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Robert J. Elisberg

Robert J. Elisberg

Posted March 17, 2009 | 10:51 AM (EST)

News for Twits


Just because you can do something never means you should.

The automobile, for instance, was a great invention. However, using it as a nutcracker by rolling over a cashew is a lousy idea. It would work. But it would be very bad for the cashew.

Which brings us to Twitter. And Facebook. And MySpace. All perfectly swell technologies, if that's your interest.

But when TV news venues start using them as part of actual news, it's...well, very bad for the cashew.

RicK Sanchez on CNN might be the most egregious offender. As someone always balancing the fine line between being an adventurous news professional and circus geek ("Okay, Taser me!!"), Sanchez has breathlessly turned his daily broadcast into a clearinghouse of meaningless shorthand, from his desk at Twit Central.

"Let's go to our Facebook page and see what they're Twittering on MySpace. Here's what FlannelGuy21 says about our story on Iraqi military strategy- 'Rick, the Iraqis can't control their own country.' Interesting thought, FlannelGuy21. And ChiChiChi in Elko sent this about our story last hour on Octomom - 'Rick, she needs a lobotomy.'"

Meanwhile, half the TV screen is covered with the text of these inanities, as even more scroll by the bottom. And it's spilled over to pretty much all cable news networks.

"Let's see now what MaryQuiteContrary thinks about the devastating tsunami crushing Sri Lanka. - 'Norah, the pictures are heartbreaking.'"

Stop it.

When I'm watching the news, I don't care what the viewers have to say.

If I wanted to hear what others have to say when I'm watching the news, I'd call up my friend Myles Berkowitz and listen to him yell at his TV screen.

And before anyone gets up in arms thinking that's elitist - if I sent my own 140-character Twitter comment into a news show, no one should care about my "Tweet" either.

This is the news. It actually matters. If you are concerned about losing your job, you know it matters. If your home mortgage is on the edge, you know it matters. If you know someone fighting in Iraq, if you don't have health insurance, you know it matters.

When I watch a situation comedy, I don't want it interrupted every few minutes with "Great joke! - CarpetBlogger186" scrolling by. I expect no less from a newscast.

Most stories important enough to get on a national broadcast have many layers and require thoughtful analysis. When you limit opinion to 28 words, you get opinions that are worth only 28 words. Worse, it's 28 instant words, spit out so they R able 2 B the first submitted. Finely-tuned wisdom is the first casualty.

But the bigger problem is that it's done without having a clue about who's giving you their world-wise opinion. When I hear opinion from someone, I want to know who they are, so that I can put it in perspective. For all you know, "TubeSoxGuy," is the town klaboon who, if you met him, you'd look around for the nearest psychiatrist. (And "he" may be a her...) Or it might be someone hiding behind anonymity trying to game the results. Anyone unwilling to stand behind their real name when giving an opinion is giving a opinion not worth standing behind.

No doubt, there are those sputtering at such blasphemy. "Get with the times." "You have your head up your butt." "Idiot." "Who cares about your opinion, pinwad?"

Fair enough. But at least I put my real name to it. And embarrassing picture.

Having Twits in the middle of a newscast is like walking through a restaurant and overhearing snatches of conversations from total strangers. You rarely pay attention. At best, after sitting down you say, "You won't believe the stupid thing I just heard."

Yet put those same anonymous snatches on TV during a newscast, and suddenly people think it has deep meaning. Sorry, it still doesn't. It's a pointless distraction.

When I turn on a newscast...I want to hear news.

And that's all I'm talking about: having to listen to Twits during a news broadcast.

Twitter, Facebook and MySpace all have their place. But it isn't in the middle of a newscast. If networks want to create a program devoted solely to viewer comments, go ahead - just like there is value in having people posting their comments after an online story, or a newspaper providing a "Letters to the Editor" section. But in all these, others can make their own choice whether to read these opinions or not.

But when they're blended into a newscast, you're stuck.

I understand why TV newscasts use Twitterish services. They think it makes them current. They think being "interactive" will build loyalty. But their efforts are backwards. When you interrupt real news, serious news, important news with 28-word, anonymous, empty commentary, you are saying that's all your news is worth. You are diminishing your own efforts.

When you diminish yourself, you drive people away. And those that stay only want to see the side show.

There is a satiric ad running now on ESPN. It features two hosts at their SportsCenter desk, asking viewers to text in which host they'd like to present the next story - or if they'd like to see a rollerskating parrot dunk a basketball. The commercial ends with the viewer choice. We see a roller-skating cockatoo dunk a basketball.

If a network wants to put on entertainment, great, put on entertainment. If they want to put on snap, anonymous commentary, wonderful, do so. But when you choose to put on news - then put on news. News matters. Investigation matters. Reporting matters. Their absence brings us eight years of George Bush, Iraq and economic collapse. Save the roller-skating cockatoo for the circus.