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Womanizer: 20/20 Sleazes Things Up in the Name of 'News'

What were the producers of ABC's 20/20 thinking when they put the October 10 broadcast together?  Viewers were subjected to a tabloidesque juxtaposition:  about 28 minutes after they heard Christie Brinkley's adulterous ex-husband declare that he was a “great father” and a “great husband,” they were treated to Britney Spears's sex-saturated new music video, “Womanizer.”

That either of these “stories” was considered “news” raises questions about the professional qualifications of the producers of 20/20.

Barbara Walters's interview with Peter Cook, Brinkley's ex-husband, was nothing more than an opportunity for Cook to cast himself in a better light, courtesy of ABC “News.”   

BARBARA WALTERS: It was one of the ugliest celebrity divorces of the year. The court battle between former super model Christie Brinkley and Peter Cook made worldwide headlines. The trial last July exposed Peter Cook as a cheater and participant in live internet pornography. But as they say, there are two sides to every story. Tonight, Peter Cook wants to tell his side, he says, to set the record straight for his children. His reputation was shattered by the sordid details revealed in court, but he's never fought back in public, until now.

Since when do “news” programs provide platforms for divorced celebrities to “fight back?”

Walters included these lines in the introduction to her interview: “It was one of the most vicious showdowns.  The juicy, personal details were a dream come true for the tabloids.”

And also, apparently, for ABC News.

Walters asked questions like, “How often did you have sex, and where?” referring to the 18-year old with whom Cook had an affair.  When talking about his $3,000/month internet porn habit, Walters confronted him with, “You masturbated on a Web site.  You had a camera on you. You were masturbating for others to see.  That's where people say, 'well, okay, maybe I can accept the pornography, but Peter…'”

Cook responded, incredibly, “This was, quite simply, one-on-one interactive pornography.  This was not me broadcasting a show on a Web site, showing myself to the world.  Never my face, never my name.  If it happened, excuse the pun, a handful of times, that's it.”

After acknowledging he “failed as a human being,” Cook repeatedly defended himself, saying his marriage to Brinkley had become like a brother and sister relationship and he “wanted a little acknowledgement, a little attention, a little thank you every now and then for my efforts, for the amount of time I took to care for her and my family, for the wealth I was building.”  When “confronted” with the online porn issue he said he “did not have a pornography habit.  I just want someone to look at me and go, yeah, you're cool, you're okay, you're attractive, you're sexy.  I just, I was missing that in my relationship.”

Walters never once challenged Cook on any of his narcissistic opinions of what a marital  relationship should provide, or how he could call himself a “great” husband and father when he had deceived his family and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on his adultery. 

Walters, whose recently released autobiography reveals her own adulterous past, seemed intent on giving Cook support for his effort to create a clean slate.  She included interviews with the family's nanny, who described Cook in glowing terms as “an amazing dad,” and with Cook's current girlfriend, who told Walters that the biggest misconception about Peter Cook was that he was a pervert.

Again the question: “This is newsworthy, ABC?” 

Newsworthy perhaps not, but titillating certainly.  And 20/20 was all about titillating on October 10.  In addition to the questions about sex with a teenager and masturbation, the show teased its premiere of a sexy new Britney Spears music video four times before actually showing the video at the end of the program.   

The video, “Womanizer,” was described as “provocative” over images of a naked Spears lying on a bench in a steam room.  In the video Spears appears as several different characters besides the steam room siren, including a “homemaker” clad in black skimpy lingerie, a black-haired sexualized office professional, a maroon-haired, tattooed cocktail waitress, and a stiletto-wearing chauffeur.  The sexual imagery is nearly continuous, with Spears straddling and undressing men throughout the video.  The word “womanizer” is repeated approximately 38 times during the techno-pop song.

Helping Spears launch new records is nothing new for ABC.  Back in 2003 Diane Sawyer interviewed Spears as part of the marketing blitz for her new album “In the Zone.”  During that interview Spears alluded to the idea that she considered masturbation “sacred.”  While the world premiere of “Womanizer” on 20/20 didn't include an interview with Spears, it had been heavily promoted on the network and during Good Morning America last week.  Spears is set to appear on GMA in December to promote the release of her new album.  One can only hope the producers of that show will exercise good judgment on what songs they allow Miss Spears to perform for their family audience.  “Womanizer” should not be on the playlist.

But back to 20/20 and what the producers consider “news.”  Perhaps the best measure can be found in how precious broadcast minutes are allocated. On October 10 20/20 went tabloid.  The Peter Cook image makeover and the premiere of Britney Spears' highly provocative music video received more broadcast time than stories on uninformed voters and the role delinquent homeowners played in creating America's current financial mess.  

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.