by | Dec 10, 1995 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Tis the season when giving is in fashion. You see Santa Clauses ringing bells for needy causes. Food banks and clothing drives are in full gear. And in our multimedia world, even TV, print and radio are involved in “helping out.”

But lately I’ve been wondering how much is help and how much is self-promotion. I should say right here that I am a little cynical about this. In covering sports, I have seen some big-name athletes have their photos taken with sick children when the athletes had 1) no idea where they were, 2) no real concern for the kids, 3) appointments that they wanted to get to quickly. The “charitable acts” were just photo opportunities, set up by agents to enhance their clients’ images — along with their endorsement power.

And the media gobbled it up.

So you’ll pardon my skepticism. Personally, I believe in the axiom “the highest form of charity is that which is given anonymously.”

In today’s world, not much is anonymous.

So you pick your spots. Good and bad.

Take, for example, the news on WDIV-TV, Channel 4, in the segment it calls

“Ruth to the Rescue.” Ruth is Ruth Spencer, a quality TV journalist with 15 years’ experience. Her role for the last two years has been “consumer advocate reporter,” helping to uncover scams and dangerous products — based on calls and letters from viewers.

This is not a new concept. Newspapers, radio and TV stations have been doing it for a while. Spencer will go through hundreds of letters and select those “we feel would help the largest number of consumers.” It might be roofing scams, or how to ensure your car mechanic isn’t lying.

Usually, the Channel 4 investigations get some action. After all, if you were a sleazy company and saw a TV crew coming your way, you’d straighten up pretty fast. In most cases of “Ruth to the Rescue,” there is some good done, and there is a happy ending.

From the disturbing . . .

Of course, they wouldn’t be media if that happy ending weren’t part of the story. Last week, after Spencer and her staff helped a group of local school kids get tickets for an ice show, the kids sang a “thank you.”

Channel 4 filmed it and used it as a promo.

Was this self-serving? Yes. But it’s nothing any other TV station — or radio station or newspaper — wouldn’t do.

Sure, it would be better if the good deeds were done without fanfare. But these are media. At least Spencer’s segment is truly about helping people.

Now let’s go to the other end of the spectrum. Some of you might have heard a nighttime radio program in this market that claims to be a sort of sex-help talk show. If you listen for five minutes, you realize what that means is talking as dirty as possible under the guise of “clinical sexual advice.”

Last week I heard something distressing. A woman called in and began to talk about her “problem.” She was a home health care worker, who was taking care of a 33-year-old attractive woman who had suffered an accident and was paralyzed. This accident victim couldn’t feel anything.

The health care worker, who bathed her, was admitting on this radio show how she’d been fondling this woman, and eventually sexually molesting her, all

without the woman’s knowing, because she couldn’t feel or — at certain angles — see what the worker was doing.
. . . to the truly redeeming

Anyone listening would have been shocked. But you could almost hear the glee of the hosts. Instead of tracing the call and calling the police — people have gone to prison for far less than what this woman was describing
— the hosts continued to milk her for details. “Where do you touch her?”
“How do you touch her?” “What was her reaction?”

Only after 10 minutes of this did one of the hosts dispense some tepid
“advice,” saying: “Admit it, you’re abusing her, aren’t you?”

Yes. And the abuse runs both ways. These so-called “helpers” are really only in the business of using people’s sex problems to create a popular program. It is no different from the glut of TV talk, which claims to be
“examining issues” when it’s really just staging freak shows.

In hopes of high ratings, of course.

Like I said, you pick your spots. The media are about being rated, selling ads, copies, issues. It’s hard to find anyone in them offering help anonymously.

But just to show you the whole world hasn’t gone kaput, let me end with this news item: In Memphis, someone sent St. Jude Children’s Hospital an envelope with a McDonald’s Monopoly game piece inside. The piece read “Instant Winner.” It was worth $1 million.

The envelope had no return address.

That story, I think, was for cynics like me.

‘Tis the season.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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