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A Baby, A Weiner, and a Hispanic Man. How Has It Come To This?

By Mike Roorda | Think Pieces | July 26, 2013 | Comments ()


royal-baby-ferrell-theoffice.jpg

To say that television news coverage in America is in trouble is a bit like running into an already burning theater and yelling “fire.” I mean thanks, I guess, but clearly the moment for sounding the alarm has come and gone, and now it’s time to go get help or run away screaming. Things don’t look good. Who do you trust to get your news? Not an organization. Quick, name a specific person. What time is your favorite local news anchor on? Can you remember without Googling it? How long have they been with the station you prefer to watch? These are questions that our parents, and their parents before, would have been able to answer without hesitation. The same probably cannot be said for us, and absolutely won’t be said by our children. What the next template looks like isn’t yet clear, but what has crippled this one has been coming into focus for years now.

Television news is no longer a service but a product. This seems like making another obvious point until you consider the ramifications. If news is a product to be commoditized and sold, ethical considerations are no longer important, especially when they may interfere with revenue generating strategies that have already proven effective. Why would you concern yourself with maintaining a neutral tone when it came to politics if doing the opposite meant that you could charge more for your advertisements and increase the value of the parent company with the shareholders who have invested in it? This bit of sideways logic is what allows producers who cash their checks at Fox News and MSNBC to sleep at night. They don’t call what they do “news” they call it “entertainment,” shrug off any ideas of a duty to inform public, and simply shoot for whatever will get them the most number of eyeballs in the most popular time slots.

What most people fail to realize is that, while there are a few ideologues who have managed to find a national pulpit from which to preach, most of the highly opinionated personalities you see hosting talk segments today are simply astounding salespeople and incredible actors. None of the largest news networks in the United States are even attempting to toe the line on neutrality any longer. You pick a slant that fills a demographic you want to sell advertising to and you run with it. Do you think Glenn Beck actually thinks that Obama and Hitler are cribbing from the same plan for world conquest? I’d be shocked if he actually thought it to be true, but not that he inferred as much. Causing such controversy serves a twofold purpose. It gives fuel and legitimacy to the most outlandish and uneducated political arguments this country has to offer, and ensures that those who espouse them will tune back in and are likely to become regular viewers. Don’t go too crazy and drop the N bomb outright, but question his birth certificate and suggest he might be a closeted radical muslim and you tap into racial and political fears that cut deep with large swaths of certain populations. (You can sell ads for more money if you can prove you have more regular viewers in specific demographics than the other guy.) Secondly, it causes the logical and rational members of society to flash with anger at factual manipulation and also tune in to see what sort of 12 Monkees malarkey they can come up with this week. (You can also sell ad time based upon the number of new or unique viewers you can get week to week.) Telling the truth is a duty that may give you a warm feeling in your tummy at night, but setting off fireworks gathers a much larger crowd for you to sell things to.

Since the news is in the business of selling things, it should be noted that it’s much easier to sell things if you’re attractive than it is if you’re otherwise. Rule number one is “don’t be ugly.” Rule number two is, “if you are ugly, don’t be a woman.” I know this may come as a shock to some of you, but the vast majority of the plastic surgery recipients and medically improbable hairlines you see reading you your headlines likely haven’t seen the inside of a journalism class, and probably don’t know thing one about how to formulate insightful interview questions. What they have is a killer complexion and a producer whose job it is to do the hard things for them, and parse the info into eighth grade comprehension equivalent language for the boob job with blue eyes or the suit with the super hero jawline to read earnestly in front of the lights.

This is less true in mid market local news outfits where the lead anchors tend to still be reporters who have stuck around long enough and not been thoroughly flogged with the ugly stick. In local markets, usually, the main talent knows how to chase down a lead if a story breaks late and nobody has any new info. They have sources they’ve cultivated and relationships in the community they can rely on to make sure what they say is accurate and informed. Those antiquated professionals are slowly vacating their positions. Though they generally won’t fire the older head anchor who’s been reading local headlines for thirty years but has a face like a bloodhound caught in a sandstorm, even though HD format broadcasting makes them look worse, the station management certainly aren’t hiring another from the over fifty crowd to replace them when they go. National outlets don’t even pretend to be trying to hire on criteria other than aesthetic appeal. Some of the bigger names are still reporters who’ve risen from the ranks and can report effectively when called on to do so, (Anderson Cooper and Diane Sawyer,) but they’re a dying breed. (And they still aren’t ugly. Cooper and Sawyer both make my “hit it” list quicker than Andy Rooney or Barbara Walters.) There are far more pretty faces with electrifying smiles and rock hard abs looking into the cameras today in national and local outlets than there are journalists. This leads to both oversimplification of the issues at hand, and an incomplete understanding of that which you claim to be discussing.

