Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Farewell, Television News

This is a "Dear John" letter to an old flame of mine: television news.

For the last eight years I’ve gone without having a television or cable hook-up more often than I’ve had it. My wife recently talked me into getting basic cable again, so that she can watch her nature documentaries, which she had grown attached to during our last stint being "plugged in".

Before I got married, I would only watch tv news programming. I would watch a lot of it, a habit picked up from my father. This will be embarrassing to admit today, but I was delighted when I was finally able to watch CNN, back in the late 80’s. 24-hour news..!!! What an innocent thrill that was, to a news junkie.

Then life interfered. To save money we decided to not bother to plug in to television when my wife and I got married. As our fortunes have risen and fallen, and we’ve moved and moved again, so too have we plugged in and out of television’s window to the world. Now we’re plugged in once more.

Bowing to my curiosity, I’ve been checking the odd news show once again. Big mistake, as far as I’m now concerned. I’ve gone from a habit of being a tv news junkie, to choosing to never watch a single program. Frankly: what’s the point?

TV news today reminds me of a newspaper that carried only horoscopes, movie reviews and editorial cartoons.

So many of the headline stories are about polls. That new poll says this, this new poll reports that. Why is this called news?? It might be "fun" to review a poll’s results, but beyond that why would such things have any more practicality than an average horoscope. Polls are to news what astrology is to journalism, as far as I can tell. Am I missing something?

Next pet peeve of mine are the panel discussions. How are these supposed to inform us? An event happens, and the panel is convened to opine on "what this means". Not so much to talk about what happened, but to prophetize what shadow it will cast into the future. Back to astrology again.

There’s also an overwhelming (and unhealthy, I think) pre-occupation with reviewing events as if it were all a staged play. A politician gives an answer to a question at a press conference, and the panel analyzes the theatrical performance with as exacting an eye as any drama critic. Why not show more of the press conference, so that we can see for ourselves what the speaker said? It’s like showing a movie review instead of letting the audience actually see the movie. If time is limited, shouldn’t the details of the actual story take precedence over what the employees of the media company reporting on it may feel about it..??

This ties into my final point of dissatisfaction with tv news: they talk about things, rather than providing information on what it is that they are talking about. It reminds me of an editorial cartoon: you’re supposed to already know the story, so that you can put the cartoonist’s commentary into a context whereby their point adds to your understanding of the story. But first must come the actual story!!
As one of the commercials that interupted my old tv news shows used to say: "Where’s the Beef?"

Now I understand why so much political discussion nowadays is not much more elevated than "Bush is a warmonger!" "No he’s not" "Yes he is!!".

I remember, in the dim light of my youth, that our local news broadcasts used to have segments called "background". The news reader would read a report, for instance, Canadian troops being sent to Cyprus, then announce, "And now for some background on this story we turn to [some guy in a suit]. So why are we needed in Cyprus?" And we would be given a capsule history of Greek and Turkish conflict in Cyprus.

Now, who knows how biased or incomplete or inaccurate the resulting explanations would be… at least there was a pretense at providing a factual, rather than emotional, context for the headline, an intellectual foundation for the points of view later to be expressed in the panel discussions that made the most difference: at the dinner table at home, the water cooler at work or the playground at school.

These days it seems that the tv media have switched jobs with its viewers: now we do the fact-finding, they do the panel discussions.

I’ll tune in for live interviews, where I get to decide for myself what it is that I’m looking at.

Otherwise: it’s a –30– for me, as far as tv news is concerned.


truepeers said...

What`s a ``30``? Your link goes Wikivoid, Charles.

The problem, I'd argue, is not that the tv news wants to fill us up with opinions. Sure we need the core news too, but it's also important to represent the fact that a free society depends on a free market in opinions, and to show something of it. The problem is that MSM does not take sufficiently seriously the free market in opinion. It does not raise its game to a higher level. It remains decidedly "mainstream", eliminating all kinds of opinions from sight, manufacturing an elitist consensus about what is respectably "left" and "right" and what too extreme to be given airtime. It pits "left" and "right" in predictable debates between the two that have to rely more and more on theatrics and ad hominem the more they become predictable in their MSM content. This is the problem with trying to be "fair" and "balanced" - we get an elitist consensus on what the two sides are that should be represented and all else is banished to the internet where, hence, the real innovations in the opinion market are developing.

