Thursday, August 11, 2005

Bigger, Better, Blonder
There's an interesting article over at Alternet this morning by Tony Seton, a journalist who worked with Peter Jennings on the old AM America show and on World News Tonight. Seton suggests that Jennings, Tom Brokaw, and Dan Rather are complicit in the dumbing-down of American TV journalism over the last 25 years or so because, as managing editors of their broadcasts, they must take reponsibility for what their shows reported--and didn't report.
Let's make clear, too, that they weren't told what to say by their corporate bosses. And the result of their tenure that jumps out is the 50 percent decline in the television audience watching them every night.

Some might ascribe the drop in ratings to the wider choice presented by cable and satellite, but that is only part of the picture. The larger truth is that after Walter Cronkite left in 1981, the quality of the network news began to slip. The focus shifted from the steak to the sizzle. It was apparent in the ratio of features to hard news, a programming decision designed to attract more viewers for the "entertainment" value of such programming.

Another proof of the slide was the commercials, which shifted toward targeting an older audience, the only people still watching, mostly out of habit. Network news became something of a palliative, losing its relevance in a complicated world that required more time and better writing to explain. The producers, abetted by the anchors, decided the audience wouldn't sit still for any explanations that required thought, so they fed them pathos and pictures.
I especially like the point that network news lost its relevance "in a complicated world that required more time and better writing to explain," mostly because it echoes one of my recurring themes in this blog--that it's harder to be well-informed now than it used to be. As Seton notes, evening news executives always used to claim they were a headline service, and that newspapers had to provide the depth. But even though TV finally has the time, because there are entire 24-hour cable channels devoted to news, isn't it odd that we're still waiting for the depth?

A corresponding problem is not that TV news operations are trying to explain hard stuff and doing it badly--it's that they aren't talking about hard stuff much at all anymore. At the Huffington Post on Tuesday, Bob Cesca noted that CNN had devoted a great deal of time over the previous few days to Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, why men have nipples, and a man who forgot his wife at a gas station. Meanwhile, Karl Rove's (real) treason, dead Marines in Iraq, the corporate welfare-stuffed energy bill, the pork-stuffed highway bill, all of that hard-to-understand, unsexy stuff, gets kicked to the curb because it's less entertaining to the customers than repeating the word "nipples" on the air. And last night, after a day on which Iran restarted its nuke program, Cindy Sheehan continued her campout in Crawford, and more pre-9/11 intelligence failures were revealed, Fox News apparently devoted two more goddamn hours to the Natalee Holloway case--and promoted heavily throughout the day its intention to do so.

The counterargument from the news producers is "We're just giving the people what they want." That's OK--if you're manufacturing widgets, or, to use a more media-centric example, if you're a guy sitting at his dining-room table writing a low-rent blog. But if TV news execs want to keep talking about the importance of their calling and the vital leadership role they play in American democracy, then excusing their laziness and vapidity by saying they're only giving the people what they want isn't something to be proud of.

Quote of the Day: In his Alternet piece, Seton goes a bit overboard into the sort of lefty hyperbole that occasionally mars Alternet by suggesting that Jennings, Brokaw, and Rather committed treason through omission. But he gets off a good line by describing them as "color commentators as the naked emperor paraded his perversion through the corridors of power."

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