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Jim Selman

Jim Selman

Posted May 1, 2009 | 12:26 PM (EST)

The 100-Day Nonsense: Too Much Opinion, Not Enough News


I admit I am not a fan of television in general and the broadcast news media in particular. However, I found myself spending some time in bed this week after some minor surgery and cruising the tube for something to watch. I was amazed at how many channels are now dedicated to around-the-clock news. I landed on CNN and was 'blitzed' with a super fancy build-up to "The Presidential Scorecard: The First 100 Days". This is obviously choreographed by the same people who can make war sound like a college football game and almost anything ordinary sound significant -- unfortunately so much so that it is hard to distinguish what really is significant.

With today's technology, we can all 'vote' on whatever the media is commenting on and have our opinions added to the tally. This is, of course, just the latest in the media's attempt to engage viewers in a never-ending commentary about whatever is going on. I think this phenomenon is further evidence of our becoming a spectator society.

Surfing channels, I found that all the programs now have panels of folks who give their opinion about whatever item the anchor throws at them. The idea is to maintain some pretense of journalistic objectivity by including both a liberal and a conservative on the panel. Here's how it works. The media focuses on an arbitrary, artificial and mostly hyped-up 'event', like 'the first hundred days' and plans 'in-depth coverage'. So a couple of weeks before the 100th day, extensive promotions begin with the kind of flair you'd expect for the Second Coming.

Then the reporters start polling officialdom for anyone who has an opinion about what has been accomplished since the election. There is nothing wrong with the questions, but at some point we begin to lose sight of the distinction between opinion and news. Now on the 'big day' (whatever it may be), the newscast comes to a head with a 'SPECIAL PROGRAM'. In the case of the 100th day campaign, they even had a presidential press conference to underscore the importance of the scorecard. Now the panel of folks is allowed to 'grade' the President's speech, in addition to what has been accomplished by him and his administration.

Opinion is now officially being packaged as news.

All of this would be merely vacuous nonsense and boring except for the fact that when there is so much of it and it is the same from one program to the next, it begins to turn us into spectators and dull our capacity to discriminate. For example, running the government is not at all like a high school examination. Most issues are far too complex to boil down to a single grade. 'Averaging' a few thousand opinions into a single 'scientific' number is meaningless. Besides, any system of grading requires some acknowledged and recognized standard for performance (of which, to my knowledge, there is none yet legislated).

There is a big difference between being informed and watching others comment on something. When we participate in these kinds of 'opinion shows', we are falling into a trap of believing that polls reflect reality -- and if Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan was correct, the medium is the message.