What Happened to "Days of Awe"? Now we trot out the poor and needy as props for a Today Show feature

As we approach the Jewish High Holidays, a time of introspection and reflection on how well we are maintaining our relationships with God and with those around us, I am struck by how easily the entertainment divisions of our broadcast networks have lapsed into using the poor and needy as mere props to create a visually “exciting” feature segment.

This morning on the NBC Today Show, we had a segment about NBC and TimeWarner helping Habitat for Humanity build houses for people affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The segment came complete with a live on-site audience of people to act as a cheering section for the demonstration build of housing frames, and obligatory non-interviews by Ann Curry with young children, into whose mouths she was easily able to insert the stereotypical emotions of how excited they were to receive toys and gifts, and how wonderfully everyone was treating them.

We even had a Dixieland band on site to serenade the lucky soon-to-be-homeowners.

And of course, these unfortunate hurricane victims felt absolutely no pressure to participate in this shameless dog-and-pony show to demonstrate their gratitude for their benefactors from north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Have we become so jaded that we need to create entertainment value from the devastation and need being experienced in the affected areas?

It’s absolutely essential for us to dig deep to help these folks in their misery, but do we need to turn every act of kindness into a pat on the back for ourselves for doing what we’re supposed to do? The wise scholar Maimonides http://www.chabad.org/library/article.asp?AID=45907 speaks of eight levels of charity, each one more honorable than the others. The Today Show event today ignored Maimonides’ belief that the most honorable kinds of charity are when we give without expecting to get credit for the giving.

I know it’s hard for media organizations to do anything without telling people loudly that they did it, but what would have been the harm if NBC had just donated whatever it donated, and had decided not to do a segment with a band and an audience, and kids being manipulated into saying things to make NBC feel good about its donations?

What’s the harm for all of us if we give of ourselves without expecting to get credit?

And since it seems that it’s all about getting credit for ever larger and more “spectacular” donations, is it any wonder to my colleagues in the PR world why they can’t get the media interested in well-meaning but modest local donations to local charities?

Many (but thankfully not all) corporations are interested in “signature” donations to major national campaigns, but that effort to get recognition for the donation neglects needs much closer to home. In return for the flash and sizzle of being associated with Major League anything, or with celebrity CEOs, or glamorous galas that their senior executives can attend in tuxedo and gown, any kind of donations to local needs becomes expected, obligatory, and no longer newsworthy.

When was the last time you actually got the local media to cover a client’s check presentation to a local charity?

Thanks, NBC. Now we know that charity without strings attached will never be a news story again, since we can’t afford to fly in a network correspondent and arrange for a band.

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