Why TV news in the US is utter rubbish
It’s not just that world events are ignored in favour of celebrity gossip. News anchors skew the facts to provoke debate
guardian.co.uk, Thursday August 07 2008 19:30 BST
For years it has been a joke that news in the United States is terrible: obsessed with trivia and celebrity; fronted by Botox bimbos; forever interviewing citizens about some artefact of small-town life when a major news story is breaking elsewhere.
Well, the truth is that it’s far, far worse than that. There are a multitude of news channels – CNN, MSNBC, CBS, NBC, PBS, Fox. But after an hour of flipping between them during lunchtime last week, this was the sum total of information gleaned: there are two US presidential candidates; they have produced campaign ads; people have made video parodies and posted them on the internet; a US TV news host appeared on a US TV chatshow last night; and someone said something controversial (read ignorant) on a different TV show the day before.
In the meantime, one of the most sought-after war criminals in the world had been arrested and sent for trial; several new scientific breakthroughs had been announced; Zimbabwe edged carefully toward shared government; the Indian government dealt with votes of no-confidence and terrorist attacks; and countless other real stories came and went. For millions of Americans, these events appeared as 15-word tickertapes at the bottom of their 36-inch widescreen TVs.
It’s not the absolute dearth of real news that is the problem, however. It’s the fact that the news that is presented isn’t news but mindless, misleading gossip. The clearest example of this is when one of the (between two and six) commentators on any given story provides their “analysis”.
This comprises of showing a video clip and then talking with the assumed voice of the person in the clip. So, for example, Barack Obama gave a press conference. A clip of around four or five seconds of what he said is shown and then the TV studio people take over.
News anchor: “So what he’s saying is ‘Hey, I’m the guy in charge here – I’m the person who decides what to do, not you.’ Is that right?”
Commentator: “I think what he was saying was: ‘If I become president, then I’ll be the person that calls the shots.'”
Commentator Two: “I don’t agree. He’s saying: ‘I am going to listen to others – that’s what I’ll do – but make no mistake I’ll be the person who makes the final decision.'”
This goes on and on with people making up dialogue and pretending to be Obama (or John McCain or anyone else that comes to mind) rather than broadcasting what was actually said.
But it gets worse:
• Unfair comment: The analysis of what someone has said is clearly bent by the reporters themselves along ideological lines. Unrelated facts and events are attached and then attacked, and the original news point ends up as little more than a launching pad for the experts’ own political perspectives. So a sober report on, say, house prices ends up as a criticism of the Republican party’s fiscal policy (without any details of that policy being provided). In the worst cases, something with no news value at all is introduced in order to score political points – such as McCain eating at a German restaurant, or Obama knocking fists with his wife.
• Tail-chasing and navel gazing: The media reports constantly on itself. And that really does mean constantly. Anything reported on the TV news instantly becomes something to be reported on. For an entire day the lead on most TV networks was whether the media was giving Obama too much coverage. The second day comprised of whether the coverage given to Obama was too uncritical. By the third day, much of the coverage was about the previous two days’ coverage, complete with clips of how rival networks were covering the “news”. News hosts also regularly appear on other news hosts’ shows, and then feature that appearance on their own show.
• Never let the story get in the way: The focus is entirely on the back story, and the actual news is given lip-service. So you’ll hear more about how a decision was arrived at than what the actual decision was, or what impact it might have. The idea is that you are getting the real juice. The reality is you are forced to drink a pint of conjecture concentrate. Presidential campaign ads have become lead stories. A one-second image flash of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton in a recent ad implied that Obama was no more than a celebrity. It led to hours of primetime news speculation, while the ad’s central claim that Obama would raise taxes if elected was ignored.
• The Jerry Springer school of journalism: There is never a neutral statement – it is always an extreme perspective. If you are the news anchor, you can speak in a third-party voice and add a question mark on the end to suggest impartiality. But otherwise, wild claims are balanced with an equally wild claim at the other end. If someone attempts to point out logical inconsistencies, they are almost always faced with personal mockery by the other commentators. Just one example of this bizarre, school-bully behaviour: When one commentator, speaking from Las Vegas, tried to point out why an offshore drilling bill (which had been misrepresented as a reason why the Democrats were responsible for high petrol prices), had not been passed by Congress, he was told by the anchor that he had clearly spent too much time at the craps tables. He was told soon after by another commentator he had spent too much time at the bar. The substance of his argument did not of course merit discussion.
• The gold(fish) rush: There is absolutely no effort to provide historical context. The news is paced so frenetically that anything beyond soundbites is not tolerated. News anchors consistently talk over the top of anyone that doesn’t provide a punchy point every 10 seconds. Swooshing graphics and dance music add to the general level of pace – which effectively masks the fact that almost nothing is being provided beyond personal opinion.
• When did you stop beating your wife? Coverage is deeply cynical in the sense that people are assumed to have a hidden and planned agenda even when the connection drawn would have been impossible to predict as it doesn’t follow logical reasoning. Speculation with no foundation in logic or fact is opened up as a serious news item with the simple inclusion of the phrase “Did [insert name of person] know about [insert event]?” The answer – if there was ever any attempt to actually arrive at it – will always be “No”.
• Fight! Fight! Fight! There is no effort to reach a greater understanding. Instead, the sole intent is to provoke disagreement and partisan perspective – with the anchor used solely to egg on disagreement. Nearly every segment ends with the anchor shutting off argument and promoting the idea that they will have to agree to disagree.
So where do you get your news while living in the US? News-starved Americans usually hold up National Public Radio, NPR, as the best option. But with interlude music fresh from the 1920s and a twee, kitchen-table-chat approach, this is news wrapped in a tea cosy.
Two comedy programmes, the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, fill a peculiar niche of serious analysis with gags and are possibly the main news source for people under 30. They both viciously lampoon the news media, which pretends not to notice and runs clips from them on their own shows.
There is hope however. The non-news cycle is increasingly being broken by the internet. Thanks to cheap digital technology and fast net connections, online video is a simple prospect and means it is possible to get your fix of moving images with real news thrown in.
Not that TV news is concerned. The internet, and YouTube in particular, is a network’s dream: an Aladdin’s Cave of uninformed, one-sided and aggressive gossip and commentary, all of it searchable and requiring minimal expenditure of time or money. And so every day you can find news anchors running short clips of the very best the internet can offer before turning to the experts to give their views.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008