Monday, October 27, 2008

TV Wasteland

My blogging has been less frequent than usual because I’ve been recovering from carpal tunnel surgeries. Regrettably, I’ve been spending a lot of time watching the cable news networks. Hey, I already knew that TV news was a joke, but I never realized the full extent of the imbecility before.

For the most part, the news shows display a phony concern for “balance,” a stance which has become meaningless because it has been drained of content. What you get is a supposed conservative squaring off against a supposed liberal, both spouting talking points instead of imparting information, and both confined within the most narrow and superficial “centrist” mindset.

The presidential election is covered almost exclusively in the aspect of who’s winning, who’s behind, what the candidate that is behind will or must do to catch up, what the one that is ahead will or must do to stay ahead, what the latest speeches say about the campaign strategies, and endless variations on the “horse race” theme. Pity the viewer seeking insight into the actual problems and issues facing us, because the coverage only provides the most rudimentary information on that, mixed up with huge wads of “spin” that bear no relevance to any of the aforesaid actual problems and issues.

This is emphasized in the presidential race—but in fact, all the political coverage follows the same model. In addition, we have the usual tornadoes and hurricanes, along with lurid crimes and celebrity show biz stories. Last year, as you may recall, the death of a former Playboy bunny took up more air time than all the political news from Europe, Africa, and Asia combined. Somehow the purveyors of this rubbish can look themselves in the mirror and think that they represent a legitimate source of news.

One of the excuses we hear is that with 24 hours to fill up, the cable news networks have to rely on junk. But the truth is that they’re lazy, greedy, and dishonest.

To illustrate my point, take a look at Democracy Now, Amy Goodman’s daily news show that is broadcast on community radio and public access TV. Let me say first of all that I don’t idolize Amy Goodman. She has her blind spots, like any journalist. Nevertheless, Democracy Now is the most important non-corporate news program in the country.

Every day, on a shoestring budget, the show covers a wide range of issues, and features interviews and guests that you almost never see anywhere else. Goodman provides a voice for many authors, representatives of organizations, political figures, activists, and ordinary people. During the Democratic convention, for example, she would interview delegates and give them a good ten or fifteen minutes to talk, and you would learn more from these interviews about the feel of the convention than you would from an entire day of CNN. Her guests have the time to go into detail about events, issues, and problems, in a way that facilitates greater understanding.

Her approach, admittedly, is left-wing alternative, although occasionally someone from the right will agree to be on the show and be given the opportunity to explain his or her positions and debate others with different views. If the networks were to follow her methods, they might justifiably include many more establishment figures, as well as conservative, centrist, and liberal guests, etc. But the point is that there are a lot of people out there who could and should be allowed to speak and be heard.

What the networks give us instead are the same people over and over again, ad nauseam. The same political consultants and operatives, the same pundits, the same columnists, are repeatedly interviewed. In addition, CNN has a “team” of commentators who sit, inexplicably, at little computer screens, and offer up the same pablum week after week. On MSNBC, they have a resident right-wing crank, Pat Buchanan. On almost every show, the host will eventually say, “Now we’ll have a discussion with so-and-so and Pat Buchanan” and out trots the right-wing crank for the millionth time. On ABC’s Sunday show This Week we are privy to discussions between Cokie Roberts, George Will, and Sam Donaldson, all desiccated Beltway insiders who haven’t said anything new or insightful in twenty years or more.

I won’t even bother to describe Rupert Murdoch’s Jim Crow channel, which is a nothing but a wingnut propaganda organ that no one with self-respect should ever agree to appear on.

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, it should be noted, is more informative than most cable network hosts, yet there is still a reliance on a small group of repeat guests. Rachel Maddow’s show demonstrates some progress in the right direction, but I think there are corporate restraints at work even in her case. I really didn’t encounter, for example, a strong, principled dissenting view on the bailout from watching Maddow’s show.

The excuse that there’s not enough funding for real reporting won’t cut it. Goodman’s show does real reporting every day, on a microscopic fragment of the networks’ budgets. I think the networks could easily fill 24 hours with a huge variety of voices and viewpoints, along with important news from around the world.

