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Rush to Bad Judgment

Shame on them or shame on us? That may be the question after witnessing the news networks go wall-to-wall in their coverage of the death last week of Anna Nicole Smith, a C-level celebrity most famous for a bountiful body, a hazy reality show and her marriage to an octogenarian billionaire.

Smith's life has been well-documented, including the legal battle over her inherited fortune. Recently, the untimely death of one child and a paternity dispute over another put her in the news again in ways that seemed more appropriate for Maury than CNN.

So when she died unexpectedly in Florida, it wasn't surprising that TV news went into overdrive. After all, she was famous. Her death was unusual. And, yes, it was worth news stories.

But that doesn't mean the story should have obliterated the coverage of actual significant news, as it did on the cable networks.

There was at least one exception. On CNN, Lou Dobbs actually promoted his program by promising no coverage of her death.

John Rash, a Minneapolis-based media analyst for Campbell Mithun, was stunned that the coverage felt as extensive—if not more so-—than that of the death of former President Gerald Ford last December.

“The tragic death of Anna Nicole Smith was a story of significant note,” he says, “but the complete abandonment of any other aspects of the news cycle, given everything going on in the world, is perfectly indicative of the cable-news-network competition and clearly was not their best moment.”

It's not what viewers needed, but it's what they wanted. Many of the Smith videos were among the most viewed on news channel Websites on Friday, as the networks extended the story into its second day.

Among the broadcast networks, NBC and CBS ran Smith stories about 10 minutes into their nightly newscasts. ABC at least had a little perspective, airing a story near the end of its program that asked why anybody cared about her in the first place. Concluded ABC correspondent John Donvan, “She figured out how to get her 15 minutes of fame and make it last a lifetime.”

The public laps up lurid tragedies like these. But the stories are like crack cocaine. They provide a burst of ratings, but they create a backlash of disgust from intelligent viewers. Nobody wins when an organization's major news effort is devoted to covering the death of a sad wreck of a woman who, frankly, never had any impact whatsoever on life in this country.