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Can We Separate Television News from the Game Show Mentality?

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American television news is returning to its roots as an information wasteland. Pretty faces with largely empty heads read teleprompters and mug for the camera. A dollop of information surrounded by a thick sugar coating of Kewpie doll. The major difference between the evening news and Jeopardy is that Alex Trebek is probably better informed.

Television is still the dominant source of news for most Americans. The First Amendment Center reported in September, 2009:

Television was the first source for major news stories for about half of all responding (49%), followed by the Internet at 15%, radio at 13% and newspapers at 10% - which places traditional news media (TV, radio and newspapers) as the first source for 72% of Americans. Twitter, e-mails and social-networking sites each were named by 1% of those responding.

Similarly, for 48% of Americans TV is the primary source for followup reports on those news stories, followed by the Internet at 29% and newspapers at 9%.

That 29% follow-up is significant. Particularly at times of "news importance" people are fact-checking talking heads, and producing their own counter-spin. The audience for this news trends toward younger readers, but also, significantly, includes a larger audience of educated adults who own computers and telephones equipped with Internet access. That more educated and computer-literate segment is increasingly leveraging web news.

The Newspaper Association of America reports:

Newspaper Web sites attracted more than 74 million monthly unique visitors on average in the third quarter of 2009, more than one-third (38 percent) of all Internet users, according to a custom analysis provided by Nielsen Online for the Newspaper Association of America. Newspaper Web site visitors generated more than 3.5 billion page views during the quarter, spending 2.7 billion minutes browsing the sites over more than 596 million total sessions.

The trend is being aided by television news cores like CNN that also seem to be reading similar market research. Their answer, rather than trying to lure back the hard-core news junkies, is to continue to degrade their news programming by pandering.

Many of the greatest names and faces in the history of television news could not land a job in front of a television camera today. The bellwether of hard-core journalism once was CBS News, but those days under the stewardship of William S. Paley, and anyone at the network dedicated to his First Amendment commitments, are largely gone.

To borrow Billy Crystal's Fernando Lamas impression: "To look good is to make those ugly little moments of the real world look MAAVELOUS."

Out is Walter. In is Wolf. I'd rather have Rather, but CBS clings to Couric. As much as I keep hoping for a pretty face to have a brain to go with it, Anderson Cooper is as close as we're getting, and his maturity as a "news" man keeps being watered down by a network too afraid of losing Fox News viewers whose lips move as they follow what he is saying.

Most of these people are poorly informed on history, particularly political history. When moments of crisis, or knowledge of facts for a non-prepared interview pop up, they lack the insight and depth of television news people of the 1950s and 1960s who were trying to keep up with the high bar set by CBS News. In a live feed where news is breaking, they buck-and-wing while research staffs scramble to Google up information to make them look a little less piteous.

Then there are times, as Jon Stewart so aptly point out in his recent rip of CNN, that they don't even bother doing any fact-checking:

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William S. Paley was the patron saint of radio and early television news. Son of a cigar maker, Paley bought the Columbia Phonographic Broadcasting System from the phonograph maker in 1927. He brought aboard a former New York Times man Ed Klauber as his Vice President of the network, who in turn hired news director Paul White, who in turn hired a journalist named Edward R. Murrow to work on spot interviews.

Murrow's interviews on radio, particularly during the Blitz, a nightly rain of short-range rockets fired into England during WWII, cast a stamp on the radio network as the place America turned to know what was going on in the world. The restamped "Columbia Broadasting System" or CBS, became the major player in the early days of broadcast news because the people who ran it were serious newsmen, who took their obligation to inform as their primary mission.

Diane Sawyer, the heir-apparent at ABC's nightly newscast, knows how to navigate between 60 Minutes and the drivel of "Good Morning America," but I'm betting that her ascension to the nightly network news chair is going to have more of a GMA flavor.

"Half a million dead in earthquake in India, the courageous three-eyed girl, and later, why millions of Americans with pacemakers should be scared shitless and stay glued to our hour of news..."

Tragedy and disaster with empathy and the occasional million dollar smile. Go Katie. Go Anderson. Go Dianne.

While other countries, most notably England, have much more grounded news fare that informs their citizens about every corner of the world, we seem to be mired in the ancient infotainment mentality of the theatrical newsreel.

Fox Movietone News, Universal Newsreels, and Hearst Metrotone News were the bigger players in the first "visual" news broadcasts, the only non-printed information beyond radio.

