Return of the Sob Story

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

I’m getting nervous.

As someone who lives on the Gulf of Mexico, I sympathize with those
who have lost homes and livelihoods to Katrina and Rita. I feel their
pain. I really do. If either hurricane had made a right turn, it could
have hit me, my house, my dog, my family. As a moral duty, I’ve given
to the Red Cross. I’m outraged by the seeming incompetence of
government leadership at every level. And I’m proud of the reporters
who showed both moral and physical courage to broadcast across the
nation and the world the horrific consequences of natural disaster.

But I’m still nervous.

Why am I nervous? Because, as is my habit, I’ve been watching the NBC Today Show
this week. As volunteers from Habitat for Humanity construct house
frames for hurricane victims, Katie Couric and Matt Lauer have
introduced us to a series of hurricane survivors. Each day we meet a
family who has lost a home. Each day we experience the family’s
personal story. Each day we cry with them and for them. And then each
day we share their “surprise” when they reunite with family members,
when they are hugged by celebrities, when they reach out their hands to
donors, when – now my eyes are welling with tears – they receive gifts
to replaces the things they lost – including backpacks for the kids –
and a new house!

Wait a minute. Am I watching NBC or ABC? Is it morning or evening? Is this the Today Show or Extreme Makeover – Home Edition?
Or have I been caught in a time warp and transported back to the 1950s?
That’s it! It’s 1958, I am ten years old, and I’m watching Queen for a Day.


Queen for a Day, hosted by former carnival barker Jack
Bailey, ran as an enormously popular radio program after World War II,
which then grew into early television’s archetypal “sob show.” Here’s
how it worked: Women in the studio audience were interviewed about
their problems and needs. With slicked back hair and a pencil-thin
mustache, the oily Bailey interviewed four finalists. An audience
Applause Meter determined who would become Queen For A Day, the winner
robed and crowned, and then given a washing machine or some other
appliance.

This marvelous personal history
of the show points out that the winners were never chosen if they
needed money for medical help or a trip to be united with a love one.
They only made the cut if their needs could be satisfied by an
appliance, in particular, one manufactured by the show’s sponsor.

To this day, the sob story works like this: You find a needy person
or family, you tell their story in a way that wrings the emotion out of
it, you make sure the protagonists cry on camera, you promote
yourselves by helping them, and you provide lots of plugs for the
sponsors providing the goods and services.

These shows convert pathos into bathos, a strategy to lure a female audience.

Sentimentality is to women, what pornography is to men. Just as porn
is designed to arouse a physical response in men, so the sob story is
designed to create an emotional catharsis for women. TV Guide once exposed the manipulation by designating Queen for a Day the “No. 1 mesmerizer of middle-aged females and most relentless dispenser of free washing machines.”

No doubt, we feel vicarious satisfaction when we see “our” social capital, “our” money and sweat directed to specific families in need.Perhaps because the contemporary
versions of these sob shows are geared toward women – and I am such a muy macho man – they don’t appeal to me. Some of them have huge appeal and many apologists. The makeover shows, Oprah, Dr. Phil, the new NBC show Three Wishes
combine charity and wish fulfillment in a cloying but compelling
combination. No doubt, we feel vicarious satisfaction when we see “our”
social capital, “our” money and sweat directed to specific families in
need. So I’m not nervous about the quality or values of these shows.

I’m nervous about the news. Katie Couric looks a little nervous too.
One day this week, as she was giving away the store to a needy family,
she giggled and said “I feel like Oprah.” She knows, and we all know,
that from the earliest days of television the standards of responsible
news reporting have been in tension with the entertainment values of
the television medium.

In 1976, here’s what Dick Salant wrote in the preface to an internal document, CBS News Standards:
“One [of my convictions] is the overriding importance peculiar to our
form of journalism of drawing the sharpest possible line – sharp
perhaps to the point of eccentricity – between our line of broadcast
business, which is dealing with fact, and that in which our associates
on the entertainment side of the business are generally engaged, which
is dealing in fiction and drama….It is particularly important that we
recognize that we are not in show business and should not use any of
the dramatic licenses, the ‘fiction-which-represents-truth’ rationales,
or the underscoring and the punctuations which entertainment and
fiction may, and do, properly use. This may make us a little less
interesting to some – but that is the price we pay for dealing with
fact and truth, which may often be duller – and with more loose ends –
than fiction and drama.”

From the vantage point of contemporary news practice, Salant looks
like a relic, a Catholic who still goes to confession every Saturday.

I do not deny that one of the unwritten responsibilities of the news
business is, to adapt the lyrics of a song, to lift us up when we are
down. No society can tolerate too much bad news, whether it be about
war, fire, earthquake, tsunami, or hurricane. We need to rescue a few
dogs and dolphins. And we probably need to see a few families, who have
shed tears of pain, now shed tears of joy.

Our culture also benefits when the news media endorses the ideal of
America as a generous society. Most descriptions of this generosity are
little more than political sloganeering — charity as a cover for tax
cuts for the rich. How much better to record the percussion of hammers
in the hands of volunteers for Habitat for Humanity.

But here’s the catch: these stories of good will toward men and
women must be authentic. When they come out wrapped in self-promotion;
when they seem connected to building audience; when they look like an
imitation of the day’s latest sob entertainment; when Katie Couric
begins to look like Oprah; when news gets confused with Queen for a
Day; then hope turns to skepticism and sours into cynicism.

The country, and the folks who are trying to recover deserve better.

In
the original version of this article, I wrote that the Today Show does
not belong to the news division of NBC. I was wrong. Lauren Kapp of the
Today Show informs us that the show does, indeed, belong to the news
division and always has.

All the more reason for concern. With the revival of the sob
story, I hope that news leaders will revisit Dick Salant’s conviction
that a thick line should exist between television news and television
entertainment. Actually, I fear that that may be too much to ask. How
about a thin line? How about any line?

CORRECTION: The original version of this article
reported incorrectly that the Today Show is not part of the news
division of NBC. In fact, it is part of the news division.

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