NPR Listeners Get a Sour Taste from the Media’s Obsession with Mel Gibson

From July 12-17 media coverage of Mel Gibson eclipsed both the Iraq and Afghan wars, fell to the Gulf oil spill.

by Matthew L. Schafer

Fresh off of its name change, NPR is finding itself in hot water with its listeners, prompting questions about NPR’s identity in the 21st century.  It all began with a segment about the Mel Gibson tapes on All Things Considered.  Listeners were not happy about the concentration on the celebrity gossip, causing NPR ombudsperson Alicia Shepard to ask an interesting question: Is Mel Gibson Newsworthy of NPR?

Readers complaining about coverage of the Gibson tapes, which allegedly feature Gibson using racial epithets and threatening violence against his former girlfriend, argued that the “All” in “All Things Considered” should not include celebrity gossip.  In all fairness to NPR, their coverage of Gibson ran for just 4 minutes and 31 seconds, which amounts to .6% of the All Things Considered’s total weekly airtime.  All Things Considered, the flagship program of NPR, runs for 135 minutes each day during the week and for 50 minutes on each weekend day. Despite the small amount of time devoted by the program, listeners were livid.

“I urge you to think twice or however many rethinks it takes before devoting time to any story that requires you to say ‘alleged’ multiple times in the opening minutes,” one listener from Kentucky said.

“I listened to the original broadcast and [host] Norris’s reaction the next day,” one listener posted to a comment board on NPR’s online recording of the segment.  “But I’m not sure [Norris] gets how much credibility this costs NPR. This isn’t about Mel Gibson but the gossip-mongering mob-think.”

NPR’s ombudsperson sided with the viewers in this case.  While she acknowledged the difficulty in balancing “serious news stories” and a trending popular story, Shepard argued that in general, public radio patrons “do not turn their dials to public radio for the kind of gossip featured at the grocery store check-out counter.”  Additionally, since some readers pointed out correctly that the tapes have not been authenticated, she argued that NPR should not have played the tapes.

In search of an answer from NPR, Shepard sought out the show’s executive producer, Christopher Turpin.  Turpin argued that the topic is relevant, because it raises several interesting business related questions and that the tapes were used because “no one… has suggested that it’s not his voice on the tapes.”

“The Mel Gibson story is totally defensible,” Turpin said. “To me Mel Gibson is a huge international star.  It’s a story that everyone is talking about… So I don’t think we can pretend these things don’t happen.”

Gibson leads both wars, but falls to the oil spill, which had more than 3000 stories (graph does not represent stories beyond 3000).

While the sour taste is likely to linger in many NPR listeners’ mouths, mainstream media consumers are having to navigate a much more treacherous jungle of Gibson coverage.  While it’s necessary to wait for our friends at the Project for Excellence in Journalism to release an official tally on the amount of coverage Gibson has garnered, with the help of news database LexisNexis, which sifts through 3,500 English language publications, a simple search shows that from July 12-17, Gibson beat out both the Iraq and Afghan Wars in total coverage.  About 1050 stories in the six-day period mentioned Gibson, while only around 700 mentioned the Iraq War and 700 mentioned the Afghan War.  Gibson coverage did, however, succumb to the Gulf Oil Spill, which was mentioned in over 3000 stories.

The coverage and interest have grown to such a degree that it is unclear which is driving which. Whether coverage is driving interest or interest is driving coverage, both persist to some degree. Looking from an anecdotal perspective, over 3,000 people have commented on one Huffinton Post article about Gibson, while a front page Huffington Post article about U.S. unemployment had just a third of that. The Gibson saga even landed on Friday’s New York Times editorial page.  It is necessary, however, to acknowledge a recent Rasmussen poll that reports that only 1% of Americans would like more celebrity coverage, and 87% think the media focuses on celebrities too much.

It seems that for better or worse, Gibson is grabbing the coverage of all types of mainstream media outlets (not to mention the 500 blog posts about the incident).  With oil spewing and civilians and soldiers dying, maybe the question shouldn’t be “Is Mel Gibson Newsworthy of NPR?” but rather “Is Mel Gibson Newsworthy of Any of Us?”

Note: Lead picture is comprised of photos from Flickr/U.S. Army and Flickr/IBBRC.

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About Matthew L. Schafer

Matthew L. Schafer graduated from the University of Illinois in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Studies. He later attended Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication where he earned a Masters of Mass Communication and Georgetown University Law Center where he earned his J.D.
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