A Balanced Media Diet? Include Mugshots, Hookers, and Reality TV

I know I should be getting tingly about next week's inauguration, but I'm not going and anyway there's other news that needs dissecting. Besides, I just saw my maiden show of NBC's The Biggest Loser this week and it's such a huge cultural mound that the flesh of it alone threatens to block out the light of everything else.

All those skin folds and all that pathos and bathos and other Greek words made me feel like I'm cheating on my previous Reality TV crush, Cheaters and its devil-man host, Joey Greco.

Twelve million Americans, even some of those waiting for a messiah to take office in DC, spent the other night weeping and cheering for 63-year-old Jerry (370 pounds, more or less) and 450-pound Daniel (he's 19), both of them facing elimination this week for not losing enough weight. Jerry was voted off the heavily reinforced island of the super large, in case you were wondering.

Former child actor and soaps veteran Alison Sweeney is the chirpy host. She's got that authoritative Heidi Klum voice of finality and humanity all at the same time. The suspense, the deliberation, the decision. "How do you not cry every day at work??" she asks herself on her latest blog post. Right, and meanwhile everyone there is somehow hugging all the others like big thunderclaps.

I know there must be pages of stand-up jokes about this show, but with inspirational themes like "Move Mountains," The Biggest Loser pretty much defuses the comedy piece and leaves you wallowing in the sweaty efforts of all these huge people to inspire themselves and others to work their way down to a more modest Extra Extra Large.

I found myself just a tiny bit transfixed.

That's OK with America and OK with me.

But my new favorite print product, Raleigh, NC's booking mug shot tabloid newspaper, The Slammer, is somehow not OK? The Slammer is filled with local jailhouse booking mug shots, features like "Slammer Salon" of the craziest arrest hairdos and "Mature Menaces" - busted seniors.

Unlike most of the rest of the newspaper business, The Slammer's circulation is up almost 50 percent (to 29,000), sells for a whole dollar and plans to expand editions. At least there's one happy publisher in the country. Or maybe three, since like-minded papers also exist in Tampa Bay (Cellmates) and Orlando (Jail).

The biggest complaints The Slammer gets, according to a story in the Christian Science Monitor, come from perps whose photos don't make it into the paper.

Bob Steele, an ethics guru at Florida's Poynter Institute, who I've gone to for advice myself when I was editor of The Chronicle, says The Slammer "is a sad commentary on the state of American journalism." Bob is unhappy serious papers are struggling and this "schlocky" thing is booming. Mike Hoyt, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review complains that The Slammer is a "step up from the stocks, according to The CSM.

Gentlemen, lighten up.

First of all, we completely ignore and dismiss a successful newspaper these days only at our own peril. Second, haven't we all in the profession cooed at those cute and folksy local paper Police Blotter features that have been running forever? At the old SF Examiner, we had a whole section called Neighborhood Report that featured crime stats prominently.

Is it the photos that make journalists squeamish? Well, we all run a hell of a lot of arrest mugs ourselves in the mainstream press, so...that glass houses thing applies.

Slammer publisher Isaac Cornetti, who's got a little record of his own (a little weed and a TV that wasn't exactly his), concedes he doesn't believe his paper "deserves the journalism title. But we do try to present research and we hope (readers have) learned something" after they read it. Present research for reader benefit? How far off journalism is that, exactly? Maybe too far off, which could be part of our problem.

It's not the NY Times wedding pages, but still, it's a slice of life that tells a story. "It really lets you know what's going on around you," the Monitor story quotes Raleigh bail bondsman, Omar Williams, as marveling. Of course Mr. Williams is also an advertiser.

Maybe the guy you drive to work with is a thief. Read The Slammer to find out. Mr. Cornetti says the paper helps people "protect themselves, their families and their businesses." Slammer readers have helped police find fleeing felons and sobered up potential drunk drivers with the notion that their neighbors might see them as the "featured impaired driver" in the next day's paper.

I'm hoping someone starts one of these here in San Francisco so I can get to know my fellow citizens better.

Now the guy who ran an Ohio hooker review web site, even in the web age of user reviews and content, may not fit under anyone's definition of journalism. But police in Columbus have decided he also doesn't perform a legal public service and have thrown him in jail. On line after-action customer reports of prostitutes are hardly new (so I'm told.) "Adult" sites are full of them. NSFW but maybe you can find that "Client #9" (aka Eliot Spitzer) did some narratives himself.

Robert Eric McFadden, who ran the Ohio site and was arrested, "formerly served as the director of the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives office under Gov. Ted Strickland," according to an AP story. Mr. McFadden seems to have decided that faith was not a sufficient standard in some areas of life.

I don't know if the Columbus Dispatch ran Mr. McFadden's mug, but maybe The Slammer will consider an "out-of-state" feature in his case.

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