It's instinctual now. Eyes open and hand reaches for the TV clicker. Always a news junkie with a preference for printed information -- especially since Walter Cronkite took Edward R. Murrow-style broadcast journalistic ethics into retirement with him -- I nevertheless have found myself since that day in September several years ago flipping on the TV to a news show each morning in what has become my dawn recitation of the question Dorothy Parker posed whenever she answered the telephone: "What fresh hell is this?"
Recently my TV blinked awake to the familiar face of a network talking head conducting a seemingly serious interview. Then I realized the person being interviewed was a loser on "The Apprentice." Punching in the numbers of another news show, another familiar face appeared, also deeply involved in a serious interview, only this time I found out it was with a loser from "Survivor."
Isn't it bad enough that we have to mock reality by creating so-called reality TV shows? Must we add insult to injury by treating the result of a made-up event as news? Is it any wonder that people have lost the patience to sift through the real news to make informed choices about elections?
Reality TV programming is no more spectacularly put on display than when it enters the area of sports; after all, sports are the ultimate reliaty TV programming. We don't need to trick it up. These games we watch -- whether it is the Yankees and the Red Sox in the big ballyard in the Bronx or Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els on the back nine at Augusta National -- are unscripted dramas that produce plot twists unlike anything a TV producer can make up.
The danger with manufacturing reality is that we lose an appreciation of what reality really is. There are some things going on right now that demand a lot more attention than anything Donald Trump or some people on an island eating bugs can dream up. In sports the risk is to lessen the intrinsic entertainment value of the games by creating phony games. In the real world the risk is to blur the line between news and made-up news to such an extent that people stop trying to distinguish between the two.
In the decidedly made-up world of TV sitcoms, the bombastic newsman Ted Baxter on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" gets an offer to host a game show, sparking this classic exchange:
Lou Grant: "You don't want to be a quizmaster, do you Ted? You're a newsman."
Ted: "And a good one, Lou."
Lou: "You're a newsman, Ted."
The point is this: We have all the reality TV we need. If we are looking for diversion, it is sports. If we are looking for information, it is news. I was standing behind a woman in line to buy coffee one day and she was asked if she wanted a flavored coffee. The woman answered, "Coffee is a flavor." Exactly.
The reality-show craze will end soon and our fragile attention span will move onto another media-created hype. But the games will remain. The best reality show of 2004? That's easy. The final round of the Masters. Why try to make up something more compelling than that? Quite simply, you can't. The most important reality show of 2004? Next Tuesday. Vote.
Ron Sirak is executive editor of Golf World magazine