Miley Cyrus, Syria's Chemical Weapons, and the Business of News

This has been an interesting news week. Well, maybe interesting isn't the right word. Troubling, confusing or even downright weird might sum it up better. Whichever you might be feeling, the end result is that we've learned (or possibly re-learned) a valuable lesson about the business of news.

Let's use CNN, the self-proclaimed "Worldwide Leader in News" as a case study. The back-to-back headlines this week were: The imminent call to war on Syria by the U.S. and its allied nations; Miley Cyrus's VMA performance; and the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's epic "I Have a Dream" speech.

What's wrong with this picture?

In every hour's news loop, CNN chose to provide "expert" and detailed analysis of Miley Cyrus's VMA debacle: What did it mean? What was her motivation? What's the effect of the performance on the nation? CNN producers, in all their wisdom, deployed correspondent Jeanne Moos to pound the pavement to gauge the public's opinion on her performance. They equipped her with a foam finger, reminiscent of the finger used by Ms. Cyrus in her now famous performance with instructions to point it up for support or down for detractors. Serious journalism here.

You'd almost expect CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 to cover the story (even if it wasn't part of his "Ridiculist" segment), but to see Wolf Blitzer follow up sobering videos of Syrian citizens doused in chemical gasses with a gyrating Miley Cyrus, well, it's just plain wrong. Or is it?

On Tuesday, Piers Morgan opened his show with an in-depth panel discussion on the growing possibility of a war between Syria and the U.S. that included an intelligent debate about the legal justification for such action. That was followed up by an interview with Lora DiMaggio, the sister of James DiMaggio who made headlines during a nation-wide manhunt after kidnapping Hannah Anderson and (allegedly) killing her mother and brother.

Of course, the most logical follow up to this was the segment: "The History of Twerking" in which Mr. Morgan slammed those giving Cyrus credit for the "twerking" dance move. He vehemently argued that he's been seeing this dance performed in Caribbean nightclubs for the past 25 years. Yes, Piers Morgan is an expert in twerking. He concluded his arguments with the line: "I would not lie about something this important."

And speaking of experts, during the show Mr. Morgan chose to interview Morgan Spurlock, director of a documentary about U.K. boy band One Direction, asking about his views on Miley Cyrus and the marketing of celebrity. Then, naturally, he turned to Mr. Spurlock for his opinions on the crisis in Syria which resulted in the documentary film maker offering his recommendations to the U.S. government on exactly how to approach this situation. Granted, Mr. Spurlock has also made documentaries on Osama Bin Landen, which allowed him to travel extensively throughout the region, yet having a documentary film maker who just provided pop culture analysis also provide foreign policy advice does nothing but detract from the integrity of the news being broadcast.

We're Not In Kansas Anymore

Have we been sucked up by a cyclone and transported to some far-off mystical land where the salacious performance of a 20-year-old pop star receives equal attention by the news media and takes up equal space in the national consciousness when many western nations are about to send their men and women to war in a rapidly destabilizing part of the world?

How can Miley Cyrus be added to the news rotation alongside Syria's use of chemical weapons and the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's historic "I have a dream" speech?

What I've had to re-learn this week, sadly, is that cable and network news is an entertainment business, not a public service -- with an emphasis on "business." Journalistic integrity is being supplanted with ratings and advertising revenues. News is really just about what sells, not what information is important to report. Like it or not, Miley Cyrus's performance is what people want to talk about. Don't believe it? Consider the fact that there were 306,000 tweets per minute sent on Twitter about the performance immediately preceding the airing and the social networks have been ablaze ever since.

Welcome to the social era. The only filter "news" agencies use today is entertainment and ratings. Watch -- and be informed -- at your own risk.

CORRECTION: This post previously stated that CNN's chief political correspondent Candy Crowley reported the reaction story about Miley Cyrus.