News Anchor Arrested for DUI: To Cover (and If So, How Much), or to Not Cover? And How Much Schadenfreude is Being Expressed Over This Incident?
By Ken K. Gourdin
Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Kirby recently opined on the arrest of longtime KUTV News anchor Shauna Lake for DUI. See Mr. Kirby’s column here (this and all other links last accessed May 15, 2017): http://www.sltrib.com/news/5276519-155/kirby-news-anchor-shauna-lakes-dui.
Mr. Kirby opines that a good deal of schadenfreude (a German word meaning to take joy at the misfortune of another) is being expressed over this incident, but I’m not so sure. I haven’t read coverage of the incident from more than a couple of news outlets, and I haven’t read any commentary from viewers or readers in response to that coverage, so perhaps I’m not in the best position to know, but I haven’t noticed much (if any) of the schadenfreude to which he refers.
To the extent that people engage in schadenfreude (both generally and with respect to this incident), by contrast, I prefer to invoke the old axiom, “There, but for the grace of God, go I” (or anyone else, for that matter), and to remember Christ’s parable of the Pharisee and of the publican, in which the former said, “Lord, I thank thee that I am not as other men,” while the latter said, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” (see Luke 18:9-14 in The Holy Bible).
Mr. Kirby opines that even other news outlets, such as KUTV’s rival, KSL, and The Salt Lake Tribune’s rival, The Deseret News, have engaged in schadenfreude simply by their allegedly-more-extensive coverage of the incident, but I remain skeptical: I admit, I don’t pretend to know where the line between “just enough coverage” and “too much coverage” lies, nor do I pretend to know where the line between simply informing readers and viewers, on the one hand, and engaging in schadenfreude, on the other hand, lies.
With due respect to Mr. Kirby, however, it does seem as though he’s invoking a rather amorphous, imprecise, indistinct, overly-flexible standard that, “We’ve covered it just enough, while everyone else has covered it far too much.” However, “too much coverage” of such incidents as this appears to be defined the way former United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart defined obscenity: “I can’t define it,” he reportedly said, “but I know it when I see it.” Similarly, perhaps “too much coverage” (or “too little coverage,” for that matter) is a phenomenon which is easy to spot when other organizations do it, but not so easy to spot when one’s own organization does it. While I don’t necessarily think this is the case, it could be argued that the Tribune, as a content partner of KUTV, actually has undercovered this incident. While I don’t believe that the Tribune-KUTV arrangement, standing alone, automatically renders the Tribune’s coverage suspect, it is not as though the very notion itself is so absurd that all reasonable observers must dismiss it out of hand.
When it comes to print coverage, is this a front-page story? Yes, probably. When it comes to on-air coverage, is it deserving of more than a few seconds? Yes, probably. But when it comes to the former, does it deserve its own entire special section, “The Sudden Downfall of Shauna Lake: How Did She Get Here From There”? And when it comes to the latter, does it deserve an entire segment? No. All of that having been said, the answer to the question of “too much coverage” versus “not enough coverage” certainly isn’t as cut-and-dried as Mr. Kirby seems to think it is. Certainly, it’s more debatable than he seems to think it is. Perhaps his acknowledged friendship with Ms. Lake is clouding his judgment on that score just a bit.
But even granting Mr. Kirby’s implicit assertions that such a thing as “too much coverage” exists and that coverage of this incident is evidence of that, might it also be said that there’s such a thing as too little coverage? Yes. Even KUTV understands that, as Ms. Lake’s colleague Mark Koelbel’s emotional on-air acknowledgement of and forthright explanation for her absence attests. To KUTV’s credit, it didn’t simply enlist the help of a fill-in anchor who acknowledged Ms. Lake’s absence with a blithe, glib, “I’m John Smith in for Shauna tonight, who is taking a few well-deserved days off.” Conversely, attempting to ignore or to downplay Ms. Lake’s misstep would carry with it a strong whiff of “special rules for special people.”
Like it or not, Shauna Lake is a public figure, and as a public figure, an instance of DUI in which she is implicated is far different than the average DUI (which, if no accident occurs, is extremely likely to escape mention on the average newscast). Even Mr. Kirby, a former law enforcement officer who arrested his share of people for that same crime, acknowledges as much. Journalistic detachment notwithstanding, I find it hard to believe that Ms. Lake is indifferent to the many DUIs on which she has reported, as well as to their (potential) consequences.
While the journalist is a special animal such that what I’m about to say does not necessarily apply to her (due to the necessity to maintain at least the appearance of objectivity), I have commented on the blog before about how many public figures (such as actors and athletes) seem to want to have their cake and to eat it, too, by being allowed to court publicity when it suits their purposes, while shunning it when it does not. Some of them want to be allowed to use the bully pulpit which their fame accords them to espouse certain points of view without having those views challenged or examined in the light of any contrary evidence.
While everyone is entitled to an opinion, and is entitled to seek out as much publicity as one can so that her opinion will be widely disseminated, too many people seem too willing to take the word of someone who is well known (about anything) as gospel, simply because she is well known. That ain’t the way it’s supposed to work. While everyone deserves a booth in the marketplace of ideas, one’s fame, standing alone, should have no bearing on how well-patronized one’s booth in that marketplace is. The same criteria that apply to the non-famous, such as how well expressed one’s ideas are, how much evidence she marshals for them, and so on, should take precedence.
As I said earlier, perhaps none of this applies to Ms. Lake because she is a journalist, and, as such, must maintain some semblance of objectivity. Would I counsel anyone who sought my opinion on the matter to withhold trust from Ms. Lake permanently because of this one very public misstep? Not necessarily. I do believe in redemption, but here’s the thing: As much as I believe in redemption, and as much as I might think someone deserves a second chance, ultimately, whether Ms. Lake eventually regains their trust or not is up to each one of her viewers individually.
I don’t pretend to know how she should handle this, and I know only enough about journalism and about public relations to be dangerous. That said, if I were she, I would spend at least a minute or two in front of a camera during her first newscast upon her return clearing the air. I would acknowledge the wrongfulness of my actions, would apologize to the viewers whose trust she has spent nearly the last quarter-century earning, and would commit to working very hard to return to the stature she held before this incident.
On the whole, the public tends to be very forgiving. But it also knows, instinctively and in an instant, that “crap don’t smell like roses.” Going forward, Ms. Lake would do well to remember that. And if she needs help conquering any addiction demons she may have, perhaps much good can come from this incident by facilitating her conquest. (Alema Harrington, a well-known local on-air sports personality, certainly knows more than a thing or two about that.)