Media bias

Don’t watch the news, read it!

This first appeared in Reformed Perspective in 2000, and yet the thesis of this article is just as relevant for today’s Internet Age, as entertainment is an even bigger part of the news now.

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Entertainment is the news.

When the hit television series Seinfeld went off the air in 1998, all the major networks ran lengthy stories. The Hollywood press conference that announces the nominees for the Academy Awards receives coverage comparable to the president’s “State of the Union” address. And the box office tallies of the sequels to Jurassic Park and Star Wars become major network news stories.

In this day and age of giant conglomerates, a number of networks are now owned and operated by film studios, but there is no grand media conspiracy. There are plenty of independent news sources that provide competition. So who is responsible for the triumph of “infotainment” over information? It is us, the consumers of news. We allow television to be our main source of news, and this leads to three critical distortions in our lives.

1. Self-pity

Television news encourages self-pity. TV spokesmen talk a lot about the importance of the “news business,” but what they really mean is the “bad news business.” Except in small doses, good news simply doesn’t make for good television. The tube inevitably emphasizes violence, mayhem, death, destruction – it doesn’t matter if we are talking about battles, riots, train wrecks, or hurricanes – as long as it is visual, dramatic, and compelling. That is why news producers love wars and natural disasters.

Bad news is not only the lifeblood of the major networks but also the local news stations across the nation. A USA Today survey indicates that 73 per cent of the lead stories they air are devoted to coverage of some kind of natural disaster or violence.

Bad news literally drives out good news. To understand why this happens, try putting yourself in the position of a television news director. How do you make your show gripping? Do you show a computerized graph on the declining national crime rate or live footage of an elementary school shooting? Do you interview a small business owner who has created 100 new jobs in the plumbing industry or an environmental activist who claims to have proof of a deadly new toxic threat?

Do you run a lead story about a Detroit janitor who moonlights as a cabdriver so he can send his five children to a Christian school? Do you tell your cameramen to zoom in when he arrives home late at night, kisses his sons and daughters as they lie sleeping, and asks God’s blessing on them? It happens every night in Detroit, Cleveland, Saint Louis, Los Angeles, and New York.

But is it news? Never!

What if the same janitor arrives home and something snaps? He gets a pistol from the closet shoots his children, and then shoots himself. You don’t have to think about whether to run this story. Your decision is automatic: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

2. Shortened attention span

Television news encourages a short attention span and a lack of perspective. Forget about nuclear wars and germ warfare. The most destructive invention of the 20th century is the remote control. Channels magazine notes that the average adult male (who wins the gender and age battle over possession of the remote in most American households) changes stations every 19 minutes. If this keeps up, “channel surfing” will soon be an Olympic sport.

Imagine once again that you are a news director. You know that most guys are incapable of watching a half-hour program. How do you respond? By changing the entire nature of television in a desperate bid to keep viewers riveted. In the 1950s a typical camera shot lasted 35-50 seconds. In the 1990s it lasts 5 seconds. Commercials are even more frenetic, often switching images after only one second. Television sound bites have also been reduced to the point of absurdity. Forget about the interview subject who tells you what he thinks about the state of the economy of the defense budget in 25 words of less – you have to find someone who can do it in three words – and they better be pretty titillating, or they won’t make it onto the evening news.

Titillation is the new and ultimate entitlement of television viewers. We want to be excited by what we watch. It doesn’t matter if topics are presented in a thoughtful and thorough manner, just as long as we aren’t bored.

Who among us would tune into a broadcast of the Lincoln-Douglas debates today? We ought to remember what life was like before television. In 1858, 20,000 residents of Freeport, Illinois, heard presidential candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas speak for four hours without microphones, teleprompters or commercial breaks. In city after city, Lincoln and Douglas grappled with consequential issues, and they attracted huge audiences of ordinary citizens – farmers, laborers, shopkeepers, housewives, and even school children. Today, they would be hard-pressed to get an hour of airtime on PBS and even if they did their Nielsen ratings would be abysmal.

3. Superficiality and subjectivity

Our love affair with television has led to an obsession with appearance. Look at the current crop of anchormen and anchorwomen. Do you think they were chosen to read the news because they were at the top of their class in journalism school? Everything on television, even the “truth,” is subordinate to appearance.

Television is all about surface impressions and this means that intentions, feelings and desires take precedence over logic, substance and reality. Worse yet, television news infects viewers with what I call the “do-something disease.” It presents alarming stories about every imaginable tragedy – famine, cancer, illiteracy, pollution, you name it – and encourages viewers to feel that they should do something right away. It doesn’t matter if they can’t solve these problems. What does matter is they will feel a whole lot better.

Stop watching and start reading

Self-pity, lack of focus, superficiality, subjectivity – how do we deal with these? Do we try to improve the quality of television news, to make the medium work for us instead of against us? Certainly that is an important and worthwhile effort. It isn’t the ultimate solution, however, because the fundamental problem isn’t a lack of quality programming.

We now sit in front of the “boob tube,” 28 hours a week. We spend more time watching television than we do pursuing our careers, since we don’t retire, or take vacations, sick days, or weekends off from our favorite programs. We also spend more time watching television than we do reading to ourselves or to our children.

Best-selling novelist Larry Wolwode is right. Television is the “Cyclops who eats books.” When it comes to the news, this one-eyed monster also has an insatiable appetite for newspapers and magazines. But Cyclops in not all-powerful. We can defeat him Unlike the Greeks, we don’t need clever tricks or deception. Armed only with our remote controls, we can turn off this giant glowing eye.

Nearly all Americans say they want to cut down on TV viewing. Where is the best place to begin? By eliminating the time you spend on television news. Most material on the tube doesn’t pretend to reflect reality, but news broadcasts do, so they are particularly, potently poisonous.

The hour you spend each night watching local and network news could easily be redirected to reviewing not one but two newspapers in their entirety. Sure, print journalism has its own biases, but because of the way we read and comprehend it, we are more capable of compensating. Reinvesting your time in this way may not instantly change the world, but it can change your world and the way you respond to reality. And like and wisely planned reasoned investment it can pay long-term dividends.

Reprinted by permission, from IMPRIMIS the monthly journal of Hillsdale College. Be sure to check out the “sequel” to this piece, Don’t read the news, read a book.

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