FLINT - I made the mistake of listening to CNN after the horrific Navy Yard shootings last week because, silly me, I wanted to know what was going on and CNN is the only 24 hour broadcast news operation other than Al Jazeera, which is basically CNN without Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer.
As usual, I regret it.
When I tuned in, the first thing I heard Blitzer ask a high-ranking Navy official was a question that amounted to this: "So walk us through how you'll go about telling people that their loved ones were killed."
Yes, he really asked that. Out loud. That's Wolf's problem. We all think stupid, offensive things from time to time. But we have the good sense to keep them in our heads where they belong. Wolf lets them out, where they are free to roam and do damage.
In school, I was always told, "There's no such thing as a stupid question." As a journalist, I was told that, too. Wolf proves that's not true. There ARE stupid questions. And questions that go too far. And questions that shouldn't ever be asked, even by a journalist, unless Congress passes a law making it legal - nay, a moral obligation - to break the asker's nose in response, in which case I'd be all in favor of questions like Blitzer's.
I mean, come on, Wolf, do you want to go along and get footage of the scene when a naval officer in full dress uniform shows up on someone's doorstep like an angel of death and delivers the bad news? Do you - does anyone - need to see the tears roll down the cheeks, the knees buckle, the looked of shock and disbelief? Is that what you want?
Sadly, the answer in Wolf's case would probably be yes. Some kind of leash has been slipped in journalism since the dawn of the 24-hour news cycle. Journalists like Blitzer will do anything to fill the gaping maw of time they are required to fill. That includes asking questions that should never be asked and intruding where one should never intrude.
It also includes gobs and gobs of meaningless, irritating and sometimes damaging speculation.
All of the networks do it, of course, but CNN is the king, as noted by The Daily Show's Jon Stewart when he lampooned the network's coverage of the Navy Yard shooting, which included anchors and reporters breathlessly describing the movements of emergency vehicles and personnel.
"Those aren't interesting developments. You're just standing in front of a camera naming (stuff) you see," Stewart said. "It's like walking down the street with a 5-year-old: 'Police car! Fire hydrant!'"
Stewart also nailed my man Wolf for asking a source whether there were any conclusions to be drawn from the fact that the shooter was wearing black clothing.
People watching probably answered, "Yeah, we can conclude that he's into urban chic and that you're a moron, Wolf."
But Stewart's answer was even tarter than that: "What does a black top and black pants say about possible motive? I don't know, why don't you ask your best colleague?"
He then cut to a shot of CNN's Anderson Cooper wearing all black.
That was damned funny whether you understand - or care - what Blitzer's brand of journalism is doing to the industry or not. It's less funny when you realize that CNN and the others are slowly skewing the traditional definition of news from "what has happened" to "what might happen."
Why does that matter? Well, in my view, here's why:
1) People already distrust the media. Dumb, intrusive reporting and nonstop speculation, which by definition is usually wrong, only makes it worse.
2) Distrust leads to disgust, and disgust leads to media drop-outs.
3) When they become media drop-outs, they become less informed about their communities, their state and their nation.
4) When they're uninformed, they stop caring. And when they stop caring, this country is screwed.
That's just speculation, though.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Andy Heller, an award-winning columnist, appears weekly in the Daily Press. He graduated from Escanaba Area High School in 1979. Write to Andrew Heller at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.