TV Wasteland


My blogging has been less frequent than usual because I’ve been recovering from carpal tunnel surgeries. Regrettably, I’ve been spending a lot of time watching the cable news networks. Hey, I already knew that TV news was a joke, but I never realized the full extent of the imbecility before.

For the most part, the news shows display a phony concern for “balance,” a stance which has become meaningless because it has been drained of content. What you get is a supposed conservative squaring off against a supposed liberal, both spouting talking points instead of imparting information, and both confined within the most narrow and superficial “centrist” mindset.

The presidential election is covered almost exclusively in the aspect of who’s winning, who’s behind, what the candidate that is behind will or must do to catch up, what the one that is ahead will or must do to stay ahead, what the latest speeches say about the campaign strategies, and endless variations on the “horse race” theme. Pity the viewer seeking insight into the actual problems and issues facing us, because the coverage only provides the most rudimentary information on that, mixed up with huge wads of “spin” that bear no relevance to any of the aforesaid actual problems and issues.

This is emphasized in the presidential race—but in fact, all the political coverage follows the same model. In addition, we have the usual tornadoes and hurricanes, along with lurid crimes and celebrity show biz stories. Last year, as you may recall, the death of a former Playboy bunny took up more air time than all the political news from Europe, Africa, and Asia combined. Somehow the purveyors of this rubbish can look themselves in the mirror and think that they represent a legitimate source of news.

One of the excuses we hear is that with 24 hours to fill up, the cable news networks have to rely on junk. But the truth is that they’re lazy, greedy, and dishonest.

To illustrate my point, take a look at Democracy Now, Amy Goodman’s daily news show that is broadcast on community radio and public access TV. Let me say first of all that I don’t idolize Amy Goodman. She has her blind spots, like any journalist. Nevertheless, Democracy Now is the most important non-corporate news program in the country.

Every day, on a shoestring budget, the show covers a wide range of issues, and features interviews and guests that you almost never see anywhere else. Goodman provides a voice for many authors, representatives of organizations, political figures, activists, and ordinary people. During the Democratic convention, for example, she would interview delegates and give them a good ten or fifteen minutes to talk, and you would learn more from these interviews about the feel of the convention than you would from an entire day of CNN. Her guests have the time to go into detail about events, issues, and problems, in a way that facilitates greater understanding.

Her approach, admittedly, is left-wing alternative, although occasionally someone from the right will agree to be on the show and be given the opportunity to explain his or her positions and debate others with different views. If the networks were to follow her methods, they might justifiably include many more establishment figures, as well as conservative, centrist, and liberal guests, etc. But the point is that there are a lot of people out there who could and should be allowed to speak and be heard.

What the networks give us instead are the same people over and over again, ad nauseam. The same political consultants and operatives, the same pundits, the same columnists, are repeatedly interviewed. In addition, CNN has a “team” of commentators who sit, inexplicably, at little computer screens, and offer up the same pablum week after week. On MSNBC, they have a resident right-wing crank, Pat Buchanan. On almost every show, the host will eventually say, “Now we’ll have a discussion with so-and-so and Pat Buchanan” and out trots the right-wing crank for the millionth time. On ABC’s Sunday show This Week we are privy to discussions between Cokie Roberts, George Will, and Sam Donaldson, all desiccated Beltway insiders who haven’t said anything new or insightful in twenty years or more.

I won’t even bother to describe Rupert Murdoch’s Jim Crow channel, which is a nothing but a wingnut propaganda organ that no one with self-respect should ever agree to appear on.

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, it should be noted, is more informative than most cable network hosts, yet there is still a reliance on a small group of repeat guests. Rachel Maddow’s show demonstrates some progress in the right direction, but I think there are corporate restraints at work even in her case. I really didn’t encounter, for example, a strong, principled dissenting view on the bailout from watching Maddow’s show.

The excuse that there’s not enough funding for real reporting won’t cut it. Goodman’s show does real reporting every day, on a microscopic fragment of the networks’ budgets. I think the networks could easily fill 24 hours with a huge variety of voices and viewpoints, along with important news from around the world.

They don’t want to. And one doesn’t need to resort to notions of an overt conspiracy in order to understand the reason. Corporate news is set up to make money for advertisers, and to do that one simply needs to “entertain” the audience and stay within a certain narrow framework of information and opinion. The news that is conveyed on Democracy Now doesn’t fit within that framework because it reveals the darker aspects of governments and corporations. Someone working at CNN or MSNBC doesn’t need to be told not to go there—if you’ve climbed the career ladder high enough to get on these networks, you already know how to toe the line without it being explicitly drawn.

