Friday, August 15, 2014
News: First and Fluffy
Network news has reached new lows. I have already discussed how they go to extremes to remind us how we “heard it here first.” It doesn’t matter that to be the first to tell us often means being able to give us an only incomplete story.
This is an appeal to people with poor perspective, the ability to distinguish the substantive from the trivial. Whether we heard it first or ten hours later usually makes no difference. It will not change our choices about what to have for dinner or how to spend the evening – or the next day. If the need for us to know is urgent, we will hear it from neighbors or the authorities. Sirens go off and we take cover. To hear it first is important only if we compare ourselves with others and feel inferior or left out when we are not the first to know the latest news.
Now the immediacy of the news can take a back seat to the latest trend of turning to light, humorous, and cute stories. It’s just fluff and a waste of time for anyone expecting serious news. Last week on NBC Nightly News two stories appeared in close succession. First we were told that Bill Cosby was going to return to television with a new series – and surprise! – It was going to be carried on NBC. This was no more than a commercial message thinly disguised as news. Next was a story about a prank where a police department covered an officer’s car with colored sticky notes as an anniversary surprise. The following night on the CBS Evening News they presented first, a very short piece about a girl who was carried away by a Tsunami ten years ago but recently reunited with her family – sweet, but not really world news. The next was about a toddler who squeezed through the fence at the White House causing minor problems for the Secret Service – cute, but not really news. (This same story was covered in my local newspaper in a short item under the heading of “Odd-ball” news, almost word-for-word, including the little joke about giving him a time-out instead of arresting him.) They wrapped up with a piece about a happiness formula taken from a psychological study. The story implied that our satisfaction with results is highly dependent upon our prior expectations, but it was covered so cursorily that it left me wondering why they even bothered. It has been some time since we last watched ABC news, referring to it as the puppy-dog and kitty-cat news, where you can always depend on a cute story captured off YouTube or Facebook of animals or cute kids based on its tens of thousands of hits on the Internet. (CBS seems to acknowledge this trend when they boast of “more real news,” but immediately undermine their credibility with video of a baby seal climbing onto a surfboard.)
I wonder that Brian Williams and Scott Pelley are not embarrassed to call themselves journalists. It’s not like other, far more important things aren’t going on in the world. Take for example the serious anti-Semitic protests and violence all over Europe.
We get the news we ask for, the news we deserve. As long as the networks and their sponsors detect low standards in the rest of our behavior, not only tolerating, but craving, this kind of intellectual Pablum, in the form of cute kittens and Funniest-Home-Video-style shots to the crotch, this is what they will continue to serve up. Of course maybe the CBS story was right in that if I had lower expectations going in, I would be happier about the news I get when I turn on the TV.