The Death and Rebirth of Television News: "All of Life is Reduced to the Common Rubble of Banality"
I was watching the local news the other night, and had a wonderfully surreal experience. See, there’s a wildfire burning some forty miles south of where I’m at for the moment, and three different local news stations saw fit to spend ten straight hours on Sunday covering the cataclysmic wildfires that had killed no one and destroyed no structures while burning an area the size of a couple land grant colleges. Thank all that is holy that it wasn’t a football Sunday, or we would have seen some real hand wringing over what constituted real news.
So for a solid hour this one station displayed nothing but a static picture of some fire, taken from some distance off and posted as the header picture of someone’s Facebook page. Their visual coverage of the event was a screenshot from a random resident’s Facebook page. If you squinted real well, you could just about make out the titles of the webpages on the other tabs of the browser from which they’d taken the screenshot.
The anchors spent several minutes describing the picture that they were showing. Then, static picture still there, they took the audio over to a reporter on the scene. She sounded about fourteen, breathlessly answered every question with at least three prefacing sentences describing just how wonderful that question was. And then she got to the real Pulitzer bait of her reporting.
She spent a solid five minutes describing her experience of walking through a neighborhood near the fires, using all the rich expository lexicon that the new kid in junior high might muster to describe the mall in her old home town. Then she dropped the punchline of the entire amateur affair. She noted that he photographer was walking with her on this journey to journalistic purgatory.
As we stared at the same picture of the fires from someone’s Facebook page.
If only, I ventured to my dog, that photographer had access to some magical technology that would allow photos to be beamed from one location to another, perhaps even into this very living room.
We were not left time to ponder such flights of fancy though, for the anchors had cut away from their intrepid investigator on the scene to move on to level their next broadside of 21st century journalism. Same Facebook photo on screen, they proceeded to read aloud tweets about the fire. I assume they found the tweets under the tag “#doingyourbloodyjobforyou”. You stay classy, local news.
One could argue that local news has always been a wasteland, and by Burgundy, you would be right. But flip to CNN or Headline News sometime and you get the same thing with slightly more gloss. You have to be careful though, it’s hard to tune into CNN and actually get news, almost as hard as finding music on MTV. And I’m not simply being snarky that what they call news isn’t (we’ll get to that), but that they don’t even bother calling most of it news. Between Nancy Grace latching like a starved atomic leech onto the femoral artery of some missing pretty person in Florida, or Dr. Drew pretending with all seriousness that he’s not one step removed from Jerry Springer, there just isn’t much room for even what they call news.
I used to find it amusing to put Headline News on in the background while doing other work, keeping a scrap of paper handy. When a new “story” came on, I’d jot down what it was and the time. I’d circle any that were actually objectively news of any kind. I rarely got to six before the loop started over again, and circles were rare enough I forgot how to draw them. Missing person, Paula Deen weight loss, interview with John Edwards’ mistress, this week’s big movie, Lady Gaga wore something crazy, and now a special panel on the crisis of African-American fatherhood that is composed of two millionaires and lasts five entire minutes, before we turn to breaking news that somewhere it’s fucking raining. Now break away to a cute picture of puppies and on to a commercial break composed entirely of designer pills for erections and engorged prostates. (The five minute warning of side effects for each fails to mention that if you take both medications together, you may bludgeon the call-girl you bought them from before trying to fly off the balcony wearing a cape fashioned from the hotel’s embossed bath robe).
But it’s hard to fill an entire day with content, they snivel, you’re picking out the worst of the lot on purpose and neglecting the real news like Anderson Cooper. Fair enough. But explain to me then why I can spend an entire day leaping from blog to blog reading the most intensely intelligent and insightful thoughts on events around the world without scratching the surface of what’s available, while an entire news room can’t find seven whole stories to read off a teleprompter before repeating. I know they’ve got no problem cut and pasting from the Internet to the teleprompter since hardly an hour passes before they’re reading tweets or user comments to fill time before commercials.
And this I think is where I’m supposed to level a rant lifted from Sorkin (and the review of “Newsroom” will be up soon, though not by my hand) about how news ought to be. Some fire and brimstone rant that insists that the news can still be done right, speaking truth to power, calling it as we see it. But I don’t think that’s really the root of the problem. That’s what O’Reilly and Olbermann are, though I’m not trying to make an argument of moral equivalence. The passion and the fury burns itself out quickly, and the underlying problem is still festering.
The news has another purpose that it is failing at. It is supposed to inform, but the television format is ill-suited for that task. Spoken word will never be as efficient a mode of communication as simple text. But even if it were, it’s not possible to be fully informed. It’s not possible for the news to do more than skim the surface. And the bottom line is that none of it is really going to matter to your daily life. It’s too generalized, the world is too big.
So what are we left with? The trash talking from DC and pictures of cats, and at the end of the news hour you don’t know more than you knew before. But compressing more info into the hour isn’t necessarily the answer either. There’s not enough time, and at best the result is what we have now: a hodge podge of trivia that doesn’t connect at all.
We can never even scratch the surface of what matters in the world on the television news, but what we could do is shift it to subtle narrative. Instead of the seemingly random stories selected because they’re most interesting by some invisible inane metric, select stories based on fitting them into an overall narrative, day-by-day. This is really the secret of what terrible partisan news does so successfully. It’s not the anger, not the twisting of the truth, it’s the adoption of a narrative and fitting stories into it. The rut of news that tries to be objective is not that objectivity is boring, but that they’ve mistaken a lack of continuous narrative voice for objectivity.
In the 1950s we might have needed a guy on one of the three television channels to tell us that there are protests going on somewhere. Today, we don’t. We already get the facts elsewhere, in real-time. What television excels at is day after day providing interconnected and continuous stories. It’s why great television often leaves great film gasping at the complexity and depth possible on the small screen. Pining for Murrow is misguided nostalgia. We don’t need Murrow on the air so much as we need master storytellers. Right now those guys exist, but they’ve only got two story lines, and they both suck.
The news can be fixed, but not by going backward, and not by emulating the wrong things. It needs to evolve into something new, something that you can’t wait to watch every night to see what happens next.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.