When the U.S. invaded Iraq in the Spring of 2003, I was working as a writer at a large financial services company, a refugee from a dot-com that flamed out when the first Internet bubble burst in 2001. I learned really quickly that I was socially and politically unsuited for the place. Like, totally. Surrounded by folks who loved golf, Disney cruises and money (and who were as infected with the desire for 9/11 revenge as the rest of mainstream America was at the time), I did my best to keep my head down and learn something about professional copy writing until I could mercifully move on.
This idea of keeping a low profile proved a fantasy the day the media broadcast a group of Iraqi men pulling down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. (I should pause to note that at large financial companies, it’s customary to have TVs placed strategically around the office so employees can see breaking news about the markets) On most days, hardly anyone paid attention to these TVs. But on this day, everyone was crowded around, looking up in rapture at the high-def screens as the statue came down. I had protested the imminent war on the streets of D.C. and just didn’t want to watch the coverage, but my boss dragged me over to check it out.
As I stared reluctantly at the triumphalist proceedings, something started clicking in my brain. The scene felt oddly un-spontaneous, unreal. It all seemed too perfectly dramatic. And suddenly, the training I’d received in my film studies came rushing forward. I looked at where the camera had been placed, how tight the framing was — and how they never pulled back to show a wider shot of what was going on. There was a cable hooked up to the statue and something was pulling on it, but there was no indication of where that something was coming from. My mind and eyes darted around, searching for context, finding none. And before I was even aware of it, I blurted out: “this is being staged”. My boss promptly told me to “shut the fuck up”. I went back to my desk and pretended to work. By the end of the year, I quit the job and moved out of the city for a while. Within a few years, my instinct about the scene being staged proved out. Later, there were real investigations of the whole thing that provided a lot more context.
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I tell you this because I’ve finally reached the point in this series on the press where I’m going to get into why I believe television has proved so woefully inadequate as a medium for journalism. If you’d like to check out the lead-ups to this discussion, you can read Part 1 and Part 2.
In those previous pieces, I laid out some ideas for why our press, regardless of whether it delivers content via newspapers, magazines or radio, sucks so very badly (with notable exceptions). The following three bullet points highlight the first set of foundational issues that I think make it very difficult for the press to come close to being a check on power or a true educator of the public.
· Over time, big capital took over and consolidated a huge portion of the press. That capital is controlled by plutocrats and oligarchs who rub shoulders with the people and institutions the press is supposed to watchdog. These oligarchs influence the types of people who get hired, how they think and what editorial decisions get made.
· Sensationalism became the most commonly used strategy to drive sales/get attention.
· Advertising became the predominant revenue source — and advertisers became an important constituency to please.
These three things, which evolved from the very beginnings of the press in the U.S., all the way through the age of radio and the success of the U.S. after WWII, have had a huge impact on TV news, which exists in its own context and aesthetic that makes the prospect of an educational, watchdog press even less likely.
Let’s have a look
Alright, so here’s where I humbly point to an important truth to remember about our world and what it takes to understand the small fraction of it we’re even capable of understanding. It takes time. It takes study. Not just of what’s happening in the moment, but how what happened in the past helped create the reality of what’s happening in the moment. It takes attention to detail as well as the recognition of more expansive, long-term patterns in economies, social structures, politics and power.
This puts a significant amount of responsibility on citizens to be actively informed (which is tough, because we don’t have much free time). And it puts enormous responsibility on the press to be a helpful part of that effort. But television, due to both the nature of its aesthetic and its embroilment in the issues outlined above—capital, sensationalism and advertising—is simply not equipped to be a helpful arm of the press.
What kind of aesthetic do you mean?
Here we go, then. Let’s talk about the aesthetic of TV news:
1. Television news doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists right in the heart of a nonstop 24-hour world of entertainment and ads. Consider the experience. You’re watching a sit-com or a talk show. After roughly 10 or 15 minutes of viewing there’s a pause. But that pause is not a pause, it’s an acceleration. While you wait for the show to come back on, you get hit with a high-velocity barrage of 30- and 60-second inanity we call TV advertising. It’s meant to be stupid. It’s meant to numb you and make you passive so some feelings and information can embed themselves somewhere in your subconscious mind for later use.