As far as PBS and NPR are concerned, they aim at a more educated audience, but their range is still circumscribed, and the right regularly threatens to cut off their funding when they don’t behave. The honorable exception: Bill Moyers, who was not so subtly squeezed off the air during the Bushevik heyday, and finally made a comeback when public opinion started to catch up with him. This brings up another important insight—the TV talking heads only come around when it’s perceived to be “safe” to do so. When Bush’s poll numbers went into the toilet, people like Chris Matthews finally started to voice skepticism. Even so, a comprehensive, critical understanding of the real damage done by the Bush regime is still lacking on network TV. It’s always framed in terms of popularity—Bush is unpopular now; the war is unpopular; etc. The alarming extent of the corruption and degradation of the country and the world is skimmed over. We now go on to the next distraction as if it had no connection to what went on before.

Can you think of an instance in which TV news has broken a national story within the last forty years? 60 Minutes might have done it once or twice—the rest is smoke and mirrors. Then there was the Dan Rather story on Bush’s desertion from the Texas National Guard—which turned out to be a Rovian trap, even though the facts were there. TV news doesn’t break stories. It doesn’t really practice journalism in the true sense. It just receives information from official sources and then chatters over it incessantly.

The newspapers are still the only news sources that actually “break” stories in the classic fashion, but that’s also become rare. Most of the revelations nowadays come from whistle blowers and other people and organizations outside of the media, such as Amnesty International, who courageously bring things to public attention that would otherwise be ignored by the press. We should be grateful for these truth tellers, but most of the time they are attacked and demonized.

There is one more saving grace I must mention—the internet. Oh, it’s not all that the starry-eyed proponents of online community would have us believe, but it’s made a difference. Before the web, the corporate media completely monopolized the political narrative. It was almost impossible for regular citizens to have their views heard in any meaningful way. The internet showed progressives that they were not alone, and that the dominant narrative was far to the right of where most people in the country really were. I’m sure the right-wing establishment hates the internet and wish it could be suppressed and controlled. The corporatists are still trying, and they mustn’t succeed. There’s a sense in which the Fourth Estate—the real one, not the faux press you see on TV—has taken refuge in the blogosphere.

We will need a free press in the struggles ahead. In the meantime, don’t watch too much television. It warps your mind.


~ by cdash on October 29, 2008.

12 Responses to “TV Wasteland”

  1. Great post! I want to wish you well on your recovery. On the cable channels, there really isn’t news anymore. A vast majority of each segment is analysis which is really nothing more than opinion. Even with there is no political news, those channels are more likely to cover dead or missing white women than the wars we’re fighting. Democracy Now is a great program. I like the news on BBCAmerica, too.

    You know, I realize that I’m just as bad as people who watch reality t.v. (and I mock those people like a snob!) I watch MSNBC for the same trainwreck qualities! I’m so ashamed.

  2. One of the highlights of my years as a newspaper reporter was while covering a high profile case in court one day. A seasoned veteran pointed to the TV media peeps across the courtroom and advised me to “Do the exact opposite of what they do.”

    Moyers rocks, and thanks for the heads up on Democracy Now.

  3. CDash, nice job here. But in a recent training class I took here at my job, the instructor made the statement that the average American’s attention span for information is 12 minutes. I’m sure the powers that be at CNN, MSNBC et al. know this and structure their programming as such. The question for me is this: Is the average attention span — if in fact this statement were true — a product of the programming on news shows or is this phenomena, in fact, something inherently human? I would like to think that it’s the former, but the explosion of cable television in the last 20 years and it’s many programming choices provides a ballast against that notion.

  4. This was a very well-written and carefully thought-out post.

    Since we are now getting most of our “news” from places other than the “papers of record” (and, in fact, those former “papers of record” are struggling for there mere survival), we are faced with options that have either very high cost of production and therefore subject to the whims of advertisers and the constituencies of those advertisers. We have cable “news” … or as dcup so correctly points out, more likely ” cable opinion and a little bit of news” and network news that is marginal at best due to time constraints. And then there is the blogosphere, in my mind an excellent source of opinion of every stripe and quality you can imagine and the occasional “breaking” news story, in the end not a very reliable place to turn for unadulterated facts, not to mention that some of the larger blogs (salon, huffington, etc., receive very large amounts of financial support from corporation.

    So where to go … Amy Goodman, of course. And the attemps, by the Right, to silence her reporting is extremely disconcerting. I sill like NPR and PBS, for all their faults. NPR gave Naomi Klein loads of coverage when her book first came out (although, to be honest, I think some of her economic analysis leaves something to be desired, but her heart is in the right place.)

    Anyway, it’s a huge connumdrum. And once again Dcup has a fine answer: the BBC. That’s always where I go when I want to read “real” reporting.

  5. … oops, i meant i go to the BBC when i want to “WATCH” real reporting, not “READ.”


