Pam and I still try and keep our eyes on the US, at least through the media that we get here in Canada, and there’s plenty of it, despite Cancon. So we have our TiVO set to record the evening newscasts of ABC, NBC and CBS. We also record the Vancouver CBC report. We don’t watch all of that recorded news each and every night; we usually pick one of those 3 or 4 and try and move around a lot (actually, we’ve recently stopped recording ABC as Pam felt that Diane Sawyer was such a disappointment as a News Anchor that she can’t bear to watch that newscast).
Maybe it has just crept in over time, perhaps it’s because I’m becoming more of an outsider and viewing media more as an observer, but I’ve noticed a change in the way news is reported in the US in the evening. There seems to a small and smaller portion of the newscast devoted to facts and more and more involving emotion. Nearly every story is about conflict or a struggle, a crisis or a tragedy. Even the stories that are complex and affect many different things end up concentrating on one person about to lose their job (as the coverage of that disastrous and complex oil spill off the Louisiana Gulf Coast did) or search out the violent edge of conflict, (as the coverage of the also disastrous Arizona Immigration Law). In these cases, it’s clear that they are trying to personalize the problem or simply make it more dramatic. This isn’t just millions of gallons of oil heading for the coast, it’s a Portly Shrimp Farmer about to lose his livelihood, it isn’t just a new law about to take in effect in the Arizona State Legislature, but a violent clash between immigrants and police.
I can’t help check off the scenes we will no doubt see as if I’m playing a drinking game:
- Someone crying or breaking down during a speech or interview.
- Someone looking into the camera and saying how they don’t know what they’ll do now.
- Someone declaring that ‘It’s all in God’s hands, now.’
- A group of people fighting or running.
- Someone declaring that something was ‘A Miracle!’
- People hugging, or an adult lifting a child in their arms.
- A government official being grilled in a meeting room or besieged in front of a building by an angry mob (to be sure, that was more often seen last summer)
- A criminal of some sort walking trying to hide their face with either some papers or a hood.
- A short and choppily edited interview with a person who is quirky and ‘Making a Difference’ – as a couple of the networks call them out.*
- (Add your own stock situation or dramatic exclamation.)
My friends and I used to joke back when I was going to school in Cincinnati that the evening news they always showed the same still snapshot of a car in a ditch in Norwood (a still snapshot? Hey, it was the early 80s, OK?), even if it was a different accident somewhere else — they all looked the same. Now, everything is the same; it’s conflict, it’s emotional, it’s extreme and somehow a deity is involved.
What’s going on now, is that because news is part of the budget for the networks that involves entertainment, by golly, it better be entertaining. I’d like to know the exact amount of oil that is gushing out, what that number means in terms of environmental damage, how long it takes for oil to get from the ocean floor to the surface. I want to know the specifics of what the new law in Arizona will deal with someone wrongly accused of being an immigrant; Can they sue? Can an employer fire a worker for missing work because of being picked up for false charges? I don’t know these things, however, and I’m not likely to learn them from the Evening Newscast.
I can see why most people are getting their news through the Internet these days, as the TV news has shrunken into a dramatization of the events of the day, done in broad strokes with an emphasis on the simplest repetitious images and scenes. The networks have decided that their audiences want their news a dumbed down as possible. There is no point in providing much in the way of facts. And that’s for the networks. Cable News, like Fox… I won’t even go there. (CNN’s also slipping into propaganda-laced stories as well. I can only assume this is because their ratings have been so bad that they are emulating Fox. )
Rather than complain about the way the news is presented, most viewers either take it at face value and aren’t aware of what’s missing, or they are adapting, by moving to the Web. I’n fact, I’m predicting that there will eventually be an iPad app for delving into facts (on an Internet site) during the broadcast. The main facts of the news will be in someone’s lap, while they see the drama on the bigger screen.
Perhaps we’ll someday see the kind of newscast that they simulated in the future depicted by the movie Starship Troopers, where each set of State Propaganda fascist slogans is followed by a screen that looks like a button and a voiceover that asks: ‘Would you like to know more?’
*I must confess that I’m getting really to loathe these ‘human interest’ pieces, because they are always cut and presented the same way and try so hard to appeal. Harry Smith, who sometimes is a guest Anchor on CBS is one of the worst offenders in this regard. Nearly everything he does smacks of that ‘human interest’ treacle.