It was a true Network moment — as in the 1976 Oscar-winning film Network, which predicted the insanity ensuing from television-entertainment executives taking over the news operations.
No format seems to fuzz the distinction between news and entertainment more than the prime-time newsmagazine genre pioneered by CBS’ “60 Minutes” but now copied in endless ways across the broadcast dial. In the case in question, the offending program was ABC's “20/20,” the original “60 Minutes” copycat.
The topic April 30 was one that particularly caught my attention: open adoption. All four of my children are adopted through Catholic diocesan adoption agencies. We have three open adoptions with continuing contact and visits with the birth mothers. The fourth adoption (actually the first chronologically) is semi-open, with an occasional exchange of letters and photographs.
Barbara Walters and her crew undertook a noble endeavor: show the story of an open adoption from the birth mother's pregnancy through her agonizing (and deeply loving) choice to the adoption and its aftermath.
Open adoption is worth knowing about. At first blush, people think of the horror stories of the botched adoptions that made headlines a decade ago. Remember the prolonged and vicious court battles over Baby Jessica and Baby Richard? If an adoption is open, won't the birthparents come running back to reclaim their offspring?
No. Open adoption assures all parties are fully informed of what is going on. In the Baby Jessica and Baby Richard cases, birthparents were able to challenge the adoptions because rights were violated and information withheld. Moreover, open adoption assures birthparents of ongoing information that they made the right choice by giving a child a loving, two-parent family. It is not the only adoption option, but in our experience it is a good one.
I have been involved in four successful adoptions and two that failed. In both failures, the essential problem was that a close blood relation of the baby had not been informed of the pending adoption. When they received the shocking news and took action, everything fell apart.
In every case, the stakes are extremely high. With the options promoted in today's culture, birth-parents who choose adoption make an especially heroic, self-sacrificial act of love. There must be a special place in heaven for these birthparents. They give unique meaning to Christ's words, “Greater love has no man than this, that he give his life for a friend.”
So it was a shocker when ABC began promoting its open-adoption report as “the ultimate reality show,” in the words of 20/20 co-host John Stossel. That pitch would be repeated often in network promos for the report — until objections reached a fever pitch.
Barbara Walters herself is an adoptive mother.
Likening the heart-rending choices of a teen-age birth mother to the contrived shenanigans on “The Apprentice,” “Survivor” or “American Idol” is to reduce a profound covenantal commitment to game-show status. As Stossel is known to say, “Give me a break!”
To her credit, Walters publicly apologized for the “overly zealous” promotion of the segment. Walters herself is an adoptive mother.
The game-show aspect focused on the five couples a pregnant 16-year-old, Jessica Bohne, was considering as prospective adoptive parents. The hour-long program quoted prospective birthparents on-camera saying they felt the competitive need to “make the cut,” even “joking about the fact that it's like ‘The Bachelor,’ ‘The Bachelorette.’ You're in or you're out tonight.”
Well, now. If the prospective parents themselves compare the process to “reality TV,” what's the harm in the network promoting it as such?
Please note that the parent was talking about a joke; the network turned that joke into its dead-serious promotional campaign.
Television, as Marshall McLuhan and others have noted, is an essentially emotional medium. It can explore lives and issues with an immediacy of feeling the written word can rarely match.
But such emotions can be subject to abuse. During my days as a TV news anchor, I was instructed to “pump up the emotion” of stories to “hook” the audience. There are words for that: exploitation, sensationalism.
In the end, Walters’ report was a dignified story of a deeply moving reality, one that reaches to the very heart of the God-given institution on which society is founded.
Isn't that enough reason to promote a serious news report? Must we degrade and trivialize such a sacred choice by equating it with silly game shows?
Jay Dunlap writes from Hamden, Connecticut.