The Summer of Our (Media) Discontent
By Neil Earle
You don’t have to be a Rush Limbaugh Ditto Head or a rabid Trumper to think that all is not well with our national news media – especially on television.
Nice to know I’m not alone with this. On August 8 Peter Rosenberger wrote in the Commercial Appeal on the topic of "Outrage: Our new political pastime."
As a professional caregiver he decried "the rage-fuelled tweeters, commentators and marchers who are wearing genitialia on their heads" and "the voices (on TV mostly) berating us about what we should rage at today."
A Wild Ride
Media coverage on television has been this summer’s wild wild ride. Consider the dozens and dozens of hours given to Stormy Daniel's lawyer, the admittedly poignant and complicated Separation Crisis at the Borders (policies 4 Presidents endorsed), the comparison of President Trump's brief Helsinki meeting to 9/11 and the minor flaps over the latest “tell alls” from angry White House staffers to the resurrection of Bob Woodward of Watergate. How ironic that Woodward claims to be an inveterate “taper” of sources when challenged. He was expert on what tapes did to Number One Taper President Nixon. And how about (dare we say it) the excessive drawn-out coverage given to Senator John McCain’s last rites.
What a summer for pressing all our emotional buttons.
Television can work; can perform an almost “Bardic” function in knitting us together as a collective community. Many can remember the 3-4 days coverage given to President Kennedy’s death and burial in 1963 and the moon landing in 1969 – public events that the camera was able to mediate with taste and moderation. Or helping process the Challenger space shuttle tragedy in 1986. But too much of a good thing is – as the wise man said – too much of a good thing.
Nervous System Overwrought
Neil Postman wrote in the 1980s about TV’s disturbing downside – its penchant for immediacy at all costs and the feeling of “being there” that can be so easily manipulated. In "Amusing Ourselves to Death" Postman bewailed the fusion of TV entertainment and politics – a phenomenon hardly needing comment today considering the careers of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
What we see lately is an intensification of that trend – the tendency for entertainment figures – quite accomplished in themselves – to migrate into news reporting. Think of both NBC and FOX news. There are major downsides here. Entertainment figures are trained in what Aristotle called “Spectacle,” dramatists used to turning most every important subject into an over-the-top emotionalized experience. Getting attention! Example: a report ending the separation anxieties at the border with “The Statue of Liberty is weeping tonight” forgetting, as one commentator mentioned, “Lady Liberty also holds a book in her left hand – the emblem of thought!”
In a technological society news media have been compared to the body’s central nervous system. This summer’s “news” meltdowns seemed to show a system in near nervous overdrive. Too often the networks (especially the cable networks) resemble, in Rosenberger's humorous analogy, a shrill version of the Brady Bunch grid or Hollywood Squares with “fuming pundits shouting over each other."
Back in the 1990s some schools and colleges began to offer classes on how to critically watch the news and to be alert to the distortions that easily get in there when complicated subjects (lots of them today!) get compressed into a 30 second sound bite. Or less.
Edward Jay Epstein exposed a documentary “Hunger in America” featuring the sad graphic of a supposedly starving child which was actually a baby suffering from premature birth. It was justified as “well, in that area children were dying of malnutrition.” This is subtle deception, the codes of “show business” intruding on the facts. Epstein cited how so much “news” is actually “olds” – consider how many times we are shown dated footage of terrified high schoolers fleeing Parkland School back in February. He felt that a good majority of the footage we watch is just that – “Olds” or as my discerning World War II veteran father-in-law used to retort: “a rehash.”
Right now in sports reportage it is hard to separate older taped “flashbacks” from “now” happenings. It’s all more than a little disorienting.
CBS News veteran Goldberg thinks TV news can be much better.
The “Star” System
Much much more can be said but the major worrisome trend in the United States especially is to turn journalists into “stars.” Culture historians know it was the emergence of the “star system” in early Hollywood that made America the movie capital of the world – stable recurring figures mass audiences can easily identify. Think of Charlie Chaplin.
There is probably no way to completely “fix” this glamour system that now pervades television news except to be aware of it. Especially when “stars” make snarky editorial comments or asides when finishing a report. Example: a report on the Mueller investigation ended with they're "closing in." That was a year ago! This trend is much more pronounced in the age of Trump.
What can we do? We can always write back. That apparently unsettles news editors who are the real gatekeepers of what gets on the air. During a writer’s strike ten years ago it was eye-opening to see how hamstrung some of the glib hosts were without their backstage craftsmen. It was illustrative of what media critics concluded long ago, that news production is just that – a major business enterprise subject to the constraints of budgeting (“we’ve sent a whole team they must get something!”), time pressures (more pronounced on TV vs. newspapers and magazines), and above all, what “sells” (media share). “Choosing the narrative” plays in here – if all police are evil than each incident fits a pattern. Not hardly!
Finally, a dash of good news. Driving to Memphis from Los Angeles in November, 2017 traversing 7 states and 1700 miles my wife and I found the heartland (not perfect of course) but (thank God!) in much better shape than we see represented on the nightly news. It’s a world more like Steve Hartman’s folksy follow-ups on CBS each night than the hyped up breathless cable “News Alerts” which can make you think the roof is caving in. The real news is scary enough. We don’t need the hype. Really we don’t.
(Recent Memphis resident and journalist Neil Earle is author of "Uneasy in Eden: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in American Popular Culture.")