Along with the oversimplification of information is the news industry’s desire to tell it to you first and tell it the loudest. Most of the industry professionals would likely blame Twitter for this trend. When the Boston bombings happened this year, I first got word of it from people who were there and tweeting the events as they happened. If the average joe with a cell phone can provide me with the information I’m looking for before the local or national news outlets can, then I have no incentive to hunt them down later for updates and analysis. Their effort to combat this particular type of atrophy has been to try to provide the news first, often at the expense of accuracy and usually devoid of context. The most egregious example of this on the national level is CNN’s tendency to “live blog” breaking news as it happens. Instead of providing a factual and detailed analysis of the events after they’ve properly vetted the information and parsed it for inconsistencies they simply report every bit of speculation and rumor that they can, as it comes across their desk. If they publish something wildly inaccurate who really cares? They can either correct it in a later “update” or drop any inaccuracies entirely when they finally get around to verifying sources and mashing together their original text into a cursory article on which they can affix a flashy new headline. Gone are the days of an assignment desk doling out stories to be packaged for production and in its place a running commentary based on pointing out the immediately obvious, with little or no effort to frame it in a larger context.

All of these factors, and more, combined to make possible the torturous news cycle that we were forced to endure this past week. The Zimmerman trial is long over, but based on the amount of continued hand wringing and analysis that is going on regarding it you would suspect that the verdict is still up in the air. The justice in the actual verdict aside, the real tragedy is the apathy towards the many other minority youth who were robbed of their lives for preventable reasons over the course of the last month. The disproportionate amount of gun violence afflicting minorities warrants a real and reasoned discussion, but that’s a difficult talk to have when both sides are more interested in an “us vs them” narrative than a “how do we keep low income males from killing other low income males” dialogue. When they weren’t continuing to claw at old racial scabs in search of new blood, this week was all about that one baby born to that one couple in the one country. While this event generally would warrant casual passing interest for most of America, our media coverage of it suggested otherwise. We were inundated with details and updates that would have become wearing and annoying even if it had been our own siblings or close friends giving birth. “BREAKING: Duchess of Cambridge Gives Birth Vaginally” was seriously a CNN headline I saw briefly during the coverage frenzy. Now, correct me if I’m wrong but, didn’t we as a country give the double barreled bird to the Brits, and back it up with a few wars, just so we didn’t have to give any more shits about the royalty? We did, right? Because otherwise, I can’t figure out why I’d want more intimate details about a stranger’s birth methods than I would want from a family member. If that weren’t enough, and didn’t slake your salacious appetite for national gossip, you could have read about the continued sexing habits of a man whose last name is conveniently and hilariously “Weiner.” It would be easier if the women were named something like “Chesty LaRue” or “Lara G Knockers” but I guess we can make do with a guy who’s name is a synonym for penis using his in ways that are unbecoming.

Were these the best, most informative stories this week? Only if you still have a middle school level of emotional development and a predilection for information pertaining to and centered on the groins of others. It all was, however, likely the information and stories that would drive the most traffic and snag the most eyeballs. The web traffic those stories generate outstrips that odd article filled with actual information. Instead of a detailed analysis of how in the hell five hundred condemned terrorists managed to shoot their way out of Abu Ghraib with Al Qaeda’s assistance we got three pieces on possible baby names, juror confessions from the Zimmerman trial and dick jokes about a dude who continually acts like the bell end he’s named after and has the balls to try and get re-elected.

I get the economics behind why things are the way that they are. Money has dried up for journalism in general. Ad revenue continues to shrink year after year. The quality of the news production value has taken a dive across all mediums as more and more of the news production process becomes automated in an effort to cut costs. Their only loyal demographic (the baby boomers) are slowly dying off and when audience has shrunk and you can’t pick and chose the good ads to run to support yourself you have to take whatever comes your way. Which, coincidentally, is why you see so many political commercials on local stations. Every four years it’s literally the largest injection of money that they’ll see until the next election cycle rolls around. The pile of money that’s left to draw from is shrinking and more and more people are abandoning the traditional consumption methods, expecting their news to be both on demand and free from the internet. The uneducated and underserved populations make a juicy target for anyone looking to sell them something. Give them a few catch phrases to yell at town hall meetings and they’ll likely also shell out for your book when they see it later that year at the Wal Mart Supercenter.

