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