They don’t want to. And one doesn’t need to resort to notions of an overt conspiracy in order to understand the reason. Corporate news is set up to make money for advertisers, and to do that one simply needs to “entertain” the audience and stay within a certain narrow framework of information and opinion. The news that is conveyed on Democracy Now doesn’t fit within that framework because it reveals the darker aspects of governments and corporations. Someone working at CNN or MSNBC doesn’t need to be told not to go there—if you’ve climbed the career ladder high enough to get on these networks, you already know how to toe the line without it being explicitly drawn.

As far as PBS and NPR are concerned, they aim at a more educated audience, but their range is still circumscribed, and the right regularly threatens to cut off their funding when they don’t behave. The honorable exception: Bill Moyers, who was not so subtly squeezed off the air during the Bushevik heyday, and finally made a comeback when public opinion started to catch up with him. This brings up another important insight—the TV talking heads only come around when it’s perceived to be “safe” to do so. When Bush’s poll numbers went into the toilet, people like Chris Matthews finally started to voice skepticism. Even so, a comprehensive, critical understanding of the real damage done by the Bush regime is still lacking on network TV. It’s always framed in terms of popularity—Bush is unpopular now; the war is unpopular; etc. The alarming extent of the corruption and degradation of the country and the world is skimmed over. We now go on to the next distraction as if it had no connection to what went on before.

Can you think of an instance in which TV news has broken a national story within the last forty years? 60 Minutes might have done it once or twice—the rest is smoke and mirrors. Then there was the Dan Rather story on Bush’s desertion from the Texas National Guard—which turned out to be a Rovian trap, even though the facts were there. TV news doesn’t break stories. It doesn’t really practice journalism in the true sense. It just receives information from official sources and then chatters over it incessantly.

The newspapers are still the only news sources that actually “break” stories in the classic fashion, but that’s also become rare. Most of the revelations nowadays come from whistle blowers and other people and organizations outside of the media, such as Amnesty International, who courageously bring things to public attention that would otherwise be ignored by the press. We should be grateful for these truth tellers, but most of the time they are attacked and demonized.

There is one more saving grace I must mention—the internet. Oh, it’s not all that the starry-eyed proponents of online community would have us believe, but it’s made a difference. Before the web, the corporate media completely monopolized the political narrative. It was almost impossible for regular citizens to have their views heard in any meaningful way. The internet showed progressives that they were not alone, and that the dominant narrative was far to the right of where most people in the country really were. I’m sure the right-wing establishment hates the internet and wish it could be suppressed and controlled. The corporatists are still trying, and they mustn’t succeed. There’s a sense in which the Fourth Estate—the real one, not the faux press you see on TV—has taken refuge in the blogosphere.

We will need a free press in the struggles ahead. In the meantime, don’t watch too much television. It warps your mind.


Cahors said...

Dashiell: I want to add an additional reason for despising TV news: it squanders the medium. For God’s sake, the technology of television allows moving images gathered all across this planet (even from space! even live events!) to be broadcast directly into our living rooms for our consumption! What a marvel! Think of the possibilities. Video of actual events – battles, protests, speeches – you name it. But do we see that on TV news? No. All we see are the heads of blithering gas bags yakking at us incessantly. It’s basically radio with far less intelligent people speaking. It drives me nuts.

Oh, well, we do sometimes get to see when we see actual events on TV. Only it’s usually some weatherman getting rained on, a drunk wife-beater being arrested by the LAPD, or a first-term Congressman making a motion to recognize bouillon as the official soup of the mid-Atlantic (and then yielding the remainder of his 2 minutes to the honorable gentleman from Alabama).

Anonymous said...

i count on jon stewart for all my news. i like his perspective. and by contrast to the major news stations, he's thorough, insightful and even more hilarious.

Liberality said...

For many years we did not have a televsion. Even now, I rarely watch it. When the signal goes in February it's bye-bye, so long and don't let the door hit ya as far as I'm concerned.

Cujo359 said...

There are a couple of TV shows I still watch, but they are fewer and farther between as time goes on. Most of my entertainment comes on DVDs or image files.

The news on TV is a complete waste. PBS can't even do it right any more, largely for the reasons you mentioned.

The Internet still needs strong news organizations. Reuters and the BBC seem to be doing a good job, as does Bloomberg. Beyond that, either I don't ever visit or, like the AP, they're too busy being a political organ.

The Internet isn't much, but these days it seems like it's all we have.