I hate it. I hate all of it. The assumed ignorance. The watered down coverage. The palatable, but ultimately unimportant fads and fetishes that pop up to take the place of actual reporting. The news model we’ve all grown up with is going to die slowly, noisily and publicly for all to see. I’m not sure what exactly will replace it. I don’t think we’ll ever be rid of anchors. We’ll always want someone to boil down the info for us and tell us the current event cliff notes in easy to digest sound bites while we eat our dinner or fold laundry in the other room. At some point, and Lord let it be soon, actual news coverage will play an important role again. The politically painted coverage also, unfortunately, isn’t going anywhere in the long run. It’s too damn profitable. Having said all of that, there are those of us who still long for reliable information presented with as little bias as possible. We can use the BBC, NPR and Al Jazeera for now, but eventually someone will offer us a high production value domestic solution again, one that’s both accurate and timely. Then, I’m sure, someone else will monetize the hell out of it.



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • annieanne

    So apparently the BBC, NPR and al Jazeera aren't "somebody"? That's three outlets providing relatively decent, objective news coverage. In the good old days of Walter Cronkite there were three outlets providing relatively decent, objective news coverage. Seems like we've come full circle.

  • ,

    "Network" was prophecy. Everything came true.

  • e jerry powell

    And Faye Dunaway is still alive to appreciate it.

  • trixie

    There is so much truth to this. When the filibuster was going down in the Texas legislature over the women's health clinics the only place to find news about it was twitter and online. If you looked at the television news it would seem that it wasn't even happening. I ended up watching the live feed from the statehouse from a link on Facebook. That's when I really knew the news business was really dead.

  • googergieger

    INTERNET

  • BWeaves

    There's a reason most people get their news from the fake news shows anymore.

  • Archie Leach

    I read the whole piece but I can't relate in any way as I stopped watching television "news" "reporting" a couple years ago......

  • Olderthandirt

    I think that this is well written. You almost verbatim nailed my rant every time the US media decides that we have a compelling reason to obsess over British Royalty drama. Having lived through the Princess Diana years, and no disrespect to her memory, it boggled my mind how much resources were devoted to capturing and packaging every imaginable aspect of her life for John Q. Public. I'm so grateful for what others sacrificed to make it so I don't have to care about the minutiae of entitled, affluent people overseas. If and when I need that fix, I'll watch Downton Abbey.

  • True_Blue

    I lived through Diana years too, and I agree with you--why do we care about constitutional (not political) head of a country we fought a war to get away from? The British royals are celebrities on the level of the Kardashians (okay, minus the sex tape--as far as we know), and they should be treated as such; as in, not as the top story on every @#$% news outlet.

  • Jared Jones

    Applause.gif

  • lowercase_see

    As far as I'm concerned, the real Weiner story isn't that he's sexting women who aren't his wife—it's that he's sending unsolicited dick pics. The young woman for whom the original photo was intended had never asked for a picture of Weiner's weiner. He took it upon himself to send her a junk-shot and his fuckup made a national mockery of her.

    I mean, jesus, the problem wasn't that he swapped consensual nudes with a couple of women. The problem is that he sexually harassed someone. He's ... kind of a predator. And for some reason, that angle never got picked up.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Because a whole lot of reporters were like, "let he who has not sent an unsolicited dick pic cast the first stone..."

    But you are right - that's really the only aspect of this that is worthy of public outrage. The women who had prolonged sexual conversations with him don't really a case for complaint - they're just piling on.

  • lowercase_ryan

    You really need to make a distinction between cable news and network/local news. While the nightly news on any of the 3 major networks will never be terribly in depth (they just don't have the time), they do tend to be topical and fairly objective. They may get caught up somewhat in sensationalist stories, but not the extent of the cable networks.

    And I have to give credit where it's due, while we have 1 or 2 really terrible local news channels in Phoenix, we also have one that has really stepped up in terms of their journalistic integrity. They still have puff pieces, but they also have news anchors grilling city council members when they try to avoid answering a question.

    All I'm saying it that cable news is it's own animal. It's all about the revenue and entertainment factor. I think it's an important point you need to make.

  • Orleanas

    I beg to differ on that point, for I expressed cynicism with local news when celebrity gossip and entertainment were the lead stories in all three of my local news. The birth and naming of George Alexander Louis were the rage in my local news this week and I found myself SMMFH.

  • lowercase_ryan

    tbf the royal baby was the lead on the BBC World Report. It's not like your locals were doing anything crazy.

  • aroorda

    He does. He says the anchors in local stations are actual journalists that know how to track down leads and develop an actual news story. I know its a long article but read the whole thing before you start throwing stones.

