THE BLOG
09/16/2007 10:27 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Does Commercial News Suck?

This week, I watched the same piece of information reported on commercial TV and PBS. At 6:30, NBC's Brian Williams went into shocked-and-breathless mode to announce that American life expectancy had hit a whopping 77.9 years. Then at 7:00, I heard Jim Lehrer calmly announce the same fact and put it in context. While this is the highest life expectancy the US has yet achieved, it falls behind 40 other nations. The context changes everything. If you were watching Brian Williams, you'd be popping the champagne corks. If you were watching Jim Lehrer, you'd be contemplating moving to Costa Rica--one of several third world countries with longer life expectancies than the US.

The Brian Williams sound bite--which sounded like a press release from the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's 1984--would be like Agence France-Presse touting the French economy's 1% growth rate. France's economy has indeed been growing steadily since World War II, but the central issue is why France's growth is so much slower than peer countries like Ireland, Sweden, and the United States. At least in France, for all its problems, they debate the real issues. Here, for lack of information and context, we don't.

Why not? There are a few theories:

1) People love fake news. No, I'm not talking about The Daily Show; I'm talking about FOX. Many Americans want to hear good news, and that's what FOX gives them. Tune in to FOX, and you'll hear, for example, that we're winning in Iraq. And as the older commercial networks try to compete with FOX, which has better ratings, many have slipped into an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em strategy where they try to give people just as much fake news.

2) Self-interested corporate media. This one's a tad conspiratorial for my taste, but here's how it goes. The commercial networks are run by giant corporations which have never been more profitable. They need to keep people feeling either satisfied or powerless so nothing really changes. GE owns NBC. It pays Brian Williams's paycheck. It's also in the healthcare business. I know because I use their dental plan. So if word got out that the US had third world levels of life expectancy while spending far more than even its fellow wealthy countries on healthcare, people might dump the corporate healthcare system that GE's profiting off of (those profit margins are a big reason we pay more than everyone else). So GE's news division's job isn't to keep people informed, but to keep people happy--to "manufacture consent," as Noam Chomsky puts it.

I'm more sympathetic to theory #1 than #2, but I'd love to hear what readers think. And one caveat: pundits love to say it's either A or B--just watch The McLaughlin Group--when, in fact, it can be both. For example, are we in Iraq because of the oil or because of naïve neo-con theories about freedom or because the evangelicals think they're bringing on Armageddon and the Second Coming? I'd say all three. For Cheney, it's about oil; for Bush, it's about Jesus; and for Wolfowitz, it's about neo-conservative ideology. They don't all have to agree on the reasons, they only have to agree on a policy.

So what do you all think?