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John W. Whitehead

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Television News: Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death?

Posted: 08/03/11 04:00 PM ET

"We've got the bubble-headed bleach-blonde who comes on at five. She can tell you about the plane crash with a gleam in her eye. It's interesting when people die. Give us dirty laundry." -- Don Henley, "Dirty Laundry."

Anyone who relies exclusively on television/cable news hosts and political commentators for actual knowledge of the world today is making a serious mistake. Unfortunately, as Americans have devolved into non-readers with woefully short attention spans, newspapers providing even semi-analytical content have found themselves struggling to stay afloat while television, which delivers little more than news sound bites sandwiched between superficial chitchat and entertainment buzz, has become the prime source of so-called "news."

In this way, real news of national significance is either underreported or unreported altogether, while contrived media spectacles such as the Casey Anthony trial are allowed to dominate the news headlines for days and weeks on end. As media theorist Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, rightly observed, "The news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination. It is, quite precisely, a media event... Without a medium to create its form, the news of the day does not exist."

In our media-dominated age, news personalities dispense the news with power and certainty like preachers used to dispense religion, and boast vast viewerships that hang on their every word. Yet these talking heads are little more than Wizard of Oz-like front men for the powers-that-be, the mega corporations whose sphere of influence extends from the newsroom to the nexus of political power, Washington, D.C.

Short of tuning out altogether, however, there is no way to completely ignore the mass media, but the following truths may help to refocus one's media lens in order to better view the news through the eyes of an informed citizen.

1. TV news is not what happened. Rather, it is what someone thinks is worth reporting. The old art of investigative reporting has largely been lost. In fact, investigative reporting on television news is practically impossible, as the medium requires fast-paced transitions that flicker across the screen before being replaced by a completely unrelated discussion. Nuance is the enemy of television news. Any hard-hitting investigative report is drowned out by flavor of the week sound bites.

For example, while the Internet was rife with the news that American soldiers had formed themselves into so-called "kill teams" in order to kill innocent civilians in Afghanistan, it rated barely a mention on TV news. Meanwhile, although at least 1,400 Americans have been arrested since 2009 for protesting in anti-war activities, the mainstream media has been strangely silent.

The media also continues to overlook outrageous abuses of power within our own country. There are an estimated 40,000 SWAT team raids of American homes each year, many of which go awry, resulting in the senseless loss of life and destruction of private property, and yet we don't hear a peep from the corporate media about this havoc being wrought in our cities and towns.

2. TV news is entertainment. It is important to distinguish between TV news that portrays itself as news but is actually entertainment, such as many of the morning news shows, as opposed to programming that may be informative but casts itself primarily as entertainment, such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. (Ironically, people who watch the latter type of shows tend to be more informed on the issues than those who watch the major media networks such as CNN and Fox News Channel.) There is also a good reason why the programs you watch are called news "shows" -- it's a signal that the so-called news is being delivered as a form of entertainment. Often, stories of some significance are sandwiched between banal pieces about celebrities and fictitious news events. "In the case of most news shows," write Neil Postman and Steve Powers in their insightful book, How to Watch TV News (1992), "the package includes attractive anchors, an exciting musical theme, comic relief, stories placed to hold the audience, the creation of the illusion of intimacy, and so on."

3. Never underestimate the power of commercials, especially to news audiences. Television news media exists because of corporate sponsorship. The glitz and glamour of the present-day news show is intended to keep you glued to the set so that a product can be sold to you. Although the news items spoon-fed to you may have some value, they are primarily a commodity to gather an audience, which will in turn be sold to corporate advertisers. Most people, believing themselves to be in control of their media consumption, are not really bothered by this. But TV is a two-way attack: it not only delivers programming to your home, it also delivers you (the consumer) to a sponsor.

4. It is vitally important to learn about the economic and political interests of those who own the "corporate" media. There are few independent news sources anymore. The major news outlets are owned by corporate empires. For example, General Electric owns a minority share in the entire stable of NBC shows, including MSNBC. CBS is owned by CBS Corporation, while Disney owns ABC. CNN is owned by the multi-corporation Time Warner, while Fox News Channel is owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

Whether it comes down to acquiring government contracts or avoiding government regulation, corporations have a vested interest in politics. To this end, the two major parties in this country are heavily bankrolled by corporate dollars. For example, Time Warner contributed about half a million dollars to Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2008. General Electric (GE) handed Obama about half a million dollars as well. This is not a partisan issue, either. GE gave McCain about $100,000 in 2008 and Kerry and Bush more than $100,000 each in 2004. In the 2010 election cycle, GE offered $1,378,560 to Democratic candidates and $900,710 to Republican candidates.

This begs the question: How can a corporate news network present objective news on any issue if it is financially supporting a political candidate or promoting a message to a specific audience? The answer is simple: it can't. "One doesn't have to be a Marxist," note Postman and Powers, "to assume that people making a million dollars a year will see things differently from people struggling to make ends meet."

5. Pay special attention to the language of newscasts and what is not being reported. More often than not, pundits and reporters tend to focus more on political games of one-upmanship rather than the real issues affecting the nation. For example, recent news reports have revolved around how the Republicans played hardball with the Democrats over the debt ceiling debate, and how the president used his "bully pulpit" to put pressure on Republicans to compromise. Not being discussed are the multitude of wars America is embroiled in, the continued dismantling of civil liberties in this country and the widening gap in wealth between the top 1 percent of Americans and the working and middle classes. The wool is being pulled over our eyes as the country continues to plunge into darkness.

6. Greatly reduce the amount of TV news you watch. TV news generally consists of "bad" news -- wars, torture, murders, scandals and so forth. In fact, one "study indicates that watching television, including news shows, makes people somewhat more depressed than they otherwise would be," say Postman and Powers. This may lead to chronic depression and constantly being alarmed. These feelings of depression and alarm ignited during the newscast are juxtaposed with advertisements offering stress relieving and distracting products, such as prescription medications, alcohol, food and consumer products.

7. One of the reasons many people are addicted to watching TV news is that they feel they must have an opinion on almost everything, which gives the illusion of participation in American life. Yet while it is certainly better to think for yourself, we often don't have enough information from the "news" source to form a true opinion. How can that be accomplished?

First of all, books are a great source of information that are often overlooked. Books allow for levels of breadth and depth of discussion of an issue that television cannot possibly provide. Major newspapers are still a decent source of information despite their falling profits and their selective discussion of certain issues. Local papers are most important because all political involvement begins at the local level. Understanding the issues facing your town and responding to them via letters to the editor is an effective way to start participating in society. It's certainly more effective than sitting on your couch and watching TV.

Finally, there is the Internet, which, as The Economist recently acknowledged in its special report on the news industry, "has also made possible entirely new kinds of specialist news organizations... All these new inhabitants of the news ecosystem have brought an unprecedented breadth and diversity of news and opinion to the business."

 
 
 

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