Once a television journalist or any popular personality achieves fame, the price of their celebrity zooms upward, and it can be especially costly to them or their medium once a scandal tarnishes both their name and the station’s reputation. Over the past year, news anchors, among others, have fallen from grace in a variety of circumstances ranging from extramarital affairs to episodes of public intoxication. On these occasions his or her station is thrust into the awkward position of discovering how to properly acknowledge the offense and deal appropriately with the offender. How one TV newsroom in Texas handled its anchor’s brush with a form of infamy is both instructive and concerning.
Jane McGarry was a friendly and familiar face reporting Dallas-Fort Worth television news for 30 years over NBC-affiliated KXAS, and might have celebrated her 57th birthday at the local anchor desk had her name not showed up where she would not want to see it—on a Dallas arrest record or "police blotter." While driving her Porsche on the Dallas North Tollway early one Sunday morning in May, she was pulled over for failure to signal a turn. Officers then found cause for additional concern. McGarry, police said, took three sobriety tests including the "one-leg stand," "walk-and-turn," and "alphabet," and did not fare well. She was booked for Driving While Intoxicated ("DWI"), made bail, and was released around 6:45 a.m. What happened next, in terms of the local news media’s response, is revealing for both legal and ethical reasons.
ABC and CBS television network affiliates in the market made only brief mention of her arrest Sunday night; the Fox affiliate opted to ignore the arrest, as did McGarry’s station—the NBC affiliate—at first. But McGarry was suspended from on-air appearances. On the following night's newscast, more than a day after the story broke, NBC5 confirmed their anchor's arrest. The tone of the station's report was sober, offering no signs of disapproval, only the promise of an investigation. "McGarry will remain off the air as the company looks into the matter," reported the TV station Web site. "NBC5 management says it will make no further comments at this time."1 Facebook pictures of her with news icons like U. S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Roger Staubach suddenly were replaced on her page with domestic scenes of McGarry's home or of her outdoors with a horse.
After eight weeks of controversy and numerous comments online, McGarry's fate was sealed. She pleaded no contest to driving while intoxicated on July 10, 2012, and resigned the anchor post she had held in Dallas-Fort Worth television. She wrote on her Facebook page, "I apologize for my irresponsible behavior and am grateful that the police did their job and no one was hurt…I am deeply sorry for making such a terrible mistake and pledge it will never happen again." KXAS-TV's Tom Ehlman, NBC5 president and general manager provided the benediction: "We support Jane’s decision and truly thank her for her many contributions to NBC5 throughout her long and distinguished career."2 As noted, there are legal and ethical sides to this moral tale that prompt this scrutiny.
Local television anchors often sign contracts that include morality clauses giving their management great leeway in determining the level of punishment when such incidents occur. According to one news consultant who asked to remain anonymous, the legal language of a typical morals clause requires that the broadcast journalist promise to "act at all times with due regard to public morals and conventions," and accept immediate termination if at any time they "commit any act, which shall be an offense involving moral turpitude or which might tend to bring the station into public disrepute, contempt, scandal or ridicule." Such agreements may also include confidentiality terms, so it is often impossible to say when a morals clause actually comes into play. What can be easily discerned is the coverage following such TV scandals.
The subsequent night's newscast on KXAS-TV mentioned the anchor's arrest for DWI, but did so only after rival stations had taken notice. The ABC affiliate, WFAA-TV, briefly reported the story Sunday evening, and it appeared online in the Dallas Morning News newspaper before KXAS-TV released its report. McGarry's station used no visuals to complement the brief report, no unflattering mug shot, no spectacular graphics or illustrations, no reporter pointing to the pavement where police brought the anchor's car to a halt, or the front door of the location where she had been drinking. The tone of its report, as one observer noted, "was not the usual indignant disapproval of drunk driving, but much more somber, like someone great had died."3
This approach stood in stark contrast to the story that preceded it on NBC5, an assault report regarding a divorce case that put Dallas Cowboys veteran Deion Sanders and his wife in the middle of the newscast—complete with graphics, file footage, and a sensational delivery. Television news unquestionably has opted to arouse the public's prurient interest in celebrities, but appealing to schadenfreude in covering their reputational or other misfortunes is a more troubling development. (Two German words, "schaden" describing harm or damage and "freude" meaning joy, when combined denote the sort of ill pleasure that is extracted from someone else's pain.) National television editors often seem to embrace programming of this sort. Witness Broadcasting & Cable magazine's approval of the videotaped trauma that befell former NFL star Chad Johnson one week, "the player formerly known as Ochocinco (perhaps now, Ochosinko), had a really bad week. He was arrested. Then he was fired by the Miami Dolphins. Then he was fired by VH1. Then he was fired by his wife…. Chad' firing made for great television [emphasis added] with it being captured by HBO cameras that just happened to be featuring the South Florida gridiron side in this year' installment of Hard Knocks." So is that the sort of coverage that should be branded as "reat television"
The Broadcasting & Cable editorial was published beneath the bold headline, "Let the Games Begin,"calling to mind Lord Byron's "Roman holiday" in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. In verse, Byron conveyed a dying gladiator's resignation to be "butcher’d to make a Roman holiday."5 German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer warned that schadenfreude brings us to our lowest estate, "it is Schadenfreude, a mischievous delight in the misfortunes of others, which remains the worst trait in human nature. It is a feeling which is closely akin to cruelty, and differs from it, to say the truth, only as theory from practice,"6 Schopenhauer's response to reality television is subject only to conjecture, but the trend toward packaging video schadenfreude—courtesy of celebrities mired in personal circumstances—could not hardly pass any test of moral virtue.
The Texas Center for Legal Ethics concluded DWI defendants and divorcing football stars should be given the same consideration in the eyes of the news media, regardless of whether they be celebrities or reporters/anchors. The McGarry episode shows how humane respect for a friend or colleague remarkably differs from the typical celebrity scandal coverage. But if the sort of journalistic humanity accorded to McGarry would be extended to all misfortune's victims, even those subject to their own foibles, then the market value of schadenfreude might be diminished, and the public respect for journalists would rise as a result.
1. Bark, Ed (2012, 6 May). "Veteran NBC5 anchor Jane McGarry free on bond after arrest for DWI." Unclebarky.com. Retrieved at http://www.unclebarky.com/dfw_files/e7c012118974d8fb595a4cc7f4b73813-2393.html.
2. Knox, Merrill (2012, 10 July). "Longtime Anchor Jane McGarry Resigns from KXAS after Pleading No Contest to DUI." Media Bistro TV Spy. Retrieved at http://www.mediabistro.com/tvspy/longtime-anchor-jane-mcgarry-resigns-from-kxas-after-pleading-guity-to-dui_b54205.
3. On the Merit Editor (2012, 10 May). "Anchor's Away: DUI Case Reveals Media Coverage Bias." Texas Center for Legal Ethics. Retrieved at http://www.legalethicstexas.com/On-The-Merits/May-2012/Anchor's-Away---DUI-Case-Reveals-Media-Coverage-Bi.aspx
4. (Editorial) (2012, 20 August). "Let the Games Begin." Broadcasting & Cable, p. 26.
5. Byron, George Gordon (1831). CXLI, #1265. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Edited by. S. C. Chew. New York, NY: The Odyssey Press, 1936, p.187.
6. Schopenhauer, A. (1851). Essays and Aphorisms, Selected and Translated by R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Penguin Group, 1970. p. 139.