Blackfish’ for Big Cats (The New York Times, 2020)
RCQ Clancy is a documentary film maker and contributor at reelcultured.com