  • That's really good to read. I do hope the others are doing their level best to perpetuate racial and cultural stereotypes by highlighting local crimes and putting microphones in front of obviously stupid people.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    This looks like a deep piece, and I got about 4 paragraphs in before realizing how much more there was, and how I don't have the undivided focus to read it right now.

    However: I want to point out that making a statement like "most of them haven't seen the inside of journalism class" seems as pulled up out of nowhere as the type of random supporting facts you mention in the piece. (see how easy and enticing it is to do?) And, actually, slightly irrelevant. A lot of the great news reporters of the past learned by doing, not in school. (Cronkite and Brian Williams didn't even graduate college)

    Overall though - if one is worried about the state of the news, if one doesn't trust news outlets - then when one finds a news outlet to trust, pony up for it. Subscribe to Mother Jones or The Economist or The Christian Science Monitor or the WSJ or The New York Times. Or just contribute to NPR. But pay for what you value, or it will disappear, and you will be one of the people to blame for it.

  • BWeaves

    When I was at the University of Florida in the 1970s, the journalism majors were the most ignorant students on campus. They were not required to take science or history courses. They would publish articles in the school newspaper that made them look incredibly stupid, and then the editor would put out a disclaimer that "We stand behind our story." Uh, yeah. Your story was about how astronomy students could do research on the sky in the newly proposed planetarium. Doofuses.

  • idiosynchronic

    All good points. And I don't think your points clash with Rooda's, other than demanding to see the beef. :)

  • I'm with you here to a point. NPR and NYT to me have seen serious erosion in the quality of journalism. There are multiple instances in which NYT has been called out for failing to provide honest reporting, either through thrift-driven inattention to vetting sources or for the more troubling cultural alignment with the subjects of their journalism (e.g., Judith Miller). NPR now presents a voice from the moderates and the conservatives, but rarely offers a voice from the progressive or overtly liberal left. It's a stunning but often overlooked skew. The mere fact that Cokie Roberts is still called upon to offer her half-thought opinions, or that David Brooks held up as someone asking culturally relevant and nuanced questions about current affairs, it really beggars belief. To take this point a step further, imagine the shock waves if NPR asked Matt Taibbi to offer commentary on the news, or even Hendrik Hertzberg, who has time since he really is barely producing at The New Yorker. And the lack of real, probing follow-up questions simply projects the power of the 'talking points' that we are forced to digest or run away from.

    Your broader point, though, that a motivated person interested in finding in-depth journalism from diverse sources that offer you, the person, to develop your own perspective is vast and rewarding. BBC, Al Jazeera, LA Times, New Yorker, CSM, WSJ, etc. However, I would also say that the point @MikeRoorda is making is one about television news programming, which really has become this horrible mess of irrelevance, incoherence and ignorance. The fact that anybody watches anymore largely reinforces this point.

  • PaddyDog

    Agreed. While there are the egregious hirings of the Bush and Clinton names as "journalists" at the networks in the absence of any justification to do so, I'm not sure that making ones way through Columbia or Medill per se makes one any better of a journalist. I have had the misfortune to work with several journalism majors (they inevitably end up in Comms jobs when that job on the local rag turns out to be too hard) who have been woeful at grasping, let alone writing about, actual relevant facts in a story. However, I blame the journo schools, not the graduates: they really should be weeding out the ones who can't cut it and steering them in a different direction.

  • MikeRoorda

    I didn't have time to give all of the personal credentials, and don't want to do so because it would be unfair to point these criticisms at all the people who still are working there. Prior to where I am now I worked for 5 years in a local newsroom affiliate of a large network as a camera man and studio monkey and as a reporter and an editor. I know of which I speak.

  • Cazadora

    I have to say -- as someone who has worked sales/marketing/programming/research for a large network group for 25 years -- you pretty much nailed the business side of decision making. However, I'm not sure that I'm 100% with you on the interpretation. While pointing the finger at the networks and their atrocious reporting, you seem to be giving viewers a pass. But what is happening is that networks (and larger internet sites) have become RE-active rather than PRO-active. Meaning that they are trying to give viewers what they want, even if they shouldn't want it.

    Still, to me this is a best of times/worst of times scenario. The internet age is still relatively new to the world and what we lack now is a kind of training to help us understand how to vet sources. To quantifiably know what is good and what is bad. This is slowly being addressed (thank you Wikipedia) by various sites.

    As a side note...I consider myself a cheerful cynic, so I see silver linings just about everywhere...even with news.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Those are pretty pertinent credentials to list (and usually Pajiba writers do post a little bit about themselves at the bottom of an article, in italics)

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