Charles Henry said...

Whoops, thanks, fixed the link..

"-30-" is the traditional signal that a reporter's story has ended. When the reports would be relayed from one point to the next, clarity was challenging, so this was the accepted sign that the chronicle had indeed ended, and not that the ending was cut off.

(Old journalists also used to relay their copy by saying things like, "Suspect was not, repeat not, found guilty", because sure as shooting somebody would make a mistake in the transmission of these stories, resulting in some embarrassing errors)

I agree with your point about the extent of what is involved in approaching being "fair and balanced". These debates used to be with three participants... the two on tv, and us, the informed viewer, who might usually be found somewhere in-between the talking heads on tv. Now... there are only two narrowly restricted sides, and the viewers are likely to already be on one or the other, rooting for "their guy".

Blogs are in danger of falling into cable tv's ideological trap: increasingly there are places where comments or posts can only express a narrow range of pre-packeged thinking, otherwise people are BANNED BANNED BANNED.

Walker across Worlds said...

Perhaps this is just an addition to what has already been said, but MSM seems to have polarized itself between the left and right, politically.

There is very little objective reporting, and indeed, most breaking news releases seem to be released online nowadays anyways.

Blogs also fall dangerously close to polorization sometimes, with the political left and right drifting slowly apart, with ample amounts of porn blogs in the middle.

Still, blogs really do eliminate the middleman. Everyone has a voice. A scary thought, especially to those who don't appreciate the free market, and objective truth.

Eowyn said...

I'll go further.

What passes as "news" is not only not news, but something more sinister.

I spent many years in service of "journalism." That is, sharing informtion. Over time, I was intimidated -- or made to feel such -- to massage information.

"News" must be what it always is. That is, information. It either passes the test of correct, and verifiable, or it doesn't. All else must be suspect.

We are witnessing the massaging of news -- vis-a-vis the social massaging of reality.

Stay vigilant.

Dag said...

-30- is printers' shorthand for the end of the story. I don't know why they chose that. I think people in p.r use -60- to designate that copy is finished, leading me to believe p.r. is twice as done as standard journalism.

I committed career suicide in the late 70s when I too was a journalist. My wife was in tears. Hard call.

Tossing the t.v? That's easy. Keeping up with 'Peers' points in the comments section? Oh man, that's tough.

Rob Misek said...

My two cents.

Since when did playing devils advocate become the mission of journalism?

The true measure of courage and sincerity in life is to stand up in argument for what you believe in.

To argue and create false appearances and then be indifferent to the outcome represents the cowardice and hypocrisy of political correctness. It serves no good.

In reality the mission of mainstream media is not journalism. It's to turn a profit.

The problem is one of time. As I've said before, the key to finding a truthful answer is identifying the question.

Truth has time on its side.

In the current television news industry, where time is money, there isn't enough time (or desire)to find the truth and expose lies in argument.

The news guest speakers are typically passionate and well versed in their special interest subject matter. When the media host plays the devils advocate, he is poorly informed or doesn't really believe in an opposing view and therefore doesn't do it justice in the short time given.

Since conservative views represent time tested values and since status quo isn't news, most news and guests represent liberal and immoral viewpoints. It is news often because it hasn't been time tested or has been rejected in the past.

It doesn't serve truth to have liberal host poorly representing conservative views and calling it investigative journalism.

As a result, the communication is incomplete and the public get a skewed perspective from the interview, usually in the guests favor. Hence the slide down the slippery slope to moral depravity.

There are two solutions.

1. Have the host truly represent his opposing or supportive views, thereby doing it justice. This will lead to the second solution.

2. Always have two guests who are informed, believe in and stand up for their opposing views and then give them time for justice.

Conversely, on these blogs there is time to enable many passionate, informed, courageous and sincere people let the truth expose all lies.

That is why this free internet medium represents perhaps the most important advancement in human communication in history.

Walker across Worlds said...

I thought this article -found in my wanderings- was appropriate.

Michael Chrichton in Wired magazine, 1993 "Mediasuarus"

Walker across Worlds said...

"Mediasaurus", rather.

Me and my typorettes syndrome...