When I arrived in Detroit to intern at the Free Press many years ago, I saw a local character dressed in a bright yellow rain slicker, no matter the weather, theatrically directing traffic in front of the Cadillac hotel. He was there every day. My troop of interns suggested to our editors that he'd be a story. Apparently every group of interns had the same idea. And the editor sternly admonished us that we shouldn't exploit the man's insanity. Nuts aren't news.
I wish that same editor would give the same lecture to Piers Morgan at CNN and the news departments at NBC and ABC regarding Charlie Sheen.
Far be it from me to diagnose Sheen from afar, but I agree with Howard Stern yesterday when, after playing Sheen's clips, he said the guy sure sounds bipolar. Yes, Sheen is acting very much like the manic people I have known. Time asks whether he's bipolar. Whatever. He's clearly not acting sane.
So why are they interviewing him? Not because they expect him to say smart things that give insight. Neither are they trying to give a picture of mental illness, for they give no context. On Piers Morgan's nightly exhibition of ratings neediness, the star dismissed doctors' mentions of bipolar disease and then Morgan stepped up to give him a clean bill of mental health, telling Sheen he is "alarmingly normal." I think in the field they call that enabling.
What Sheen does may be news. What his network didn't do is also news -- when he abused women, they kept him on the air to keep the ratings he gets. What his network did do is news -- they yanked him only after he issued a manic rant against his producer.
But is what Sheen says in his haze of insanity or drugs newsworthy? I don't think so. I think it's exploitation. They want him to act nutty. Ratings, man, ratings.
After the horrid Arizona shooting, the gunman's lunatic rants online came to light. This is now part of the news cycle: madman commits horrid crime; search internet; find madman's words; make on-screen graphics of them; read them over and over out loud. For a while, news people read this madman's words as if there was something to be heard in them. But they were so looney even the news people had to say so. Context.
One way or another, by one definition and diagnosis or another, Charlie Sheen is a sick man. He doesn't need airtime. He needs couchtime. News people are ill-serving him and the issue of mental illness in this country by putting him on the air as if he were just another source, another celebrity. They are not informing the public. They are exploiting Charlie.