So Elisabeth Smart has been found, and the various news outlets have switched into overdrive coverage. This is yet another case where I think the decision makers at Fox, MSNBC, CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, etc. really need to learn how to tone it down. This girl was abducted from her parents, forced to live the life of a drifter with her captor, experiencing things that no one should have to experience for months, only to finally be reunited with her family. One can only imagine the trauma she suffered. To place her on TV every minute of every hour is really irresponsible.

This morning, Matt Lauer of the Today Show interviewed Elisabeth’s father about the ordeal.

”Tell me sir,” Lauer said in his usually cooing, soothing interviewer voice, “how you felt when you told your wife that Elisabeth was found alive?”

At that moment, her poor father -- clearly exhausted from all the press conferences, interviews and the emotional strain of discovering that his daughter is really alive -- broke down into tears.

I could just picture Lauer smiling on the Today Show set, giving high fives to the crew. They clearly got the money shot.

There’s just something enormously pornographic about the way the media is handling this story. How they keep showing video of a dazed Elisabeth Smart standing in the middle of a Salt Lake City street, holding a silly bouquet of balloons that’s totally inappropriate for the situation, while people -- the identity of whom is unclear -- come up and hug her. She staggers through the scene, clutching her balloons, eyes filled with astonishment and confusion. She keeps turning from the camera, while the cameraman -- I’m unsure if this is digital video or BETA, but I’m assuming it’s BETA, so we’re talking a large, conspicuous camera and possibly a full crew -- moves to compensate. It is perhaps the most intrusive display by the press I’ve ever seen.

My question is -- why does the plight of this family have to be documented for our entertainment? Couldn’t they just tell us that the girl has been found, follow it up by a press conference with the local law enforcement officials? Why do we have to be the fly on the wall as the family reunites, as perfect strangers turn out to show their support for Elisabeth, getting on television and showing all who watch just how much they “care.”

The private pain of human beings should not be exploited by the press for the entertainment of the public. They can’t resist taking it that extra step -- going beyond simply reporting the story, to saturating the airwaves with it. Just as Iraq, September 11, and the 2000 Election all saw saturation coverage. 24-hour news, once a great idea, has turned into an excuse to manipulate the lives of real people into a fleeting entertainment for the rest of us. Reality TV, news, fiction -- what’s the difference? It’s all blurring into the same thing. With 24 hours to fill every day, the media needs content. The people in charge, however, don’t bother to consider the negative ramifications of filling that time -- of filling the “news hole” as they call it.

I ask my boss, a professional journalist, if he thinks this once honorable business can be saved? He doesn’t have an answer. I wish he did. In the rush for ratings, journalism has lost its legitimacy, has become a kind of voyeuristic fiction. And the public loses out because of it.