The cadence of a TV news program is not much different from a sit-com or a talk show. You watch some talking heads, a few video clips with narration and then the screen cuts away to those inane ads again.
Remember when I said absorbing the news takes time, study, etc.? It also takes a calm, attentive and reflective mind. Television, even at its best, is geared to distract, to excite and to immerse you in a make-believe reality. As a fan of visual media, I do believe there is some value in that (especially for fictional programs during these years of peak TV), this is not the state of mind to cultivate if you want to understand what’s going on in your town, state, country, or world. Do you think it’s possible to understand, say, a civil war in some part of the world you know little about in ten minutes? With interruptions for Geico insurance and Lockheed Martin? For even the smartest and most engaged person, I say best of luck.
2. Television news lives in the perpetual present. When those images roll, it’s a right now kind of thing and then it’s gone. Unlike print, you don’t get to stop and think. You can’t go back to the beginning and re-read what you read. You can’t go on a tangent to check a fact. Before you can catch your breath, they show you the next thing. And then the next thing.
Additionally, the present that TV news depicts is incomplete, manipulated. The editing process is intrinsically selective and limiting. You don’t know what happened right before something was filmed. You don’t know what happened right after. You don’t know what’s outside the frame of where they decided to place the camera. Any kind of larger context is usually lacking, unless the people who produce the news program consciously decide to provide it. They rarely do. This makes the reality they present slippery and suspect as hell.
3. Television news is entertainment. In my first piece on this subject, I referenced a book called Who Killed CBS?. One of the things I learned in the book was that back in the 50s and 60s there used to be a firewall at TV networks between entertainment programming and the news. News programs were actually not expected to make money. Sure, they ran ads between segments and all that, but the news programs themselves were pretty sober affairs by most standards. They were less desperate for viewers and ad dollars than many of their peers in print, and thus less sensationalistic than some of their peers in print. But starting in the mid-70s at CBS and other networks, a cadre of business-minded hotshots began questioning that firewall and eventually dismantled it. The effect this had was for TV news programs to enter a position where they needed to do two things:
– Be popular
– Attract advertisers
The strategy for being popular and getting more advertisers at higher rates? Simple. Make news programs more entertaining, less sober. More sensationalistic. More emotional. This was the birth of what we now call infotainment. It also shows us how those three issues I keep referring back to (capital, sensationalism and advertising) start to have their way not just in newspapers and radio, but TV news as well.
So not only do you see TV covering less hard news, but they also begin covering it in an even more shallow and less rational way. Cut to programs of people yelling at each other, newscasters making ridiculous small talk and an increase in frivolous or emotionally provocative stories about products and street crime (even as crime rates drop).
Or, as with both wars in Iraq, the presentation of fire-bombings that destroy everything and everyone in sight as an entertaining and emotionally satisfying show (possibly the most disgusting aspect of infotainment). Do you think that helps people become more well-informed? Prepared to enact their role as citizens of a democracy? As comedian Katt Williams says, “don’t worry, I’ll wait”.
4. Newscasters have become entertainment personalities. At the national level in particular, the people who read the news on TV are rarely genuine journalists. They’re not experts on politics or civics or world affairs. They don’t do research. They don’t hunt down leads. They don’t even write what they say. Most of the time, those types of qualifications aren’t what got them their jobs. No, they’re chosen for their photogenic qualities, their onscreen likability, their ability to command attention from an audience and sound kind of natural reading a teleprompter. Many of them get paid like celebrities too. This is death for a would-be journalist because that kind of income removes them from the day-to-day experience of most citizens. Their homes get featured in fashion magazines. They get interviewed on talk shows. They have fans, trainers, assistants. Hard-boiled investigative reporters? Uh….naw.