  6. Excellent points Dash. As you know i have been dabbling in freelance journalism for aqbout 3.5 years now. I have been on the receiving end of damning information more than a few times.
    The fact is no one including newspaper editors (with whom i have a rapport) television news and sometimes even me want to face the potential backlash that can result from disclosing this stuff.
    A great example would be the violent death of a local cop. It was disclosed to me by more a than few people on the wrong side of the law that he was a shakedown artist. The details of his death completely align with this theory yet the City administration is going to name a public safety center (in da’ hood) after him.
    What an insult to the people he was supposed to serve and protect.
    it is common knowledge the integrity of this individual is inj question but no one wants to constantly deal with a revenge minded police force.
    if i wasn’t soo poor (financially) I would not be so afraid of the blackball, but i am (poor).
    Actually I’m not (afraid) -I have already been blackballed.
    Right now it is a stare down- writing is what I do and they are afraid of my pen.
    But the point i am trying to make is there is common knowledge which a fairly large number of people are privvy to and there is what is ‘leaked’ to the media. It is easy to get the info. Printing it or selling the story is tricky.
    Guess what?
    I’m on radio now.

  7. Good, insightful post.

    I gave up watching day-to-day cable “news” election coverage months ago for the very reasons who discuss here.

  8. See, all that surfing for porn came back to haunt you. I hope you had someone type this for you!

    Trying to get an adult discourse going where there are no cameras is nigh impossible, but on the teevee? Ha.

  9. Great work as usual, Dash. You, too, are up for the ROD “HE HATE ME” SMART AWARD, fyi.

    I listen to “Democracy Now” occasionally and I think Amy Goodman and a lot of her regulars like Palast, Fisck, Scahill, and Hedges are excellent. I like her international coverage and while I’m to her right on economics and to her left on 9/11 inconsistencies and the Dalai Lama (she loves him; I think he’s a sleazy con man and ATM for right-wing causes), she’s a pro.

    Olbermann has gotten to be just schtick. Rachel Maddow’s great though, very well informed; she just doesn’t have enough economics to explain the problems in the bailout packages. It’s really complicated and the proposals are written so no normal rules of accounting or corporate finance apply, anyway.

    I don’t mind Buchanan as much as you do and I thought he and Maddow were good together in the few youtubes of them I saw.

    NPR and PBS are pathetic.

    I get CNN and Fox here and I don’t watch Fox. I love to hate all the CNN people who’ve been covering the election. Only Gergen, Begala and Ed Rollins have been fair throughout. And Anderson Cooper is like the Palin of TV news analysis.

  10. Excellent work, Dash.

    I didn’t know you had carpal tunnel, and I hate to be unsympathetic, but it looks like it’s just you, and I at this point, so, Back to the Front!

    I have to agree with Kelso. Don’t like Olbermann. Every time I watch him I want to laugh, but I don’t think that’s his intention.

    Agree about Buchanan. Yes, he’s a racist, and a xenophobe, but I honestly think he’s an intelligent man, which is more than I can say for 99% of the Wingnut Talking Heads. He’s one of the few anti-anti-intellectuals.

    PBS is bland, and tries to hard to be so.

    I think Moyers is a nice person, but again, his show bores me to death.

    Maddow is bright, but I don’t think she’ll ever be respected beyond her core audience.

    Honestly, I hate the media. The majority of journalists can’t write for shit, and I’m so very tired of the Tokenism.

    I don’t care about “Fair and Balanced.” I want someone who will make me think. Well, they do make me think, but my thoughts usually involve them in a large tank filled with Great White Sharks. No, scratch that, Sea Wasps.

  11. Fairlane, it’s just you and me? What happened to the Jonestown Super-Team? Do superheroes take vacations?
    Anyway, I thank all you great people for your compliments. I am recovering nicely, but it’s hard to type with a cast on.
    I’m told Buchanan is a wonderful guy in person. I just think he gets too much air time. His latest book basically argues that we were on the wrong side in World War II. Holy fuck. He’s a Nazi sympathizer. One overrated intellectual I really hate is George Will. At one point he was arguing in favor of term limits, and a wag (I forget who) said that there should be term limits for commentators who wear bow ties and quote Edmund Burke.

  12. Dash, great post as always, and I couldn’t agree more about the media. I’m always amazed at the breadth of information that European news stations manage to cover (they actually acknowledge that stuff happens outside their country, for one thing) compared to ours.

    I watch and enjoy both Olbermann and Rachel Maddow’s new show; I find her more balanced to a certain degree because she has Pat Buchanan and interviews people from the “other” side. But I admit neither of these shows is news. I’ve been getting more and more information from the Internet in addition to the NY Times and yes, the Wall Street Journal (for that opposing slant).

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