This, I sincerely hope, will be the first and last time I type "Anna Nicole Smith" in this space.
The untimely death of the busty model has been the biggest television news story of 2007. The 24-hour cable news channels went nuts over the messy aftermath of her demise.
But that kind of non-story is far from a new phenomenon. Every month or two, the cable news channels dig up another unfolding melodrama to obsess about, from a missing child to some bizarre murder case. In between, the "news" is saturated with the latest developments in the surreal lives of actors, singers and models.
This disturbing trend in television news really took off, I think, with the O.J. Simpson murder case. When television executives discovered that people were calling in sick from work to watch the Simpson trial, they saw a lucrative new revenue stream.
Hyping juicy sagas of this type certainly helps grow ratings and fill the coffers of television companies, but it's having a destructive effect on our democracy.
Real news -- that which has relevance to the quality of life and the fate of the republic -- is getting pushed farther and farther out of the mainstream discussion. When the Iraq war takes second billing to the childish antics of Paris Hilton, we're in deep trouble.
This point -- the deleterious effect of junk news on democracy -- is the focus of the first chapter of former Vice President Al Gore's new book, "The Assault on Reason." Gore persuasively argues that the "marketplace of ideas," which the Founding Fathers considered an essential element of a thriving democracy, is breaking down.
Sadly but accurately, Gore says television "dominates the flow of information in modern America," supplanting the printed word, which the Founders considered so vital that it was protected by the First Amendment. But while television networks once prided themselves on serious news coverage -- think Edward R. Murrow -- that, for the most part, is no longer true.
Instead, the networks and their cable offspring are dedicating more and more of their manpower and air time to junk news, which is cheaper to produce and more profitable than the hard work of real journalism. "The subjugation of news by entertainment seriously harms our democracy," Gore writes.
As a result, many people are losing the ability -- or desire -- to sift through the marketplace of ideas and decide that only the good ones rise to the top. According to Gore, "The mental muscles of democracy have begun to atrophy."
Be honest: Most of us have fallen victim to the wanton lure of junk news. Maybe you find yourself fascinated by the foibles of Britney Spears or the moronic logic of litigants on "Judge Judy." Or you have an unhealthy attraction to reality TV programs.
We're all susceptible. As a weekly newspaper columnist, I keep pretty close tabs on what's happening with local, state and national governance. But I'm also a sucker for "American Idol." I had "Good Morning America" on one day last week and found myself anticipating Diane Sawyer's upcoming interview with the stars of "Ocean's Thirteen." They had nothing important to say, of course, but like so many of us today, I've been programmed to think that if George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Don Cheadle and Matt Damon are brought together in front of a camera, something newsworthy is bound to happen.
The latest junk news trend cluttering our minds: freak show videos. Found primarily on the Internet, these are the videos of deformed animals, violent accidents and other oddities that, a hundred years ago, appealed to young boys attending traveling carnivals. I am frequently summoned by my wife or kids to the computer to view some strange snippet of video they came across. I always come.
But I plan to clean up my act. No more "Survivor." No more red carpet interviews. No more "Brangelina." All this junk is taking up hard drive space in my brain that could be better used to evaluate the candidates in the 2008 presidential election, to understand the complexities of the Middle East or to parse the chicanery in Carson City.
(Just to be clear: Artful entertainment is different. We all should allot time in our lives for well-written novels, thought-provoking movies and good music. We get into trouble when we take an unhealthy interest in the private affairs of the artists involved in these media creations.)
Please join me in boycotting junk news -- and junk media in general. When we devour the entertainment that television passes off as news and don't take time for the important deliberations in Washington, Carson City and Las Vegas, we are doing nothing less than contributing to the demise of this great country.
We can criticize the television networks for spewing all this nonsense, but we have only ourselves to blame for it. We are free not to watch.
Geoff Schumacher (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and, coming in October, "Politics, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue: The Las Vegas Years of Howard Hughes." His column appears Sunday.