Here’s a good rule of thumb:
Someone who is trying to entertain you (and wants you to come back night after night) is not going to ask uncomfortable questions, dig into dark corners or explore hard truths. These things make people uneasy and defensive. When a wide swath of viewers are made to feel uneasy or defensive, the news program becomes unpopular. But the job of TV news broadcasters is to be popular. That’s how they make money for the network and get those Hollywood-sized paychecks. So there’s no possible way a press that’s structured like that can do its actual job, which is to find out what’s really going on, how things really works and tell people, even if it makes them feel bad. That’s right. Being a killjoy and a pain in the ass is the journalist’s true calling.
5. TV news is also designed to lull you. It seems counter-intuitive that a media that spends so much time using the highest pitches of manufactured drama to glue you to the set is also trying to zone you out. But if you consider that much of this drama isn’t created to mean anything (just to get you to watch), it gets easier to wrap your head around it. Think of something as trivial as the way newscasters sound when they deliver the news. The next time you watch TV news, focus in on just that piece. What I believe you’ll hear is something that sounds inherently antiseptic and colorless.
Ever notice how a newscaster will sound the same whether they’re talking about the baseball game or an air strike that killed 100 civilians? The style cultivated by TV newsreaders does a peculiar job of distancing you from the content they’re presenting.
This is a choice. Just think of the difference between listening to the bombastic style of a DJ on a large commercial radio station and the low-key conversational style a DJ on a college station. Which one sounds more like a human being? The bland, canned quality of most TV newsreaders signals to viewers that, despite all the drama, ”everything’s alright. The world is stable. Don’t think too hard. Go buy some potato chips”. Click To Tweet
6. TV newsmakers have an incredible temptation to decide what the story is before they know what the story is. When you see that TV news is geared to entertain and reassure the viewer that the world is a stable place and political leaders know what they’re doing, you begin to recognize how much the drive to maintain that reassurance impacts how stories get framed. If we go back to the event in Iraq that started this whole piece, the U.S. army folks on the ground in Iraq that day had a knee-jerk understanding of what the TV press “needs” as a part of its programming. So they were able to create a dramatic event that was tailor-made to reassure viewers at home that, yes indeed, regular Iraqis were totally psyched that the U.S. invaded and wanted to celebrate by tearing down the dictator’s self-aggrandizing statue.
They also knew that the pressures of a 24-hour news cycle would work in their favor. In all the frenzy of the army’s advance upon Baghdad, where most TV reporters on the ground were clustered around one downtown hotel, what news program would delay coverage (and get scooped by another network) to take the time to send reporters into the rest of the city (for that elusive context I was talking about) to find widespread looting, chaos and danger that eclipsed by many magnitudes a small group of Iraqi men banging away at a statue in a protected part of the city? Are most television journalists motivated to risk their lives to get the REAL story out? Especially if that story would tell the folks back home that the cakewalk celebration they’d been promised was a fantasy? That this was, after all, not a stable world? C’mon now.
Taken together, all of these constraining aesthetic and business issues make it nearly impossible to take TV news seriously or to turn to it as a way to understand what’s going on in the world. But, given our contemporary conditioning to look at the image first, so a good portion of us do.
We’re not done yet
No, we’re not. Now that we’ve laid out how the aesthetic and business conventions of TV news makes it poorly suited for real journalism, there’s a second set of structuring issues that TV news finds itself embroiled in that I think it’s quite important to get a handle on. So stay tuned for “Why the Press Sucks So Bad Pt. 4, in which we’ll get into how:
· The oligarchs who own the TV networks set editorial direction. I left this out of today’s piece, partly because it’s an issue that’s tied up with the bullet points below. Oligarchs consistently put their thumbs on the scales of news coverage for both economic and political reasons related to their place in the hierarchy of the U.S. as a world power. This extends to the people they hire to do the news, how those people think and how they’re incentivized. Caitlin Johnstone wrote an excellent piece about this issue last week.
· The use of distractions in the media increased. Misleading, irrelevant or fabricated news stories create extra noise that keeps citizens from focusing in an intelligent way on the issues that have the biggest impact on their lives and the lives of their fellow humans.
· The National Security State exerts influence on the direction of TV news stories. To ensure the smooth functioning of the U.S. as a major world power, one of its activities has been to direct what information the media works with and how they cover the news.
It’s going to be a fun ride. I hope you’ll join me.
Thanks for reading.
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