Without television, people used to flock to the movie theaters for an evening of entertainment, often weekly. The "double feature" each week usually had a B movie, with lesser-known talents, a cartoon, a newsreel, then the "A" feature film with the big names.

Newsreels were Reader's Digest-like compressions of the major events of the week. Complete with screaming headlines and adrenaline-pumping orchestrations, or violin-soaked moments of tragedy, they were used effectively as propaganda tools to inspire an emotional response to the news, good or bad.

The big problem for those who miss real television news, and find PBS offerings more rye krisp than rye bread, is that, other than the vaunted Paley CBS News division and the early days of CNN, using entertainment to cram bits of news into the heads of the less-willing has been a staple of visual news since those newsreels.

Propaganda, pity, piety and pandering peddle the press' prognosis of the world as we should see it, not necessarily as it is. Fox is called out for its merciless spinning of the news, and its legions of GOP-cheerleading zombies who sit before the teleprompter, but CNN is not much better. They use the same shock-and-awe tactics, mostly spinning people's fears in the health or money arena, to keep viewers latched into the rest of the third-rate copy that they throw in front of their telegenic anchors.

Media wags keep yapping about the historic polarization of our news media, and how this is "unprecedented."

It just shows how poorly educated most of today's "leading" media voices are about their own history. The pull-and-tug between media outlets that have backed this or that political machine is infamous.

The Times Union of Albany, in a retrospective wrote:

''The [Albany] Times Union was so deep in the machine's pocket that it was ridiculous. Its coverage was simply an extension of the Democrats,'' said William Kennedy, who joined the paper as a city desk news reporter in 1952. Kennedy, 78, of Averill Park, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and includes fictionalized scenes at the newspaper in several of his books.

William Randolph Hearst was perhaps the most visible newspaper magnate who tried to parlay his papers and his political ambitions into a run for the White House that began in the then-stepping-stone, a stint as governor of the state of New York.

Hearst's biggest obstacle was fellow Democrat Alfred E. Smith. ''The Happy Warrior,'' as Smith was known, had departed Albany in 1920 after one term as governor and returned to private life in New York City. But he was determined to block Hearst, who attacked Smith relentlessly in public and in print.

''The Hearst papers have always been opposed to the 'booze and boodle' element of the party and will conscientiously oppose any candidate representing 'booze and boodle'... and the boozing, bootlegging and bartending faction of Tammany,'' Hearst wrote in a smear on Smith, whom he also referred to as ''an occupant of the alcoholic ward at Bellevue.''

Smith defeated Hearst -- whom Smith called ''a man as low and mean as I can picture'' -- by winning re-election as governor in 1924 and 1926 when they were two-year terms.

As Paddy Chaefvsky, in his 1976 Oscar-winning screenplay "Network" warned, though, the Paley days were limited to the man himself. The Chaefvskian nightmare for television news, reduced to a pablum-like entertainment, came to pass over the next two decades, as corporations returned the news back to its more American propagandist roots.

Jack Benny quipped that television is a "medium" because it doesn't get much better, and it doesn't get much worse.

The low-fact, high-flash tabloid journalism of the Rupert Murdoch empire may be unsavory to many, with the sleazy propagandist inclinations of GOP pitch men like his "news" director Roger Ailes and Karl Rove, but the blatant staging of news to achieve an end is not much different than the days of the Tammany Hall Democrats.

Toss in a couple of car chases and the obligatory child or waif in crisis, and you will bring in folks who like to say they watch the news without all of that bothersome information being crammed into their heads.

National and local news are largely owned by corporations who don't put the same kind of stock in the First Amendment that. Paley or Turner, in CNN's early days, did.

The people sick of it have tuned out and gone to the Internet, or found more wonky programming like MSNBC's "The Rachael Maddow Show."

The ones still "watching," if you could call it that, probably never tune in all that much. If the news says that someone is a terrorist, or a murderer, or a crook, and that proves to be wrong, oh well.

The purpose of American television news is to control sentiment and mindshare, to get us angry about the "right" things, and calm us down about others; To herd us, by catering to our fears, to get us to buy a product or a political idea, or a social agenda that the people with the money paying for the programming want us to believe.

It won't get much worse, but don't expect it to get much better either. Until TV news stops being the dominant form of information dissemination in America, you don't care enough to change it.

My shiny two.