I am mindful of the dual responsibilities given to me by the grant of this space: to inform and to provoke. Though the ability to amuse does not come naturally, sometimes I attempt this also. Without occasional humor neither you nor I could tolerate me. Without challenging the status quo I could not justify my effort in writing or your time in reading.
So it once was with television news.
Television news once informed, and provoked, and challenged the status quo. Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, went so far as to lend his unscripted voice to the opposition of the Vietnam War. Who today can imagine an anchorperson standing up to his corporate handlers and denouncing the war? He or she would be taken off the air as quick as the control room could cut to the next commercial of yet another prescription pill about which we’re urged to ask our doctor.
It is not with local news that today I pick a fight. Local news does best when it stays local, when it picks up the little things going on in our home towns and places them under the magnifying lens of television for us to better see why it is we like living where we do. When it turns its lenses on bigger things, national matters, for instance, the lenses have the unfortunate effect of making the local news look smaller, almost silly.
Which is why, ever since the early days of television, Americans have relied on the national networks to provide them with thirty minutes of evening news, telling the day laborer all the marvelous and terrible things they missed that happened last night and today all over this world. For those with the time, the morning newspaper has always been invaluable, and before television its news was exclusive. But since the advent of television its value has come more from its in-depth analysis of the stories already caught on the television news last evening.
However, newspaper readership is sadly on the decline in America. In this age of frenetic mornings leading off overlong workdays sandwiched by lengthy drive times and followed by overbooked evenings, fewer of us have time to read the instructions on our microwaveable meals, let alone the newspaper.
In this age of new media, we want our information the same as we want our food: fast, and already prepared for our quick consumption.
Which brings me to my point, dear and patient reader.
For more and more of us, television news is the only way we get news, assuming we get any at all. Sure, some of us find our fill of news by browsing through the ubiquitous internet news and opinion sites. This one, for instance.
But more likely is that if we’re logging on, we're only just catching up with our cyber-societies of like-minded folk joined in manic Internet blab accomplishing little more than reinforcing each other’s indignation.
With such an awesome responsibility as often the sole harbinger of news good and bad, we should expect much from our television media. Instead, we get the titillation of the trivial. We get breathless blondes reporting on missing blondes. We get entirely uncritical fascination with unreal celebrities. We get insipid “conversations” between shouting talking heads. And worst of all, we get utterly spineless reporting with no edge, no slash and bite, no grabbing on and not letting go.
Television news no longer provides genuine news about the world. Instead it mostly settles for brief and superficial words and images. It serves only to draw in the highest viewership to generate the highest advertising dollar for the most shareholder profit.
And it does so by competing in the business of fear.
Truthfulness and accuracy have little pull at all anymore; only the most fantastical, the most horrible, and the most simplified are served up for public consumption. And we eat it, and eat it greedily, until we’ve become obese in mind and scared in spirit.
There’s so much newsworthy going on in this vast and wonderful world of ours every day. Good news and bad pours forth day after day, much of it trite and dull and boring, but so much more so necessary and fascinating that we require computers and newspapers, radios and televisions to grab at it all for bits and pieces for which to keep in hopes of one day understanding some part of how the larger world works.
So when broadcast media, the only source of news for many of us, is more interested in pursuing audience share and turning a profit, it fails in its basic journalistic responsibilities to serve as witness to injustice and as watchdog over the powerful, and we're all the poorer for it.